Friday, 18 October 2019

Simply Red

For some reason, Mick Hucknall and his band, Simply Red, have never got the critical acclaim they should have done being seen as chart-oriented, "wine bar" merchants. This does their immaculately played, quality soul a real disservice. If I am seen as "uncool" for liking them, then so be it.

Picture Book (1985)

Come To My Aid/Sad Old Red/Look At You Now/Heaven/Jericho/Money's Too Tight To Mention/Holding Back The Years/Open Up The Red Box/No Direction/Picture Box   

This was white soul band Simply Red’s 1985 debut album, and it is a far deeper, more credible album than one may imagine. It is packed full of top quality musicianship, catchy funk hooks and an underlying observational cynicism about the contemporary social and political scene. You have to say that it was a really convincing first offering. The group were up there with the Style Council in delivering that mid-eighties jazz/funk/rock/soul fusion sound that was so popular in the era’s “wine bars”.
Come To My Aid is an invigorating slab of funk/pop to open with, featuring some throbbing bass , funky guitars, punchy brass and a strong vocal from Mick Hucknall

Sad Old Red is a sumptuous, jazzy, bass-driven number that has a real laid-back, last hours of the evening feel. It is a most impressive song.

The thumping, vibrant Look At You Now sees the pace gear up again on a surprisingly lively song. It slightly reminds me of The B-52s in the middle vocal bit. 

A fine, evocative and moving cover of Talking Heads’ Heaven brings things back down, though. It features some lovely bass, excellent saxophone and Stax-style horns. 

Jericho is a superb piece of easy going funky pop. Solidly bassy, this is good stuff, absolutely no doubt about that. Hucknall’s vocal is outstanding on here, as indeed is the whole backing.

Two huge hit singles are next, the light funk of Money’s Too Tight To Mention, which was a sort of partner to The Style Council’s Money Go Round, and the now iconic Holding Back The Years, which brought Hucknall’s stylish white soul voice to everyone’s attention. The former track provided a hard hitting response to the prevailing idea that everyone was stinking rich at the time. I know I wasn’t.

Open Up The Red Box is a chugging funker with hints of Talking Heads’ material from the same period. No Direction is also vibrantly funky, with a typically eighties funky synthesiser riff. 

The final track is the album’s most sombre, Picture Book is slow and mournful with deep, dark keyboards reminiscent of Ultravox. Hucknall again shows that there was a considerable versatility to his voice. It has a big, dubby bass line passage half way through that I love.

This was a debut album that deserved more critical acclaim than it got. Yes, it sold well, but it will never be found on any lists of great debuts or classic albums, which is a shame because it is very good.

Men And Women (1987)

The Right Thing/Infidelity/Suffer/I Won’t Feel Bad/Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye/Let Me Have It All/Love Fire/Move On Out/Shine/Maybe Someday  

This was Simply Red’s follow up to their successful debut album, Picture Book, and, although it was a good album, it did not quite contain the real stand out quality of its predecessor. That said, it is still a pretty good example of mid/late eighties soulful pop and considerably superior to much of the synthesiser-drenched vacuous pop being released during the same period. It is an album that grows on you, though, and, because it only contains one hit is enjoyable to listen to due to the comparative unfamiliarity of the material.

The production is very much of its time, however, being slightly too trebly and not quite bassy enough for my taste.   
The Right Thing is an upbeat slice of funk/pop which was a big hit. Infidelity is a catchy and funky number with a high-pitched vocal from Mick Hucknall and some very eighties-style backing vocals, plus a killer saxophone solo. Very “wine bar” in its lush, laid-back, polished sound. 

Suffer is a bit like a Michael Jackson slow number in some ways. Again, Hucknall’s vocal is impressive, but it is not a song that hits you between the ears, so to speak. Nice bass and saxophone at the end though.

I Won’t Feel Bad has a typical eighties groove in its dance-style “chicka-chicka” guitar riff. The song is a lively, funky one, with punchy brass and another enthusiastic vocal. The old easy listening classic Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye is dealt with nicely by Hucknall. Yes, it could have been cheesy, but it is not.

