It is the one nobody was waiting for. Yesterday, under a headline that read simply (nearly gave it away there) “Big News!”, the pop-soul group Simply Red announced that they would be “reforming” next year for a tour to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
For Simply Red’s fans, it has been five long years since the group’s “Farewell” shows, although memories have been jogged fairly regularly in the interim by any number of solo tours by the band’s lead singer, Mick Hucknall. So can we expect next year’s performances to reunite Hucknall with the original band members? Not likely. In fact, since 1996, the name Simply Red has attached itself to Hucknall and whichever session musicians that he can find to play with him (21 and counting). The tour is to feature two musicians who have never performed as Simply Red before and precisely no one from the band’s heyday from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. So why anyone should get excited about yesterday’s announcement is one of pop’s great mysteries
It is easy to be sniffy about Simply Red. They are – along with Lighthouse Family, M People and Paul Young – purveyors of an ersatz soul that sold by the million, just not to anyone that you or I know. And if the band’s schmaltzy balladry wasn’t enough to put you off, there was always Hucknall himself, a person and performer who seemed extravagantly ridiculous even before David Brent finally put an end to the barefoot-in-white-linen cliché in his own pop video, unsurprisingly a cover of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now”.
It could have all been so different for Hucknall. He was, it is well known and documented, one of the 40-odd people who were actually there on 4 June 1976 when the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. It has been noted many times since then that the majority of the audience that day went on to form bands: Buzzcocks, The Fall, The Smiths, Joy Division, Magazine, to name a few.
Hucknall, then 16 years old, left that gig and would soon be fronting his own group, The Frantic Elevators, who played together for seven years and whose fourth and last single in 1982 was a song called “Holding Back the Years”. When they disbanded in 1984, Hucknall set about removing himself from the punk scene that had inspired him and found a group of musicians better suited to his blue-eyed soul vision. Simply Red’s first single, a cover of the Valentine Brothers’ “Money’s Too Tight (to Mention)”, was a top 20 hit in 1985, but it was their third single, a reworking of “Holding Back the Years”, that went to number one in America and turned them into global superstars.
How big were the band at their height? Put it this way, if you add together the record sales of all the other groups who formed in the wake of that Sex Pistols gig, they would still come nowhere near the 60-million-plus units shifted by Simply Red. So much for critical acclaim.
And how has Hucknall set about enjoying the fruits of that success? True to his working-class roots, he has been a tireless and vocal supporter of the Labour Party and bought houses all over the world, a vineyard, a property development company and a hunting tourism business. At least the women of the world can finally calm down, though. After famously admitting that he had slept with about three women a day at the height of his success (presumably not singing “A New Flame” to each and every one of them), Hucknall married Gabriella Westberry, the mother of his daughter, in 2010. Even bona fide sex machines, apparently, lose a little of their drive around the time of their 50th birthdays.
But Hucknall the performer shows no such signs of slowing down. Yesterday’s announcement was for 35 European shows next year, but doubtless, if the demand is still there, more will be added. There are also, the website is keen to point out, plenty of opportunities for “VIP Packages”, including food and drink, private boxes and even, for the right price, Q&A sessions and access to soundchecks; all of which, perhaps, sheds some light on those Simply Red fans.
As Hucknall’s close friend Sir Alex Ferguson would understand all too well, Simply Red are nothing less than the house band of the prawn-sandwich brigade.
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