As I write, the collective minds of most of the world’s news organisations are nervously eyeing their holiday bookings and remaining within travelling distance of an airport as they wait to go into full-on tribute mode as Nelson Mandela edges closely towards the end of his life. When he does finally pass away, we will naturally be swamped with pre-prepared tributes and obituaries and a totally necessary row about the people who want to give more prominence to his past life as a murdering terrorist than the right-on crowd are strictly comfortable with. It is the way things are done these days.
Naturally enough these tributes will be soundtracked by a part of the rich legacy of musical work that his political and personal struggles generated in their wake, a soundtrack which will inevitably feature the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ as penned in 1984 by Jerry Dammers for the Special AKA. This does however mean I’ve got visions of Jim Kerr stomping around in a palatial mansion somewhere muttering about the unfairness of it all. For his band recorded their own Mandela song, one which technically performed better in the charts than any other but which is by and large forgotten today.
It was more or less entirely down to the the involvement of Simple Minds that Tony Hollingsworth’s famous 1988 Nelson Mandela 60th Birthday concert at Wembley Stadium was able to take place in the first place, the band being the requisite “big name” who thus persuaded other acts to fully commit to the bill and to provide the selling point for the worldwide television coverage which followed, along with unbelievably lame write-in competitions in the Daily Mirror.
Many of the events of that day in June have rightly passed into musical legend and when the full story of the events in music of that year come to be written, the Nelson Mandela concert needs a chapter all to itself. However amongst all the tales of Stevie Wonder’s backstage strops, the true reason behind Whitney Houston’s banner-free stage and the catapulting of Tracy Chapman to stardom lies buried the centrepiece of the set of the ‘Minds.
There was talk at one stage that Hollingsworth was to require every act performing on the day to write a new song connected with the event, but I suspect that slightly impractical suggestion was little more than a wild rumour, especially given the endless political machinations required to get many of the more politically reluctant performers to appear in the first place. What is a fact though is the Simple Minds song ‘Mandela Day’ would serve as the event’s own semi-official anthem and a recording which received repeated plays during the concert coverage and subsequently. To avoid accusations of cashing in, however, the track went formally unreleased for some time afterwards.
In fact the public’s first chance to hand over money for the song came early the following year when ahead of the album ‘Street Fighting Years’ it was released on single, tucked away in fact on the b-side of the epic ‘Belfast Child’ which arrived in stores in January 1989.
You will note that this is one of those odd singles whose chart credit differs almost entirely from the way it is branded on the sleeve. Check any of the record books, and indeed the full database on the Official Charts Company’s own site and you will see they are unequivocal as to what the single was called:
Yet Virgin records and the band themselves begged to differ, as you will note from the sleeve, branding the release the ‘Ballad Of The Streets EP’ and suggesting that this is a double release, with both ‘Belfast Child’ and ‘Mandela Day’ regarded as having equal weight. Part of the issue I suspect was down to the semantics of what qualified as an EP – an Extended Play single after all is supposed to contain more than the standard a- and b-sides. For the 12-inch and CD single releases this wasn’t an issue as the record had a third track – their cover of Peter Gabriel’s similarly South African themed ‘Biko’ – added to the running order. Part of the problem was the sheer length of Simple Minds compositions at that time. With ‘Belfast Child’ running to 6:39 and ‘Mandela Day’ clocking in at a similarly epic 5:42 it actually wasn’t physically possible for for ‘Biko’ to be included on the 7-inch single (especially as it too ran to over seven and a half minutes) and so the lead format of the “EP” technically only had two tracks on it and so was therefore just a “single” and was listed as such on the charts.
You will note that by the time Simple Minds released their fourth single of the year, they no longer had this issue:
So in a sense you can understand why Jim Kerr might be slightly frustrated. Their Nelson Mandela celebration anthem (one whose lyrics of “yeah, yeah, yeah Mandela’s free” mean it has dated less and remains slightly more relevant than the more notorious Special AKA single) was a full part of their one and only Number One hit single, but is largely written off by the record books as a b-side rather than an equal partner with the lead track on the record.
When Nelson Mandela finally does pass away, you will inevitably hear the strains of “Freeeeee Nelson Mandeeellaaa” resonate from a pre-produced tribute package on a radio or television station near you. Yet a core part of the snowballing of the political and social pressure for his release from prison was another, different, more celebratory song. One which you might hardly hear at all.