Interview: MICK HUCKNALL, SINGER, TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON

Given that Lemmy of Motorhead's father was a priest, it makes a crazy kind of sense that Mick Hucknall's dad should have been a barber
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punk rock changed a lot of people's lives, but on few was its initial impact as direct and spectacular as on Michael James Hucknall. "I completely did a Quadrophenia," the honey-larynxed Simply Red singer remembers. "I cycled up to Walney Island from Manchester [a good 80 miles] and cut off all my hair on the beach without a mirror. I walked back home to my cousin's house not even knowing what I looked like." What sort of response did his new look get? " 'Oh, Michael ... [hesitantly] how are you?' " He laughs. " 'You don't look very well'."

Almost two decades later, in a very select West London hotel room, the Hucknall hairstyle still commands a second glance. His extravagant ginger locks are wrapped around his head in turban-esque fashion. The overall effect is as if he was innocently walking under a tree and a bird's nest fell on his head - in fact it would be no surprise if a cheeky magpie stuck its head out, perhaps clutching the ruby from Mick's tooth. Given that Lemmy of Motorhead's father was a Church of England priest, it makes a crazy kind of sense that Hucknall's dad should have been a barber.

Unfortunately, today's particular tonsorial landmark is not to be preserved for posterity, Mick having insisted on the photos being sorted out another day (on the unusual but commendably honest grounds that he is "not looking his best"). In the midst of final rehearsals for a European tour, does he still get nervous? "It's the way you translate nervousness," Hucknall insists, his speaking voice supple and softly Mancunian. "The way you go on and get that nervousness out of your system is the key to performing. What you need to give off is an energy that says: 'Watch me, watch me, see if I make a mistake.' If you go out there bleating like a little sheep, that's exactly what you're going to look like."

As anyone who has seen the super-confident Hucknall strut and sweat his two hours upon the stage will tell you, "bleating like a little sheep" is not a part of his showman's vocabulary. His first band The Frantic Elevators was an altogether scratchier affair than the super-slick Simply Red, though. Did he embrace the punk rock doctrine of wilful amateurism at that time? "Oh, totally, when I first started doing that it wasn't really about singing - the person I was relating to was John Lydon, the whole thing was screaming at older authority, screaming at my experiences at school."

Hucknall, now 35, does not look back with much fondness on his time at Audenshawe Grammar School. After "wandering around in a desert for five years thinking I was a dummy", it's no surprise the simultaneous advent of art school and punk rock were a Godsend to him. The next step in the Hucknall odyssey - from the creative chaos of 1976-77 to the polished elegance of Simply Red's first album five years later - is still a puzzling one. "People say, 'How can you have gone from punk to that?' But music was not the most important part of what punk was about. Going on to become a musician was something entirely different. That's the whole point of Simply Red."

Talent was not lacking - Hucknall had already written the classic "Holding Back the Years", which would later become the soundtrack to one of the most poignant moments in British TV history when played at the end of Rodney's wedding in Only Fools and Horses - but hard work was needed too. Mick taught himself to play the guitar and spent "a great deal of time" studying songwriting; not just the soul and R'n'B legends who were his most obvious source of inspiration, but the whole rock canon - the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin and the Velvet Underground, but especially The Beatles. There is a tape in the Hucknall family of a six-year-old Mick singing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand", which "ties in nicely with this wonderful Beatle Christmas we're having".

There doesn't seem to a trace of irony in that statement. "I think it's a case of 'let's go too far just this once, because they deserve it' ," Hucknall says. "No-one else deserves it as much as they do, so just bloody enjoy it. The British are so negative about the goodness they have - I don't know if other countries have this phenomenon of hating themselves as much as the British do - by the end of the century maybe we'll wise up to the fact that we've missed so many opportunities because of this nature of ours always to hold back, never to go for it."

Missing opportunities is one thing Mick Hucknall is rarely accused of. His firmly held political beliefs are often subjected to sceptical contrast with his liking for the good things in life. "Yes", Hucknall confesses pugnaciously, "I am a 'champagne socialist', and I'm proud of it. I'm one of the people that's managed to rise above my class, that's the working- class dream, the whole Lennon-esque, John Osborne kind of thing, you know - jump out - if you get the opportunity to better yourself that's fantastic, and I've done it."

When the angels were handing out modesty, Mick Hucknall was taking tea with Eric Cantona in a Manchester art cinema. But there is something admirably clear-headed about his particular brand of bespoke flash. "People buy my music because they like the music," he asserts sagely, "not because they necessarily like me. I'm prepared to give you [an expansive hand gesture indicates that this you means the public at large rather than his startled interviewer] a piece of myself voluntarily and happily, which is my role as a musician, but you can't have the rest." A hard pause. "And you never will have the rest."

Hucknall is vehement on this point. "Without your private life," he insists, "You're worthless. You're just an empty shell." How does he effect the transition from private to public self, like Wonderwoman going into a spin? "A lot of the time I don't have control over the point at which my life becomes public," he confesses ruefully. "All I'll say to anybody out there is, I apologise for having pictures of me associating with countless women all over the newspapers - my only defence is that you'll find very few quotes from me alongside the pictures. That's a part of my life I'm not prepared to talk about, because it's dishonourable, especially to talk about a woman. That's just ..." pause, "lame."

Hucknall was brought up by his dad after his mother left the family home in his infancy. Does he have an old-fashioned view of difference between the sexes, that men should be men and women should be women? "Because I'm heterosexual," he explains, somewhat unnecessarily, "I have an intimacy with a woman that I don't have with a man, and that to me is sacred; that is something that is between you and that other person and you can treasure it - if it's great - for the rest of your lives." Presumably he must be very upset by kiss-and-tell stories in the tabloids then? "I don't hold any grudge against the people concerned," he says, "I just think they must be short of a few quid."

One of the highlights of the new Simply Red album Life is the exquisitely languorous "So Beautiful", in which Mick bemoans the lack of intellectual stimulation inherent in a relationship with a beautiful woman. Coming from a man who is alleged to have run the gamut of female pulchritude from Kim Wilde to Steffi Graf, this seems less than chivalrous. "It's not an attack on beautiful women," Mick insists, "it's an attack on a particular thing that happened to me with a beautiful woman."

Oh, well, that's all right then. "You might meet someone and think 'this could be the one, this is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen ... to be with her would be incredible'." A dreamy quality makes itself felt in Mick's voice at this point, and for a moment it is possible to sense the futility of resistance when the Hucknall libido is firing on all cylinders. "You say hello - [softly] 'Hello' - and you arrange to have a dinner. Then you have a dinner, and with every moment that goes by and everything that they say ..." the far away look departs from his eye as suddenly as it arrived there - "the image that you have of them is crumbling."

8 Simply Red play Wembley Arena, 0181- 900 1234, 18-20 Dec; tour from 4 Jan

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