25 August 2010
Holding Back The Years by Simply Red. And no matter how many things the upturned of nose can say to emphasise their dislike of Mick Hucknall, you still come back to the voice.
I have never had a problem with Simply Red, though I can't say I've ever found their music amazing. They're a strong soul pop act who happen to have a frontman who fits every cog in the frontman Meccano set. Presence, charisma, willingness to take all the rap as well as the credit and, of course, a quite astonishing voice. Given that many frontmen do not have an astonishing voice, this is some trick to pull off.
And it really is all about the voice. Look through the Simply Red back catalogue and you'll remind yourself of a handful of half-decent but unspectacular pop larkabouts, all made into much more memorable recordings because the bloke singing them has a special gift. And maybe the plentiful sneerers of Simply Red don't dislike them because of Hucknall's personality, it's because they want to criticise the voice and can't.
I think Hucknall was the best new British singer to emerge in the 1980s. Again, cast aside views on the actual material and listen to the voice. Terrific on record and, anyone who remembers his live version of Holding Back The Years on Top of the Pops will attest that his ability to deliver one true vocal on one stage was flawless. It got to the point where he could sing shopping lists and still be impressive; indeed, I suspect that the gaggle of untesting mid-tempo ditties - Fairground, Sunrise, Remembering The First Time, The Right Thing, Thrill Me, It's Only Love - that Hucknall has foisted on his audience over the years are a sure sign of creative laziness as he knew the voice would always win through.
Holding Back The Years is a brilliant exception. Hucknall wrote it as a teenager after establishing exactly how his life had been devalued by the unforced exit of his mother when he was a toddler. He was brought up by his dad (I think he was a barber) and a collection of female neighbours and, as is often the case, his mum only expressed an interest in her boy when she realised he was that famous, rich, talented, good loo... - ok, that's pushing it - one hitting perfect pitch on telly. And Hucknall told her where to get off.
The line "strangled by the wishes of pater, hoping for the arms of mater" is notable, as Hucknall wonders aloud whether there was more comfort to be had in the presence of a mother, presumably from seeing the benefits of having a mum that his peers in Manchester had. This is emphasised further in the video when the small boy falls off his bike and Mum does the auto-care routine while Dad shakes his head as if he didn't approve of mollycoddling.
The video was filmed in Whitby and allowed a role for the rest of the band as the churchyard cricket players. Now, Simply Red have always been a band but Hucknall has been the focal point from day one to the detriment of the profile of the rest. Vocalists always are, but this was an example of a man transcending all the equalities that come with a group. He wrote the songs, took phenomenal attention, had the gift of the gab in interviews, looked the part and even chose the band name from his flamboyant barnet. Members of Simply Red could walk down a street unnoticed in 1986 and still can now, with their professional reputations unaffected.
As for rest of the video, well I can't think of a single one of my teachers that I'd like to have caught necking on a gravestone.
It took some going for the song to be noticed. After their version of Money's Too Tight To Mention got them in the Top 40 for the first time, three follow-up singles from the debut Picture Book album flopped, and this was the second of those three. It took a judicious re-issue eight months later for it to be fully noticed, courtesy of the song's slow adoption by American audiences.
During that early summer of 1986, Holding Back The Years climbed to No.1 in the USA and No.2 in the UK, where it was held off for a fortnight by Dr and the Medics' version of Spirit In The Sky. During this time, Hucknall appeared alone on Top of the Pops for that astounding live rendition of the song, one that cast him as a genuinely special talent. It was, after all, still only his band's second hit.
In popular culture, the song is well known for its appearance in the episode of Only Fools and Horses where Rodney gets married. As it plays, the main characters follow the bride and groom out of the reception area, leaving Del on his own to be reflective. I could be sniffy and say this ruins the song, but there will be plenty who would say with equal conviction that it's the song that ruins the programme. In truth, even though Only Fools and Horses began to die the moment it allowed a girlfriend to stick her oar in, the song probably suits the moment pretty well.
My only beef with Holding Back The Years is the refrain "I'll keep holding on". I hate this line. The expressions "hold on" or "holding on" are ubiquitous in popular lyrics and act as a kind of shorthand for "we can't think of something more profound or poetic to write". En Vogue, Wilson Phillips, Beverley Craven. Listen to the terrible Stop Crying Your Heart Out by Oasis and you've got the picture right there. Noel Gallagher ran out of ideas on that one before he even got started.
The Stars album is still the best thing Simply Red have done. The title track is fabulous. For Your Babies is delightful. And Something Got Me Started - even though Hucknall's laziness is very present in the chorus - is still eminently danceable. But Holding Back The Years remains Hucknall's finest hour as a writer and a vocalist and remains the best single reason why his detractors have a real fight on their hands when trying to bemoan his talent.