Mike’s acoustic cover of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is now available on YouTube and iTunes.
My good friend and fellow musician Scott Slusher provides us this excellent post about the significance of this classic 80’s hit, and I end the post with a little bit of why and how I chose to cover this great song.
Written By: Keith Forsey & Steve Schiff
Album: “The Breakfast Club” original soundtrack
Release Date: February 20, 1985
Studio: Record One, Sherman Oaks, CA
Cover Art: “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” by Simple Minds
Post by Scott Slusher
#1 hit for Simple Minds in 1985, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is an iconic song of the 80s. Inexorably linked to and assuredly helped along by its prominent placement in a defining movie of the decade, The Breakfast Club, the song catapulted Simple Minds into a glorious period of USA superstardom. “Don’t You” has tremendous staying power, and remains a popular song 30 years later.
Although it is Simple Minds’ biggest hit, “Don’t You Forget About Me” was not written by Simple Minds. Nor will you find it on any of their studio album releases. “Don’t You” was actually written specifically for The Breakfast Club movie by a pair of Hollywood-based songwriters, Keith Forsey and Steve Schiff, and recorded by Simple Minds. Keith Forsey was hired to write and compile music for The Breakfast Club based on his involvement and success with another 80s classic, Flashdance (Keith co-wrote “Flashdance… What a Feeling”).
Truth be told, the soundtrack to The Breakfast Club is rather forgettable aside from “Don’t You”. But all it takes is one hit song to move an album, and working with Steve Schiff from the Nina Hagen band, Keith Forsey thought he had a killer tune. If they could only find someone to record it. The songwriting pair tried to convince several artists to record the song, but to no avail. Simple Minds were their first choice, but the band turned them down initially. Simple Minds were reluctant to record and release songs that they didn’t write, and quite frankly they didn’t think it was a very interesting song when it was initially presented to them. The song was passed around to several more artists, including Bryan Ferry and Billy Idol. Eventually Simple Minds did record the song, after adding the breakdown and ending. Indications are that Simple Minds’ US label, A&M, leaned on them a bit to do the project. And for all their reluctance, “Don’t you…” became the biggest hit Simple Minds would ever have (at least in the US), which ironically caused them some angst even as it advanced their career tremendously.
By late 1984 Simple Minds were already six albums into a career, established and quite popular in the UK. But even after six albums, they were only just starting to make tiny inroads into the USA market. In the US they would have been known only to devoted anglophiles and fans of college radio and “new wave”, not having a single charting song in the US up to that time. “Don’t You…” then became a sort of trojan horse for the band, a number-one hit that immediately took them from relative obscurity to massive popularity in the USA. And happily for them, they were able to capitalize on that success with an excellent studio album later that year, Once Upon a Time, which went platinum three times over in the US, and spawned three more hit singles.
While in hindsight the band is thankful that they recorded the song, at the time they were actually resentful of the fact that their most successful song was written by someone else. This type of artistic integrity mattered to them. Hence the angst. Simple Minds specifically left it off of their next album Once Upon A Time, determined to let the music they wrote stand on its own as much as possible. Admirable, as I can imagine their label strongly encouraging them to include “Don’t You” on the release, if not call the entire album Simple Minds Sings ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ and Some Other Stuff, or something to that effect.
And all of this it leads me to a nagging thought; were Simple Minds’ instincts correct? Is this song actually good? Is it even possible to make that determination? The song is undeniably popular. How much of that is because we love the song on its own terms, and how much is because we associate the song with the movie? Try to think of a world where The Breakfast Club never happened, but the song did happen. I don’t think it’s possible. Particularly if you are of an age where you actually saw this movie in 1985, your sense-memory of this song is tightly bound by your experience of the movie. And even if you were born long after the song came out, eventually you are going to be bound to it in the same way. It is pointless to try separate the two. You like the movie, you like the song. They are inseparable.
