It was the private concert for a teenage Mearns schoolboy which sums up the magic of Jim Kerr.
Leigh Wilson first started listening to Simple Minds aged 10 and got to see the band play live in Aberdeen the following year at the Music Hall after he harried his father for weeks to get tickets.
The gawkish Mackie schoolboy was by now a fully-paid up member of the Jim Kerr fan club by the time the Simple Minds frontman embarked on a solo project ‘Lostboy! AKA’ and announced a series of intimate UK club dates including Aberdeen in 2010.
Leigh was just 16 and too young to enter the club and he decided to write to Jim on Facebook to express his disappointment.
“Consigned to missing the concert and consumed in a sulky trance, I decided to write to Jim on his then Facebook account detailing the depths of my morosity,” said Leigh.
“A chance, unlike any other, to see him perform in such an intimate setting – alas, the vagaries of age stymied my ambitions.
“My eyes, now seemingly glittering in that downcast way, darted to a message which had appeared on my computer screen: ‘Don’t you worry, you’re coming backstage for the night and your job is to tell us how we sound’.
“Admittedly, I was awestruck – not only had I just received a message from someone I had watched performing to tens of thousands of people in footage of Verona, Live Aid and the Mandela concert, I was being invited backstage to hang out with Jim and his band.
“I remember the night of the concert itself vividly: a number of fans were congregating in the side street before the doors opened.
“I, gawkish schoolboy, probably looked like I’d taken the wrong turning to the library.
“My instructions were to make my way to the exit door and introduce myself.
“I spoke to some of the roadies and, in the most ridiculous deep voice imaginable, informed them that: ‘I’m looking for Jim. He invited me’.
“A lanyard was slung around my neck before I was shuttled into the club for the soundcheck.
“Jim arrived – the earliest he had been late, he would later admit – and greeted me with the most genuine, welcoming embrace imaginable.
“Having bought the album a matter of weeks before, he asserted that I perhaps knew more of the words than him.
“That was maybe so, but he could certainly perform them.
“The soundcheck was a thrilling experience – in essence a private performance – and as the crew asked me my thoughts, I attempted to exude an air of sagacity by suggesting that the vocals were too low in the mix, drowning Jim out.
“Much nodding of heads followed as the mixing deck was adjusted to greatly improved results – who knew that my true calling was as a sound technician?
“The band, consisting of people who had been loosely connected to Simple Minds over the years, sounded excellent – but interestingly it also introduced Ged Grimes to Simple Minds, before his arrival as bass player a few years later.
“As I sat listening to the band, it struck me there was an interesting confluence between the Lostboy! project and my own experience.
“Lostboy! was established as a vehicle for Jim to return to his childhood, reflect on the aforementioned artists who had inspired him and write songs through the prism of an impressionable boy.
“Here I was, a teenager – a lost boy, even – watching from the wings the artist who had inspired me more than any other.
“The sorcerer’s apprentice indeed.”
Leigh’s own Simple Minds story charts his rise through adolescence into adulthood and provided the musical soundtrack to his youth.
He first became aware of the band in the summer of 2004 when he chanced upon a CD which he found in the family music collection – Simple Minds: Best Of 81/92.
Interestingly, he later discovered that his father had first been introduced to Simple Minds by the Flicks nightclub in Brechin – the 1980 single, I Travel, being a favourite to accompany the kaleidoscope of electronic lights the nightclub deployed.
He subsequently went on to collect their records throughout the 1980s.
Leigh said: “The CD was enthralling for two reasons; the cover itself, for its beautiful design, bold colours and transcendental imagery; and that it seemed enigmatic because never in my childhood had the album seen the light of day, so far off the radar had the band fallen from my family’s musical antenna.
“Injected with a rush of youthful excitement, I took the album and skipped into my bedroom to hear what delights had thus far eluded me.
“The first track on the album, Waterfront, pounded out of my speakers – the pulsating bass crashing into my mind – and I knew from that point on that undoubtedly ‘this was my band’.
“I listened on and became entranced as beautiful melodies weaved from one to the other, demonstrating the genre-fluid flexibility of the band.
