When you’re as famous as Mick Hucknall and you’ve sold 60 million albums, you’re allowed to tell rock ‘n’ roll anecdotes. In the process of listing Hucknall’s 10 life-changing songs (see below), he, perhaps unsurprisingly, mentions the Beatles and the Stones. Then, casual as you like, recalls the afternoon he spent rolling spliffs for Keith Richards by the swimming pool at the Hyatt Sunset Hotel in LA.
“The Beatles changed the way music sounded, but the Stones were the world’s greatest rock band,” explains the 62-year-old. As the outspoken frontman with the phenomenally successful blue-eyed soul boys, Simply Red, Hucknall might occasionally come across as “one of them mainstream ‘80s arseholes” (his words, not mine), but it’s patently obvious that he is a serious music fan.
“I know my shit!” he laughs as we start swapping details, facts and figures about the development and production of Sgt Pepper. “I know my musical history.”
Get Mick Hucknall talking about music and he immediately turns into that scruffy oik from Manchester. The one who was at the legendary Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976 (along with Morrissey, Mark E. Smith, Ian Curtis and Frank Carson*). The one who used to blast out rare dub vinyl from his student digs in Hulme. The one who cried when he first heard David Bowie’s Space Oddity in 1969.
“Music saved me, really,” he says. “My mum left me and Dad when I was a kid. Dad struggled to make ends meet. I wasn’t great at school. I was hanging out with some not very nice people and there was a fair old chance that I was going to end up on the wrong side of the tracks. But music was always there for me, it always brought me back into the light.”
Is it weird, I wonder, when a music fan like him then gets famous enough to hang out with the people whose music meant so much?
“You’ve hit the nail on the head. Weird is the word. There I am, trying to be Mr Cool, but, inside, I’m going, ‘Fuckin’ ’ell, it’s so-and-so or so-and-so.’ I get excited if one of my musical heroes is talking to me. That’s natural, isn’t it. Here’s this person who wrote some of the songs that have directly shaped who I am.”
And now that Keith Richards story.
“I’m staying at the Hyatt Sunset and somebody mentions that Keith is staying there as well,” Hucknall recalls. “Anyway, later that day, the phone rings and all I hear is, ‘Heh heh heh. Oi, ’ucknall. I’m by the pool raahnd the back.’ Bang, receiver goes down. I put some shorts on, run down to the pool and there he is… huge speakers dangling from his bedroom window, blasting out Augustus Pablo’s King Tubbys Meets Rockers Uptown.
“Now, I have no idea what he thinks of me. He might think I’m one of them mainstream ‘80s arseholes [told you it was his words, not mine!] that knows fuck all about real music. But I start banging on about Augustus Pablo, Tubby, U-Roy, Scratch Perry and what have you, and suddenly Keith’s ears prick up. There’s a connection.”
In case you’re wondering, Hucknall is a genuine dub/reggae nut and was one of the major investors in the Manchester-based label, Blood and Fire, which specialised in classic ‘70s reissues like the Congos’ Heart of the Congos and Keith Hudson’s Pick A Dub.
“Next minute, I’m rolling him a spliff and Keith says ‘Oi, ’ucknall. Fancy a bit of Little Walter?’ Another artist I love. He puts on Walter’s Hate To See You Go album and that was it. We spent the entire afternoon - just me and him - rolling spliffs and talking about blues and reggae. Me and Keith fuckin’ Richards!”
Hucknall and the current version of the band are about to release Simply Red’s 13th album, Time. Unlike 2019’s Blue Eyed Soul, he describes this one as “seriously personal”.
“It’s a reflection of that kid who grew up in Manchester. I’ve been writing songs for a long time now, but when I started work on this album, I couldn’t stop looking… inward. Maybe it was Covid. That awful state of affairs forced us all to start asking questions about life. About who we are. My DNA is a mix of Scot, Eastern Irish and Cumbrian, but what does that actually make me. Who the fuck am I?
“When I was recording Blue Eyed Soul, I was listening to James Brown and Otis Redding, all the music that had inspired us as a band. But for this album…”
Who were you listening to? Anything from the Top 40?
