Mick Hucknall believes that important anniversaries should be celebrated in style. So when it was suggested that he did something special to mark 30 years since the release of Simply Red’s 1985 debut album Picture Book, it seemed a good idea to go back on the road with a band who had been a fixture in British pop for a quarter of a century until bringing the curtain down with an emotional farewell show at London’s O2 Arena in December 2010.
But, as he contemplated just what Simply Red might mean in 2015, his mind started racing and the creative juices suddenly and unexpectedly began to flow. ‘Once I began wondering how Simply Red were going to sound, I started writing songs,’ says Mick. ‘It then dawned on me that we could make a new Simply Red album to tie in with the tour.’
Written and recorded with an ease and spontaneity that surprised everyone involved, Big Love is a record that will remind us all just why we fell in love with Simply Red in the first place. Putting a tuneful, quintessentially British spin on the rhythms of black America, it frames Hucknall’s silky, soulful voice with wonderfully melodic hooks, deft arrangements and first-class musicianship. The first Simply Red album since 1995’s Life to feature only original compositions, it also contains some of the most personal lyrics of Hucknall’s three-decade career.
‘I wouldn’t have had a problem with just playing the hits on tour,’ continues the singer. ‘If you write decent songs, you should shout that from the tallest tower. But my mind kept drifting back to Picture Book, and I wanted to give our narrative a more fitting finale. I see Big Love and Picture Book as bookends to the Simply Red story.’
When Hucknall disbanded Simply Red after 25 years and an astonishing 55 million album sales, he was adamant that there would be no going back. ‘For me, that’s it,’ he said at the time. He continued to make music, stretching his artistic wings with two acclaimed solo albums, Tribute To Bobby (a heartfelt homage to the Memphis blues legend Bobby Bland) and American Soul (a set of classy blues and soul covers). Only last year, he recorded a new version of the mystical Streets Of Arklow with another of his musical heroes, Van Morrison.
He also devoted his time to his wife Gabriella and the couple’s young daughter, Romy. ‘I wanted to get completely away from jet-set living and the responsibilities of leading a band,’ he says. ‘The fans knew I’d gone away, so there was no demand for a new Simply Red record. I wanted to show total dedication to my family, and mirror everything that my father did for me. I’d resigned myself to spending a few years enjoying fatherhood, and I’m grateful I was able to do that.’
Returning to Simply Red refreshed, he now has a much clearer appreciation of the group’s legacy. Admitting that the band’s last album, 2007’s Stay, was an attempt to pull away from the ‘smooth, jazzy’ sound of old, he is now keen to reiterate a few core values. And, while he acknowledges an ongoing fondness for classic Seventies soul, Big Love also draws on his broad knowledge of a range of styles that has seen the band cover artists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Talking Heads, Cole Porter, Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs over the decades.
‘With Stay, I was running away from Simply Red,’ he says. ‘But I’m now comfortable with the notion of us as a blue-eyed soul group. I had to stop myself fighting that idea. But our sound is original, too. I honestly don’t know of another band that has pulled so many different musical strands together. We’ve never followed trends. We weren’t New Romantics in the Eighties. We were big before Britpop in the Nineties. And we had a hit in the new millennium with Home, which was Britain’s best-selling independent album for two years running.’
There are certainly some echoes of past musical glories on Big Love. With its honking brass, funky drums and refined melody, celebratory opening track Shine On is a reiteration of Simply Red’s blue-eyed soul credentials, blending R&B flavours with a distinctly British identity in a manner that harks back to The Right Thing, from 1987’s Men And Women.
There are other songs, such as Daydreaming and Love Gave Me More, that edge towards the shimmering, uptown sounds of albums like 1989’s A New Flame and 1991’s all-conquering Stars. There are also, naturally, some big ballads, including the Bacharach-style title track and the plangent, guitar-driven closing number Each Day, one of the first tracks written for the album.
On 2003’s Home, Hucknall sung of ‘real life, depicted in song’, and Big Love finds him baring his emotions to an even greater degree. And, while there are tracks inspired by family life, there are honest reflections of past hardships, too. ‘Most of the songs were written after we announced the tour in November 2014,’ says Mick. ‘They came thick and fast. I wanted to make an album, like Stars, that has a consistent theme. And the theme here is life from a family viewpoint. It’s an album that deals with birth, love, death, and all the stuff in between.’
When Mick wrote the timeless Holding Back The Years at 17 (originally for his punk group the Frantic Elevators), the song was a reaction to the upheaval caused after his mother walked out on the family when Mick was just three in 1963, leaving the singer to be raised single-handedly in East Denton, Manchester, by his father Reg. It is an experience that he touches on again here, firstly on a title track that celebrates the unconditional love of his wife and daughter and secondly on Dad, a heart-warming lament that tearfully salutes the ‘years of devotion’ put in by Reg, who sadly passed away in 2009: ‘She left, you stayed / It really wasn’t simple at all / You cried, I smiled / I really wasn’t lonely at all’. It would take the hardest of hearts not to be moved.
‘When I lost my dad in 2009, I could have lost everything,’ reflects Mick. ‘I didn’t have that traditional family support structure. Luckily for me, I did have my wife and daughter, my new family. I had to go through a learning process, though, finding out what a traditional family felt like. And that experience has been so rewarding that I’ve tried to express it in songs like Big Love.
‘My dad was devoted to me, and I wanted to do him proud by dedicating a song to him. I wanted to put into words the contribution he made in building me up. The prospects for children of single-parent families are not always good. That was even more the case during the Sixties. I have to give so much credit to my dad, as he was such a wonderful father.’
The downsides of abandonment, whether physical or emotional, are addressed on The Ghost Of Love, a big soul number punctuated by wah-wah guitar, piped applause and the kind of bold, orchestral brush strokes that once powered the hits of Barry White and his Love Unlimited Orchestra. ‘The ghost in question is the sense of abandonment after something or someone has let you down. It could be about an orphan or anyone with a bad experience. But the song is saying: don’t blame love for that – look forward and try to give love a round of applause.’
Buoyed by the excellence of a new album that even Mick Hucknall could not have envisaged a year ago, Simply Red will hit the road again in high spirits. With the singer joined by long-serving bandmates Ian Kirkham (sax), Steve Lewinson (bass), Kenji Suzuki (guitar), Kevin Robinson (trumpet and flute) and Dave Clayton (keyboards) plus new drummer Roman Roth, their reputation as one of the great British groups is set for some timely enhancement.
‘The band should feel incredibly proud of their work on Big Love, because they are all exceptional musicians,’ says Mick. ‘There’s plenty of group harmony, too. I’m the bandleader, but I don’t order the group around. I’m more of an editor, and it’s vital that the band expresses itself.’