That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.
UK band Simply Red have a fine line in soulful covers that owe a profound debt to singer Mick Hucknall’s powerful and committed vocal performances. There’s the brilliant “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention),” for starters, a gritty and relevant 1985 take on the Valentine Brothers’ 1982 original, imbibed with Hucknall’s righteous indignation not only of Reaganomics (“cut-backs!”), but also the Thatcherite policies behind the snake-like dole queues of ’80s Britain. There’s “It’s Only Love,” originally by Barry White, and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now,” of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes fame. Then there’s “Holding Back The Years,” a deeply moving lament on a broken family and neglected childhood, first released by a punk band called the Frantic Elevators in 1982.
Yes, that’s right. Punk band. Frantic Elevators. 1982.
Admittedly, Simply Red’s second hit, from 1986, is not generally considered a cover, largely because few people are even aware that the Frantic Elevators ever existed. The song’s second-hand status therefore deserves explanation, and fortunately it provides the basis of a compelling story of genre-hopping proportions. It involves Hucknall’s mother deserting him as an infant, the singer’s attendance at a legendary Sex Pistols gig, and his rocky relationship with his barber father. Then there’s the bit where Hucknall delivers one of the most devastating vocals of the mid-’80s, capitalizes on the era’s appetite for blue-eyed soul, and takes the song to the very top of the US Billboard Hot 100. And did I mention that he actually penned the song that the Frantic Elevators first recorded? And that he was, in fact, one of them?
Hucknall wrote “Holding Back The Years” as a youth under the spell of the Manchester punk scene, as unlikely as it may seem. He bought into the whole “anyone can join a band” ethos upon seeing the most anarchic UK rock group of the age perform live in the famously dour and industrial northern England city. It was while living with his dad as a 15-year-old, five miles from the city center in a town called Denton, that he likely went to that Sex Pistols gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall on June 4, 1976. He rubbed shoulders, in which case, with the similarly inspired Bernard Sumner, Mark E. Smith, and Stephen Patrick Morrissey, as well as the Buzzcocks’ Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley. Otherwise, he saw the light, aged 16, at the Pistols’ second Manchester show at the Free Trade Hall on July 20, where local band Buzzcocks played their first ever gig as the support act. At either event, he hooked up with drummer Kevin Williams, bassist Brian Turner, and guitarist Neil Cross (aka Neil Moss or Neil Smith) to form the Frantic Elevators.
Punk band in effect, Hucknall was further spurred into action upon hearing Buzzcocks’ revolutionary first EP, Spiral Scratch, in early ’77. He’s said that it “inspired me and my friend Neil Cross to start writing songs,” particularly on finding that its four fast, raw, and minimalist tracks “related to what I was doing and where I was living.” He drew, therefore, on material that centered on adolescent issues of feeling frustrated, randy, and stifled at home, and pretty much wanting to escape the dreariness of provincial life. Doubtless, he honed in on the seminal “Boredom,” featuring a two-note guitar solo and Devoto spitting the words: “Now I’m living in a movie / Which doesn’t move me / I’m the one waiting for the phone to ring / Ring-a-ring-a-fucking-ding.”
It seems crazy to draw a line between “Boredom” and “Holding Back The Years,” but Hucknall was certainly motivated by Buzzcocks to shine a light on his own unhappy existence in his songwriting. It was in this first-person mode that he went on to forge the bulk of the track as a student, aged 17, at Manchester School of Art in ’78. He was alerted to the stream-of-consciousness technique as an artistic force, and proceeded to apply it to his endeavors as a tunesmith. In this way, he captured “that moment where you know you have to leave home and make your mark, but the outside world is scary.” He connected, in other words, with bitter feelings towards his parents for subjecting him to the emotional abuse and neglect then causing him to flounder at the point of flying the nest. He tells of “thinking of the fear I’ve had so long,” of being “strangled by the wishes of pater,” and “hoping for the arms of mater,” all the result of being raised by a stiff and unsupportive working-class father (of the “get a proper job!” variety) and abandoned by his mother at age 3. He further reveals that “nothing had the chance to be good,” while clearly wanting to suppress the whole miserable experience.
