Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address
Please accept the terms
‘Blue’: The Story Behind Simply Red’s Melancholic Sixth Album
In Depth

‘Blue’: The Story Behind Simply Red’s Melancholic Sixth Album

Marking a pivotal moment in Mick Hucknall’s career, Simply Red’s ‘Blue’ album saw him poignantly explore the past to express his sorrows.

Back

After achieving massive commercial success with his group’s previous two albums, Stars and Life, Simply Red lead singer and songwriter Mick Hucknall took a bold step to explore new musical horizons for the band’s sixth album, Blue. Working with an eclectic mix of genres ranging from soul to jazz, reggae and electronic music, Hucknall emerged from a particularly tumultuous time with a heart-rending collection of songs.

With longtime band members leaving before studio sessions had begun, the Simply Red line-up was in a state of flux at the time Blue was recorded. Additionally, Hucknall found himself wrestling with regret over a recent romantic break-up. Imbuing his songs with greater emotional depth, however, Hucknall ended up reflecting both his personal struggles and the band’s journey through a period of significant change.

Here is the story of how Simply Red’s melancholic sixth album, Blue, remains a testament to their perseverance and resilience…

Listen to ‘Blue’ here.

The backstory: “I was on a slight self-destruct thing but also wanted to carry on”

Despite scoring their first UK No.1 hit single, Fairground, and once again topping the charts with its parent album, Life, in 1995, success had finally taken its toll on Simply Red. The departures of keyboardist Fritz McIntyre and guitarist Heitor TP meant that frontman Mick Hucknall and saxophonist Ian Kirkham were now the sole remaining members of the group, so the challenge of making a follow-up album was a daunting prospect. It came as a further surprise when Hucknall decided to part ways with his long-standing producer, Stewart Levine, who’d helped all but one if Simply Red’s albums since the release of their debut, Picture Book, in 1985. “It was just the coming to the end of a cycle,” the singer later explained.

Despite being one of Britain’s biggest pop stars, Hucknall was greatly troubled by some setbacks in his personal life. “I ended a relationship that I shouldn’t have ended,” he admitted to Q magazine in 1998. “And once you break that trust there’s too much anger there to go back. I broke her heart.” Weighed down by guilt, Hucknall was nevertheless keen to keep Simply Red’s momentum going as best he could. “In a strange way these were hard times with a lot of mental challenges for me to deal with,” he would recall elsewhere. “I was on a slight self-destruct thing but also wanted to carry on.”

Amid these difficulties, Hucknall began to demo some ideas for a covers album, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to do it alone. Aware of how crucial drum programmer Gota Yashiki had been to the success of Simply Red’s best-selling 1991 album, Stars, he reached out to his former bandmate to help him plot a change of musical direction. Additionally, Andy Wright, a guest musician and programmer who had played on Life, was sent an early version of Hucknall covering The Air That I Breathe, a 1974 hit by fellow Mancunians The Hollies, on cassette tape.

In response, Wright put together a new version of the track and soon found himself being invited to collaborate. As they worked on Hucknall’s ideas for the album, Wright and Yashiki gradually became more involved in the project; solidifying the core team, Hucknall decided the trio should form a production team of their own called AGM. Galvanised by this newfound spirit of collaboration and hoping to put his personal troubles behind him, Simply Red’s main man was finally ready to bring Blue into the light.

The recording: “I thought it was time to experiment. I was trying to find a new sound”

Aiming to bring an array of genres together, as per Hucknall’s wide-ranging tastes, the newly formed AGM set to work in various recording studios in the UK, Jamaica and the US. With the involvement of over 20 musicians and singers, along with London’s Pro Arte Orchestra, it was clear that Blue was shaping up to be Simply Red’s most ambitious work yet, anchored by Andy Wright and Gota Yashiki’s technical wizardry.

“I thought it was time to experiment. I was trying to find a new sound,” Hucknall explained. “I thought Andy’s techno-y, sample-y work married with Gota’s organic approach to machinery would make a good blend together.” Weathering the recent rise of UK trip-hop and downtempo electronica, AGM’s contemporary mixture of atmospheric synths and electronic beats was buoyed by Hucknall’s timeless blue-eyed soul voice, ensuring that Simply Red’s new music was refreshingly progressive.

