Slow Change May Pull Us Apart: The Oral History of Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’

The Breakfast Club
(Credit: Universal Pictures/Getty Images)

This February marks the 30th anniversary of The Breakfast Club, director John Hughes’ classic teen-angst flick about five archetypal high school students (a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal) and a principal finding out more about each other and themselves than they ever anticipated over the course of a Saturday detention. While definitively of its time in its fashion, pop culture references, and Brat Pack cast, the movie still seems unnaturally immune to aging, and gains new generations of fans (who might be introduced to the movie via extended references in modern shows like Glee and Victorious) every year. February also marks the 30th birthday for the movie’s seventh main character: “Don’t You (Forget About Me),” the rousing, instantly anthemic pop/rock blast that both kicks off the movie’s opening credits and closes out its iconic final scene, and has remained inextricable with the movie three decades later.

Composed by Steve Schiff and Keith Forsey and performed — eventually — by Scottish new-wave favorites Simple Minds, “Don’t You” went on to have an incredible legacy even beyond any associations with Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald. The song went to No. 1 in the United States, the first Stateside crossover success enjoyed by the British new wavers, and is a necessary fixture today on any retro compilation or playlist looking to evoke the 1980s. It’s also been covered by countless artists, including Billy Idol, David Cook (for the American Idol Season 10 send-off theme) and even Ringwald herself.

For such a beloved pop smash, however, the story behind its genesis is surprisingly tumultuous. Simple Minds turned the song down initially, leading the song’s writers and the movie’s producers to search in vain for a fill-in — offering it to a number of other high-profile artists in the process, though accounts differ on the who and when for several — while frontman Jim Kerr and Co. slowly warmed to the idea of recording a single they didn’t write. And after ultimately recording and enjoying their greatest chart success with “Don’t You,” the Minds soured on the song (and possibly its composers), a relationship that remains complex 30 years later. (Check out our Spotify playlist of the best non-“Don’t You” songs from the band’s considerable decade-spanning discography here.)

Read on to the captivating story of the still-great Brat Pack-era standard, as told by those who were responsible (or merely around) for its conception, and by those who have carried on its legacy through the years — giving you everything, inside and out.

Steve Schiff, writer: I was Nina Hagen’s guitar player, and Giorgio Moroder produced an album for her. Keith Forsey was working with him, he was sort of in Giorgio’s stable of guys, and he had written some big hits, actually, with Giorgio. He had just started working with Billy Idol, maybe a couple of years before. So we just met in recording the album and became friends.

Keith Forsey, writer/producer: Steve was one of the band members, and when you mentioned Nina’s album, he was a strong part of that record. Our first collaborations were fantastic. We were both kind of listening to the same kind of records at the time, and we were both in the right place to make that record and the collaboration.

Michelle Manning, The Breakfast Club co-producer: I was working for [Channel Productions producer] Ned Tanen, and we had done Sixteen Candles, our first movie. I was on set, and John said to me, “You know this is really odd,” because he had written a movie specifically to be the movie that he directs first, because it was five kids in one room. And I go, “Oh! Well, what’s happening with that?” And he said it was at A&M Records, and they were supposed to do it for a million dollars, but he had no idea what was going to happen to it now, because he was making Sixteen Candles for more than a million. So I called Ned Tanen, and he knew [executive producer] Gil Friesen very well, and he called Gil… and the next thing we knew we were partners on it. And that’s how I came to be involved in The Breakfast Club.

Steve Schiff: I think it was maybe a year-and-a-half after we met, Keith got hired by Universal to do The Breakfast Club. I’m pretty sure that’s a result of he and Giorgio having won an Oscar for Flashdance. So, basically, he was stamped on the head as the guy you go to.

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Keith Forsey: That’s what got us to The Breakfast Club. I had just come off of that Oscar win with Moroder and I guess that people that I had the credibility to compose a score; whether I did or not was something else.

Steve Schiff: I was on tour with Nina over in Europe, and Keith called me in Spain and just said, “I’ve got this movie to do, I’ve got to write all these songs. When are you going to be back?” And then I came back and he sent me a script, and we started writing a bunch of songs for the movie.

Keith Forsey: [The Breakfast Club director/producer] John Hughes approached me really early in the project, and I said, yeah, sure, I was interested. I read the script and it was kind of cool. I went out to Chicago and I watched some of the first filming in the school, just by the airport out there. And that’s where I met John, kind of watched him working with the actors, and that’s how I kind of got to know what he was all about.

Michelle Manning: John was a total music connoisseur. He knew exactly what he wanted. And that’s how we came to get Keith Forsey.

Kathy Nelson, Music Supervisor: I worked with John on a lot. I did Sixteen Candles. I did Some Kind of Wonderful. I did a lot of his stuff and we became very good friends. He was very much like a kid when it came to music. He loved music. And he had great taste because he didn’t have, if you will, grown-up taste in music. He liked alternative music. He liked stuff that was a little left of the center.

