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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Simply Red With A Splash Of Star Power

I’ve decided to make this entire blog entry red for a reason.

No, the reason is not because red is my favourite colour (though I do admit that I like it), and no, it’s not because I wish that it was Christmas all over again because let’s face it...some of us are thrilled that it only comes around once a year.

It’s because the group that I am featuring in today’s topic is...well...Simply Red!

And for today’s blog entry, I’m doing another one of my album spotlights!  Sometimes the songs on a particular album are so good that I can’t help but spotlight the whole album.  And, in the case of Simply Red, I came to this decision after getting one of their songs stuck inside my head about a month ago.  I was watching television on a Sunday afternoon, and the song was playing in the background of a scene.  And, the song was stuck in my head about a week after I heard it. 

I had actually thought about doing the spotlight on the song the following Sunday...but it was right around the time that I was doing the “Pop Culture Addict’s Advent Calendar” posts, so I knew that I would have to wait until after the holidays were over before I could feature it.

But then I got to listening to the whole album that the song was featured on, and I thought that the songs were all really fantastic.  So, why not feature all of them?

Here’s the album cover for today’s featured album spotlight.

The album is called “Stars”, and it was released on September 30, 1991.  It was Simply Red’s fourth studio album, and ultimately, it was one of their most successful albums.

But before we talk about the album “Stars”, why don’t we talk a little bit about Simply Red, and their musical journey up to and including the recording and release of “Stars”.

It all began in 1976 in, of all places, a Sex Pistols concert in Manchester, England.  Mick Hucknall, then a sixteen-year-old art student, was at the concert along with several other musicians, and after the concert, Hucknall formed a band named “The Frantic Elevators”.  The band stayed together for nearly eight years before disbanding in 1984, just after they released a single together that despite its critical acclaim didn’t garner much attention.

That would soon change with Hucknall’s next project.

In 1985, Hucknall met his new manager, Elliot Rashman, and together they spent the first part of 1985 assembling local musicians to form a new band, and Rashman shopped the new band around record companies, hoping that one would sign them. 

Here’s some interesting trivia for you.  Initially when the band was forming, it was Hucknall’s idea to just call the band, “Red”.  The name stemmed from a childhood nickname that Hucknall had as a result of him having bright red hair.  The manager of a local club that had booked the band was a bit confused about the name, and didn’t believe that a band would name themselves after a colour.  But at Mick’s insistence, he told the manager that the band’s name was “Red, simply red”.  Somehow, when the manager was printing posters for the upcoming venue, he misunderstood Mick, and instead of just “Red”, the band name became “Simply Red”.  Luckily, Hucknall and the rest of the band liked it, and the name stuck!

The band’s original line-up in 1985, by the way, was as follows...

CHRIS JOYCE – Percussion
TIM KELLETT – Brass/Background Vocals
FRITZ MCINTYRE – Keyboard/Vocals

It did take a few months for Simply Red to catch on.  The band’s first two singles didn’t exactly chart very well in the United Kingdom, and were virtually ignored in North America.  But then came the spring of 1986, which was the year that the band released their third single...which also happened to be the last single that Hucknall had released with his previous band two years earlier. 

The song was “Holding Back The Years”, and it proved to be a huge hit on the charts.  The song peaked at #3 in the Netherlands, #2 in the United Kingdom, and peaked at #1 in the United States the week of July 12, 1986!  It was also the song that helped cement Simply Red’s status on the charts.

Two more albums soon followed, and by 1991, Simply Red was easily considered one of Britain’s best bands.  But, here’s something incredibly shocking.  When Simply Red first started out, their early singles seemed to do better overseas than they had been doing in their native country.  “Holding Back The Years” was the first of two #1 hits for Simply Red in the United States (the other one was a cover version of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes single “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” in 1989), but in the United Kingdom, the band couldn’t get a number one single no matter how hard they tried.

There was also a bit of controversy surrounding the strength of the band, as many people believed (including Mick Hucknall himself) that the band was more or less a solo effort by Hucknall, rather than as a group effort.  And, by 1991, Simply Red had gone through two guitarists, and lost Joyce and Bowers (who were replaced by Hector Pereira, Shaun Ward, and Gota Yashiki. 

But if there was some controversy over how well the band worked together, you never would have known it when the band released their fourth album, “Stars”. 

(Well, okay, almost all the promotional music videos made for the album solely focus on Hucknall...but despite that, you never would have known it!)

Sadly, the curse of not having a number one hit in their own country continued to plague the band with this album...their highest ranking single failed make it past the #8 position on the charts.  But the album’s success in sales more than made up for it.  Did you know that the “Stars” album was the best-selling album in the United Kingdom for both 1991 AND 1992?  And, did you know that the album went twelve times platinum, tying for sixth place on the list of the top-selling albums of all-time in the United Kingdom?  That is such an amazing feat!

And, part of that success came from the beautiful, passionate songs that were released from “Stars”.  So, let’s have a listen, beginning with the album’s first single release.

