Jul 13

SIMPLY RED – “Fairground”

Popular128 comments • 11,756 views

#728, 30th September 1995

The scales of pop injustice tip in both directions. It is often taken as scandalous that Prince only managed a single Number One. But what then to make of Simply Red’s total? Mick Hucknall’s blue-eyed soul brand trampled the LP charts underfoot with Stars: they were a ruby-toothed sales goliath. But as far as singles go, “Fairground” is your lot. And it’s hard to imagine many people being sad about it.

Simply Red were one of those bands who are easy to loathe. In a way they were the Mumford And Sons of their day – successful to such a degree they stood in for a pile of musical wrongs: bogus authenticity, misplaced nostalgia for older musics, the supposed complacency of the Great British Public. The traits which might have won another musician a fair hearing – his socialism, his love of dub reggae – were brushed aside in Hucknall’s case. Instead we heard about his arrogance, his pettiness, and his colossal libido.

“Fairground” gives us some of the case for Simply Red and a big piece of evidence against them. It surprised people at the time, and on the verses at least it’s their strangest-sounding single. “Driving down an endless road…” it begins, and that’s not at all a bad description of the lonesome vibe here – the odd combination of flowing, tumbling Latin percussion (lifted from dance act The Goodmen) and Hucknall’s ruminative vocal, working together to create something genuinely arresting, even haunting.

So far, so good. But this journey has a destination, and it’s “Fairground”’s belting, red-faced chorus. In comes the piano, up go the decibels, and suddenly I remember why I detested Simply Red. The Hucknall Yell – incarnate here as that triumphant “LUV the thought” – was Mick’s favourite vocal trick. It took him a while to hit on it – it’s not on “Holding Back The Years” at all, and on “Money’s Too Tight To Mention” he builds up the volume rather than switching suddenly into it. But it’s on “A New Flame”, it’s really prominent on “Stars”, and it takes over “Fairground” completely.

I don’t like it because it feels like a very cheap way to ramp up the passion in a song – and Hucknall seems to me a lazy singer in the first place, a man with a sturdy voice and a checklist of soulful mannerisms rather than any great expressive skill. But the Hucknall Yell is particularly irksome on “Fairground”, because the song was going.interesting places without it. The trouble is, those places probably wouldn’t have included the top of the charts.



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  1. 31
    enitharmon on 18 Jul 2013 #

    One number one is one more than The Who ever had. If not having a number one is an injustice then surely that’s the biggest.

  2. 32
    Izzy on 18 Jul 2013 #

    A random thought: is this the closest sophistipop ever came to no.1? Fairground is at quite a remove both in time and sound, and Simply Red were possibly only part of the movement by association anyway, but so far as I can tell its big moments always stopped a few places short, and this is a comparably adult record imo. (Sweet Dreams Are Made Of These, Careless Whisper and even Sleeping Satellite may have competing claims on the crown)

  3. 33
    Cumbrian on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #28 I don’t think I am arguing for a different arrangement in particular – I think the song, as is, with a different vocalist (and a different name on the sleeve) would be more highly regarded.

    I don’t think it would be that highly regarded though – it wouldn’t be a club banger for instance – because, although I think it’s reasonable, it doesn’t scale the heights properly – I guess this might be where we agree re: the unearned release of the chorus. If it were just a little bit more structurally sound, it might work a bit better.

    I have no problem with people being irritated by pop stars. Indeed, I am highly irritated by many – but odious people can make good records. What I personally try to do is consider the record free from that irritation (unless the reasons I am irritated by them are performance related – for instance, I try desperately not to think about Bono’s cosying up to neo-con leaders when thinking about whether U2 are any good – but am more than happy to mark him down when his tedency to fog-horn his vocals when more restraint might be better for the song). It’s clear that you are marking down on the basis of his delivery though, so I think we’re on the same page – just have differing opinions of whether he goes too far on the chorus or not.