Let Me Have It All is a deep, chunky piece of Style Council-ish white funk. Love Fire has a reggae tinge to it, and a bit of a feel of Keith Richards’ reggae influenced Rolling Stones numbers in there somewhere. 

Move On Out is sumptuous, slick eighties pop funk. Even though Simply Red were only on their second album, you get the impression that songs like Shine were now ones that they could trot out in their sleep. It was quality funky white soul by numbers.

The album ends on a more sombre, deeper note with the late night tones of Maybe Someday. It features a superb trumpet solo. As I said earlier, this was not a remarkable album in any way, but it is certainly not an unlistenable one. It has an understated appeal.

A New Flame (1989)

It's Only Love/A New Flame/You've Got It/To Be With You/More/Turn It Up/Love Lays Its Tune/She'll Have To Go/If You Don't Know Me By Now/Enough

Simply Red's third album found them further establishing their middle-of-the-road popularity. Its obvious highlight is a cover version, Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' impassioned soul ballad, If You Don't Know Me By Now, which was seemingly made for Mick Hucknall. The album's other big hit was the smooth, late night jazzy soul of It's Only Love. Despite having been remastered in 2008, some, but not all, of the album suffers like many others from the mid-late eighties from a slightly sterilised, cool sound, with keyboards to the fore at the expense of the bass, leaving a slightly treble-heavy feel to it. It is nowhere near as trebly as lots of other albums of the time, however, and the bass is still quite audible. To be fair, it is only really the first track that it is clearly apparent, things improve after that. The third hit, and another that is familiar to many over the years is the appealing A New Flame. Thankfully, this one is a tad more bassy than It's Only Love.

The album was the group's first number one and, as I said, saw the group cementing their mass appeal, to the possible detriment of their credibility, which was a bit of a shame as they were still producing quality blue-eyed soul, witness a track like You've Got It, written by Hucknall with the legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier. Most of the album finds Hucknall trying to evoke classic soul/funk on his compositions, such as on the brassy, punchy funk/soul of To Be with You, that turns the bass up higher than the keyboards, rightfully. 

More has a nice, soulful depth to it as well, enhanced by a sublime bass line. Perfect late night fare. I love it.

It is on the cover version of the real thing, though, that he steals the show. Turn It Up is full of that typically mid/late eighties white funk sound so loved by Level 42Heaven 17 and, at times The Style Council. All those chicka-chicka frantically-strummed guitars. 

Love Lays Its Tune, if sung by Chaka Khan, for example, would have been received as a copper-bottomed piece of soul. The fact it is Simply Red should not stop it from being similarly acclaimed. It is a high quality track. 

Enough is overflowing with funky appeal, too, the same applies to the cool pop/funk of She'll Have To Go. As was often the case with Hucknall, he managed to insert his cutting, heartfelt political comment into an otherwise jaunty tune. The "she" in this song is the Prime Minster at the time, Margaret Thatcher. There is something a bit Style Council-ish about the lyrics of this one.

Overall, this is a perfectly listenable album, and, despite its obvious eighties musical sensibilities, it is nowhere near as awash with synthesisers as many albums of the era. A listen to this will always be enjoyable. I really quite like it, far more so than I ever did at the time. I have to say it really is quite good.

Incidentally, the expanded version includes some great bonus material in an live instrumental cover of Stevie Wonder's I Wish, and further impressive instrumentals in XSugar Daddy and Funk On Out.

Stars (1991)

Something Got Me Started/Stars/Thrill Me/Your Mirror/She's Got It Bad/For Your Babies/Model/How Could I Fall/Freedom/Wonderland

Mick Hucknall's stated aim for this top-selling album was to sound even more soulful and less "clean" than on previous offerings, which was a bit odd, because the previous three albums had certainly been very soulful and this one was met with many accusations of being over-polished and soul-less. These criticisms were, in my opinion, unfair. Yes, it was an album popular with those who probably didn't have James Brown, Jimi Hendrix or Tom Waits in their collections but so what. It is still a credible release, for me. Tracks like the white funk of Something Got Me Started or the smooth, infectious groove of Stars are simply excellent soul/pop music, end of story. Most of the "buy this for your gran" sneering came from predictable sources - the NME and Melody Maker - but over time, in retrospect, the album has been praised for being what it is - an admittedly polished but addictive slice of finely-crafted funky pop soul. There is a place for it, as far as I'm concerned, and I am a fan of many of those more "credible" artists as well.

