Let The Red Rag Fly: In Defence Of Simply Red’s Picture Book

The Quietus battens down the hatches and prepares for a storm as Wyndham Wallace risks all to defend Simply Red’s debut album, _Picture Book_, on its 25th anniversary…

There are, it seems, many reasons to hate Mick Hucknall. He’s arrogant, insincere, wealthy beyond our wildest dreams, a serial womaniser, a namedropper and – oh, the horror – red haired to boot. He’s co-owned a restaurant with Sean Penn, had the gall to join the reformed Faces and sold over 50 million records of largely anodyne, dinner party soul. He’s provoked Noel Gallagher to call him "Fanta-Pants… shit and fat" in an open letter to The Sun, been voted one of the Top 50 Worst Britons in a Channel 4 TV poll, inspired a website called 1000 People More Annoying Than Mick Hucknall, and there’s even a band called The Execution Of Mick Hucknall (though they’ve so far only accumulated nine MySpace fans, so he’s probably not too worried yet). The level of vitriol aimed at the man is perhaps best exhibited, however, on a website eruditely called Cunts Corner, where his inclusion is justified succinctly with the words "He is a talentless GINGER CUNT. Enough said." Clearly it wasn’t enough: commentators refer to him as a "singing orang-utan", "Charlie Fuckin’ Drake Cunt", "a hobbit-like cunt" and "even uglier than Adrian Chiles". You’ve got to work hard to earn an insult like that last one.

All the same, Simply Red’s debut album, Picture Book, is wonderful. You weren’t expecting that, were you? No one, after all, has much good to say about the man who once claimed "Tony Blair’s a friend. I’ve said to him, ‘You should have waited on Iraq’. He listens." Obviously Blair didn’t, but Hucknall’s delusions of grandeur don’t fade easily. At 2004’s Vinitaly, the wine fair, he launched his own label, produced at his vineyard in Sicily and modestly named ‘Il Cantante’ (The Singer) with the words "I’m sure the wine will go down well with our Prime Minister, Tony Blair. He’s a good friend of mine and, like me, loves your country." Such toe-curling comments are far from isolated: "I am one of the best singer-songwriters this country has produced," he’s been frequently quoted as saying. "Ever. If people don’t like me saying that, tough shit. You can’t sell 50 million albums without something. Tom Jones told me only a few singers have got the pipes, and he’s right. He has. Sinatra did. I have."

It’s clear that he does little to make himself likeable, obviously. But on Simply Red’s debut album, Picture Book, he did. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s still a great record. It’s time to overcome your prejudices. There are arguably far more deserving candidates for such poison than a successful pop singer whose greatest crime appears to be that he’s ‘ginger’.

Hucknall was raised in Manchester by his father, Reg, after his mother walked out on him when he was just three. He’s said to have been one of the crowd at one of the two Manchester Free Trade Hall shows that the Sex Pistols played in the summer of 1976, the double whammy that inspired Joy Division and The Buzzcocks and was later immortalised in 24 Hour Party People. The art student went on to form The Frantic Elevators, but their post-punk sound never reached much beyond the city limits. It’s perhaps not hard to hear why: 1979’s ‘Voice In The Dark’ owes a heavy debt to The Buzzcocks, while the third of their four singles, ‘Searching For The Only One’ reveals a band torn between their punk inspiration and their own largely incompatible musical influences. Nonetheless, their second single, ‘You Know What You Told Me’, is an entertainingly bizarre racket of whistles, percussion and belches released by Erics in 1980, and ‘I Am The Man’, recorded for a 1981 Peel Session, reveals a love for reggae – later underlined by his admirable bankrolling of the critically acclaimed Blood & Fire label – before collapsing into an atonal noise jam. It was their fourth and final single, however – its front cover oddly depicting Hucknall with a gun in his mouth in an image eerily similar to the famous portraits of Kurt Cobain – that suggested the direction Hucknall was soon to take: ‘Holding Back The Years’ was released in 1982 and, above a surprisingly simple early rock ‘n’ roll arrangement, you can hear him testing his voice’s limits, turning his back on the spittle-drenched posturing he’d attempted to date. The Frantic Elevators had gone as far as they could travel.