  4. 34
    Alan Connor on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Naming the Simply Red track I played the most risks making me seem like a completist or obscurantist when I am neither: it’s Every Bit Of Me, from the four-track EP sellotaped to the front of the first edition of an ’80s magazine called The Hit which listed BPMs IIRC. The teenage me liked it because it is intimate and mentions nudity someone has recorded a record player playing it. (Other tracks: Kick Over The Statues – Redskins / Walls Come Tumbling Down – Style Council / Taste Of Cindy – Jesus & Mary Chain)

  5. 35
    Mark M on 18 Jul 2013 #

    ‘It’s a pity you didn’t sign The Smiths but you were right about Mick Hucknall’
    God to Anthony H Wilson in 24 Hour Party People

    Ah, Hucknall. He was quoted as getting very narked about 24 Hour Party People, although I don’t always trust those kind of reports. But he always has seemed to be a bit spiky, an unendearing character even when in superfan mode for his deserving heroes (eg in the Bobby Bland doc that was repeated the other night). It seems the money, the fame, the hits, the girls*, have never been quite enough for him. Alas, respect will continue to elude him.

    I’m very much in the camp that says Holding Back The Years is his one decent song (going by the fact it is now fairly easy to hear The Valentine Brothers’ Money’s Too Tight To Mention**), and it predates Simply Red, although I prefer the hit version to the scratchier original from his Frantic Elevators days.

    Wikipedia claims that Simply Red is a slightly accidental name, but it works as a triple reference to his hair, his politics (loosely, they’re more soft pink) and his football affiliation.

    *In clubs in Milan in the late ’80s, he genuinely did stand there in a swarm of models.
    ** It could be seen as a part of a weird economic hard times cultural exchange with The Bangles’ infamous-in-some-quarters version of Going Down To Liverpool.

  6. 36
    Izzy on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I like both versions of Money’s Too Tight To Mention, but Simply Red’s is better I think – it’s punchier and Mick’s vocal is outstanding. It’s one record where the tics – cut-Backs!! – could be ridiculous but are approaching the finest pop is capable of.

    Gosh, Simply Red on Factory is an interesting thought. Where The Smiths would likely have sounded exactly the same, it’s difficult to imagine what would’ve happened had Martin Hannett been set loose on what became Picture Book.

  7. 37
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #36 My main problem w/the Red’s version is that ridiculous “did the earth move for you Nancy?” bit he adds in. I mean, I get what it’s doing there, ho ho very satirical, but it diffuses the tension in the song a bit too much – the original brings over the desperation of poverty like few other records.

  8. 38
    punctum on 18 Jul 2013 #

    It came off Spitting Image IIRC.

    TPL bunny, but I did give it a 6.

  9. 39

    Lest we forget

  10. 40
    James BC on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I don’t like this a lot but it’s miles better than the following singles from the same album, and also We’re In This Together which as I’m sure you all know was the official song of Euro 96.

    Simply Red really seemed to lose it after Stars. Not that I’m necessarily blaming Mick – it could equally have been the other band members’ fault, whoever they were.

  11. 41
    Cumbrian on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Re: 24 Hour Party People. I thought it was highly enjoyable, even though it is full of odd ticks and Coogan’s portrayl of Tony Wilson seems to be, simply, a more self aware Alan Partridge. Paddy Considine in particular is terrific in his small part as Rob Gretton. Mick Hucknall is probably just pissed off that he didn’t get the right of reply in the film like Howard Devoto did with respect to the incident where he (Howard) supposedly went to the nightclub toilet with Tony Wilson’s wife/girlfriend.

    Mind you, the bit following the quote at #35 is “His music’s rubbish” – fair enough – “and he’s a ginger” – OK, I guess it’s a funny line to have God say about someone, but really? This is the type of thing I was talking about earlier on in terms of just piling into him. I’ve never met him and – perhaps crucially – never read any articles about him with which to form some sort of an opinion (to be honest, I have never been THAT interested in him) so I am aware that it is possible that maybe he is a dick but I’m willing to give him the benefit of at least some doubt.

  12. 42

    Not that you’d notice, but several early band members had been in the Durutti Column before it was just Vini. (Of all bands that Simply Red don’t remind you of.)

  13. 43
    leveret on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Being fully engrossed in the world of indie, Britpop, the NME and the Melody Maker at the time, this was a deeply unwelcome throwback to the 1980s, unconvincingly tarted up with percussion from a dance track that I had previously quite enjoyed.