Thrill Me is appealingly shuffling in its jazziness, enhanced by some killer saxophone. This track, along with the rest of the album, is pleasingly more deeper and bassy in its sound as we moved into the nineties and many of the sonic curses of the eighties were dispensed with, thank the Lord. This was a sonically much improved album. 

Model, for example, has a lovely deep bass line and some seriously funky guitar. Your Mirror was a hit, like the previous three tracks and is an intoxicating one, one of my favourites.

The Stevie Wonder-ish She's Got It Bad is a convincing slice of funk, if it had been sung by a black funk artist it would have been received as such. 

For Your Babies is another one I love. It is just a beautiful song, beautifully played and sung. Check out that saxophone on How Could I Fall, impressive stuff. Similarly, the funky James Brown-esque drums on the chunky, muscular strains of Freedom. The left-leaning Hucknall was also politically sound, as far as I was concerned, and he often managed to insert a bleak message into his attractive songs, as indeed he does on the cynical but melodic Wonderland, which was a condemnation of the Conservative government of the time.

Simply Red's problem was that they could never climb the credibility wall, away from the sanitised poppiness they were supposed to represent. I always felt they had more to them than that, however, and albums like this prove it. Stephen Thomas Erlewine, writing on the AllMusic site, said that this was Simply Red's finest album. He was right, too.

Life (1995)

You Make Me Believe/So Many People/Lives And Loves/Fairground/Never Never Love/So Beautiful/Hillside Avenue/Remembering The First Time/Out On The Range/We’re In This Together   

Four years after the multi-million selling Stars came this album from Simply Red, their fifth. It had many signs of contemporary “r ’n’ b” programmed, thumpingly bass heavy soul stylings. It is consummately delivered by Mick Hucknall and his very competent band, but its contemporary beats and rhythms have, for me, taken just a little of the genuine soul of the previous albums away. Just a little, as the music on offer is still of a high quality, but there was always something a little  “clean” and “polished” and lacking in edge about much of mid-nineties music. That said, though, it is still an album full of some really good material.
You Make Me Believe is so very 1995, full of the afore-mentioned big, powerful, programmed backing (as opposed to “real” drums). It has the now expected, effortless, laid-back Mick Hucknall vocal. 

So Many People is in the same vein - immaculately sung and performed. Perfect late night easy listening white soul. There is some nice, gentle, chicka-chicka guitar lurking beneath the slow beat, and brass too. 

Lives And Loves uses that very typical, deliberately scratchy mid-nineties backing and also features some nice late-night saxophone backing Hucknall’s slightly deeper, soulful vocal. That sax has a few echoes of that used on Paul Weller's 1993 debut solo album.

The big hit from the album was the rhythmic, shuffling catchy groover, Fairground. It was one of those songs  where the title didn’t feature in the chorus that everyone sang along with - “I love the thought of coming home to you..”. It is a very addictive song, very poppy but with an upbeat, clubby beat and equally “house” piano near the end, latching on to contemporary trends. Another beat very much of its time is the “chill-out” backing of the slow burning Never Never Love. It is all very pleasantly relaxing, I have to say.

That programmed bass and percussion backs the extremely laid-back So Beautiful. Hucknall gets cynical with the line “she was so beautiful but oh so boring”. It is a very appealing track, though. Hucknall dabbles with poppy, nineties-style reggae on the equally attractive Hillside Avenue. There are some intoxicating rhythms on this one, it sounds pretty authentic (to the pop reggae of 1995, anyway). 

Remembering The First Time has a lovely, deep, melodic bass line and is another very likeable number. The same can be said for the wah-wah backed, powerful funky soul of Out On The Range. In many ways this album gets better and better as it progresses.

