For the next in our regular series of detailed retrospectives, we turn to a debut album from October 1985. It’s an illustrated story in three parts…
- Come To My Aid 4.04 (UK Single, #66)
- Sad Old Red 4.32
- Look At You Now 3.02
- Heaven 4.33
- Jericho 6.04 (UK Single, #53)
- Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) 4.14 (UK Single, #13)
- Holding Back The Years 4.28 (UK Single, #51 – #2 on Re-issue)
- Red Box 3.55 (UK Single, #61)
- No Direction 3.40
- Picture Book 5.48
There was a time, amazingly, when Simply Red weren’t especially successful. A time when they were presented very much as a band, rather than a vehicle for frontman Mick Hucknall. And indeed, a time when Hucknall himself hid behind the moniker of simply Red (geddit) on account of his ginger locks.
However, there was not a time when Hucknall/Red lacked in self-belief or confidence. Or ability. The world (and yours truly) took a while to come around, but Picture Book eventually got the attention (and sales) it deserved.
PART 1: FALSE DAWNS AND FRUSTRATIONS
Things got off to a flying start when introductory single Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) hit the UK Top 20; a barnstorming cover of a fairly little-known 1983 single by The Valentine Brothers (which had just grazed the Top 75), it gave Hucknall’s vocals the platform to shine, and the band’s signature sound to instantly define itself.
Soulful grooves, driven by lots of chiming electric piano chords, fleshed out with brass and trumpet, and all topped off by Red’s gruff mannerisms and yearning style which evoked Manhattan rather than Manchester.
As opening gambits go, it was all very impressive and radio was quick to offer support. A (then-rare) live vocal performance on Top Of The Pops was also lauded. Money’s Too Tight nearly made the Top 10, and a glorious future surely beckoned.
And yet, that’s when everything stuttered. For a period in late 1985 and early 1986, Simply Red just could not buy a hit as single after single ended up in the chart wastelands of #63 or #66, or even #51 in the case of Holding Back The Years‘ original release (yes, it was once a flop too).
Four singles, three failures. Were they destined to be one-hit wonders?
Picture Book itself was suffering as a result, too. Released on October 14th 1985, it wasn’t even on my radar (there was a new Blancmange album out that day, don’t you know!) but a #34 debut was quite respectable considering Simply Red were still an unknown quantity with just one #13 hit single to their name. Yet the lack of a notable follow-up continued to hamper its performance, and at best it could do no more than occasionally appear in the lower reaches of the Top 100 during the next six months.
PART 2: AMERICA COMES CALLING
In the Spring of 1986, one of those flops – Holding Back The Years – began making waves across the Atlantic. Given the band had a distinctly American sound, and they were on the legendary Elektra label (home of acts such as The Cars, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and part of the Warner Music Group), it wasn’t surprising that a Billboard Hot 100 breakthrough should happen. The song that did it, perhaps, wasn’t so expected. Dating back to Hucknall’s earlier band The Frantic Elevators, it had evolved into a haunting ballad and made #9 on my personal charts when first released as a Simply Red single in November 1985.
It’s amazing what 4 years can do…Holding Back in 1982, and again in 1986.
Holding Back The Years went to the very top of the US chart, attracting a new level of kudos and dispelling the sense that Simply Red – and Hucknall – would be forever seen as all mouth and no trousers. Because for a band as evidently gifted as they were, they had been stuck in the lower leagues of chart fame, with mid-table peers such as Animal Nightlife or The Kane Gang, earning praise for their music but viewed with a kind of suspicion by the British public, unless they covered something vaguely familiar.
An American Number One gave the whole Picture Book era a boost, not least by propelling Holding Back The Years to #2 in the UK. The momentum also benefited the album, which came from the brink of the bargain bins to a whisker of the top spot itself. This was effectively the start of Simply Red we grew to know and love, an act capable of shifting large numbers of albums on the strength of ballads that showcased Hucknall’s unique charisma.
It was also where I came in, in terms of buying Simply Red’s music. The catalyst wasn’t actually Holding Back The Years, even though I still liked it as much as I had done originally, but the album’s belated entry into the UK Top 30 exposed me to the delights of Sad Old Red via Paul Gambaccini’s Capital Radio show. So, late on a hot Sunday evening, the mellow, almost doleful jazzy tones of Picture Book‘s second track alerted me to the possibility that the Simply Red album, in the shops since the previous Autumn, might be something I’d want to have. Another act of serendipity saw the band’s performance at the 1986 Montreux Jazz Festival screened on the BBC around the same time, which sealed the deal.
The energy of the band, the dynamic performance of Mick Hucknall, the quality of the songs beyond just the singles I was familiar with; it all persuaded me to buy the album as soon as I could the following week. A lot of other people had obviously made the same decision, as copies of Picture Book were becoming scarce, Elektra/Warners not yet restocking enough copies of the album to meet these new demands (a chart climb of something like #50 to #2 within a fortnight tells its own story).
It was a far cry from the end of 1985, when the label pulled out all the usual formatting tricks, including picture discs. All to little or no avail.
If Holding Back The Years isn’t a hit, I’ll eat my hat…
Now a proud owner of the Picture Book cassette (Warners tapes were always the best quality, in my experience), the full brilliance of the album hit home. Why hadn’t I spotted the qualities in Come To My Aid? Why hadn’t Jericho convinced me this was an album I needed to have, even as I charted it in my Top 20 during February and March of 1986?
Despite these questions, in a way I was glad to have discovered the album when I did, and in the fashion I did. It’s forever associated with warm July and August nights, and listening to it on the best stereo system I’d ever had at the time (newly inherited from my parents). By the summer of 1986, Picture Book was also free of the baggage that it was carrying as an under-achieving release with a succession of under-performing singles that couldn’t recapture the chart feats of Money’s Too Tight (To Mention).
Speaking of which, for all the sudden ubiquity of the band and their music, and the public’s eventual embracing of Simply Red, the fifth and final single to be taken from Picture Book somehow suffered the same fate as so many of those before it. Open Up The Red Box was a slightly revamped version of Red Box; a stop-start, quirky chugger (as Record Mirror’s James Hamilton might have termed it!) that was one of my personal favourites on the album but admittedly had little of the plaintive, emotional depth of Holding Back The Years. Hucknall had yet to focus on the horny, loverman side of his persona, and his lyrics had more bite, and more political bent, than the smoother fare he’d perfect on later records.
It peaked at #61.
PART 3: AWARDED A NEW LEASE OF LIFE
Without any further hits, Picture Book gradually faded from view, but the annual BRIT Awards in early 1987 provided yet another boost. Three nominations (Best Album, Best Single, Best British Group) and a performance slot on the night, was enough to propel the album back into the Top 10.
Shortly after, a brand new single The Right Thing – showcasing a bolder approach and funkier outlook – officially brought the Picture Book campaign to an end, some 18 months after its release.
Changing Pictures: each new generation of the album (1985 LP, 1990s CD, 2008 Deluxe Edition) made changes to the appearance and placement of the text.
Mick Hucknall hung up his cane and peaked cap, and stopped referring to himself as Red. Stuart Levine was replaced as producer (something Mick realised was a mistake, and rectified by 1989). The Men & Women era was here!