What could be more simply read than a picture book? A clever introduction for kids into the world of books, and Picture Book was a clever introduction of Simply Red to the world. The Manchester band’s debut album came out this day in 1985.
The name of the band of course makes reference to the carroty-colored mane of lead singer, and heart of the band, Mick Hucknall. If there hadn’t been a term “blue-eyed soul” before Simply Red, someone would have coined it just for him. As allmusic would years later note about their initial album, it was a “steady R&B groove reminiscent of ’60s Stax, all in the service of a big-voiced soul singer.” Of course, this was nothing entirely new for Britain, Dusty Springfield surprised many people when they found she was from over there, not Memphis!
They had signed to WEA Records, a branch of Warner Bros. but were not quite ready with a real sound by ’85. Luckily for both, producer/sax man Stewart Levine saw them in London around that time. Levine had already produced records for the likes of Van Morrison, BB King and Sly Stone. “The lead singer was magical,” Levine recalls, “but the music sounded like a retro American soul revue.” He had interest in working with them but told Hucknall “we needed to come up with something fresh.”
That they did. In a year of synthesizer-heavy new wave bands and emerging hair metal acts competing for attention, they created a retro-’60s soul sound that seemed authentic. The six man band recorded Picture Book partly in the Netherlands, partly at home in England, and released it to…initial indifference. It took awhile to catch on, but when it did, Simply Red had arrived. Warner obviously believed in them as they not only ponied up for a decent American producer for the unknown act, but then released the album in different formats including CDG – one that didn’t last, but at the time seemed the next big thing, offering compact disc music plus videos and lyrics playable on appropriately-fitted TVs or monitors.
The album was largely written by Hucknall, save for two cover songs – the Talking Heads’ “Heaven”, and an obscure American R&B tune called “Money’s Too Tight To Mention.” It had been done by a group called the Valentine Brothers three years earlier but little-noticed (the American origin explains the reference to Ronald Reagan and American political policies in it.) That was the first single off it, and it did OK in Europe, being a top 20 hit at home for them as well as France, Ireland and overseas, New Zealand as well. But it wasn’t until about a year later they really landed with the single, “Holding Back the Years.”
The song was actually Hucknall covering himself. He’d written the song some eight years earlier about his unhappy childhood… his mother had left them when he was three and he and his dad didn’t get along well. He wrote it for his first band, a punk-ish outfit called Frantic Elevators, formed after he went to the famous Sex Pistols show in Manchester in ’76. That show also inspired Morrissey, Peter Hook and others to form bands! A flop the first time out, perseverance paid off and upon re-release in spring ’86, the single became a worldwide hit, being a #1 hit in the U.S. and #2 in the UK. Curiously, they wouldn’t have a #1 single at home until the mid-’90s; in Britain their star rose considerably in the ’90s (they won the Brit Award for Best Group back to back years, for example) while in North America they fell into relative obscurity at the time.
The end result was Picture Book going to #1 in the Netherlands, surprisingly, while it got to #2 in the UK and #16 in the States, where it still earned a platinum record. At home, it went 5X platinum. the few reviews of it were generally good; Q called it the “most accomplished debut of the year” and Stateside, curmudgeonly Robert opined that the only two real good songs on it were the covers, but it was a good album “carried off” on “mood and groove alone.”
Simply Red are still rolling, and put out their 12th studio album, Blue-eyed Soul, in 2019. Although it charted, it was the first one of theirs not to at least reach gold status in the UK.