And I think this is important: the song wasn’t simply bolted on to the movie. This song was meant to be in this movie. Steve and Keith literally wrote the song for the movie. They went to Chicago, watched filming, read the script, and wrote a song that tried to capture that vibe as best they could. The song wasn’t created in a vacuum. They also wrote the song with the idea that Simple Minds would be the perfect band to record it. Anglophiles! Well in point of fact Keith is English, so there you go. And though it took some convincing, eventually they got their band. Imagine this song recorded by Brian Ferry, Cy Curnin of The Fixx, Billy Idol, or Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders (all British, or close enough in Crissie’s case). These were some of the other artists that Keith and Steve tried to enlist, who also turned them down. In Crissie’s case they may have been buttering her up to try to wind their way back to Simple Minds, seeing as Chrissie was married to Jim Kerr, Simple Minds’ lead singer, at the time. And actually you don’t have to imagine the Billy Idol version, he ended up covering the song himself years later:
Billy Idol cover version:
One wonders how his version might have sounded had he chosen to record it originally, since this “cover” is inevitably informed by the Simple Minds’ version. So it’s quite easy to imagine this song performed by another artist. I wonder if it would have been as popular in the hands of a band not hand-picked for the task. I also wonder what might have happened had John Hughes decided to put a different song in the movie. I think if “Don’t You” had been removed from the movie, then Simple Minds would have never released it, and the success of their entire subsequent career would have been muted as a result, certainly in the US. It’s possible that another song would have done well in place of “Don’t You”. Given the popularity of The Breakfast Club, there were probably a great many trojan horses at the ready.
Listening to the rest of the soundtrack nothing jumps out as a lost gem, and that’s putting it charitably. The soundtrack to Pretty in Pink is much more solid. But it’s not a fair comparison, since Pretty In Pink was compiled from hand-picked songs, while The Breakfast Club was mostly composed by a single music director. But I digress. Placement counts for a lot. Maybe they stuff Billy Idol singing “Dancing With Myself” over the credits. Boom, instant hit. Or Dokken. Well maybe not Dokken. But “Don’t you” was the song written specifically for this movie, and performed by the band that was meant to perform it. Given that specificity of intent, I make the argument that no other song could have hit the mark as close to the bullseye.
But is it good? Is it a good song? Listening to the rest of that soundtrack gives me reason to doubt. And the song certainly has its detractors: It’s difficult to find reviews from the period, but Jack Rabid from “The Big Takeover” derided it as nothing less than an artistic betrayal of Simple Minds’ musical values (I found a brief review on Allmusic). In hindsight his criticism seems hysterical and overly protective. Nonetheless his viewpoint is worth some exploration: “Now they get to do a hit song for a bad movie, and they suddenly turn into every cliché you’ve ever heard”, pens Jack, after noting that he thought their musical output to that point was “creative and interesting”. Yes, Simple Minds are getting slapped with the dreaded “sell out” label. This type of criticism, in my opinion, must have contributed to Simple Minds’ angst over how to feel about the song’s success, and the opportunities it afforded them. The criticism seems oddly quaint and nostalgic today. There was a time when “selling out” was a serious accusation. I don’t think we live in a time like that anymore. Or more realistically (and sadly), today’s bands can’t afford not to sell out when the opportunity presents itself. But it meant something at the time.
We still really haven’t answered the question. I’m not sure that we can come to a general consensus. I think the best I can do is explain why I like the song, making the admittedly arrogant presumption that if I like the song, then it must be a good song. I don’t have to be worried about what it did to Jim Kerr’s mental health. As a fan, I can just listen to and enjoy the music for what it is. And it is a classic 80’s song. I like this song for three specific reasons: one, I like the way Jim sings the song. Two, I like the way it “sounds”. And three, I like the killer breakdown that concludes the song.