    I’ve since come to love much about the pop and rock music of the 1980s, which I was too young to appreciate properly at the time, and am not averse to ‘Holding Back The Years’. Fairground remains, however, something that I frantically rush to turn off if it comes on the radio. The combination of Hucknall’s voice, the overwhelming percussion parts and the bombastic chorus is horrid, horrid, horrid.

  14. 44
    MikeMCSG on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #10 Hi Ian. Sorry I’m going to have to disappoint you here. My association with Tameside only began in 1987 when I started working for the council there. I do recall one or two of the people in the rates office saying they went to school with him – was it Audenshaw High ? – but no interesting anecdotes I’m afraid.

    This is significant as the last number one from someone who was at the legendary Free Trade Hall gig in 76 though you’d be hard pressed to spot a Pistols influence.

    I remember when Virgin started playing it they kept saying it was a poor choice for a single so what did they know ?

    Honorary mention to Joe Meek protégé Glenda Collins whose “I Lost My Heart At The Fairground” is one of her better songs.

  15. 45
    thefatgit on 18 Jul 2013 #

    He’s a Rod Stewart type of singer. You either love his voice or hate it. Bloody Mick Hucknall’s version of blue-eyed soul wore out it’s welcome to these ears pretty much after the 2nd verse of “Money’s Too Tight…”. I’m willing to concede “Heaven” was a fine song and “Holding Back The Years”, but Mick in full cry just annoys me intensely. He managed to assemble a tight outfit out of what was left of The Durutti Column and became massive on the back of that Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes cover. Courting the gossip columns did little to diffuse the impression he was an arrogant little shit, but by the time Fairground came along, he was pretty much a housewives’ favourite. The Goodmen lift, just made me want to listen to “Give It Up” in an attempt to purge my ears of Hucknall. The weird thing is I like having him around as a pop hate-figure. Even the latter-day Hucknall who came across as a thoroughly nice bloke on Sunday Brunch earlier this year, still had my teeth gnashing (please don’t tell me he’s recording again) but then I was always of a similar opinion when it came to Rod Stewart as well. I couldn’t imagine a pop landscape without either of them in it, because I can happily sit there and mutter insults under my breath while they effortlessly murder the Motown back catalogue.

    Yes it’s a healthy, irrational pop prejudice and I have no plans to change my mind about Hucknall or Stewart for that matter.

  16. 46
    punctum on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #42: yep, and one of them will be making an unexpected return to Popular later in the nineties.

  17. 47

    Have to say I still find early Rod an incredibly evocative voice — Gasoline Alley-era — but somehow never quite turned this into an angry John Peel-style rejection of his later sound/behaviour etc. (Possibly because I came on it later, so didn’t have to endure a sense of let-down and betrayal.)

    No such complications enter into my feelings about Mick, in any direction.

  18. 48
    Chelovek na lune on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I’d put Rod (even relatively late Rod) in a rather different category from Mick, vocals-wise. Always felt that one embraced the role of the storyteller as well as singer, and oozed (at very least a good replica of) sincerity, which gave even some of his weaker songs some kind of emotional substance: whereas Hucknall tended to be rather more superficial – perhaps, about drawing attention to his technique, rather than what his technique was intended to allow the expression of.

    Maybe that is harsh. But frankly if I were looking for aching, potentially disturbing, emotional expression I would definitely go to Rod, and definitely not to Mick.

  19. 49
    swanstep on 18 Jul 2013 #

    @ weej, 23. Thanks for that mixtape. I was pleasantly surprised to find some Circus Contraption on it – almost nobody outside the Northwest US has heard of them. I was housemates with one of their main players, Kevin Hinshaw/Chameleo, when I lived in Seattle, hence got to know the whole company well, helped out with their shows, etc.. Their whole schtick is post-apocalyptic, ‘circus at the end of time’; technically, you could have a whole freaky fairground mixtape just from them.

  20. 50
    Tom on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #48 great point – I can’t think of any song where Simply Red even try storytelling, they are all about soul as capturing a moment, an emotion, maybe a situation but even that’s a little too specific. Which is a completely legit approach of course, but as you say one likely to put a spotlight on the showier elements of a singer’s technique.

