WE all know that much-quoted maxim attributed to the late Scottish author, artist, activist and polymath, Alasdair Gray: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” Paraphrasing from “Civil Elegies”, the 1972 poem by the Canadian writer Dennis Lee, Gray’s line has legs. In the early days of the new millennium, it was engraved on the outer wall of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

It has loftier affiliations, certainly, yet whenever I think of those words – don’t laugh – I hear Simple Minds. Specifically, the music made by the original incarnation of the band in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the one with Brian McGee on drums, Derek Forbes on bass, Mick MacNeil on keyboards, Charlie Burchill on guitar and Jim Kerr on vocals.

I hear songs like In Trance As Mission, with its “holy backbeat”, and the hopscotch skip of the bassline, like a loved-up heart murmur; the hot prowl of Premonition, padding like some rough beast over high ground, a crackle of dark disco thrills. The futuristic primitivism of This Fear Of Gods, the dizzying pre-rave euphoria of Theme For Great Cities – what are these if not the sounds of a newly independent creative democracy, still engaged in the process of imagining itself? Self-made, improvising the outlines of its borders, in thrall to the excitement of instinctive combustion, the thrill of exploration. Heaving the guy ropes and erecting the scaffolding around its civic structures.

Inspiring and truly collectivist, Simple Minds were the first great modernist Scottish band. Before the Sound of Young Scotland, before The Jesus and Mary Chain and Creation Records and, yes, before “(Don’t You) Forget About Me”, Simple Minds were everything you could want a band to be. Experimental, eccentric, evolving, curious and mysterious. Internationalist, outward-looking, open-minded (and open-eared), determinedly futurist but with a heart that felt the past and understood what it meant and why it mattered. They were an eccentric, five-headed writing machine, built from necessity, of varying competences, each part imperfectly locked into the other, leaving room for the accidental miracle, the magic of chance.

Simple Minds have been several bands, and a few great ones. In my new history of the group, Themes For Great Cities, I focus on their first few albums. I wanted to reclaim the weird, arty, abstract thing they once were, to honour, in the words of Manic Street Preachers’ James Dean Bradfield, “the nuclear reactor of musical orchestration from five working-class Glasgow boys”. A biographer’s task is rarely to remystify his subject, but that was partly the impetus. To rekindle the magic and mystery in the music they made before they filled stadia and dominated the charts.

Forget what you know about Simple Minds ... and journey back to 1979

“They did wonders,” Bobby Gillespie (above) told me. “How did these guys from the Prospecthill Circus make music that beautiful and futuristic?” Jim Kerr’s words were flickering scenes from never-made arthouse films, excised lines from long-lost existentialist tracts. The rhythms were jagged hand-me-downs from Detroit and Düsseldorf, even if the singer and guitarist came from a tower block in Toryglen. They didn’t settle. Simple Minds were thrillingly reactive in the widest sense, barely filtering their responses to new places, new sounds and new experiences, before responding to them through music. Their music was a unified projection of something more potent and profound than the sum of their individual contributions. “Sometimes,” Kerr told me, “It was just, ‘Get out of the picture.’” On those records, I hear a better version of them, of us. A better nation? Why not.

It’s a fast story. Between the spring of 1979 and the autumn of 1982, Simple Minds released six albums in three-and-a-half years and toured constantly in each of those years. It’s the time in a group’s existence when nothing else matters but perpetual motion. Creation without reflection. Make and move. There is something precious about the youthful energy of a band discovering itself. It is at this time that a group is most itself, a self-contained unit, moving as one, living only for the next noise. Such a time harnesses a very distinct kind of power. It cannot last, cannot be replicated, and it cannot usefully be compared to the subsequent stages of competence, success, stardom, excellence, responsibility.

Forget what you know about Simple Minds ... and journey back to 1979

Jim Kerr, pictured in 1991

In common with so many bands of their vintage, Simple Minds were catalysed by the energy and excitement of punk. A movement that was intended to subvert the natural order of creative authority soon established its own orthodoxies. The first Simple Minds record, Life In A Day (1979), is not a punk record, but it does sound a little like it is asking permission to join a club. After that, they didn’t bother knocking.

The primary aim each time was to move the story forward. Real To Real Cacophony, released in the late autumn of 1979, only six months after their debut, is where Simple Minds start exploring the possibilities of what this band could be as a genuine collective. It is an album almost manic with the sense of rebirth. “It was art rock,” says Gillespie. “Angular. Kind of fractured. No blues notes, no American rock and roll. Jim Kerr’s lyrics were abstract imagery, which really worked in the context of that music, almost like a cut up of an experimental film.”