The first single to emerge from these sessions – a cover of Gregory Isaacs’ 1982 reggae hit, Night Nurse – was released in September 1997 and saw Hucknall collaborate with Jamaican duo Sly & Robbie. Peaking at No.13 in the UK, the song tapped into Hucknall’s love of reggae music, a personal passion that had been slowly simmering away ever since he founded his own record label, Blood And Fire, in the early 90s.

Though cover versions formed an important part of the recording process for Blue, the sounds of the past also inspired Hucknall to write new material. Across the shimmer of 70s-style soul on To Be Free and the piano-jazz balladry on Someday In My Life, there’s a sense that Blue found Hucknall in a unique creative space where he was free to mine his influences in search of sonic gems. His personal anguish followed close behind, often seeping into his vocal delivery and providing a much-needed emotional outlet.

As Blue was being readied for the public, the single Say You Love Me was released in late April 1998. Another original song, expressing Hucknall’s need for romance and spotlighting the universal power of love, the bittersweet ballad was a sultry work of sophisti-pop that exposed the singer’s vulnerability following the breakdown of his previous relationship (“In every single pair of eyes/There is a hunger in it/Or its soul dies”). Peaking at No.7 in the UK, it stands as one of the best Simply Red songs of era.

The release: “It was exactly what it said on the tin – blue!”

Upon its release, on 19 May 1998, Blue became Simply Red’s fifth successive UK No.1 album. Kicking off with a sleek R&B rendition of Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night cut Mellow My Mind, the album exhibited a tastefully executed choice of cover material, including an impeccable nu-jazz makeover of Aretha Franklin’s 1973 soul ballad Angel. With AGM’s shiny production touches, Blue’s contemporary sophisti-pop sheen was timely yet refreshing.

While it’s easy to assume that most cover versions lean into tried-and-true styles, the late-90s was a time when remix culture was at its peak. As a result, the songs on Blue – aided by Andy Wright and Gota Yashiki’s work – helped modernise the sounds of the past with crystal-clear dance-pop embellishments. The album’s third single, Hucknall’s take on The Hollies’ The Air That I Breathe, reinterpreted that soft-rock classic it as a downtempo Simply Red ballad. Released in August 1998, it went to No.6 in the UK.

Across a sombre and moody collection of songs, Hucknall’s voice aches with gloom-ridden pangs of longing, lending authenticity to each lyric as if his heart depended on it. “It was exactly what it said on the tin – blue!” the singer said of the album in Simply Red’s official biography. “I decided to go through the cathartic artist routine – if I’m blue then I’m gonna show it and you’re going to get some of it.” Keeping despondency at bay, AGNM’s uplifting contemporary R&B grooves found glimmers of hope amid Hucknall’s romantic despair.

The legacy: “I think the experimentation is nice”

In fact, it’s Andy Wright and Gota Yashiki’s rhythmic inventiveness that made Blue such a refreshing change of pace for Simply Red. Given that Wright would go on to produce pop hits such as Reach, by S Club 7, and Eternal Flame, by Atomic Kitten, it’s clear the ear-pleasing gloss he lent to Blue not only helped Simply Red stay commercially relevant in the late 90s, but also ensured his sonic touches would gain extra credence in the years to come.

The final single to be released from the album was Ghetto Girl, a dub-inflected and loose-limbed cover of a song by reggae artist Dennis Brown. Issued in November 1998 and peaking at No.34 in the UK, the song yet again saw Hucknall channel his childhood fondness for old Trojan Records singles and attempt to find joy amid some sweltering Caribbean-flavoured grooves.

By venturing into new sonic territory and experimenting with different genres, Blue proved to be a notable departure from Simply Red’s previous work, though that did little to deter the group’s fans, who ushered it to sales of 1.2 million worldwide. “There are some nice moments on the album,” Hucknall would later conclude. “I think the experimentation is nice.” Despite the behind-the-scenes difficulties Hucknall faced, