Simply Red boxed. Should we care? Gary Steel discusses the matter.
THIS ONE SAT around, unplayed and unloved, for the best part of three months. Sorry, Mr Mick Hucknall, but it took a good deal of effort to convince myself to commit to four hours of listening time with various manifestations of your blue-eyed jazzy soul-funk group.
One fine day, however, when the sun’s rays were just too loaded with death beams, I sat inside with the curtains drawn (the stereo sounds better that way) and cranked it up. Some expectations were dashed, others confirmed.
First off, this is a four-CD box set containing leader Mick Hucknall’s choice of best Simply Red tracks, and bizarrely, it’s not bound in leather, and it doesn’t contain plastic figurines or samples of Hucknall’s urine, stools or ginger locks. There’s this strange thing going down lately in the land of the box set, where everything has gone and gotten preposterously lavish. In contrast, Song Book is presented in a flimsy cardboard cover and a conventional jewel-box, and while there’s a booklet, it’s a CD-size booklet that fits snugly into the package. Perhaps Hucknall – who did, after all, have a hit with the song ‘Money’s Too Tight To Mention’ – went for the utilitarian model to please the working class segment of his demographic. Who knows, but it’s a refreshing change not to have endless hopeless demos and rehearsal sessions that you only ever end up listening to once.
The first disc is dedicated to the 1980s, and I expected it to house the better material, which proved not to be the case. The sound is thin in that excruciating ‘80s fashion, and even on the aforementioned hit (actually a cover version) Hucknall’s voicing sounds affected in its attempt at street consciousness emotionalism, and the one-note keyboard stabs are hackneyed and time-stamped. Oddly, he does strike the right note on ‘Come To My Aid’, where the singer really blurts it out, and hints at a future beyond the light disco/funk grooves.
It was the 1990s disc that proved to be the winner, as it houses material from the group’s biggest hit album, Stars. It’s easy to slag an album that ended up getting played at too many dinner parties of the upwardly mobile in the early ‘90s, but it’s beautifully crafted jazzy funk with great sound quality, songwriting skill in abundance and a standard of musicianship that’s used to great effect on excellent arrangements. Sadly, on the next album, Life, they hired a hipper producer and the result is a sibilant mess where the muso elements are submerged by jacking house beats, and contributions from Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare don’t appreciably improve matters. Some might appreciate the ‘We Are The World’-style anthemic quality of ‘We’re In This Together’, but really… by Blue in ’98 they had osmosed into Soul II Soul with Hucknall on vocals, by all accounts – nothing new, but at least pleasurable on the groove-o-metre.
Disc 3 is all about the ‘00s, a decade in which few noticed that Simply Red (or whatever pickup bunch of musicians Hucknall was using at the time) even still existed. There are a lot of ballads, his voice sounds more lived in and emotionally honest, and the general standard is high. It’s just that nothing here sounds like it really needs to exist.
Disc 4 is the interesting one, comprising recent re-recordings of a selection of tracks from the band’s history. While the sound quality is good, there’s something about it that reeks of the home recording studio, and it sounds a bit like a private overdubbing party. Fair enough: new interpretations of all the songs without any of the compromises (real or imagined) that the band suffered at the time provides an opportunity to get to the core of these songs, and if I was a Simply Red fan, I’d be digging it.
Still, the question that needs to be asked is: were they, and are they, any good? It’s easy to snub Simply Red on the rather “rockist” charge that they made mood music for yuppies, but you can’t always blame a band on its audience. I didn’t find the group compelling back in the ‘80s, and I still don’t now, but in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s they were a legitimate part of the pop firmament, and the group’s exploration through various types of groove-based music, all with Hucknall’s recognisable vocals at the helm, certainly warrants respect, if not (in my case) ardour. GARY STEEL