“Are you joking? Today’s music isn’t aimed at someone like me - I’m 62 - and I’ve got no interest in it. What really pisses me off is this writing-by-committee thing that seems to dominate so much of what gets released. You hear a half-decent song, look at the credit and there are about 25 names on there. It’s the equivalent of writing songs in the boardroom. ‘Does everyone agree on this chorus? OK, let’s have a look at the middle eight.’ Where’s the character? Where’s the soul?
“I do listen to music at home, but it’s more likely to be something from the ‘50s or ‘60s. I’m going through a Jerry Lee Lewis phase at the moment. Everyone knows his rock ‘n’ roll tunes, but Lewis was also a massive country fan. And there’s always a bit of jazz playing somewhere in the house; maybe Miles or Coleman Hawkins.
“Obviously, a lot has happened to that kid from Manchester. I’m married to a wonderful woman. I’m the father of an amazing daughter. I’ve seen more of the world than I ever dreamed I’d get to see. I’ve sold more records than I ever dreamed I’d sell. And I’ve got a bit more money in the bank.”
More than you ever dreamed of?
“Ha ha. Just about! But there is one thing that hasn’t changed and that’s music. It means as much to me today as it did when I first saw the Pistols. As much as when I first formed Simply Red. In fact, it probably means even more today. Music is the reason I get out of bed in the morning. Music makes me tick.”
Simply Red’s new album, Time, is out now. Following a UK date at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on June 5, they continue their European tour throughout the summer.
*One of these well-known celebrities was not at the Pistols gig.
Mick Hucknall: the 10 songs that changed my life
1. Strawberry Fields Forever - The Beatles (1967)
“A masterpiece. This changed everything… changed the whole idea of what you could do in the studio. Changed the idea of what you could do with music.”
2. Good Vibrations - The Beach Boys (1966)
“Everything I said about Strawberry Fields applies to this, as well.”
3. Space Oddity – David Bowie (1969)
“And this one! What a fantastic period we had in the late-’60s. A constant stream of iconic, game-changing tracks. When I first heard this, I was still a young kid, but it stopped me dead in my tracks. Brought me to tears.”
4. Sympathy for the Devil - The Rolling Stones (1968)
(Or “anything from the Beggars Banquet album”)
“After the bruising they received for the previous album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones had a serious rethink. And they were right to do so. That album was never anything more than a poor Sgt Pepper rip off. This is them breaking away, finding their own sound. And establishing themselves as the world’s greatest rock band.
5. There Stands the Glass - Jerry Lee Lewis (1969)
“Yes, he was a hellraiser and he could shake the foundations when he needed to, but there aren’t many singers who can capture misery and heartbreak like Jerry Lee.”
6. So What - Miles Davis (1959)
“You can’t say much about this entire album [Kind Of Blue], can you? Music takes a giant leap into the future.”
7. Improvisation on the Theme - Ravi Shankar (1960)
“Ravi has been my alarm clock for a couple of years now. I’ve got his entire catalogue on shuffle and that’s the first thing I hear every morning. If Ravi can’t get you ready to face the day, nothing will.”
8. A Hard Day’s Night - The Beatles (1964)
“Is it a bit of a cop out? Including two Beatles tracks? For me, this is them at peak pop. An entire album of perfect, two-and-a-half-minute pop songs. Expertly crafted and full of emotion.”
9. Keep On Dubbing - Augustus Pablo (1976)
“I had to put this in ’cos it always reminds me of that afternoon with Keith.”
10. Holding Back the Years - Simply Red (1985)
“I’m sure that people will have a go at me for mentioning one of my own tunes, but if we’re talking about songs that have changed my life, this has to be in there.
“Simply Red had a record deal and we’d released our first album, Picture Book - we’d even had a hit single with Money’s Too Tight (To Mention) - but there was no guarantee that initial spike of success was going to turn into a genuine career. Don’t forget that when we first released Holding Back the Years, it only got to 51 in the UK charts. But we decided to re-release it the following year and… number two in the UK and number one in the US, plus a Grammy nomination. That’s when we knew we were on to something.”