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Simply Red

+ {The Frantic Elevators} + {Mick Hucknall}

The mere mention of Manchester’s SIMPLY RED in certain circles conjures up memories of the curly flame-haired star-turn Mick Hucknall, a blue-eyed soul man with a voice of an angel that could strip more than just wallpaper. The unlikeliest sex symbol since BARRY WHITE or George Formby, envy obviously played a big part in turning off the lads (or most of them) and turning on the ladies; a majority of his fans were lassoed hook line and sinker for classic cuts `Holding Back The Years’, `It’s Only Love’, `Something Got Me Started’, `Stars’ and his sole UK chart-topper, `Fairground’.
Michael James Hucknall was born on 8 June 1960 in St. Mary’s Hospital in Manchester, an only child who was raised by his father Reginald since the age of 3 when his mother Maureen moved out of the family abode; the aforementioned `Holding Back The Years’ (or indeed “Tears”) was Mick’s ode to his estranged mum whom he finally met briefly again in the mid-90s – yes, it certainly put a different spin on the tear-inducing ballad.
Like so many teenagers of his generation, life changed drastically after Hucknall witnessed the SEX PISTOLS, who were performing at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall on 4 June 1976. When things looked decidedly bleak for a nation duly gripped by a certain Iron Lady, 1979 seemed as good a time as any to lead out the power-punk outfit, The FRANTIC ELEVATORS. Alongside Neil Moss (guitar, piano), Brian Turner (piano, bass) and Kevin Williams (drums), vocalist/guitarist Mick and Co dispatched no less than five singles for various indie labels, namely `Voice In The Dark’ and demo `Hunchback Of Notre Dame’ (both for TJM Records), `You Know What You Told Me’ (for Eric’s imprint), `Searching For The Only Love’ (for the Crackin’ Up label) and the embryonic reading of `Holding Back The Years’ (in October ’82 on No Waiting Records).
Hooking up with manager Elliot Rashman, Hucknall formed an early incarnation of SIMPLY RED with Eddie Sherwood, Ojo and Mog, although all three were almost immediately replaced by former DURUTTI COLUMN musicians: Tony Bowers (bass), Chris Joyce (drums) – both also ex-MOTHMEN – and Tim Kellett (brass); early 1985 saw keyboardist/vocalist Fritz McIntyre join as well as guitarist Sylvan Richardson taking the place of debut B-side member David Fryman.
Subsequently signing to Elektra Records, the all-new SIMPLY RED scored big-time with a biting pop-funk cover of The VALENTINE BROTHERS’ R&B cut `Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)’ – political sentiments many people could identify with in Maggie Thatcher’s brutal economic regime of the times. The single deservedly soared into the Top 20 in the summer of ‘85, introducing Hucknall’s dynamic vocal acrobatics. Though a second single, the uptempo `Come To My Aid’, stiffed in the lower regions of the chart and a ponderous re-make of the aforementioned `Holding Back The Years’ stalled one place outside the Top 50, there was encouraging signs for debut album PICTURE BOOK (1985) {*8}; sales were moderate at this stage. When the latter ballad took America by storm and topped the charts the following spring (its re-issue in Britain just about followed suit), the debut album garnered a whole new lease of life and a similar chart position, establishing “Red”-head Hucknall as a distinctive fixture in pop’s rich tapestry. The soulful R&B album was a million miles away from Manchester’s other crews (mainly on Factory Records and The FALL), but Mick cared little for outsider sentiment having served his indie apprenticeship for several years. Recalling the Stax/Atco halcyon days of yore (The MGs et al), SIMPLY RED were just too tight to mention, even their cover of TALKING HEADS’ `Heaven’ was reconstructed beyond its limits.
As 1986 was dedicated to volley re-issues into the global charts, a couple of collaborations with Hucknall and seasoned Motown legend LAMONT DOZIER waited in the wings until the following March, when MEN AND WOMEN (1987) {*7} soared into the Top 3 (US #31); the songs in question were `Infidelity’ and US flop `Suffer’. Bolstered by a near Top 10 smash, `The Right Thing’, the album was a more ambitious attempt at updating classic soul for the 80s, while there was no less than three dull-ish covers this time around: Cole Porter’s `Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye’ (a similarly-placed UK hit), SLY STONE’s `Let Me Have It All’ and BUNNY WAILER’s `Love Fire’. SIMPLY RED’s position in the major league wasn’t yet assured when the group composition, `I Won’t Feel Bad’, bombed.