SOMETHING GOT ME STARTED – September 21, 1991

Okay, so this first single release was a bit of a departure for the band.  You know how the band had #1 singles in the USA?  Well, both of those songs were soulful ballads.  This one sounded more like a club hit that you’d groove to on a dance floor with flashing lights and disco balls.  Yet, this arrangement seemed to work very well with the band’s new direction and sound.  There were also several versions released of this single...a 7-inch, a 12-inch, and a CD version!  While the song wasn’t quite as successful in the mainstream charts as other Simply Red releases, it was a massive hit in the club scene in late 1991.  It just went to show that sometimes a band may be associated with one style of music, but that didn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t capable of doing other styles.  In this case, dance music seemed to work very well for the band.  And, who knew Mick Hucknall had some swagger like Mick Jagger?

(Okay, I just made up that corny last bit...I apologize.  J )

“Something Got Me Started” also has a rather unique claim to fame, as it is the only single by Simply Red to be released twice.  In January 2006, an acoustic version was released as part of the band’s album “Simplified”.  Though it didn’t chart as high as the original version, it’s still a neat fact to share.

STARS – November 30, 1991

This song is probably the most successful of the songs from “Stars”.  The title track peaked at #8 on both the UK charts as well as the American Adult Contemporary charts.

(It’s also the song that I ended up getting stuck in my head a month ago, and it is the song that prompted me to do a blog entry on Simply Red in the first place.)

But, what a song it was!  I had forgotten how good it was.  In fact, I think “Stars” may very well be my favourite Simply Red song (though “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” comes very close too).  The music video is very simplistic, yet ethereal, as we see Mick walking through a desert littered with fallen stars as he thinks about the love he lost.  And, that’s basically the concept behind “Stars”’s a song about still having unresolved feelings for someone in a relationship that ended with a broken heart.  Who can’t identify with that scenario?  I particularly love the wonderful lyrics that were written for the single.  “Too many hearts are broken/A lover’s promise never came with a maybe/So many words are left unspoken/The silent voices are driving me crazy.”

Now that’s profound.  Then again, I always did have a love for clever, thought-provoking lyrics.  And with Hucknall writing this, and the other songs on the album, there are plenty of these deep thoughts and feelings to experience.  In fact, the next single takes us into a little into Hucknall’s own personal life at the time.

(Oh, yeah...that red spot on his tooth?  That’s actually a ruby that Hucknall had permanently placed into his tooth right around the time Simply Red made it big.  He has since changed it into a diamond.)

FOR YOUR BABIES – January 25, 1992

Okay, okay...I know what you’re thinking...this video is a couple of Halloween costumes away from being a promotional video for Anne Geddes.  It was also the original concept for Amy Grant’s video for “Baby Baby”, which if Amy had gotten her way would have included a bunch of kids crawling over top of Amy wearing a mermaid costume!

Okay, that’s a scary image.  Let’s move on, shall we?

The thing is...this video works.  After all, when you have a single entitled “For Your Babies”, you kind of have to include some children, right?  Scary thing is, all these kids are likely in their mid-to-late 20’s right now!  Yikes!

Anyway, the song’s all about how life changes once you become a parent.  Any of my friends who have children will likely listen to these lyrics, and instantly go “awwwwwww”.  But there’s also a hidden truth behind this song.  It was written by Hucknall at a time in which all of his friends were settling down and having children of their own, and it seemed to him like he was the only one of his peers who didn’t have that.

Here’s an interesting comparison here.  At the time this video was released, Hucknall was thirty-one and yet to have a child.  And, this blogger also happens to be thirty-one and childless.  So, yes...I can most definitely relate to how Hucknall was feeling because I’m currently living it!

But, in Hucknall’s case, patience was worth the wait.  After a period of self-admitted failure to commit (you might want to read all about all the partners he had during the early days of Simply may just shock you), Hucknall finally settled down and  became the father of a little girl named Romy True in June 2007, when he was 47 years of age.

THRILL ME – May 2, 1992

I unfortunately don’t have a whole lot to say about this particular single other than the fact that it was the lowest charting single of the album, and that this was the only song that Hucknall did not write solely by himself (he collaborated with Fritz McIntyre).  But, that’s fine.  Sometimes you don’t need to say a lot about a song.  Just listen to it instead.  It’s quite good, despite the low chart position.

YOUR MIRROR – July 25, 1992

The final track of “Stars” to chart, this song is probably part social commentary, part self-esteem building...depending on how you want to look at it.  On one hand, the song talks about standing up for oneself against as society that seems incredibly corrupt and screwed up due to the leadership of a cold figure (keep in mind that this song was written around the time that Margaret Thatcher - who some British people may call a polarizing figure - was leaving office).  But if one were to look at the song through the perspective of rose-coloured goggles sprinkled with Valentine’s Day dust, you could also stretch the claim that the song could talk about standing up for yourself after leaving a terrible relationship and staring in the mirror, realizing that life does go on, the birds do continue singing their songs, and that you are beautiful.

Okay, I may be stretching with that last one, but I’m a bit young to remember Thatcherism, so I came up with an alternate theory. 

So, that’s our look back on “Stars”, widely considered to be Simply Red’s greatest success story.  In the years that followed, Simply Red ended up scoring at least one #1 song in Britain (with 1995’s “Fairground”), and the band remained together until their breakup in 2010.  As of 2012, Mick Hucknall continues to record music, and his latest album “American Soul” was just released two months ago and is available to purchase on iTunes, and record stores.

But, I don’t think Mick Hucknall can ever truly break away from the Simply Red label...not that he minds in the slightest, of course.

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