I know that the mere mention of Mick Hucknall’s name causes hoots of derision from music aficionados these days – the dubious sexual exploits, the Man Utd links and of course, the increasingly bland recordings, but this is the purpose of this blog… to get you go back and give a few of the old favourites another spin.
In 1985, I remember seeing the video for “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” on a Tuesday evening’s Whistle Test and thought it was an incredible sound. I knew the Valentine Brothers original but somehow this had more drive and more bite. The production – by Stewart Levine – just had that little bit more swing. And of course, it should have been a crime to use Spitting Image’s best joke of “Did the Earth move for you Nancy?” but it did help to build to create the most towering crescendo.
The album, itself, is littered with some quite hard-edged commentary (“Come To My Aid” & “Jericho”) accompanied by the kind of drive that the earlier single had indicated. The overall feel is of a varied stew of RnB, Jazz (“Sad Old Red”)and Soul (“Look At You Now”) and it’s this variety that makes the album surprisingly listenable after all this time.
We do need to talk about the BIG single – “Holding Back The Years” – originally a flop but a big hit in the US and so a smash on reissue. I never really liked this single that much – not least because of the video with the shepherd stick and even now it’s the one ubiquitous song you do hear on every 80s love collection and yet perhaps because of the passage of time, you realise it is very strong lyrically and has an unexpected depth considering that it written when the singer was really comparatively young in his pre-fame band, the Frantic elevators. It genuinely has stood the test of thirty years.
“No Direction” is one of the few non-singles and it’s the first time we hear the soon to be trademark snarly cartoon voice that Hucknall is so keen on – think the opening Show Me of “Something Got Me Started”. It makes it a slightly unpleasant experience. The title track is however, a much more controlled and sparse piece although its instrumentation does date it dramatically now.
“Heaven” is the second of the covers and this for me, is the most overblown and irrelevant relic of the piece but it is followed by the album highlight “Jericho” – incidentally also a fine instrumental, which emphasises the tightness of the assembled band. This song has light and shade in equal number with a languorous summery feel that is then allied to another lung-busting crescendo. It is a recording that is difficult to characterise and that adds to its unusualness and memorability.
The variety of this album is I think the start of the curse of Simply Red. It had a very slow burn with six single releases to attempt to kept alive. Accordingly, all later albums seem to follow the blueprint of trying to rework the Picture Book highlights and minimise the experimentation.
I enjoyed the next two albums but with decreasing attachment and by the time of the highly polished “Stars” – and don’t turn your nose up at it that much as it can’t just have been smug new families buying it to get hold of “For Your Babies” because it sold millions – the band had their work so well packaged that it was a marketer’s dream.
For those interested in the bonus disc, it’s actually a dvd of the 1986 concert in Montreux Festival (a bank holiday viewing highlight of the mid 80s if ever there was one) and apart from the fact that Mick Hucknall looks incredibly silly and very like his Viz character, you cannot help but admire his voice. “Grandma’s Hands” is a Bill Withers cover and you don’t have a go at one of those unless you’re very sure of yourself.
And, after “Picture Book”, there’s the problem with Mick and Simply Red…
They always seemed so very sure of themselves.
Which is why it always makes me smile when I read that when they were successful in the States, they thought Simply Red was Mick Hucknall’s stage name and greeted him with cries of “Yo! Simply!” – and you know he would have hated that.