Simply Red: Picture Book Page 2

'Money's Too Tight (To Mention)' by The Valentine Brothers had caught the attention of the soulboy cognoscenti on its release in 1982, but hadn't been a UK hit. Its sentiments seemed more pertinent than ever to launch the brand values of an outspoken socialist singer in a musical climate where movements such as Band Aid had reawakened pop pickers' social conscience.

'I've been laid off from work, my rent is due/My kids all need brand-new shoes', Hucknall sang, summing up the situation for many in a recession-hit UK. But he also seemed to speak to more than just his native land when he kept in the mention of 'Reaganomics' and added his own self-scripted, 'did the earth move for ya, Nancy?'.


Inner sleeve featured band portraits, the artwork overseen by designer Peter Barrett

The squelchy P-Funk bass of the original was replaced with a smoother soulful groove, while Hucknall's vocal is startlingly strong, adding a growling passion to the delivery of the tale that upgrades the original's despair with flashes of righteous anger.

Red Or Dead?
Almost as pointed in its lyric is the album's opening track, 'Come To My Aid', wherein, over infectious synth-funk rhythms and lithe, funky guitar, Hucknall sings, 'Why are we liable to die for survival/Why is our nation divided?'. There's also a hint of afrobeat about the final yearning cry of the chorus, suggesting a band not afraid to diversify.


The singer at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2000

That impression is immediately confirmed further by the second track of the album, 'Sad Old Red', a slice of jazz-inflected melancholia built on a slowly sashaying double bass line, in which our hero draws on his own experience of lonely, penniless inner-city bedsit life ('It's a cubic room, two holes peep through shadows on the wall of trees so tall') to wallow a while in his own misery. Hucknall had actually written this song when he was in a situation not unadjacent to that of which he sang, skint and on the dole long before success had loomed on the horizon.

The funkier live favourite 'Open Up The Red Box' seemed to thematically follow that track, insisting the subject of the song snap out of his despair, pointing out, 'Something good must have happened to you/If you would let it happen to you'.


The singer in a WEA promo shot from 1997

Equally inventive, in its way, is 'Heaven', the album's reimagining of Talking Heads' typically jittery 1979 tale of social neurosis as a soulful slow-dance. Hucknall used to play The Heads' original on their Fear Of Music album, and told Rhino Insider, 'I always loved the song, and we just kind of wanted to do sort of more of a soulful interpretation of it'.

Holding All The Cards
Ultimately, though, it would be the second track on side two that would become Simply Red's best-known song and the track that really launched the band's career. 'Holding Back The Years' was the second song the 17-year-old Hucknall ever wrote, and he recorded a more acoustic-based version of it previously in The Frantic Elevators. He added the 'I'll keep holding on' chorus for the new version.


Mick Hucknall on stage in 2009 at the Viña del Mar International Song Festival, Chile

'It's about that moment where you know you have to leave home and make your mark, but the outside world is scary', Hucknall revealed to The Guardian in 2018. 'The line "Strangled by the wishes of pater" is my dad screaming at me: "When are you going to get a decent job? Tidy up after yourself". The line "Hoping for the arms of mater" rhymes with pater, but I didn't know what it was like to have a mother. My mum left when I was three and my dad never remarried.'

After failing to chart on its initial release in November 1985, the single later took off in the States, thanks to a fortuitous connection. 'More credit should go to Huey Lewis And The News than anybody at Elektra at the time', Hucknall later recalled. 'They'd worked with Stewart Levine, my producer. And I think Stewart played them the album, and they liked it, so when they went back to San Francisco, a DJ said to them, "Did you hear any new music when you were over in Europe?". And they said, "Yeah, we heard these guys Simply Red". And the DJ played "Holding Back The Years". It got an amazing reaction from the audience, and it became one of those viral things.'


The singer in a press shot from 1991

The song hit No 1 on the Billboard chart in July 1986, the first of two US chart-toppers for the band, and its UK re-release reached No 2. Picture Book took the same UK chart position, and Simply Red had lift-off.

Although they would go on to greater successes with a more streamlined soul sound – their 1991 album Stars remains in the top 20 best-selling British LPs of all time – Picture Book remains their most characterful, red-in-tooth-and-claw release. Consider the test of time passed, Mr Hucknall.