It ends with the anthemic We’re In This Together, which sits alone from the rest of the album. It is a track that reminds me vaguely of Peter Gabriel’s Biko. Legendary South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela plays flugelhorn on the track.

This album marked the last of the truly huge selling ones from the band, everything from this point on were successively lower-key releases, punctuated with cover versions and the additional appearance of several “greatest hits” collections.

Blue (1998)

Mellow My Mind/Blue/Say You Love Me/To Be Free/The Air That I Breathe/Someday In My Life/The Air That I Breathe/Night Nurse/Broken Man/Come Get Me Angel/Ghetto Girl/Love Has Said Goodbye Again/High Fives     
This album was the first one that saw Simply Red slightly on the wane after eleven years of continued success. It contained five cover versions, of which one is repeated twice but they are impressive and the band’s original tracks are good ones too. It is a better album than it is often given credit for.

Neil Young’s Mellow My Mind is given a late-night contemporary makeover, complete with somewhat irritating “scratching” noises. Take those away, though, and you have an atmospheric, convincing cover. Hucknall’s voice is excellent on this. 

Blue sees the tempo increase on a typical Simply Red poppy funker. Hucknall and his excellent band can serve up tracks like this effortlessly, with faultless vocals and instrumentation. I really like it, finding it impossible not to enjoy. “Blue like Monday morning” is a great answer to “easy like Sunday morning..”. Say You Love Me is again classic laid-back Simply Red fare.


To Be Free is an upbeat, synthy piece of pop funk that is irresistibly toe-tapping. The first cover of The HolliesThe Air That I Breathe is given a contemporary sheen in its drum sound and gospelly choral backing vocals and occasional rap vocals. Before the next version, we get the vocal and piano ballad of Someday In My Life, which has a thirties/forties feel to it. The second version of The Air That I Breathe is an interesting interpretation that blatantly steals the lead riff from John Mellencamp’s Jack And Diane.

Night Nurse is a pretty a acceptable cover of Gregory Isaacs’ lovers rock classic that sees Hucknall replacing the “patient by the name of Gregory” to “Micky”. 

Broken Man is a dance-influenced thumper of a song, with a suitably big bass sound. Come Get Me Angel is sort of bassy re-write of the single Angel from two years earlier. 

Ghetto Girl is a cover of a reggae song from Dennis Brown. Hucknall copes with it admirably and a relaxing mood continues with Love Has Said Goodbye Again. This underrated, pleasant album ends with a sublime number in High Fives.

** An outstanding bonus track is a dub-drenched version of Ghetto Girl.

Blue-Eyed Soul (2019)

Thinking Of You/Sweet Child/Complete Love/Take A Good Look/Ring That Bell/Bad Bootz/Don’t Do Down/Riding On A Train/Chula/Tonight    

Look, you know what you’re going to get from Simply Red, even all these years later - immaculately played white soul/funk topped off with singer Mick Hucknall’s genuinely credible soul voice. This album gives you just that - ten tracks of largely upbeat soul and/or funk full of instantly singable hooks but nothing particularly remarkable. It is just a pleasant thirty minutes or so. It is also nice for an album to be the traditional thirty minutes plus in length, as opposed to a bloated seventy minutes. Yes, you get less music, but, strangely, the shorter time allows the album to be enjoyed more. I’m sure you understand what I mean. An hour of it would have been too much but half an hour suits me fine.

The first four tracks are more what you expect from Simply Red in their eighties soulful style but thereafter the album turns impressively funky. It is far more of a gritty funk offering than a softer soul one, in my opinion. Anyone looking for an album of poppy, chart fare will not find too much of it here. For me, this is credible stuff.     
Thinking Of You kicks things off in fine mid eighties style with a real throwback to the group’s first few albums. Hucknall’s voice is strong throughout and the track pounds along with some great bass, guitar and punchy brass. It has strong echoes of Jamiroquai for me. Great saxophone in it too. 

