John Harris

Journalist & Author

Here’s to Mick Hucknall’s amazing voice | John Harris

Admitting I liked Simply Red didn’t fit with the NME’s Maoist indie conspiracy, but Hucknall’s repertoire is studded with triumphs

It was 1987, and I was 17, that eager and impressionable age when booze, nightclubs and inconclusive romantic encounters embody all the wonderment that the adult world has to offer. Most weeks, I would go to a Mancunian place called – but of course – Brahms and Liszt, with the obligatory half-inch of white sock on show, and hopes of making it to my sixth pint of lager. The DJ there habitually played a Simply Red song called The Right Thing, a number 11 hit, which, what with its apparent cross-referencing of football and human intimacy, my thinking brain now understands as a prime contender for an imaginary pop bad-sex award (”Feel I’m getting harder now … Get off your back four! Get on top more! Owwww!”), but my heart will never let go.

And from that point onwards, Mick “Hucko” Hucknall and his hugely successful pop-soul vehicle formed an anomalous but immovable part of my musical tastes. Within months, I would leave Brahms and Liszt behind, and move on to the justifiably legendary Hacienda club, but always keep an eye on what he and his ever-shifting backing group were up to. In 1991, they released their faultless meisterwerk Stars. The following year, I was a newly appointed writer at the NME, and well on to my seventh pint of lager, when out it came: “I like Simply Red” – which, by implication, meant I was not fully on board with the Maoist indie conspiracy. My colleagues visibly bristled. After pint number eight, I think I put The Right Thing on the pub jukebox. “Get on top more!” shouted Hucko; the wind howled around our table.

The case for the defence is straightforward enough, and remains so.

Hucknall can sing, arguably better than any British vocalist of the last 30 years: to take one example from many, as an example of perfect delivery, his performance on For Your Babies sits in the same rarefied place as, say, Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind, Dolly Parton’s Here You Come Again, and Smokey Robinson’s Tracks of My Tears. His self-written repertoire is studded with triumphs, and he usually picks a good cover. When surveying his life and work, it’s worth bearing in mind that he’s from Denton (look it up, if necessary). And, not that it says much about his art, but I met him once, in some London hellhole that struck me as being like Brahms and Liszt for people with pots of money. He was funny and surprisingly self-deprecating; I even began to forgive him both his fondness for Tony Blair, and his cartoonish embrace of a sitcom writer’s understanding of the high life (putting up money for the grimly “aspirational” Malmaison hotel chain, starting his own Italian wine label called Il Cantate, which translates as – but of course – “the singer”). Really: unless you’re still clinging on to what remains of the Maoist indie conspiracy, you’d like him.

Now, Simply Red – which was long more of a brand than a proper group – are no more, but I glimpsed Hucknall on breakfast TV the other day, promoting a rather workmanlike single called Happy This Christmas, and looking like either the years of moneyed indulgence had finally caught up with him, or he doesn’t do mornings (or both). But his voice was as great as ever: all nuance and warmth, with his customary intuitive grasp of his subject matter – whether it’s Christmas, or the imperative to “get on top more”.

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