By 1985 Hucknall’s punk rock pretensions were nowhere to be heard, but few were predicting the gold-paved path he would soon take. Hucknall had paid his dues and his new band, Simply Red, included three former members of Durutti Column in their line up. Furthermore, his left wing inclinations were embraced by a music press eager, ironically, for credibility. This was, after all, a year in which western capitalist greed was arguably at its height – Margaret Thatcher was halfway through her second term, and January had seen Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration as US president – but in which society was attempting to salve its conscience, beginning with Band Aid and USA For Africa and continuing in the summer with Live Aid. Hucknall’s choice of debut single, therefore, was well timed, a slick cover of a 1982 disco tune, The Valentine Brothers’ ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’. For the socially aware the tune was a godsend, a Top 20 hit that began with the lines "I’ve been laid off from work, my rent is due / My kids all need brand new shoes / So I went to the bank to see what they could do / They said "’Son, looks like bad luck got a hold on you’". Referencing Reaganomics and "that old man that’s over the hill", Hucknall even managed a sly dig at Reagan’s wife: "Did the earth move for you, Nancy?"

Not everyone embraced the band wholeheartedly. Melody Maker reviewed Picture Book cautiously, advising readers to "forget the soul stuff and you’ve got one of the better debuts of the year". NME meanwhile declared that "Picture Book‘s soul-by-numbers is as cliché-ridden as the ugliest offspring of Gothic interbreeding." But both papers still put Hucknall on the front cover. If you wanted someone to smuggle contempt for the rich/poor divide into the mainstream, Simply Red looked like they offered safe hands. But there was more to the record than that. Whatever NME and Melody Maker might have said, Hucknall knew how to sing. He might have spent the next quarter of a century hammering that point home with all the subtlety of the insults that have since been thrown at him, but as he suggests Tom Jones told him, Hucknall has "the pipes". He’s simply done everything he can since to turn the concept of soul into a series of meaningless, too-many-notes mannerisms.

These days, of course, it’s hard to divorce music from its creators, and if Picture Book is judged in the light of Mick Hucknall’s subsequent slide into serial-shagging champagne socialist capable of disgusting even the coffee table owning, tabloid reading masses who buy his records then it’s unlikely that it’s going to get a fair hearing. The record itself, though, was born in a council flat to the unemployed, soul music-loving son of a man who had earned £75 a week cutting hair in Stockport, and it’s in this context – if any has to be considered – that it should be examined. Hucknall knew what it was to suffer, and his new musical direction was far from a pose. Picture Book‘s mainstream production might not endear it to those who prefer their diamonds in the rough: such techniques are about the only part of the era’s musical trappings that are yet to be revived, meaning that those who didn’t grow up with the record need to overcome a double fist of prejudices, personal and stylistic.

But amidst the contemporary pristine synths and jazz club brass backing lies an authenticity that Hucknall was never able to replicate, his financially strapped roots soon to be smothered by unimaginable riches, his social conscience increasingly removed from the lifestyle his newfound wealth afforded him. ‘Sad Old Red”s "We don’t have streets, just pure concrete" is hardly an exaggerated cry for pity and instead a surprisingly understated but evocative image, while on the bitter ‘Look At You Now’ he owns up to his ambition and its origins, something very much a common theme in the genre he was now exploring: "You threw me away like litter in the gutter / I had to pick myself up and find something better". Soul used to be characterised by people using music to raise themselves beyond their surroundings, articulating their plight with passion, and amidst the mainstream success of the likes of Billy Ocean and Philip Bailey, Hucknall actually helped restore, if briefly, the genre’s conscience. The fact that Picture Book is also the sound of a man who, in learning how to articulate his feelings, forgot what it was he wanted to say, shouldn’t detract from the one slab of vinyl where he succeeded. It’s simply a tremendous album, a classic of the blue-eyed soul genre, full of both heartfelt sentiment and vicious anger. To call it a guilty pleasure is to damn it with faint praise. Hucknall deserves credit where credit is due.