Sweet Child also sounds very mid eighties, this time in a slower, more laid-back way, as Hucknall revisits his Holding Back The Years vocal style. It has a bit of a Stevie Wonder feel to it in places. As I said, there’s nothing particularly challenging in this perfect Radio Two fare, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable. It is what it is.

Complete Love is a slow-paced, beautifully soulful number ideal for late night radio, with a great vocal and a string-enhanced but bassy Stax-ish backing. It is like some of the great Philadelphia label ballads of the seventies. 

Take A Good Look has a sublime, deep and bassy Al Green-style backing and it goes without saying that the vocal is on the money. Great stuff. I can’t help but really like this.

Time to get a bit funky and we duly do so with Ring That Bell which cooks and boils with rumbling funk. “There’s some bad men messing with our future, let’s give them hell...” may be a lyric that attracts scorn from some but it serves its purpose perfectly for me. I love the funky vibe on this. A funky clavinet introduces the even more cookin’ but ludicrously-titled Bad Bootz. Sure, the lyrics are nonsense but then so was The Funky Chicken - instrumentally, this track is red hot. These last two numbers have shown that the group could funk out with the best of them. The sound is superb on the whole album, by the way, but is noticeably good on these funky offerings.

James Brown-influenced guitar groove powers the irresistible Don’t Do Down as Hucknall rails against those who put him down. Once again, the track is superbly funky and full of bassy oomph. I’m really impressed. 

Riding On A Train has some rumbling Blaxploitation-influenced bass lines and it pulsates with rhythmic funk as indeed does Chula, with its very Blaxploitation horns.

The album finishes with a bit of Teddy Pendergrass-style late night soul smooch in Tonight, which is probably the only serving of cheese on it. It still has its appeal, though.

There will probably be a fair few who criticise this album, as seems to be the way for any long-estabished artist when they release new material these days. I'm not bothered about that. I like it.

Simply Red Greatest Hits

Holding Back The Years/Money’s To Tight To Mention/The Right Thing/It’s Only Love/A New Flame/You’ve Got It/If You Don’t Know Me By Now/Stars/Something Got Me Started/Thrill Me/Your Mirror/For Your Babies/So Beautiful/Angel/Fairground  

Simply Red, despite their huge commercial success for many years, have always found critical kudos hard to come by. I’m not quite sure why that is, because their immaculately played, semi-funky brand of white soul has always sounded pretty credible to me. Maybe it is the fact that they were a white band attempting to “do” soul (although that never did David Bowie any harm), or that charismatic singer Mick Hucknall had a confidence in his own ability that some found irritating that has seen some people disparaging them. The fact that their music has often been bought by those who don’t buy too much other music can’t have helped either. This, their Greatest Hits album has become standard low volume dinner party fare.

All that said, although I don’t find myself picking this album out to play too often, whenever I hear a track from it I enjoy it. Numbers like the sumptuous soul of Holding Back The Years, the upbeat, shuffling groove of Stars, as well as the funk/soul of The Right Thing are top notch. As I said, the instrumentation and indeed the sound quality are superb. Check out that tenor saxophone solo on Holding Back The Years. The light funk of Money’s Too Tight To Mention is irresistible in a Style Council sort of way. It is dated, though, with its reference to “Reaganomics”. It is an admirably cynical reaction to the falsity of the “loadsamoney” late eighties, though. It’s Only Love is a classic slice of seductive late eighties, late night soul. You've Got It sounds very like Wet Wet Wet, with Mick's almost indistinguishable from that of Marti Pellow. There is a lovely saxophone solo on this one.
A New Flame is a perfect piece of soulful pop and I have always liked the suitably swirling sound of Fairground. The group's cover of Harold Melvin & The Blue NotesIf You Don't Know Me By Now is up there with the original. Something Got Me Started is perfectly infectious poppy funk. The same applies to Thrill Me or the addictive Your Mirror. Look, I could pick any track from this album for praise, they are all good. Nothing earth-shattering, just quality soul/funk/pop, full of great hooks and excellent vocals.

Mick Hucknall’s heart and ideology was always in the right place, for me, anyway, and his genuine love for soul music has always shone through. Fair play to him.

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