For me, “Don’t You” locks in place the feeling of being a teenager in white suburban America. It’s a powerful sense-memory. Clearly this is as a result of it’s placement in The Breakfast Club, which simply everybody saw. But it’s also the way Jim Kerr sings the song. I don’t think the message of the song is terribly profound or deep. Which is fine. It’s a pop song written for a teen movie. It’s not “Strange Fruit”. But with perhaps unintentional irony Jim sings the lyrics with bombastic authority, and delivers the lyrics with sincerity. He walks a tightrope between passion and maudlin dramatics, which is part of the fun. Listen to how he sings When you call my name… at the end of the breakdown. Channeling a bit of Jim Morrison, aren’t we? But from what I’ve heard of his output, Jim Kerr sings everything like that. So what do you expect? He has a dramatic baritone voice, a strong voice. And he wasn’t alone in singing this way. At the time, certainly in the UK, many other artists were singing like this: Ian McCulloch. Dave Gahan. Stuart Adamson. And of course, though they were over in Ireland, look no further than Simple Minds’ oft-compared contemporaries U2, and Bono (more of a tenor, I know). I could go on. Suffice to say, there was an epidemic of British baritones singing pop songs with big serious dramatic voices at the time. Everything was just so damn important. This was first generation of singers that grew up on David Bowie and Jim Morrison. It was and remains a lot of fun to listen to. All those artists, particularly the way they sing, take me back to a time and place when I was a teenager, and everything in my life was also so damn important. It all went a bit off the rails at times (see Sisters of Mercy, The), but they sang the way I felt. It’s possible the way they sang even shaped the way I felt.
I have a couple of theories as to why Jim Kerr and his contemporaries were singing with so much dramatic intent. Some of it feels like a New Wave counter-reaction to the punk rock way of singing, made popular, at least in the UK, by Johnny Rotten and that lot. But just as much, I think this way of singing went hand in hand with the way these songs were produced. The entire musical soundscape of “Don’t You” is dramatic. This is due to what I call the “Steve Lillywhite” effect. Steve Lillywhite is a legendary record producer who produced records for some of Britain’s biggest bands of the era: U2, Peter Gabriel, XTC, Psychedelic Furs, a lot of classics. Steve had just produced the last Simple Minds album, Sparkle in the Rain. “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” contains all the hallmarks of the grand Lillywhite sound: A big drum martial sound. A moderate tempo, with a fair amount of breathing room for ringing guitars. Washes of synthesizer keyboards. And on top of it all, dramatic singing, with long drawn-out notes. The music itself encourages dramatic and forceful singing. It may have been the only way to be heard over those big sounds. It’s a wonderful, uplifting listening experience that dates itself to a time and place, but still holds up today.
Finally, I love the breakdown. And this actually might soothe the angst. For you see, the breakdown at the end of the song was the bit that Simple Minds added to the song themselves. And although they didn’t get actual songwriting credit for it, I think it’s the best part. The “breakdown” is, of course, the bit after the second chorus where everything gets stripped down to an on-the-beat, keyboard-drenched, made for arena-rock, clap-along masterpiece. After 8 measures of this Jim starts back in, singing in an almost dream-like state: will you walk away? Will you walk on by? Come on, call my name, Will you call my name?, before the song comes roaring back into the chorus progression with one of the all-time classic drum fills courtesy of Mel Gaynor. Then it’s off to the great sing-along la la la las, to the end. I think it is the crux of the song. Try to imagine “Don’t You” without it. Seems almost pointless to listen to the song, if you knew you would be cheated out of your opportunity to clap your hands and sing la la la la! Clearly this was a band with extensive live performance experience. This was made to kill it live. They regularly extended the sections of the breakdown live, doubling the length of each section to milk as much drama out of the performance as possible. Here’s a good example from 1985:
Of course they went back to this bag of tricks with one of their subsequent singles, “Alive and Kicking”, from Once Upon a Time. And why not, loads of bands do it. One of the things I like about Mike Masse’s performance is how he carries the breakdown on the guitar. Mike strums the keyboard notes on the eighth notes, essentially capturing the important bits of both the guitar and the keyboard during this section.
See and hear Mike’s version here!
And here are a few other interesting cover versions for your enjoyment!
Boasting Scottish credibility and a voice like Dolores O’Riordan, Nicole Mason throws on a 90s trip-hop beat over a laid back version with outstanding results.
Mr. and Mrs. Fox, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” with “Midnight City” by M83:
Mr. and Mrs. Fox give it the modern touch, with a version that mashes “Don’t You” with the smash alternative/dance hit from 2011, “Midnight City”. Very cool. Good vocals by Mr. Fox.
Marcello adds a Latin flair to a solo acoustic interpretation. I like what he does with the breakdown.