It starts with ‘Come To My Aid’, keyboards stabbed over a rolling bassline and tight guitar riffs before Hucknall comes in, his vocal discreetly low in the mix, its joyful tone masking lyrics that start out seemingly inclined towards the romantic – "Come to my aid, you’re sweet as everything" – before revealing their true purpose, an attack on a benefit system that was failing the very people it was meant to support: "Prouder than wild, sad enough to sing / Come to my aid and care for social living". In fact the song is a rallying cry for socialist values, the words of its bridge transparent – "Why are we liable to die for survival / Why is our nation divided?" – and further emphasised by Hucknall’s growing frustration as the song develops, his voice raised and then unravelling as he sings the final words of the second verse, "In the poverty stakes see just what it means / When welfare decimates you’d better care / About your fellow people". By the time he’s inviting his audience repeatedly to "come on board" it sounds like he’s writing slogans for a political party, and the theme of social injustice is carried over into the more abstract ‘Jericho’, seemingly a dialogue between a wealthy businessman and his son – "I’ll make you a career in the business I’m in" – for whom money is "your only inspiration and your only meaning".

Money, interestingly, is a common theme through Hucknall’s work, something he shares with others who have risen from humble backgrounds to stardom, and his conclusion here that "if you ain’t rich then you won’t go to the ball" is surely something that helps explain why he’s so willing to discuss what he’s earned since. "I was on the dole for four years and living on £25 a week for that length of time is quite testing," he told The Times late last year, before turning to the subject of investment. "I have a vineyard and villa in Sicily and an apartment in Milan, but my main property is a five-bedroom house in Surrey. It’s got a swimming pool and recording studio and is set in five acres. I bought it in 1995 for £1.3m — it’s worth £5m now." Smug though he may these days be, back in 1985 he was clearly livid at the fact that money seemed out of his reach, a reward for breeding rather than hard work, his use of the past tense in the song’s disenchanted final lines only now somewhat ironic: "Money was a thing that I believed in".

But it wasn’t all about politics and money. ‘Open Up The Red Box’ may have hints that wealth for some may not bring happiness to all – "Why don’t you look at the price I’m paying" – but, lyrically, it’s more distinguished for its vicious attacks on individuals whose identities have sadly been somewhat lost in the mists of time:

"Peer in, looking for that crasher again,

You ruined Terry’s party last night.

An overweight greasy little man with a mouth

That opens more than now and again"

and, later on:

"Lopez, I hate you for the state you’re in,

Lopez, your hair it washes out, it washes in.

You ropey little fat boy, Lopez,

Come on, get lost".

Such levels of bile are rarely articulated in chart pop, but they’re mirrored on ‘Look At You Now’, where he addresses a former lover – or, possibly, his mother – with the words "Look at you now, behaving like a fool / A long time ago you treated me so mean but / Look at you now" before rejecting attempts at reconciliation with "Don’t talk about birthdays, that don’t mean a thing to me / Don’t throw it in my face, it’s too sweet to sting". His sense of pride, yet to transform into arrogance, is palpable in the galloping pace of the track and Hucknall’s triumphant delivery, a less than polite "fuck you" to a woman who’s spurned him. A concise three minutes long, it distils the fury of one who has been hard done by and who has gone on to rise above it. You could read this as another foreshadowing of how Hucknall would soon abandon his righteous anger in favour of smooth self-righteous self-justification, but that would detract from the enjoyment of this skin-tight white funk and Hucknall’s vocal acrobatics, which see him jumping octaves between his high-pitched delight in, and growling disgust at, the antics of his subject.

Rather more vulnerable, however, is ‘Sad Old Red’, in which he revels, against a sublime nightclub jitter, in the self-pity of a man whose love has left. "I’m not glad when I get home / I’m sad old red, I don’t wanna be alone," he wails, as the brass flares around him and the smoke curls up to the ceiling, and he goes on to describe this home in terms that would make Jimmy McGovern proud: "It’s a cubic room, two holes peep through / Shadows on the wall of trees so tall / I think of her again, the joy she used to bring." No matter if he now owns a Surrey estate and a vineyard: that doesn’t make the weight of these words any less.