Empires And Dance (1980) should be as revered as fervently as Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures. It should be on every Greatest Scottish Album list. It’s a hardboiled disco-rock masterpiece: fervently alienated, wilfully experimental, full of drama and atmosphere. From fragments of crumbling Old Europe and tormented New Europe, it dreams up a strange new continent of the mind. Listen hard and it’s possible to hear Kerr’s description to me of 1970s Glasgow as a “post-place” – this city once at the heart of a fading empire, now pockmarked by the degradations of war, sectarianism, political neglect and industrial decline – transposed to a darkly glamorous continental arena. Simple Minds were not born out of a rejection of Scottishness, or of Glasgow. They were about finding new ways of being Scottish, and Glaswegian, in a bold new European context.

Forget what you know about Simple Minds ... and journey back to 1979

“There are records that are brave, experimental and not really commercial at all, and for me Empires And Dance and Heaven Up Here by Echo & The Bunnymen (above) stand head and shoulders above so many others,” Bradfield told me. “They are uncompromising and a pure collective vision of the musicians that made them. It’s truly avant-garde. Empires And Dance was massive for me. It was almost like learning a new language.”

They kept moving. Sons And Fascination and Sister Feelings Call (1981) are mystic twins and magnificent records. By the time of Simple Minds’ 1982 breakthrough, New Gold Dream (81–82–83–84), McGee had left the band, and the music mirrored the new colours of the post-punk age of pop, futurism and new romanticism. They had seen the world, and on songs such as Promised You A Miracle, Hunter And The Hunted and the title track, it sounded like it.

Before this, there was nothing easy or sentimental in the catalogue, nothing gratuitously pretty, though much of it was bleakly beautiful. Now there was a softening of the sinew. On New Gold Dream, Simple Minds come in from the cold. “It’s a band in that lovely transition period where all their experimental stuff is starting to merge with a forefront melodic sensibility,” says Iain Cook of Chvrches. “There’s so much imagination and colour in there musically, and a foregrounding of emotional melody writing. It’s just beautiful songwriting throughout.”

The dam burst. The big mid-80s Simple Minds records, Sparkle In The Rain and Once Upon A Time, found the band venturing out into the world, dressed for battle, to claim their glittering prize. What is Waterfront if not a secessionist war cry? Little point in arguing with it. You might as well argue with a cannon. Yet still they were saying something profound about their culture, about place and pride. Waterfront presents Glasgow as a city built on enduring fundamentals: water, sky, nature, industry, people. A city of sufficiently diverse and unyielding character to survive the privations of Thatcher’s Britain, and much else besides. Before the Garden Festival in 1988, before the year of the European City of Culture in 1990, long before the chic multimedia regeneration of the riverside from which the song sprang, Waterfront, reimagined Glasgow – the “post-place” – as a city of the future as well as the past.

You know the story from there: (Don’t You) Forget About Me, Alive And Kicking, Live Aid, Mandela Day and Belfast Child. “The big league,” as Kerr calls it. Commercial success and fame bring another energy. They usher in new responsibilities, different expectations. Simple Minds shed more original members and became a very different band. Any group that has been together for more than 40 years will pass through periods of harvest and harrow, yet there is much to value in their more recent albums, and within them you can hear something touching: resonances of the band they once were, meeting the more reflective men they have become. Writing the book, I was struck by just how much the group has felt like a mission, a votary pursuit, to the people involved. It’s a heroic story.

And those early records remain extraordinary. They emit a dark shine, a coiled power, an unsettling romance, a brooding beauty. To these ears, they continue to sound awesome, in the true sense of the phrase, and wonderfully unmarked by time. They have inspired artists as diverse as Primal Scream, Scott Walker, Manic Street Preachers, U2, Moby, Mogwai, Peter Gabriel, Arcade Fire, Paul Oakenfold and System 7. “Simple Minds were the ones who took it out into the big bad world, to Europe and America and Australia,” says Gillespie. “They were the Glasgow band that proved that that could happen. That was an inspirational thing.”

What’s more, they did it on their own terms. One of many things I love about Simple Minds is the absolute absence of any sense of backwater inferiority. That albums such as Real To Real Cacophony, Empires And Dance and Sons And Fascination remain outliers, stubbornly uncanonised still in a world of Unknown Pleasures T-shirts and tea towels, feels right and proper. These records challenged the natural order of cultural permission. They regarded art and artistic shapeshifting as sacred phenomena: spontaneous, indigenous, unauthorised.

In 2018, when I visited the Rip It Up: The Story Of Scottish Pop exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland, I was struck by two things: how paltry the display was for Simple Minds, and the sense that the curators didn’t quite know what to do with this odd, eccentric, uniquely pioneering band. I sympathised, but it’s simple, really. We should cherish them.

Graeme Thomson is a journalist and author writing about music and literature. His latest book, Themes For Great Cities: A New History Of Simple Minds, is published by Constable and available now. Other works by Thomson include Under The Ivy: The Life & Music Of Kate Bush and Behind The Locked Door, a biography of George Harrison.