Simply Red, Papp László Budapest Sportaréna, December 6, 2022
Hucknall’s top song was a cover of himself
After finishing a sold-out farewell tour in 2009-10 by playing hits such as “Stars” and “Holding Back the Years” for the final time at the O2 Arena in London in December 2010, singer, songwriter and bandleader Mick Hucknall was adamant there would be no going back. “I’d be amazed if I ever play as Simply Red again,” he said. “People might greet that with cynicism. But, for me, that’s it. It’s over.”
The valedictory shows were recorded on a live album and a DVD, “Simply Red Farewell”, and Hucknall said he was happy with the legacy of a band that sold 55 million albums in 25 years.
‘I think my music ran parallel to a lot of people’s lives,” he felt. “We were always chugging along in the background. The songs are there on CD but I won’t be singing them live any more. People will remember the hits but I always saw us as an albums act. Most of the albums sold two or three million. I’m proud of that consistency.’
By then, Hucknall was the only original member left from 1985. He went on to record the solo album “American Soul” in 2012, which was exactly what the title said it was, and he stood in for Rod Stewart to sing with a revamped Faces featuring original members Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Kenny Jones on drums and Ian McLagen on keyboards, plus Glen Matlock of the Sex Pistols on bass.
Cynicism? As with so many before him, “last” does not always mean “final”, and presumably when an “amazed” Hucknall revived Simply Red in 2015 the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint (and the lure of the dollars) were just too hard to resist. He painted the comeback as a 30th anniversary and said: “I like an anniversary and this is a big one. It feels like the right time.”
Simply Red formed in Manchester in 1985, with their roots originating from the pivotal Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in the city on June 4, 1976. Legend has it that there were only around 40 people in the audience but they included half the punks in Manchester, and following the gig half of half of the punks in Manchester were inspired by Johnny Rotten and co to form bands of their own.
Art student Hucknall was one of the young music fans there that legendary day, and they apparently included future members of the Buzzcocks Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley (who organised the gig and opened for the Pistols), Mark E. Smith of The Fall, Steven Patrick Morrissey who would be in The Smiths, Bernard Sumner of Joy Division and the two founders of Factory Records Martin Hannett and Tony Wilson.
The first incarnation of Hucknell’s band was a punk group with the daft name of The Frantic Elevators. They are best remembered today for being the jumping-off point for the pre-Simply Red frontman. Formed in 1976 after the band met each other at the Sex Pistols gig, The Frantic Elevators had a couple of singles, “Voice in the Dark” in 1979 and “You Know What You Told Me” in 1980, plus a trio of radio sessions for the BBC, then their third single, “Searching for the Only”, in 1981. Their fourth and final single was 1982’s “Holding Back the Years (No Waiting)”, which almost four years later Hucknall re-recorded with Simply Red and scored an international smash.
Hucknall says of Simply Red’s most famous recording: “I wrote the song in 1978 while I was a teenager. At art school a teacher said: ‘The best paintings are when you get lost in a piece of work and start painting in a stream of consciousness.’ I wanted to do music, not art, so started writing lyrics that way. The first song I wrote was called ‘Ice Cream and Wafers’. The next was ‘Holding Back the Years’.
“I didn’t realise what it was about until I’d finished it. It’s about that moment where you know you have to leave home and make your mark, but the outside world is scary. So you’re holding back the years.
“The line ‘Strangled by the wishes of pater’ is my dad screaming at me ‘When are you going to get a decent job? Tidy up after yourself!’ The line ‘Hoping for the arms of mater’ rhymes with pater but I didn’t know what it was like to have a mother. My mum left when I was three and my dad never remarried.
“I first sang ‘Holding Back the Years’ in my earliest band, Frantic Elevators. When the Elevators split and I started Simply Red, I returned to the song and wrote the ‘I’ll keep holding on’ chorus.
“The song is credited to me and Neil Moss, the guitarist in the Frantic Elevators and my oldest friend. Neil didn’t write it but we wrote so many songs together that I gave him a credit to remember the great times we had. We shared a flat, we toured with The Fall. We were skint but it was magical.
“After ‘Holding Back the Years’ became a hit my mum tracked me down, but I thought: ‘My dad was there every day. Cooked my meals, wiped my arse and where were you? You think you can walk back into my life and it be OK?’ My seeing her was making my dad unhappy. I realised that there was no future in it.
“People strive for success but it’s very lonely at the top. Now I realise the ultimate prize is a family. I’m married with a kid, and the last 10 years have been the happiest of my life. My father was never that supportive of my pop career but I understand now that he was trying to protect me.
“A working-class bloke who worked in a barber’s for 35 years couldn’t have imagined his son would sell millions of records. Even after the second album, when I was already very wealthy, he was a bit drunk after a show once and said to me: ‘You realise you’re still gonna have to get a decent job after all this, don’t you?’ Oh, dad.”
“Holding Back the Years” was Simply Red’s third single, off their debut album “Picture Book”. The single stalled at number 51 in 1985. In 1986 it was re-released and peaked at number two in the UK but made number one in the United States.
Where did the name Simply Red come from? People used to call Hucknell “Red” because of his flaming hair, so later he was going to call the band Red. But he decided it didn’t sound right on its own, so after a few changes he simply added the word Simply. The name is also linked to Hucknall’s allegiance to Manchester United, as the club’s home shirt colour is red.