Obviously, the mournful content of the song was not very punk, meaning Hucknall put it on the back burner while he tried to find success with the Frantic Elevators. He and his band mates released a series of EPs and singles on indie labels from ’79 to ’81, with “Voice in the Dark,” the first single, being particularly evocative of Buzzcocks in its short, sharp, and juvenile expression of finding and losing a girl. Hucknall failed to enjoy any chart success, though, after he whooped, hollered, and postured his way through both these and a trio of radio sessions for BBC DJ John Peel. He further got distracted, after a gig in Liverpool, by a Memphis R&B singer emanating from a juke box: Bobby “Blue” Bland. Hucknall’s days as a punk-rock front man were numbered as of this moment, when he began to absorb that artist’s raw and soulful vocals on key tracks like “Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City” and “Stormy Monday,” with their sophisticated jazz leanings and heartfelt ruminations on loneliness and rejection.
Hucknall eventually recorded “Holding Back The Years” with the Frantic Elevators at Hologram Studios in Stockport (ten miles southeast of Manchester) in 1982, after converting not only to Bland, but also Miles Davis. He turned his back on the punk aesthetics that had brought the group zero success, and tested the range of his voice on a much slower and bluesier number than anything they’d yet recorded. He did this against a twangy, rock ‘n’ roll-style arrangement that suggested an aversion to the increasingly dominant synthpop sound of the UK charts that accompanied the success of the Human League and Soft Cell. There was little need for a chorus at this point; Hucknall emphasized through the “It’s all I have to say” finale that the song spoke his essential truth, in style as well as substance. He put a suitable end to the Elevators in the process, the track being issued as their fourth and final single.
While the song bombed after being released on an obscure label (No Waiting) with a cover image that made damn sure it wouldn’t get stocked in Woolworths (Mick with a gun in his mouth), Hucknall proved that he could sing. Really sing. He was able to take comfort, therefore, in the idea of pursuing a more soulful direction as he cut ties with the Frantic Elevators and spent several years on the dole. He got somewhere in early ’85, too, when he linked up with manager Elliot Rashman and assembled a new band consisting of session musicians from Manchester’s Factory Records scene. For this, he came up with the name “Simply Red,” which denoted his hair color, the strip of his favorite football team (Manchester United), and his left-wing politics, while basically making himself the center of attention. He further signed a contract with Elektra and went to work with producer Stuart Levine, then riding high from the fresh, inclusive, and virulently anti-retro soul sound he brought to Womack & Womack’s 1983 debut, Love Wars.
Hucknall and Levine soon rescued “Holding Back The Years” from oblivion and turned it into an innovative soul ballad, for inclusion on the 1985 Picture Book album. They instilled it with stirring yet restrained strings, and reduced the tempo, allowing Hucknall to be more expressive of his inner pain, and to build slowly towards a climactic outpouring of emotion. The singer introduced an “I’ll keep holding on” chorus, too, which added a melodic surge of defiance to the track, though the real curve ball was the instrumental break. Hucknall, in his love of Miles Davis, found in Tim Kellett a musician eager to perform a muted trumpet solo of the Kind of Blue kind, something unheard of on a pop or soul record. He gained the perfect complement to his vocal as a result, steeped as it was in poignancy and sorrowfulness.
Boasting a trumpet solo, Simply Red released “Holding Back The Years” on the heels of “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)” in ’85, but it stalled, surprisingly, at #51 in the UK. They re-released it in 1986, when, as Hucknall believes, the song broke through to a “subculture” that favored raw and honest music, within a culture subservient to pop acts born of production effects, electronics, and drum machines. Sure, many were impressed by Hucknall singing the track live on Top of the Pops, when most everybody else on the show mimed. He boosted the track by appearing “real,” therefore, which he also conveyed in his wearing of a flat cap, heavily symbolic of northern working class culture. In the video, also, he’s to be seen sporting trouser braces, as he carries luggage through the northern England town of Whitby, amidst cuts to reconstructions of his troubled childhood.
In the end, then, Hucknall got a hit record out of “Holding Back The Years.” It was a UK #2 in May ’86, and, perhaps more momentously, a US #1. There stood Simply Red atop the Billboard Hot 100 in July ’86, alongside a wealth of other British artists like Genesis, Peter Gabriel, the Blow Monkeys, and George Michael, as well as British-Trinidadian Billy Ocean. They caught the tail end of the Second British Invasion, in fact, when the UK proved particularly adept at sending synthpop acts across the Atlantic, but also white artists who channeled black R&B. Not only this, but Simply Red received a nomination for the song in the category of Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals at the Grammys in 1987. And the great thing is… Neil Moss of the Frantic Elevators benefited from this success, by sharing a writing credit on the track with Hucknall, even though he hadn’t written any of it. The credit was, as Mick put it, “to remember the great times we had.”