So what makes a good song? What makes a song stand the test of time? It’s impossible to say, exactly. Maybe it’s as simple as being in the right place at the right time with the right sound. But I think there is something more to it than that. It’s not simply luck. Simple Minds knew what they wanted and what they were doing, even if they struggled with the decision and ultimately felt like they had made some sort of artistic Faustian bargain in the process. But all is forgiven. Maybe, even, there is nothing to forgive. They did what they thought was best, they put their heart and soul and craft into it, and ultimately gave us all a touchstone to another time and place. Even if it was just something with which we can all sing along together, it’s still something good.
How Mike Plays It
Thanks to Scott for that great write-up!
Mike here. My concern about playing this song initially was the vocal range. No, not the high end, the low end! Those “down, down, down down” notes are a low A, which is pushing it for me. Most gigs I can hit it. Most. 🙂
But I’ve always loved singing along to this song. Why? Because I’m like every other human with ears and a voice–how could you possibly NOT sing along to this song? While it doesn’t have any real vocal fireworks, it’s a pretty amazing vocal performance, all the same.
My approach to the guitar was principally about finding the right dynamics, and representing all of the parts. During the opening, the guitar is the “band”, rather than emulating the actual guitar part played. The electric guitar has hints of E minor in it, whereas I play the intro with straight major chords, for the most part. Em arguably works just as well (or open fifths with no 3rd). The verses are just muted versions of E major (which works fine in the verses), D and A. The little bridge section throws in C and G with the D and A. The chorus is still E, D, and A, but with that keyboard riff. That keyboard riff!
Man, what a great riff. This was one of those songs that every time I heard it, I wanted to figure out what those chords were, since they didn’t *sound* like what you’d think they would be. You try to make a mental note to yourself: “I wanna learn that song.” And then you forget, and you hear it again and think, “Oh man, I still really wanna learn that song.” That went on for decades with me and this song. Anyway, it sounds like it should be something like E to A, hearing that G# to the A on the top. But it’s *not* that, clearly. So what is it? It turns out to be E to D, which is awesome. Descending chords, but ascending inversions. The E is in 2nd inversion, so the G# is on top, which leads to the top note of the D triad, A. OK, some of you with more awesome ears than me are saying “Duh!”, but sometimes music can make easy things sound deceptively hard, especially if you’re not sitting in front of a piano or a guitar where you can sound things out.
So back to that riff: I wanted to maintain the main melody of the G# to A, so I had to do a little inverting of my own. I ended up playing the E on the 4th fret with the same fingering you’d use for a D chord (strings 1-3), and then I’d go to a D on the 5th fret, basically just playing the bottom three strings of a D barre chord.
A word about rhythm. I usually try to emulate to rhythm of the band as a whole, although following the galloping bass, with its alternating 8th then two 16ths pattern would admittedly have given it a cool feel. But playing that rhythm becomes very difficult while singing the vocal line, which rhythmically has very little in common with that bass part. So instead, I try to play with a bass player whenever possible. 🙂
The rest of the arrangement is pretty self explanatory, with me attempting to ride the dynamics a bit, especially on the breakdown. At that point, I’m practically only playing the 1st string, echoing the melody of the keyboard on the original. Cool stuff. It’s fun to play. I hope my arrangement will help you develop your own. And it wouldn’t take much of a guitar player to come up with something even cooler.
Thanks for reading/watching/listening/sharing! And thanks again to Scott for the blog post. Check out his band! https://www.facebook.com/swashbucklingdoctors
 Simple Minds video: https://youtu.be/CdqoNKCCt7A
 Breakfast Club Opening Credits: https://youtu.be/ZF–IfvbioQ
 Slow Change May Pull Us Apart: The Oral History of Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ http://www.spin.com/2015/02/simple-minds-dont-you-forget-about-me-oral-history-breakfast-club/
 Allmusic.com scathing review http://www.allmusic.com/album/dont-you-forget-about-me-mw0001304839
 AV Club interview with Steve Lillywhite: http://www.avclub.com/article/super-producer-steve-lillywhite-39124
 Music Radar interview with Steve Lillywhite: http://www.musicradar.com/news/guitars/production-legend-steve-lillywhite-on-16-career-defining-records-375589