“This discovery led not just to a collection of new songs added to my increasingly eclectic playlist, but it introduced me to a world of collecting – having the latest Simple Minds album wasn’t enough; I wanted them all.”
Leigh, who is now a Mearns councillor, said the first Simple Minds album he bought was Street Fighting Years which also helped anchor his political views to the flag of social justice – something which has remained important to him ever since.
“I can’t recall ever listening to an album which, upon closing my eyes, assisted my mind to such an extent in developing a procession of images and moving pictures, perfectly complimenting the hue of sound whirling around my ears, transporting me to other countries – South Africa, for example – and colouring the landscape with hope for a better future and anger at the unjust present,” he said.
“These themes, incidentally, transcend both time and boundaries and they make the album still completely relevant today.
In March Simple Minds release a brand new deluxe version of classic album ‘Street Fighting Years’. Box set includes B-sides, edits, 12" remixes & a previously unissued Verona live show!
Available as 2-LP, 2-CD or remastered single CD. Pre-Order: https://t.co/kEQDDAFm2f pic.twitter.com/6DX0JcLPY1
— Simple Minds (@simplemindscom) January 16, 2020
“Although recognising that Street Fighting Years often divides opinion it remains my favourite Simple Minds album, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned but also, I think, for the nostalgic romanticism which is evoked in me every time I turn it on.
“The collection had started, and there was something quaint about collecting the albums when I did – just prior to the proliferation of streaming services which has effectively made all the albums digitally available – because the unheard albums were uniquely mysterious; they remained unheard until I chanced upon a music store somewhere which happened to sell them.”
Leigh spent hours perusing music stores across the country to find the hidden gems.
Dundee Fopp regularly had an extensive offering and One Up in Aberdeen assisted in procuring some of the more elusive earlier albums.
Store managers helpfully ordered stock in, directed Leigh to alternative shops and generally played a significant part in the whole operation.
Leigh said: “This was of course before most of the albums had been reissued, making the chase more complicated but ultimately more rewarding.
“The discovery of the earlier albums also introduced me to a new Simple Minds, of the post-punk movement and inspired by Bowie, Brian Eno and the Velvet Underground.
“The music was less accessible, surely, but spoke to a particular kind of audience: largely art-school pupils and college students who appreciated the synthesis of music and art – as well as the lyrical references to European literature, much of which now sits on my increasingly strained bookshelves.
“As an illustration of how Jim Kerr has shaped my literary taste, an interview I once read noted that he highly recommended the Soviet-era satire, The Master and Margarita – taking his advice on a trip to Poland a few years ago, it now holds the esteemed position of my favourite book.
“But crucially I saw the influence those writers – particularly Bulgakov, Camus and Kafka – had on the early sound and lyrics of the band.
“The band’s influence on me was therefore more than musical; it shaped all aspects of my life from writing, politics and travelling.”
Leigh’s story went full circle when he met Jim again last year when Simple Minds played in Inverness as part of their Grandslam tour with the Pretenders.
“The band will have seen intimately how many of their peers lose themselves in their own pretentions, alienating their fans in the process, but that has never been the case with Simple Minds,” said Leigh.
“Any interview with Jim or Charlie in which they are asked about the gruelling schedule of being in a live band invariably results in their admission that, on the contrary, what is really difficult is hard labour, the kind done by people working shifts or those key workers who we have been unyieldingly grateful to more than ever.
“That’s the spirit which, for me, encapsulates Simple Minds: respectful but never deferential, inspirational rather egotistical and gifted without a hint of hubris.
“That’s the cocktail for longevity.
“I’ve continued to follow the band through all of their subsequent tours – totalling 12 concerts now – and the recent changes to the line-up, to my mind, demonstrate the evolution of Simple Minds’ sound.
“The band are always striving for new sounds, new ideas and new perspectives; that’s what keeps them so fresh four decades on.
“If there is one truism to be said about Simple Minds, however, I think I have discovered it.
“That night in a small Aberdeen club demonstrated to me why Jim Kerr is undeniably one of rock’s great frontmen: he can lift the ambience in a club to that of a stadium, but he can also perform in stadiums and make it feel as if it’s the most intimate performance of all.
“That’s the magic of Jim Kerr. That’s the magic of Simple Minds.”