Michelle Manning: John wanted a lot of the English Beat stuff that he had brought over, which none of us had even heard about. He put a lot of that music in Sixteen Candles. Of course, now everybody goes, “Oh yeah, of course [that music] was everywhere.” But it really wasn’t when he did that.

Keith Forsey: I was working, obviously, with Billy Idol and Moroder. So Moroder, we had some of the techno stuff. Idol we had the punk, techno combined. So I think John was kind of looking for a little bit of that vibe, and a little bit of the indie vibe.

Steve Schiff: They sent me the script when I came off from the tour. I came back to America around Christmas time [in 1984]. So I read the script, and we started writing, at first, up at Giorgio’s house in his spare bedroom, and then we went to Giorgio’s full-on studio down in the valley, and we started putting tracks together. “Don’t You” wasn’t the first one — it might have even been the last, I’m not sure.

Keith Forsey: We were in Studio B in Oasis Studios in Los Angeles. Which was kind of the smaller back room that we used to use, more for writing.

Steve Schiff: The way we write together is we’ll put a drum groove down, and then a guitar to just sort of start building the track, and look for lyric ideas. So, with “Don’t You,” it’s pretty much the same story. We put that drum beat down, you know that boom, ta-chk, boom boom and the guitar up loud. Keith is great because he’s very organized, he’s a good producer. And I’m the guitar player.

Keith Forsey: Steve’s always ahead of you. He’s always going, going, going, and I’m the kind of guy that’s trying to pull him back and say, “Here’s A, let’s try and finish A. Here’s B. Let’s get B stuck together with A…” Steve’s a crazy guy. We’re just different personalities.

Doreen Ringer-Ross, VP of Film and TV, BMI: Steve was sorta dark, mysterious… Always brilliant. Always really talented. To this day, if he were to say anything to you or write you anything, he just speaks in poetry. He’s such an incredible, real-deal artist. Always was.

Steve Schiff: Basically, he gave me some rope, he said, “Play something,” and we came up with the beginning chords of the song and the groove of the song. We laid that whole track together with a couple of keyboards and bass, but we didn’t have a lyric yet.

Keith Forsey: I would get rough cuts of the movie and sit in the back room and kind of watch and just make notes, make notes, make notes. There was a specific scene where Judd Nelson and Anthony Michael Hall, in the middle of movie, they’re confronting each other, and I think it’s Anthony Michael Hall who says to Judd Nelson something along the lines of, “Are you gonna remember me after this?” Cause they kind of come together in that section. And it took me back to my school days when I was kind of on the bad side of the rails, and I remember standing at a bus stop with one of the kids from the other side of the rails and we started to talk. I offered him a cigarette and we became kind of… that never would have happened if we’d been both on our regular teams. And I just thought about, “Well, are you gonna forget about me?” And I thought that it was this great theme for the song.

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Steve Schiff: It ended up being a kind of soliloquy in the lyric, the story as it happens throughout your youth, where you go out somewhere, and you see a beautiful girl — maybe the love of your life, or just someone you’re really hot for — across the dance floor. And you never go talk to her. So it’s that thing of “Ah! Damn it.” So the song is basically what you wished you’d said, what you wished you could have said. That was kind of the vibe.

Keith Forsey: It kind of rung true… Because underneath all of that bravado from the bully and them [in the movie], there’s this one underlying theme: We’re all kids, and all trying to find our space in the world and trying to work out our strengths and our weaknesses. It’s a weird period of life, isn’t it?

Kathy Nelson: I had just started at MCA records. When [A&M] were doing The Breakfast Club, in the same studio, I was working on Beverly Hills Cop. I needed a title track for Beverly Hills Cop, and I needed Keith to write it, and Keith needed a band. He had written “Don’t You Forget About Me”, so I helped him… cause he didn’t know how to find anybody to sing it.

Steve Schiff: We had the lyric finished and then Keith got on the phone… actually I’m pretty sure we sent it to Bryan Ferry. I’m pretty sure, although I never heard this directly, that he said no. Then we sent it to Simple Minds because we thought they would be great for it. And I was a huge fan. I listened to [1984’s] Sparkle in the Rain practically every day in those days.

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Keith Forsey: When we wrote the song, our first thought was Simple Minds. Simple Minds was the first, but they turned it down.

Michelle Manning: There was one point when we couldn’t get anybody. [The Breakfast Club music supervisor] David Anderle and I literally wandered the streets of London for two-and-a-half, almost three weeks, going to every major English group, with a three-quarter inch tape of The Breakfast Club. We showed them the movie and they’d look at us like we were aliens. They were like, “Well we don’t understand. Who’s the headmaster?'” To them, Paul Gleason’s character…they could not wrap their head around, like, who is this dude? Because he’s certainly not behaving like a headmaster. They also didn’t understand what these kids would being doing at school on a Saturday, not in uniform.

