When The Faces temporarily reformed a couple of years back, I was at a press call for the band at a festival in Oxfordshire. These things are an opportunity for photographers to grab a few shots, and writers to call out a few questions, just before the act takes the stage. Ronnie Wood, Kenney Jones and Ian McLagan larked and gurned in a suitably laddish manner, Glen Matlock grinned modestly (aware he was the hired hand), and Rod Stewart remained unusually silent; largely because he wasn’t there. For this re-union, the cheese-grater throated, broom-headed singer was replaced by Mick Hucknall. Interestingly, despite being present, he too was entirely mute. Indeed, he glowered at we lesser mortals with undisguised disdain, and was first to turn on his heel when time was up. Some pop stars don’t really help themselves, do they?
It’s fair to say, for all his success, Mr. Hucknall isn’t as universally admired and adored as say, David Bowie, or Keith Richards. There’s something about the fellow that rubs folk up the wrong way. Perhaps it’s the flaunted wealth of the ruby set in his front tooth, and vineyard in Tuscany; or the string of beautiful women with whom he has stepped out, without the advantage of classic, matinee idol looks. Nastily, some have even made sport of his trademark, vividly ginger locks. Whatever the reason, when the actress Martine McCutcheon threw-up on his dreadlocks, the gales of laughter could be heard from Aberdeen to Adelaide.
Whether or not this troubles Mick, I couldn’t say. But unfortunately his poor public image spills over to criticism of his records. Now, I would be the last person to defend everything Mick and his rotating cast of colleagues have released. In fact, as Hucknall’s career has progressed, his music has become increasingly asinine and flaky, to the point that his 2013 solo album (quite how this is a different entity from a Simply Red set, is hard to fathom) came and went without fanfare or attention.
Nevertheless, those who would condemn his entire output to pop’s garbage chute are being incredibly lazy and missing a trick. First of all, Mick can sing. One might argue he was punching above his weight when he set about covering Otis Redding tracks, but his voice is velvety, melodic and immediately recognisable. This is abundantly clear on the first Simply Red super-hit, and still Mick’s best selling song, ‘Holding Back The Years’ – which I argue is a pop masterpiece.
Lifted from the 1985 debut album ‘Picture Book’, incredibly Hucknall wrote the number when he was just 17. I say ‘incredibly’ because it’s the most mature lyric of his repertoire, relating his feelings at the departure of his mother from the family home when he was a boy. The melancholy of a young, broken heart washes like a tide through ‘Holding Back The Years’, and the words of regret and lachrymose sorrow ride its slow, steady melody.
The tendency of eighties producers to make everything sound massively lush, didn’t enhance every hit from that excessive decade, but it works wonderfully here. Steve Levine understands the power of a wash of deep, expansive sound applied to an aching, rueful vocal – which in turn, is echoed in the haunted, muted trumpet solo.
Of course, being an eighties single, the song’s video was also a crucial part of the package. And, while many rivals were shooting their clips in Los Angeles and Nassau, Tony van den Ende and Hucknall chose Whitby on the North Yorkshire coast. A town known for its ruined Abbey and association with the Dracula story, it’s the perfect setting for such a yearning and emotionally wrought song, managing to both engage and tempt the viewer to book a weekend there.
From its genuinely troubled lyric (including an unexpected reference to ‘mater’ and ‘pater’), to its gently lilting bass and piano, this is a superbly crafted song, of long-lasting quality. Had it been by Lee Hazlewood or Elvis Costello, it wouldn’t be so frequently overlooked.
So, while I understand the groaning and eye-rolling that accompany the merest mention of Mick and his band – particularly when his grumpy visage is spoiling a perfectly enjoyable press call – I’d urge you to have another look and listen to ‘Holding Back The Years’. It’s the ‘Back For Good’ of its era.
Magnus Shaw – January 2015