Tuesday, 23 June 2015

SIMPLY RED: A New Flame





(#381: 25 February 1989, 4 weeks; 29 April 1989, 1 week; 22 July 1989, 2 weeks)

Track listing: It’s Only Love/A New Flame/You’ve Got It/To Be With You/More/Turn It Up/Love Lays Its Tune/She’ll Have To Go/If You Don’t Know Me By Now/Enough

If Mick Hucknall fulfilled the same function that Rod Stewart had done for album-buyers in the seventies, then he seems to have progressed straight to the Rod Stewart of Foolish Behaviour or thereabouts ("Holding Back The Years" was his "Mandolin Wind"); most of Simply Red’s third album could serve as alternative themes for 1986’s hilarious Robert Redford/Debra Winger knockabout comedy Legal Eagles. Listening to this, and looking at what follows it in 1989, makes me wonder anew if this is really how two-and-a-sixth million British people preferred to be entertained; boring, expensive music promising boring, expensive lifestyles to boring, expensive people.

I mean, Hucknall tries – at least, he tries my patience – by God, how he tries (at times). But just as the cover versions prove that he is neither Barry White nor Teddy Pendergrass, there is so much banal lurve stuff here, like a Farmfoods Luther Vandross, and the Montserrat setting for its recording, with tasteful guitars plucked just so and just the right amount of echo to give the impression that one is in the driveway of the Sandy Lane Hotel in Barbados, suggests that Hucknall has lost sight of what prompted Simply Red in the first place; the picture of him on the inner sleeve, grinning and cocking his head in what looks like a pyjama jacket, resembles no one so much as professional seventies pop troll Judge Dread (the portraits of the rest of the group are direly dated in both clothing and hairstyles, although guitarist Heitor T P looks uncannily like Bobby Gillespie).

He doesn’t, it has to be said, entirely lose sight of what really inspired that “Red”; after the tepid love bath of side one, it is something of a shock to hear him launch into a fulsome anti-Tory blast on “Turn It Up”; “…Ruling the country/Are unfaithful husbands/Who spank little boys/Gagged and bound” is startling imagery even by 1989 standards (again one has to ask: did Hucknall know what the rest of us pretended not to know?). But its streamlined “soul” surface makes one wonder how many of the shy and not-so-shy Tories who bought this record ever bothered to listen to what he was saying. It’s the same story with “She’ll Have To Go” which is a better anti-Thatcher tract than “Tramp The Dirt Down” – but again, unless you read the lyric sheet and pressed an ear to the speaker, how would you know that was what it was?

The harmonically agreeable lovers rock of “More” was the only thing here I wanted to hear more than once, but even this serves as a reminder of how Sade did, and do, this sort of thing so much better. And yet for most of its year A New Flame was the year’s biggest-selling album, only being overtaken towards the end of 1989 by entry #387. I don’t quite know whether Hucknall qualifies as Britain’s Michael Bolton – for a start, he only ever seems to have had one haircut, rather than two – but it is uncannily prescient of the allegedly beloved New Labour; don’t say what you really think or stand for, just make the right faces and make the right noises to win over the waverers. Wavering towards, or away from, what? On a Mancunian level, A New Flame - the first, it should be said, of five number one albums by Simply Red - possesses enough inbuilt torpor to make me wonder whether the group shouldn't have been named Mick Hucknall's High Flying Birds.

4 comments:

Robin Carmody said...

When companies other than RTE finally were allowed to run legal radio stations in the Republic of Ireland, one of them - probably the very first of them, actually - began broadcasting with the title song of this album. Makes you wonder why they bothered.

One of the other reasons for the "Red" was still suffering massive ruling-class opprobrium at this point and was not the vast, lucrative global brand it has since become, but the utter failure of the Elm Guest House etc. inferences here to make any impact at all on Hucknall's audience suggests that the Old Left view of such things, which I still think was utterly wrong when applied to the Beatles or the Animals, became much more applicable *after it had ceased to be widely held or adhered to*, much like the haute bourgeoisie's view of commercial TV.

Agree that "Holding Back the Years" is a magnificent performance, easily his peak (plus, Whitby). Michael Bolton, unlike the Low Flying Bores, happily will make no impact on TPL - one of the benefits of logging number one albums (of which 'Technique' was one of the two lowest certified of 1989, the other being Paul McCartney's last number one album of new recordings, though not his last appearance here by any means) rather than the actual biggest-sellers of each year, because he'd certainly appear several times if you did that.

One source claims that the Daily Mirror ran an article around this point attacking Hucknall for preaching socialism while being a tax exile in precisely the Milan luxury then denied English football, but a UKPressOnline search (and I have the full version where the Mirror does not stop about the time it did so for the largest section of the public, alas) draws a blank.

Enda Connaughton said...

Thought myself that Men and Women had some high points, side one esp. Alex Sadkin producing it and Lamont Dozier on co-writes did it no harm. Better Infidelity and its honesty regarding the singer's womanising rather than the smarm on all subsequent albums (by the end of the noughties Hucknall was claiming 1000+ notches on the bedpost).
The Irish station referred to by Robin Carmody might be CenturyFM which lasted barely longer than the life of a mayfly, controversy over the bidding process lasti g longer. Forward 25+ years and most independent stations seem to be owned by tax dodging, govt minister-bribing Denis O'Brien. Viva la difference

apopfansdream said...

The Irish radio station was indeed Century. It started broadcasting in September 1989. A New Flame had been released as a single a few weeks beforehand and was getting plenty of airplay [and racking up sales - as was the parent LP] on all local and national radio. I thought it was an unsurprising choice to start with; merely reflecting the tastes of the general public. And the name was kinda appropriate.

darrenbeach said...

The short spell I worked at Our Price records is exactly the point that "Then Play Long" blog is now up to, which makes this one (and the next few months of number ones) especially interesting reading for me. I was exposed to the likes of "A New Flame" on a daily basis, like an aural bludgeoning until I eventually liked it. We were forced to play, in the shop, only music that the store manager thought appropriate for browsing in this North London suburb. Even though he'd been a member of a Vauxhall Conference level C86 band, and was happy to talk til long after closing time about guitar pop and obscure electronic music, he had this terrible fear that if we exposed the locals to as much as ten minutes of the new House Of Love album they'd run out of the shop, screaming and clutching their poor ears. So much of my summer was playing this, "Club Classics vol 1", and any other chart album we liked we felt would pass his test. Invariably I chose "Paradise" or "Kaleidoscope World".