  21. 51
    Another Pete on 18 Jul 2013 #

    I think it’s one thing being arrogant after all in 1995 with Oasis around Mick was hardly alone. Yet for me Hucknall manages to surpass his fellow Mancunians simply because his arrogance was steely-eyed serious and at the time not very British, though wouldn’t look out of place now. The Gallaghers had each other to bring themselves down a peg. Even the likes of Annie Lennox and George Michael of whom were Simply Red’s closest contemporaries, sent themselves up and as a result endeared themselves more to the British public.

  22. 52
    Ciarán Gaynor on 18 Jul 2013 #

    My favourite Simply Red song is ‘You’ve Got It’ – a minor hit single at the end of ’89, off A New Flame, co-written with Lamont Dozier . Hucknall is fairly restrained on that. It’s the kind of song you hear in a taxi at 2am.

  23. 53
    Alan Connor on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Not the point you were making but do I remember seeing a writing credit “Hucknall/Dozier/Hucknall” for that track or just being told about it?

  24. 54
    Mark M on 18 Jul 2013 #

    Re 35: As Frank Cottrell Boyce always said he based his approach to 24 Hour Party People on Anthony Powell’s 12-novel A Dance To The Music Of Time, I think it would be fair to suggest (to people who’ve read it, obviously, this will be meaningless to everyone else) that Hucknall is the Widmerpool of Manchester post-punk, a much-mocked character who rose inexorably to have far greater success, in conventional terms, than those who had sneered at him, yet remained the butt of the joke for many.

  25. 55
    Chelovek na lune on 18 Jul 2013 #

    #54 Yes, yes, yes! As soon as I saw your ref to “Dance…” (not that I am entirely convinced that there is much of a structural connection with 24HPP), my first thought (before reading the rest of your comment) was “Hucknall is clearly Widmerpool” (down to some pretty dodgy left-wing politics, too, in my book at least: it was someone clearly based on Tito that Lord W ended up shilling for was it not?) …which raises the question of: who was X Trapnel? (just conceivably Morrisssey I suppose)

  26. 56
    Steve Mannion on 19 Jul 2013 #

    #51 Hucknall did try to convey a humourous side on a few occasions, perhaps recognising the perception of him was increasingly damaging. The two most notable examples I can think of are his appearance with Steve Coogan in the Tony Ferrino Phenomenon, with Ferrino as the jealous upstaged host, and the video for the single ‘Fake’ in 2003 in which he tangles with a terrible lookalike. Can’t say either attempt was particularly successful though.

  27. 57
    punctum on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Funniest Hucknall moment was at the Sheffield Kinnock election rally in ’92 whence he appeared on screen singing: “I’ll give it all up for you” (i.e. taxes).

  28. 58
    Ben on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Was just reading a Popular post from last year and people were upset about the closure of ChartStats and didn’t know where they could get archives of top 75 charts. Just wanted to point out in case anyone is interested, I’ve always found this epic UKmix thread very useful as it has every chart in full.


  29. 59
    Mark M on 19 Jul 2013 #

    Re 55: I think that’s a little unfair to Hucknall on the political front – whatever you think about his beliefs, they appear to be sincere and long-held (Widmerpool, who at the beginning of the books is an outsider at a major fee-paying school, opts for the left because a) he thinks that’s the direction history is swinging in, b) it offers him a faster path to the top and c) he is likely to encounter far fewer people who say, ‘It’s that ghastly oik Widmerpool – remember that time when…’ He’s contrasted – Powell loves his comparing and contrasting – with assorted natural leftie trouble-makers, schemers and batty idealists like JG Quiggin, Gypsy Jones, Books Bagshaw and Erry. But yes, one of the rare times in the books where Powell seems actively angry is about Britain’s abandonment of various governments in exile in favour of the Communists, including in what is transparently Yugoslavia).

    I’m not sure I’d want to suggest any other character comparisons, but Morrissey lacks the self-destructiveness of a Trapnel – John Cooper Clarke might be closer.

  30. 60

    I haven’t actually read much Powell — my primary exposure is via CHitchens’s enthusiasm long long ago, and a quite poor high-speed TV dramatisation about ten years ago? — but the project of exactly mapping all UK punk and post-punk and their various aftermaths onto A Dance to the Music of Time seems both urgent and key.

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