In 1985, I was still buying a lot of vinyl singles. The man in my local record shop suggested one that I might like. As soon as he played it, I bought it immediately. It was called ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’, a cover of a much older soul song, and the credited artist was ‘Simply Red’. I was sure that it must be a new American group, and that the singer was almost certainly a black soul man.
But they weren’t, and he wasn’t.
They were a group from the north of England, and the big-vocals front man was Mick Hucknall, a ginger-haired guy with very white skin indeed. I quickly bought their debut album, ‘Picture Book’, and enjoyed more of the same quality vocals, with some tracks that were very different from the hit single. One of these was the plaintive ballad, ‘Holding Back the Years’. This was a truly great song. I had a feeling that this group was going to be the next big thing. And I was right.
With the new fame came more TV appearances and interviews. As with many top bands, Hucknall became the public face of the group, with the other members only seen on promotional videos or live appearances.
I was unsettled, as Mick Hucknall was a hard man to like. He was often boastful, unduly smug, and had little respect for other artists at the time. He once described himself as ‘the greatest singer in Britain, if not the world’. I couldn’t deny his talent, but it would have been nice if I could have liked him too. Even a little bit.
The next release, ‘Men and Women’ kept pouring it on. It gave us a very good cover version of the song, ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’, further showcasing Hucknall’s outstanding voice. Added to that were some good original new songs, and even a collaboration with Lamont Dozier. Something told me that I was going to have to overcome my dislike of the lead singer, as I could not deny the appeal of the sound.
In 1989, they released ‘A New Flame’. This amazing album set their style and produced more hits, reaching number one in the UK. There was now a ‘Simply Red Sound’, and it was unmistakable. Not only that, they covered another of my favourite songs, ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’, and Hucknall delivered a better vocal than my Harold Melvin original. I had to grit my teeth and surrender. He was really that good. Even if I didn’t really need to watch him perform.
Two years later, and ‘Stars’ took it up a gear. By now, the band had lost a lot of their soul music roots. They replaced them with a vocal-driven collection that was almost its own genre. You couldn’t always dance to the tracks, and some were very slow indeed. But this was ‘listening’ music. You sat and listened to it, and realised that it was very very good. They had made a place for themselves, and it was going to be a place in the history of British music. Of that I was sure.
Watching Hucknall on TV, I still couldn’t warm to him. He had beautiful girlfriends, fast cars, luxury homes, all the trappings of fame. But he still had that smug look on his face. Even so, they still hadn’t had a number one single here. That was soon to come though.
The next album, ‘Life’ came out to great acclaim. The first single released from it, ‘Fairground’, went straight to number one. By now, the group could fill a stadium with fans, and enjoyed sell-out tours. If anything, Hucknall’s voice was just getting better, but the direction of the band was changing to embrace an older fan base.
There were five more studio albums, many comprising of little more than covers, good as they were. All delivered more of the same, and kept the fans happy. But they had lost me along the way, as they drifted further away from the soul that had first attracted me. Since 1996, the band members had all drifted away too. Hucknall became not only the face of Simply Red, he was Simply Red.
But they are still very much around. Despite failing to inspire a new generation with their music, they continued to tour, and always attracted an audience of devoted fans. They have recently announced their intention to re-form and tour again. Tickets are available…