SIMPLY RED FEATURE
From ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’ to multi-million selling megastar, MICK HUCKNALL has travelled a surprisingly smooth road. Andy Spinoza met the man who is Simply Red.
ick Hucknall shows no signs of changing the habits of a lifetime. ‘I was out late last night, in a club with some of the band and crew. They have a very attractive clientele,’ he says, eyes widening. Had he had enough sleep? ‘Yeah, I’ve had six hours. I can get by on six hours a night.’ He’s chatting in a chic Hamburg cafe before a ﬁlmed interview, inserted into the TV ﬁlm of his group Simply Red Live In Hamburg shown earlier this year. The documentary portrayed the effect of the band’s British-made, American-style funky-soul-ballad pop on 10,000 Germans, part of a massive Euro tour that went on to America, Israel, Greece, Australia and the Far East. 1992 has been the year of Stars with sales statistics that are staggering. The LP was released in September 1991 and was
“Sports people are more solid and calm about tame, about dealing with it. Pop stars have a tendency to go crazy.’
the best-selling album of last year and, so far, of this year, notching up 2.5 million sales in Britain and the same number worldwide. For their latest 23-date tour, the band sold 250,000 tickets in three days. By the end of the year, Simply Red would have played no less than 127 gigs in 1992, to nearly 2.75 million people spread over four continents. Okay, so the guy is popular. But what’s fascinating about Mick Hucknall is that, while he might have recently come by more money than most of us can dream of, he hasn’t gone the way of all star-ﬂesh. For a start, he’s not trying to be someone he’s not. Most fans know a bit about him — as well as a ﬂat in Milan, he still has a house in his hometown Manchester, and hits the town from time to time with a few friends. He’s a Manchester United nut, likes the ladies, he’s direct and opinionated. A bit arrogant maybe, but who wouldn’t be with his voice, and his success? The hip scene sneer at his smooth sound, but he pleases himself, and he’s still a people’s favourite. The astonishing success of Simply Red is down to a basic reaction — fans warmly responding not to a Michael Jackson or Madonna-like psychodrama (gosh which character will they come up with next?) — but to a performer being true to himself. ‘There are stars out there who have re-made themselves. Prince and Madonna thrive on re-inventing themselves. Mick doesn’t. In his case, what you see is what you get,’ says co-manager Elliot Rashman. There is no Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust straining to get out of Hucknall, andhe does not fear breaking down the barriers between audience and artist that keep a star like Prince spinning in artificial pop-orbit. Hucknall doesn’t need to play out schizo states to shift records by the container load and trash all-comers in the live show stakes. He’s massive because he exudes a value-for-money honesty. Simply Red’s concerts have high production values and
this visit to Glasgow is no exception. Mick and a small nucleus of the group will appear for one quarter of the set in the round, on a stage in the centre of the hall. And through decoration and lighting, the band’s set designer Mark Fisher— responsible for Pink Floyd’s Wall and the Stones’ Urban Jungle sets — aims to make the whole show as intimate as is possible in a venue the size of the SECC.
The people behind the artist have been helped by a star who hasn’t worked at becoming one, who’s only been in tabloids against his will and who has always taken a long term view of his career. The instinct has been to under-hype (the appearance on only one chat show, Aspel, sold 100,000 albums the following Monday), to let the music do the talking. It’s worked.
Bottle their formula? Rashman denies there even is one. ‘There hasn’t been a game plan. Malcolm MacLaren-style strategies turn out to be incredibly short-lived. There are no theories. Theories don’t work. If there is a secret, it’s being able to create the best possible conditions for Mick and the band to be creative.’
Ah, Mick and the band. Chances are that when the subject crops up, you’ll hear mention of the ones that fell by the wayside during the rise to fame and fortune. Yet Mick has never been shy of meeting this one head on. He explains why, by the time of the ﬁrst LP, he was the only survivor from the early days. ‘I sacked those people ’cos I make the decisions. Those people didn’t do
it because they didn’t make the grade. I don’t mean that in a cruel way. I’d had enough of being on the dole, doing nothing and going nowhere. I thought, “All I’m
‘We watch Spinal Tap and it keeps us level, you know.’
' gonna do is go for the best. I’m not gonna do
anybody wrong who isn’t doing a good job.” In moments like these, an unapologetic Hucknall reveals the iron fist behind the velvet voice and gives a glimpse of the driven nature that has both powered his success and led to press accusations of egomania.
The band for the Picture Book debut stayed more or less together for four years, taking in the Men and Women and A New Flame LPs. When Stars was released, two of those stalwarts, drummer Chris Joyce and bassist Tony Bowers, had been replaced. Mick described the putsch as what was necessary in the pursuit of musical excellence. Now there is a jazz approach, where top musicians, like drummer Gota Yashiki, who programmed drum sounds for Soul II Soul and Seal, being drafted in on a session—and-tour basis.
As someone pointed out, Simply Red is a democracy ruled by a king. But even monarchs have problems, especially if they have greatness thrust upon them after a humble background like Hucknall’s - he was raised by his father and a succession of aunties after his mother left home when he was very young. Only a fraction of the success he’s had has gone to the heads of others. Why hasn’t Mick cracked, spent all his money on limos and coke, or just dried up?
One reason was the very good lesson Madchester pop groups gave in how not to do it. Hucknall watched as various spokespeople for the generations came across as babbling bozos. ‘We watch Spinal Tap and it keeps us level, you know,’ Mick laughs, acknowledging the absurdity of pop stardom. And then he started identifying with, and befriending, sportsmen and women. First it was tennis player Stefﬁ Graf. Then footballers of his beloved United. On tour in Europe, his backstage bashes were frequented by Gullit, Van Basten, Matthias, the cream of the continent’s soccer world; he gets the same buzz from them as they seem to from meeting him. What Mick has learned from the world of sport is that fame and money
‘I have a private lite and it’s not ior sale. My records are for sale and my live perlormances are for sale, lam for sale as a musician -and then I go home.’
don’t have to inhibit performance. ‘Sports people are more solid and calm about the thing, dealing with it,’ he says, ‘the pop stars have a tendency to go crazy.’
And he has a very simple way of drawing that line between public work and private life that the media, the music business and his fans all tend to blur. ‘Being famous is a consequence of being a successful musician, he says. ‘Privately, I lead another life. I’m not the sort of person who needs constantly to be in the beaming lights. I like to get away and lead a separate life. I am famous because I am a musician. I have a private life and it’s not for sale. My records are for sale and my live performances are for sale, I am for sale as a musician — and then I go home.’
Simply Red are playing the S E C C Glasgow on Thursday 3 and Friday 4.
The List 20 November — 3 December l992 7