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The Sydney Morning Herald

Taking the Mick

Author: By Richard Jinman
Date: 05/07/2003
Words: 1238
          Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Metropolitan
Page: 4
The UK tabloids might have a field day with him, but Simply Red's frontman couldn't care less. He has a new album, his own record label and loads of dough.

You got a lotta nerve/

To say you are my friend/

When I was down/

You just stood there grinning.

Positively 4th Street, Bob Dylan

It's no accident that Mick Hucknall decided to cover this bitter song on the latest Simply Red album. It's a rebuke, of sorts, to those people who said - not to his face, obviously - that he was all washed up when his 1999 album Love and the Russian Winter sputtered and faded like a cheap firework. In Australia, it peaked at 167 in the ARIA chart, a dismal result for an act that has sold more than 40 million albums worldwide.

"A lot of people were sniping in the press, saying I was finished," says the feisty 43-year-old singer from beneath an umbrella in the garden of his home in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. "If I'm finished [commercially] I don't care, because musically I'm not."

Indeed he's not. Hucknall may have parted company with his record label (the Warner Music offshoot EastWest) after the release of Russian Winter, but Simply Red's velvety cocktail of soul, jazz, reggae and blues - a sound once described as "designer soul" much to Hucknall's enduring disgust - lives on.

The group's eighth album, Home, recorded chez Mick, is released on the Manchester-born singer's own label, SimplyRed.com. It's been hailed as a return to form: a back-to-basics R&B project reminiscent of the slick white funk of chart-nobbling albums such as 1991's Stars. Besides the Dylan cover, Home includes a sleek version of the Stylistics' You Make Me Feel Brand New and a techno take on Dennis Brown's Money in My Pocket.

It's hardly revolutionary but, even after all these years, it's hard to argue with the quality of Hucknall's golden pipes.

The singer admits Russian Winter was something of a stuff-up. Not the songs - he still stands by them - but the way they were recorded. His team of hot-shot producers used the latest studio technology to create the backing tracks; Hucknall simply added his voice to the finished product.

"The real disaster occurred when I went into a live rehearsal," he explains. "Because the whole thing was programmed, the songs didn't work live. I decided the next time I made a record I'd be in the room with the musicians from the beginning to the end."

Ah, yes, musicians. When Simply Red formed in 1985, it was a band. Today, it's a brand. Hucknall is CEO of Simply Red Inc and everyone else is an employee. The lingering resentment of a few musicians who were ditched in the '80s, just as success beckoned, has seen Hucknall earn a reputation as a ruthless operator.

He disputes it all, naturally.

"James Brown worked with 50 or 60 musicians and he was considered a band leader," he says emphatically. "In the beginning, we wanted to be the next Beatles but no one else showed any writing abilities. I got the same royalties as everyone else, but I was doing all the work, so we had to restructure the band."

I want to remind him the Godfather of Soul also had a reputation as a tyrant, but something tells me now isn't the time to be a wise guy.

Hucknall has described his contract with EastWest as "immoral". He says he'd been researching new ways to release music for several years.

"We [the record label and Hucknall] both did quite well, but they did very, very well out of my career," he says. "If I made $US3 million ($4.5 million) on an album, they made $US200 million. There's quite a difference."

He's right, but it's all relative. Hucknall has come a long way. He was a pimply 16-year-old when a 1976 performance by the Sex Pistols inspired him to become a musician. His punk band, the Frantic Elevators, were never going to set the charts on fire.

Nowadays, his personal wealth is estimated at #40 million ($102 million). The house in Surrey is one of a set - he also has property in Paris and Milan - and he's famous in Britain for having had a perfectly healthy tooth replaced with a fake gnasher inset with a ruby (it was upgraded to a diamond several years ago).

Combine this flashy aesthetic with a legendary reputation as a ladies' man - his list of former girlfriends reads like a Who's Who of mystery blondes and A-list nubiles - and you get some inkling of why sections of the British media love to loathe him.

When he put on a few pounds in the early '90s, tabloids dubbed him "Amply Fed". When it was revealed in 1992 that he had the federal symbol of Europe tattooed on his body, vitriolic columnist Julie Burchill blasted him as a Euro-bore "most remarkable for his striking resemblance to the Duchess of York in drag".

Hucknall's still a whipping boy, a man who gets more flack than Sting and Rod Stewart combined. Type his name into a search engine and you'll find the website 1000 People More Annoying than Mick Hucknall, a directory of irritating celebrities that uses Hucknall as the benchmark.

His relations with the tabloids haven't improved over the years. When the singer had a public slanging match with a tardy chauffeur a few years ago, London tabloid The Daily Star reported every detail with undisguised relish. "Rude redhead Mick told the man he was fired, then ordered him: "Stick your f---ing foot down and get me f---ing home now!" roared the tabloid.

Hucknall has a theory about all this. Several, actually. He believes the ubiquitous, often derogatory references to his red hair are a form of racism. But he understands why the tabloids give him such a hard time.

"They're aggressive towards me and I'm kinda aggressive towards them," he says. "If I don't show a great deal of respect for people who have no right to be my judge and jury, why should they respect me? What I object to is columnists who judge Jennifer Lopez's cellulite or my red hair. What gives them the acumen to even make those judgements?

"I have a completely private life. They've never got into my world and they won't. They don't like that. They expect people like me to tell them about my split-ups or my drug hell. But I'm not playing the game. I've got my freedom and I have my privacy. Without your private life you are a meaningless, vacuous person."

So, um, are you still a playboy?

"My definition of a playboy is someone who has a rich daddy. I'm a self-made man," he says. "I enjoy lots aspects of my life apart from f---ing beautiful women. But I'm a pop star, after all, and that's what we're supposed to do."

He pauses as if considering if this irony will work in print. "Actually, I'm not as hedonistic as they like to portray me. The thing they find hard to accept is that you can be three-dimensional: you can be interested in politics [Hucknall's a New Labour supporter] and beautiful women."

Another pause. "Not at the same time, though! Hey, say 'hello' to all those lovely Australian girls, will you?"

Yes, ladies: Mick Hucknall is still young(ish), rich and single.

Home is available now.

 
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