If you were a bass player in a big British pop band in the early Eighties, we envy you: it was a golden era for the instrument, especially if the music leaned more heavily on keyboards than guitars. New Order, Duran Duran, Japan, Kajagoogoo, A Flock Of Seagulls and the other nicely-coiffured big names all placed melodic, mids-heavy bass guitar at front and centre in their arrangements, and equally high in the mix. Add to that list the Scottish quintet Simple Minds, whose original bassist Derek Forbes gifted his band and fans with a ton of earworm lines.
Forbes, now 67, looks back on his seven-year stint with Simple Minds with good humour, both in this interview and in his new autobiography, A Very Simple Mind. As he remarks: “What bassists like me did at the time was in response to whoever said, ‘Bass should be felt and not heard’. To me, bass should be like warfare – you want the first few rows to shit themselves!”
Gear-wise, Forbes used three main basses with Simple Minds: fretted and fretless Wals, and a 1979 fretless sienna-burst Fender Precision. Although he was fired from the band with little explanation in 1985, his relationship with singer Jim Kerr and guitarist Charlie Burchill was ultimately repaired and he returned as a touring member from 1995 to 1998, by which time he was using Vigier basses.
A fingerstyle and pick player, Forbes also used a hybrid approach on songs such as the 1981 single The American, as he explains: “The technique I used there was to pick the lower notes with a plectrum and use my fingers to pop the strings at the same time. I love that line: it’s so powerful.”
Between his two stints in Simple Minds, Forbes played with Propaganda for seven years; he also played with The Alarm and recorded the extravagant bass part for Kirsty MacColl’s 1985 hit A New England, as well as doing three years in Big Country. On top of that, he’s been a prolific solo artist: read A Very Simple Mind for an eye-opening insight into a musician’s life well lived.
Premonition (from Real To Real Cacophony, 1979)
“I came up with this riff before I joined Simple Minds. It was inspired by Andy Fraser of Free, and specifically their song I’ll Be Creepin’. I loved Free, and saw them live a few times. When we recorded the song, Charlie played big power chords in the chorus and Mick [MacNeil, keyboards] added a rock’n’roll piano part. I was playing Guild basses back then, before I switched over to Fenders: I liked Precisions, but not Jazz basses, because they always looked, well, too jazzy. Precisions look a bit more streetwise.”
Sons And Fascination (from Sons And Fascination/Sister Feelings Call, 1981)
“This bass part was inspired by Stanley Clarke. I was at the Townhouse Studios in London, and there was a wee record store along the road, so I went in there and got School Days (1976) and The Clarke/Duke Project (1981). I thought they were great, so when I went back to the studio and they were recording this song, I came up with a bass-line with all these parts that are like Stanley. I met him once, and told him I’d ripped off all his bass-lines – and he walked away!”
Glittering Prize (from New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), 1982)
“I wrote this song on magic mushrooms. The whole New Gold Dream album was made on them – I call it our Sgt Pepper for that reason. We were rehearsing in a studio in Fife, and there was a chef who used to say ‘Want magic mushrooms with that?’ We had mushroom tea, mushroom coffee, mushroom stroganoff... combine those with ‘personality cigarettes’ and they had quite an effect. I had no problem writing and playing the bass parts, though. I could roll a joint with one hand while riding a motorbike if I had to. By the way, Herbie Hancock guested on this album – we used to call him Herbal Remedy.”
Someone Somewhere In Summertime (from New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84), 1982)
“I don’t know how I came up with this part – it was probably the mushrooms again. It’s quite a fluid bass-line, and there’s a lot to it. I used to throw notes in to punctuate the changes. It ended up being a great little groove. I remember around this time I was slapping a note and my thumb burst and there was blood everywhere, but I didn’t stop playing. U2’s manager Paul McGuinness saw this happen and was impressed: there was actually a conversation about me replacing Adam Clayton in U2, as he was being a little too rock’n’roll for them at the time, but it never went any further than that.”
Waterfront (from Sparkle In The Rain, 1984)
“The first time I played this part, I used the built-in sampler on a Dynacord Turbo guitar combo. You flipped the switch and it would sample up to 1.5 seconds of your bass playing. I would have used my fretless Wal bass for this song. I played two notes on the open D string on my Wal fretless, using a pick, and that was it. We used a rackmounted AMS sampler in the studio to repeat that trick, but I played the line all the way through when we did Waterfront live, because we never went out with any sampling gear. When I came back to the band for the 1995 tour we used a sample live, so I didn’t have to play it all the way through any more. It’s a great bass part: I still remember playing it for Jim, who was sitting on top of my 8x10 bass cabinet, and him writing the song’s lyrics in his notebook. He looked like a wee elf up there!”