Revelations: `Meeting Mandela was the moment everything clicked together'

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The time: 1990

The place: Wembley Stadium

The man: Jim Kerr of Simple Minds

I grew up in the south side of Glasgow at the beginning of the industrial decline. The writing was on the wall. Shipyards were closing and there was a feeling of fading glory; outside of London we had been the Empire's second biggest city, so I was surrounded by all the symbols of Glasgow's magnificent past.

It was a much more naive time than now - no heroin - and there was a lot of love about between the people who brought me up. So it's hard not to look back with rose-tinted glasses, but there was a real feeling of community, and values: the world begins at the bottom of your street, it doesn't end there. As it was a major port, lots of people had travelled, and we were building ships that would sail all over the world. It was fed down to us. I learnt that what goes on elsewhere in the world does matter; you can protest and make an impact.

My grandfather would tell me wonderful stories about India and South Africa, and his time in the forces fighting in the Second World War. Not surprisingly, my favourite times at school were when we did a project on faraway places such as the Amazon and I was transported away from the life I knew. My father worked on the sites, but he was a voracious reader, so his head travelled. He rebelled against what was meant to be your lot in Glasgow.

It was travelling that helped me gain a conviction for Simple Minds. My musical partner, Charlie Burchill, and I went hitch-hiking from Glasgow to London to see the Sex Pistols play. We'd heard about a new kind of music and we wanted to check it out. I remember waiting at Newport Pagnell for another lift, and it was the first time I had seen anybody of West Indian descent. I was consumed by the foreignness of everything. It all seemed so exotic to me - even the motorway service stations. I just wanted to stop and stare.

In fact we bypassed the concert altogether. The lifts went so well, we ended up three weeks later in a train station in Milan! Every time we crossed a border, I felt a sense of exhilaration. Up until then we had just sat around talking about forming a band, but the euphoria of this trip pushed us over the edge.

Charlie and I had bonded; with two people you can have your own little revolution and not accept your lot. Individually you can feel mad, but as a couple, the odds of both of you being fruitcakes lengthens. I needed to have a stab at expressing myself, even though I wasn't sure what to say. However, if you stick out your thumbs and go wherever the lift takes you it is amazing what can happen.

On a second hitching trip to London, we visited about eight record companies. With all the marble and chandeliers in some of the offices, we felt uncomfortable just leaving our demo tapes with the receptionists. On the way back we saw Bob Dylan play to 100,000 people - which gave us plenty of inspiration. By the time our thumbs got us home, four companies had got in touch. Timing and luck, as in hitch-hiking, were all-important. The record companies had been so stung by some awful punk bands and a lack of melody that they were hungry for something new. We signed with Arista records, which had a hallowed building in Park Lane - this time we came down in luxury on the sleeper train. We were so keen, we stood outside on the pavement waiting for the offices to open.

For a while, the excitement of the journey and our growing self-confidence were enough. However, after achieving global success with Once Upon a Time, I had a hollow feeling. I had just sold 12 million copies of one album, and I was still thinking there had to be more to it than this. CNN and Oprah Winfrey invited us on to their shows; the world wanted to talk to me. Going on to Goo Morning America, it suddenly dawned on me: all those millions of people listening - but do I have anything meaningful to say?

Midway through the show the interviewer asked me who my heroes were outside of music. My reply was Nelson Mandela. At the time he was still in prison in South Africa, and I found myself on an anti-apartheid crusade before really thinking about it. My grandfather's stories came flooding back, of the beauty of Cape Town, but also how awfully they treated the blacks. I didn't think I had the answers - God forbid - but at least I had the questions. Simple Minds didn't leap on to a bandwagon; it was something inherent in us and in our music. We were fundamental to making the "Free Nelson Mandela" concert happen, as they needed a big-name stadium act to headline. Our Mandela Day became the flagship song for the event. It was hard to write because he really was the man in the iron mask; there was only one picture, which was 25 years old, and beyond that - nothing.

Following his release and a concert to celebrate his birthday at Wembley Stadium, I finally had a chance to meet Nelson Mandela. It was the most incredible experience. He was very playful, which made everybody relax, and he asked me about Glasgow. It was such an easy-going atmosphere, but he said something that I always carry with me: "When there was no voice allowed in South Africa, we could always somehow hear the voice of the artists, which gave us sustenance." It was a fantastically encouraging thing to say.

The biggest battle I have is with the cynic inside which says: what's the point, who cares? What will you achieve in the long term if you write a song or not? If there's a bad concert review, the next night there are thousand of people shouting for more, and it cleanses you. I can cope with everybody else's negativity, but until I met Nelson Mandela there was no hiding-place when I gave myself a hard time at two in the morning.

He is so right. Artists are always at the forefront of the trouble- makers - look at the Chinese authorities, and their fear that four poets on the Internet will bring down the country. I had a wonderful example of the impact of our music when I met a girl in the lobby of a French hotel who had started a fan club, and because of the idealism in our songs they have created a little orphanage in Bosnia. Meeting Nelson Mandela was a revelation, the moment when everything clicked together.

In June we will be playing again to Nelson Mandela, in front of a vast concert during the World Cup to promote anti-racism. It is still an important cause for us; to this day if I see somebody humiliated it makes me feel physically ill. Both musically and physically I'm still on a journey. These days Simple Minds are in an ugly duckling stage - too old to be the latest thing but not old enough to be a legend. It will probably take a couple more years before we come back into fashion, but I don't care. To a degree we're still making up Simple Minds as we go along we've still standing on the music superhighway with our thumbs out."

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

Simple Minds' new single, "Glitterball", is out on Monday; the album Neapolis is released on 9 March.

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