What makes someone become a pop star? Sometimes, it’s true, pop stardom arrives by accident, and its recipient responds not with joy, but horror. More often, though, pop stardom is sought, sometimes to make up for things that are missing in life, and the newly minted star embraces all the benefits fame brings, until those benefits — unlimited sex, unlimited drugs, unlimited drink — become more of a burden than a pleasure. Mick Hucknall appears to fall very much into the latter camp.
What was missing was, first, a mother: she left his father when he was an infant, and records became some sort of surrogate as he grew older. ‘Music was probably a kind of sanctuary, once I got a record player and I was in my bedroom and I was on my own,’ he says, sipping coffee in the Langham hotel, next door to Broadcasting House. What was also missing from the young Hucknall’s life was amusement. ‘Growing up in East Manchester, when I was in my early teens, there literally was nothing to do. Except standing in shop windows smoking fags. And probably, at some point, losing your virginity.’
Punk took care of having nothing to do. Hucknall was one of the select few who saw the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in June 1976, along with most of the people who went on to form notable bands in the city over the next few years. But forming his own punk band, the Frantic Elevators, didn’t bring him the other thing that was missing: money. ‘By 1981 I was tired of being skint. I was living on £25 a week for four and a half years. There comes a time when you think, “There’s got to be something better than this.”’
What turned out to be better than that was forming Simply Red and being a pop star, singing soul in an unmistakable voice he had developed by singing along to Aretha Franklin records and trying to reach the high notes. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Hucknall was pretty much unavoidable. He sold 50 million albums — with a new one, Blue Eyed Soul, out this week — and anyone who ever even walked past a radio would have found it hard to avoid his songs: ‘Holding Back the Years’, ‘Stars’, ‘Fairground’, ‘A New Flame’, ‘Something Got Me Started’. There’s a strong case to be made for him being Britain’s greatest underappreciated pop star.
‘In the beginning it was amazing,’ Hucknall says of being a star. ‘But I think I was very sensitive — over-sensitive to criticism. I should have been much tougher. And I think a lot of it is to do — without putting my amateur psychologist hat on — with being abandoned by my mother and rejection. That was probably the roots of it.’ And, it should be said, Hucknall got a lot of criticism, though much of it wasn’t about his music so much as his sheer nerve in daring to be ginger and not evidently handsome, but still managing to have enough sex to make James Bond look like one of the Inbetweeners.
Those days are over — Hucknall is married with a 12-year-old daughter — but it’s clearly women (rather than just sex) who have been the great fascination of his life. When talking about sex, he takes care to insist that he wasn’t using his fame to take advantage of women: ‘I’ve always been very respectful. I’ve never, ever forced myself on somebody. The big deal for my mind is actually to be the one who provides pleasure. You know, the one who is there for you. I am here for you. It’s a two-way thing. So the idea of some of these guys in powerful positions who literally use their power and impose their power on people in that way, I find really repulsive.’
And then there’s the issue of his mother. Did her leaving leave him with some deep well of anger? ‘Once I had a daughter and I had a wife I knew I was going to enter a completely different world that I’d never known before. How was I going to deal with that? Did I harbour any anger towards my mother or to women in general? That was beneath the surface and bubbling under. How was I going to respond to them and do well and be a good husband and be a good father?’
Hucknall is very vocal about politics on Twitter — he’s New Labour; he has no time for Jeremy Corbyn; he thinks Brexit is going to be a disaster — but I’m told not to ask about politics. That’s fine (there are only so many ways to say you’re New Labour, don’t like Corbyn and pro-Remain), but politics weaves its way in, anyway, in a more interesting form. The longest answer Hucknall gives me is to a softball question about whether the 1980s were a good period for soul music, in which he works his way — via a consideration of each generation’s introduction to black music — to the subject of cultural appropriation. Specifically, how he is fed up of hearing that musicians of one ethnicity should not borrow themes from those of another ethnicity.
‘It’s been there since Bing Crosby in the late 1920s, and Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, through Frank Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix doing songs by this Jewish guy from the Midwest called Bob Dylan. The real glory of this whole thing has been the marriage and the assimilation of black and white throughout the centuries. I think that is something to be really celebrated. There’s this kind of weird idea that seems to come from the liberal media about compartmentalisation: black people do this and white people do that. That’s segregation. And by the way, just in case anybody didn’t notice, the instrument that Louis Armstrong is playing is a western European invention. The whole thing should be just shut down as wanton racism and segregationism. I really think they need to stop. I do find it strange that it comes from the left.’
Mick Hucknall, though, isn’t just a plunderer of black music. For many years he bankrolled the Blood and Fire record label, which released vintage dub reggae in beautiful editions, properly licensed from the music’s makers. He’s paid his dues by covering his soul heroes — the Valentinos, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes — with hits big enough to get them paydays. And if his music (and his views) no longer chime with the times, now he’s 59, so be it.
‘Ageing is something to celebrate. If you can avoid long-term debilitating injury and illness, it’s something you have to embrace because the other choice is being dead. So embrace it, grow with it. And that’s what I try and do. I don’t try and write music for the youth. I’m 59. I’m going to write music that’s appropriate to my age. And if younger people want to come along with me, they’re welcome to.’