That honour came with A NEW FLAME (1989) {*9}, an unashamed effort to capture the coffee-table middle ground between pop, soul, rock and jazz, and a set that furnished the band – without masseur-to-be Sylvan – with their first UK No.1 placing; new personnel showcased Brazilian guitarist Heitor TP (who replaced STONE ROSES-bound Aziz Abrahim) and an upgrade for saxophonist Ian Kirkham (who sessioned on the previous LP). The record’s centrepiece was a song once the asset of BARRY WHITE: `It’s Only Love’, and a tepid reading of the old HAROLD MELVIN & THE BLUE NOTES chestnut, `If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, the latter a huge smash worldwide. The Hucknall-Dozier connection reeled off a few cuts including the minor `You’ve Got It’, while the leader’s delicious title track went Top 20.
In between dating models and fending off the tabloids, Hucknall (and Co) – Bowers and Joyce respectively moving aside for Shaun Ward and Japanese drummer Gota Yashiki – duly took time out from his new found fame to pen the best-selling and most consistent album of his career, STARS (1991) {*8}. Previewed by the sassy `Something Got Me Started’ hit, the record found the “Red” man revelling in his role of dread-locked love god, his voice swooning and keening over a set of impressive originals, including other play-listers `Stars’, `For Your Babies’, `Thrill Me’ and `Your Mirror’. Though SIMPLY RED were constantly harangued by the more cynical factions of the grunge-fixated music press, the group had amassed legions of devoted fans, their support making the set one of the most popular albums of the early 90s. In fact, their glow extended to a (#11) live at `Montreux’ EP, which featured high-octane re-vamps of Cole Porter’s `Love For Sale’, `Henry Glover’s `Drowning In My Own Tears’, BILL WITHERS’ `Granma’s Hands’ and Mick’s own `Lady Godiva’s Room’.
Following a couple of years of heavy touring and some time out (Kellett, Yashiki and Ward bailed in ‘94), SIMPLY RED re-grouped in ‘95 with `Fairground’, something of a departure with its dance-floor backing track borrowed from The Goodmen’s club smash, `Give It Up’. The single rewarded SIMPLY RED their first No.1, closely followed by yet another chart-topping album, LIFE (1995) {*7}; both consolidating the group’s position as one of the UK’s most popular musical exports. Hucknall illustrated his love of reggae and funk, hooking up with rhythmatists SLY & ROBBIE (and bassist BOOTSY COLLINS) on further Top 30 smoochers `Remembering The First Time’, `Never Never Love’ and `We’re In This Together’.
At the peak of their career, SIMPLY RED spent a year in the chart lists and a few at the top with GREATEST HITS (1996) {*9}, which included a Top 5 version of ARETHA FRANKLIN’s `Angel’, also utilized on the hip-hop movie, Set It Off.
The icing on the cake was when the depleted SIMPLY RED team augmented SLY & ROBBIE on a smoking, dub-friendly Top 20 take of the GREGORY ISAAC standard `Night Nurse’. The track was also part of his next chart-topping set, simply-entitled BLUE (1998) {*5}, and attendant single `Say You Love Me’. The album retained only Kirkham and backing vocalist Dee Johnson (who’d joined in ’92); newbie drummer Velroy Bailey and bassist Steve Lewinson had made way for (a returning) Gota and Wayne Stobbart, respectively, while a solid crew comprised Tim Vine (keyboards, bass), Sarah Brown (backing vocals), John Johnson (trombone), plus guitarists Kenji Suzuki and Mark Jaimes. Not Hucknall’s finest moments, self-indulgence was the key in covering a range of numbers, including hits `The Air That I Breathe’ (The HOLLIES) and `Ghetto Girl’ (DENNIS BROWN); NEIL YOUNG’s `Mellow My Mind’ seemed the odd one out.