Such tenderness is also on display on a magical interpretation of Talking Heads’ ‘Heaven’, which sees Hucknall slow down the pace and transform the track into a slow-burning, yearning slice of sweet soul, his epiphany that "It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all / Could be so exciting" delivered with true conviction. And it’s that conviction that is really the reason why Picture Book still sounds great a quarter of a century later: even if you’ve got no idea what Hucknall is singing about – "Here by the side of the book (we beseech thee, we beseech thee) / Here by the side of Piero’s spirit", anyone? – he dazzles with his performance, getting under the skin of these songs, his voice astonishing, his backing as inch perfect as a Stax house band. Yep, you read that right: listen to the title track, its dub bass and snare drum echoing in a space that only Hucknall can fill, his voice swelling from its mumbled, somehow defeated opening lines to the defiance of its chorus, cracking in places as though he can barely breathe. Listen to his syncopated delivery on ‘Open Up The Red Box’, the way he can phrase things so that they sound completely natural even when their scansion is at odds with the overall rhythm of the tune, or the way he can scuttle through lines like "A long time ago you treated me so mean" and "Don’t throw it in my face" (on ‘Look At You Now’), then reach high with "I had to pick myself up" moments later.

And then there’s ‘Holding Back The Years’, that first-dance-at-a-wedding tune which, in actual fact, is a lament for his childhood. "Strangled by the wishes of pater," he sings, admittedly adopting a curious private school Latin for the sake of the rhyme, "hoping for the arms of mater… I’ve wasted all my tears / Wasted all those years / And nothing had the chance to be good." It’s another perfectly poised piece of bitter-sweet soul, the strings restrained, the trumpet solo muted, Hucknall’s voice wavering with emotion, slowly building towards a pained, defiant announcement that "I’ll keep holding on, holding, holding, holding" before he crumples into an inarticulate heap and concludes "that’s all I have today / That’s all I have to say".

It wasn’t. Though in some ways it was. He’s gone on to inflict another 24 years of largely bland, over-polished, watered-down slush into a world already overflowing with MacDonalds culture, his early beliefs defended with pompous and superficial comments like "I am not prepared to change my politics to suit my bank balance. You either believe in social justice or you don’t" whilst bed-hopping with such regularity that no one could ever call him ‘Sad Old Red’ again. So you can hold him at least partially responsible for the hideous histrionics we suffer from the likes of X Factor diva wannabes, though there are plenty of far worthier targets for your revulsion. You can rail against him for daring to take on Rod Stewart’s role in The Faces, though given what The Mod himself has since become over the past couple of decades that seems somewhat pointless. There’s no law to stop you hating him for the colour of his hair, either, though the man has a more than fair point that this is akin to racism. And you can call him ugly, though that seems fairly pointless given the notches on the man’s bedpost, and – like the torrent of abuse he faces for being ‘ginger’ – completely beside the point when considering his music.

All these things do is demonstrate how little you care about music. The truth is, whether he’s likeable or not remains irrelevant. What matters is, as with any musician, his legacy. And though that legacy is, for the most part, as valuable as the furry dice that swung above the car stereos that played most of Hucknall’s records, it contains one record of substantial and long lasting value. Perhaps if he’d died young – as so many people seem to wish he had – such an opinion might be more widespread. So if it helps, picture him curled up in a puddle of his own vomit, blood dribbling from his nose, or perhaps leaping from a 15th floor window like Donny Hathaway. Perhaps you’d like to imagine that he was shot by his mother in some bizarre re-enactment of Marvin Gaye’s murder, or crushed and left paralysed by falling lighting equipment. Do whatever it takes to consider Picture Book in isolation, because for its forty minutes and thirty three seconds’ duration, Mick Hucknall was the real thing, hard though it might be now to believe. Cringe if you need at the glossy production, but at least give him props for not overdressing the shop window like the likes of Winehouse and Duffy. He inhabits these songs, teasing unexpected melodies and shapes out of them, feeling them, expressing himself with real candour. One can only wonder what he might have become if the fame hadn’t gone to his head.


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