Simply Red finished its initial, unbroken 25-year run with a farewell concert at London’s O2 in 2010, but the power of blue-eyed soul — a term Hucknall hated for a long time, but has now come to accept as a valid description of the music within him — pulled the band back together.
There was no major bust-up for Simply Red in 2010, simply a decision by Hucknall to pull away from the limelight in order to look after his daughter. “I was brought up by my dad, and I wanted to be as good a parent to my daughter as my father was to me. Now she’s seven, it’s easier for her to go on the road with what she calls the ‘rock’n’roll band’.”
It’s the right time for Simply Red to return. A new generation is discovering the tender power of Holding Back The Years, which Hucknall wrote aged 17 as a reflection on the upheaval his mother caused when she walked out on the family when he was three years old. Then there is 1991’s For Your Babies, one of the most innocently romantic love songs ever written, and featuring a melody to melt the heart.
“It goes like that,” says Hucknall, on the current reappraisal of Simply Red as one of the great British bands. “Kids instinctively skip a decade or so and discover the good stuff from the past. Around the time Simply Red came together in the early 80s I was listening almost exclusively to 60s Motown and the Beatles. The great thing is that associations fall by the wayside and all you are left with is the music.”
Hucknall was a Manchester art student when he saw the Sex Pistols at the city’s Free Trade Hall in 1976, one of the few people who can legitimately claim to have been at the concert that gave birth to the Manchester punk rock scene. It was Hucknall’s own punk band, the Frantic Elevators, that recorded the original version of Holding Back The Years, but Hucknall was too much of a melody-loving soul to be a three-chord wonder for long, and in 1985 Simply Red were born.
“For me, music has to be instinctive,” says Hucknall, on the soulful direction his band took. “It’s why I rejected the academia of being an art student: I knew that I had to make something that gets to people without their knowing why. Above all I have an obsession with melody, which I inherited through my love of the Beatles. All I’ve ever really wanted to do is to create melodies that are simple but refined. I’m evangelical about it: music takes you to a place that nothing else can take you to and it’s my job to contribute to that.”
It’s the reason why Simply Red, despite their longevity, despite a following that has seen them sell 60 million albums, have never fitted in or been defined by a trend or movement. It has helped give the music a timeless quality that has seen the band have top ten hits through the 80s, 90s and 2000s.
“We’ve never been part of a scene,” Hucknall confirms. “It’s a reason why we’ve been criticized: for being too successful. One in five homes in Britain have a Simply Red album. That’s not going to endear you to the average Radiohead fan.”
The success of Simply Red lies in their soaking up the music closest to their heart — soul, funk and reggae — and making it sound like Simply Red. The band’s 1985 debut album Picture Book headed into a 60s R&B groove, 1987’s million-selling Men and Women went towards funk, and the vastly successful albums A New Flame (1989) and Stars (1991) found the balance between pop and soul, but they all shared the same spirit. When Simply Red veered into modern dance music with the number one hit Fairground and the 1995 album Life, they imbued it with their own, unique sound. Simply Red can even do a Bob Dylan cover — listen to their version of Positively Fourth Street, from 2003’s Home — and make it their own. “You can shut your eyes and listen to any of our recordings and you know who it is instantly,” says Hucknall. “That’s an aspect of our career I’m proud of.”
The tour comes at a time when Hucknall finds himself at peace with his legacy, and with his place in the story of British music. “The nicest thing about getting older, getting married, becoming a father and changing your lifestyle is that you no longer think it’s all about you. That has a profound impact,” he says. “I’ve stopped caring about criticism; it doesn’t bother me anymore. It’s partly because I’ve come out of a long illness [since 1995, Hucknall has suffered from an undiagnosed thyroid condition], but I feel more comfortable about what I do than I ever have.”
As Hucknall prepares to set off on one of the biggest tours of Simply Red’s career, as the band enters its fourth decade, his sense of purpose is clearer than ever. “We’re called Simply Red for a reason,” says the man with one of the greatest voices in soul music. “I want to keep it simple. I don’t want to do too much. I keep getting melodies in my head, I keep writing lyrics, and there will be another album when the time comes, but right now I love being a bandleader and I love singing with Simply Red. Our fans know who we are. They have been loyal to us. Now I’m ready to go out there and give them what they want.”