Swapping Vine for Andy Wright (keyboards, bass), Kevin Robinson (trumpet, vocals) and Chris De Margary (woodwind) towards the end of ‘99, Hucknall and his SIMPLY RED posse delivered the uncool seventh set, LOVE AND THE RUSSIAN WINTER {*4}. Falling from the skies in its attempt to stay in the Top 10, only the cover hit of Homer Banks’ `Ain’t That A Lot Of Love’ and the home-grown `Your Eyes’, saved it from a Frisbee sports day. And it was all getting a little stagnant when another compilation, the Top 30 IT’S ONLY LOVE {*6} – containing all their recent hits – was marketed for Xmas 2000.
Three years and counting, the self-financed HOME (2003) {*5} was hardly likely to win over any of the band’s detractors, although there were definitely moments to savour. On the likes of `Home Loan Blues’, and the spot-on Plan B remix/re-vamp of DENNIS BROWN’s `Money In My Pocket’, there were hints of the bruised agit-soul of years gone by, although Hucknall did himself few favours with ham-fisted versions of The STYLISTICS’ `You Make Me Feel Brand New’, DYLAN’s `Positively 4th Street’ and HALL & OATES-sampling fluff, `Sunrise’. Par for the course, SIMPLY RED had moved out Wright, Gota and Stobbart for Dave Clayton, Pete Lewinson and a re-instated Steve Lewinson; both brothers having credits on the title track.
Opening with a freshly-spun minor hit, `Perfect Love’ (alongside three other new songs), the Top 3 re-workings set SIMPLIFLIED (2005) {*4} attracted Mick’s stalwart fanclub; from `Holding Back The Years’, `Rollercoaster’ et al, to his LEON RUSSELL cover `A Song For You’, Hucknall was fast becoming a parody of himself. Something had to get re-started.
Although 2007 saw SIMPLY RED’s 10th set, STAY {*5} take in its usual Top 5 spot, the hits were drying up; `Oh! What A Girl’, `So Not Over You’ and the title track bubbling under the 30 mark. The significant pointer was that it contained a rendition of the FACES’ `Debris’, an opening possibly to an all-new venture – but not as yet.
Inevitably, MICK HUCKNALL – a solo artist in all but name up to now – rendered his debut album TRIBUTE TO BOBBY (2008) {*5}. The Bobby in question was legendary blues/R&B singer BOBBY “BLUE” BLAND and, in big band arrangements of `Farther Up The Road’, `Ain’t That Lovin’ You’, `Stormy Monday Blues’ and `I Pity The Fool’, Mick’s groovy soul was given a face-lift.
The FACES having re-formed in 2009 were at odds to find a quick and sure-fire replacement for a busy Rod the Mod, and in the ginger one, they could stir up a hornet’s nest of resentment. The thing was that HUCKNALL could sing a phone directory and come up trumps, and in live shows he was definitely the man.
Meanwhile, on the back of a SIMPLY RED FAREWELL: LIVE IN CONCERT AT SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE (2011) {*6} CD/DVD package – recorded the previous October – MICK HUCKNALL took the croaky ROD STEWART route by liberating his own AMERICAN SOUL (2012) {*6}. A melting pot of nostalgia and soul staples, Manchester’s Mick spread out the love on `Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’, `Baby What You Want Me To Do’, `I’d Rather Go Blind’, `Lonely Avenue’ and `That’s How Strong My Love Is’, although `It’s Impossible’ (a hit for PERRY COMO) and `I Only Have Eyes For You’ (The SKYLINERS hit) stretched the unwritten rules more than a tad.
A perfectly-timed SIMPLY RED reunion (Hucknall, Kirkham, Steve Lewinson, Suzuki, Robinson, Clayton, and new drummer Roman Roth) coincided with a 30 year anniversary and a comeback Top 5 set, BIG LOVE (2015) {*6}. Reflective and romantic, sentimental and sensual, Hucknall was comfortable leading out a band rather than gelling with a session team; a promo spot on the Graham Norton TV show was evidence in a resurgent glow on the “Red” man’s ageing coupon. The marmite effect was always the group’s albatross, but sticking that to one side, could any lovers and groovers really dismiss the funky opener `Shine On’, the candy-coated `Love Gave Me More’, the blue-eyed title track, or the sophisti-disco-inflicted `Woru’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS June2015

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