Steve Schiff: I don’t know whether Keith sent it to Billy Idol or not, but he may or may not have, I’m not sure.

Keith Forsey: No, that’s not true. A lot of people think that. I don’t know, especially with the movie… I was just nervous that the personalities wouldn’t fit, so I kind of left it out of Billy’s realm. It might have done well if we’d done it.

Michelle Manning: Oh yeah, I remember offering the song to Billy Idol. He didn’t understand. I think a lot of people that passed will never say they passed. Cause we had the movie, and that demo which was literally just like the final song with Keith. And people were just shutting us down.

Keith Forsey: Then A&M came to me and they said they want Corey Hart to do it. So I after I cleaned my face and stopped vomiting. [Laughs.] I said no way! Why, you can’t do that! You can’t do that, you just can’t do that. You got to get Simple Minds. Hit them up again.

Michelle Manning: Well, Chrissie Hynde [of the Pretenders] said yes, but she was pregnant at the time. And we said part of the deal is we have to do a video, and she would not do a video pregnant, which I would not blame her for. She got the movie. She got the song. She was down with the whole thing. But she was pregnant, so she said to her husband Jim [Kerr of Simple Minds] “You should do this song. The song is a hit…” You know, she was agenting for us on our behalf. And Simple Minds were signed to A&M, so it was a no brainer. And then they said no.

Kathy Nelson: I wasn’t that familiar with Simple Minds, but apparently, for the singer it was a huge departure in terms of the kind of song he was gonna do, and he really could only sing that song one way.

Jim Kerr, Simple Minds singer: It was actually more that we did not write the song and were averse to doing material written outside of our group. That said, the demo of the song presented to us blew no one away, to put it mildly. Not bad, but nothing great, sounded much more suited to Psychedelic Furs than Minds. It took us a while to bond with the idea of doing the song and making it our own.

Keith Forsey: And David Anderle, god bless him, went back and tried and tried and tried and got them on board.

Michelle Manning: Something happened within the higher echelon of A&M, which was Gil Friesen and David Anderle, and the next thing I knew, Simple Minds was recording the song.

Keith Forsey: David said we’re going to London. So Brian Reeves, the engineer who works on the whole album, and I, we took off to London. We met the band outside a big-ass studio. Whether they were under the impression that we were going to collaborate or not I wasn’t sure, but I showed up with Brian and we said let’s go, and we just started recording.

Jim Kerr: Keith was a bundle of energy, an enthusiast, he understood our thing. He made it fun, we liked him and wanted to do a good job for him as much as anything else.

Keith Forsey: We just started recording. Jim sang the lyrics and that was it. The sound was refined. The demo… it was right there, you know?

Steve Schiff: It’s the same track that’s on the record. He replaced the drum machine with the band and they played to it, but it was basically… they played with the headphones, with the track. I think that Keith was the one that sang it for Jim to hear.

Kathy Nelson: The joke always was that Keith’s demos were so good because Keith Forsey had a great voice and he looked like James Dean. I used to be in awe of him because he always had the supermodel girlfriend. He was the star, Keith was in those days. I actually said to him, “You have to put somebody else on these demos because your voice… You sing these songs better than anybody else could. You’re intimidating to vocalists.”

Michelle Manning: Oh my god. Yeah. His demo of “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” was so incredible. It was exactly what the final product was, after he sent Simple Minds back, when they decided they wanted to make it their own. And we were like, “No: All we want you guys to do is to copy the demo exactly.” Because it was perfect.

Kathy Nelson: I mean to me Keith Forsey was one of the greatest, greatest pop songwriters. He writes very sort of timeless songs. He’s a phenomenal producer, and a phenomenal drummer. I can’t say enough about how talented he is.

Steve Schiff: So Keith went in there with the 24-track tape and spent a couple of days trying out Simple Minds. And it’s great because they rolled the tape, and the guitars went BAWWWW BAWWWW and Jim Kerr went, “Hey hey!” That’s the reason I like him so much, because he’s very creative. You give him an inch and he’ll make into a mile.

Jim Kerr: Once we came up with the intro and especially when our drummer Mel Gaynor started to showboat with his groove, it all started to feel like we were in control.

Keith Forsey: Kerr came up with the “La la la” at the very end. And the breakdown at the end, that’s classic Simple Minds, they put that in there, which was genius. That whole record just smelled so much of Simple Minds.

Steve Schiff: When I heard the finished version, I though it was brilliant, you know, Mel Gaynor’s drum fills and everything are unbelievable, everything was great. But, at the end, when the song goes “La la la la” I thought, “What?” I’m just not a “la la” person. And now, every pop song has a kind of sing-along part like that. It’s so common now, it’s unbelievable.
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