Simply Red’s roots originate from the notorious 1976 Sex Pistols gig at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester. Manchester art student Mick Hucknall was one of the many young music fans present, along with original members of Joy Division, The Smiths and Buzzcocks, who was inspired to form a band after witnessing that gig. The first incarnation of the band was a punk group called The Frantic Elevators. This band existed for 7 years, with limited releases on local labels, but split in 1984 with only limited local attention and critical acclaim for their final single, “Holding Back The Years”.
After the demise of The Frantic Elevators, Hucknall linked up with manager Elliot Rashman. By early 1985 Hucknall and Rashman had assembled a band of local session musicians and began to attract record company attention. Around this time the group adopted the name Simply Red (after Hucknall’s nickname, which denoted hair color, football allegiance to Manchester United and left-wing political affiliation). They signed to Elektra in 1985, with the somewhat changeable line-up of Hucknall, Tony Bowers (bass), Fritz McIntyre (keyboards), Tim Kellett (brass), Sylvan Richardson (guitar) and Chris Joyce (drums).
Their first single, released in 1985, was “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention)”, a cover of a soul standard originally recorded by The Valentine Brothers. This single had international success, reaching the UK Top 20, later the American and French Top 30, and the Italian Top 5. Their debut album, Picture Book, was also released in 1985.
In 1986 the band re-recorded a song that the Frantic Elevators had recorded earlier, “Holding Back The Years”, in a more accessible pop style, which was this time a major hit, peaking at #2 in Great Britain, #20 in Italy and later #1 in the United States, establishing Simply Red as a household name. The song remains the band’s most recognized work. The album began to sell more copies, and became an international hit album.
Their second album, 1987’s Men and Women saw the band adopting a more sober and professional image, with bowler hats and colourful suits replacing their earlier ragamuffin look, and the introspection and social commentary of their debut replaced by a blue-eyed soul sound with funk influences. Around this time Hucknall became a tabloid personality, drawing attention and criticism for his alleged womanising, and gaining a reputation as “a lecherous loudmouth” and bien pensant. Despite Hucknall’s bad reputation and the album’s mixed reviews, Men and Women was a commercial success.
With their third album A New Flame in 1989, Simply Red adopted a yet more mainstream populist sound aimed for commercial rather than critical success, typified by their cover of Harold Melvin’s pop classic “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, which became their second U.S. #1 hit and one of the biggest singles of the year internationally; and their greatest success until now. Hucknall was by this time an international superstar, being photographed with models and Hollywood celebrities. This seemed to harm the band’s coherence as a unit, with Hucknall declaring in 1991 that Simply Red was “essentially a solo project”.