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Baker's Dozen

Something Got Him Started: Mick Hucknall's Favourite Albums
David Bennun , November 13th, 2019 10:02

As Simply Red release a new album, Mick Hucknall talks about what he considers the “perfect and complete” albums that inspired him, defined his approach to making music, and taught him how to be in a band. Also, about how he thrilled he was to be cock-blocked by Miles Davis. Photo by Dean Chalkley

It's fair to say of Mick Hucknall that he has been a victim of what he himself describes in this interview as “The Carpenters/ABBA syndrome” – that is, “sneering at the sheer popularity of something.” He doesn't volunteer this observation unprompted; he is responding to my question over the phone about whether he relates to Andy Williams as somebody whose talent and invention were critically overlooked because of his mainstream appeal. Nor is he putting Simply Red – the long-running and always evolving soul ensem ble of which he is famously the frontman, leader, creative wellspring and sole ever-present member – on the level of those pop giants.

But if he won't, there are those of us who will – or at least, will say that his best work isn't far off; and that just as with ABBA and The Carpenters, the general public was way ahead of critical and fashionable opinion, and it's about time the latter came around. A colleague of mine used to joke in the early 1990s that so popular were Simply Red, you could get beaten up simply for slagging them off. Maybe so, but in our circles, something closer to the reverse was more likely to occur. On those occasions when I acclaimed Stars a near-flawless masterpiece, which it is, the scene would resemble one of H.M. Bateman's 'The Man Who . . .' cartoons, with the assembled company dropping their jaws and clawing at their collars at this horrifying solecism. I was not, however, trying to be contrary or provocative. It's just a great record.

It's not alone in that, either. Simply Red's opening sequence of four albums, concluding with that 1991 blockbuster – the UK's biggest-selling record for two years running; ditto the rest of Europe – rivals anything in the British mainstream in its own time or since. Hucknall is a fabulous singer and was, in those years, an inspired writer (he remains a gifted one, even if the lightning strikes less often.) More than that, he wasn't engaged merely in exercises in superior pastiche. He has an enormous knowledge of and affection for the music on which he drew for t hose records – but also, crucially, of music which he didn't draw directly upon at all, but which informed his ideas of how to be a musician, an artist, a singer, a performer. Simply Red were in no wise a reggae band, and Hucknall has included no reggae records in this selection; yet he is the co-founder of the Blood And Fire label, created with the intention of treating reggae reissues with the same scrupulous care as the jazz recordings he loves. Such has been the quality of the label's output, many dub afficionados would buy its releases on the basis of the imprint alone, while a good number of reggae artists were finally recompensed decently for their work.

All this is underlined by the fact that of the 13 albums he has chosen here, only one would be generally thought of as having had any obvious influence on his own music – Marvin Gaye's What's Goin' On; and even in that instance, it turns out, less than you'd expect. Some way through our conversation, I remark to him that “process” appears to be a recurrent theme for him: perhaps that's the way in which all these very un-Simply Red-like records have influenced him? “I think that's fair, yeah,” he says. “It fascinates me, because they sound perfect to me, they sound complete. What I've tried to do is choose an album that I think is great from the beginning to the end. That has the feeling of being like a complete album, track one to track ten, you can listen to it and enjoy it all the way through. And when you hear something that sounds perfect, you think, I want a bit of that! I want to know how they do that. I want to know how to make that sound for my band.”

This also ties in with his focus, which comes up again and again, upon the engineering of these records. “The engineering side of it tends to be forgotten, yet it's absolutely crucial to making a great album. I noticed recently Geoff Emerick died, who was the Beatles engineer; thankfully he's been given credit, at least by musos, for what he achieved. It's great to give them some credit, because they deserve it. The last few records I've done, I've mixed myself – this album [Blue Eyed Soul] and the last album, I effectively engineered them, so I don't particularly want to give credit to myself. I'm absolutely fascinated by how you create that complete sound. Even right at the beginning I said to [producer of most of Simply Red's classic albums] Stewart Levine, hey, listen, one day I want to do what you do, because I'm really interested in the sound and how you make the sound. And I knew nothing about the desk. The first one I actually engineered was the Home album [2003]. That was recorded here [at Hucknall's home, hence the title], and I'd got this desk, and I just learned how to use the desk, and just got really into that process from then on.”

If Hucknall ever did resent the critical disdain Simply Red once encountered, he's evidently over it now, preferring to look at the question from another angle. “I think it's a noble thing for critics to support artists who are perhaps not faring so well, that you think are good. I think people like Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, who were music critics' darlings who didn't sell very well, deserved support, so fair play. But I think what happens is, the mainstream artists at their best, they do not go away. ABBA being the great example. Their quality just will not die.”

And again, he's talking about ABBA, not Simply Red. But I'll say it: Simply Red at their finest have been a superb pop band, and we've been lucky to have them.

Blue Eyed Soul by Simply Red is out now via BMG. Click the picture of Mick Hucknall to begin reading his selections

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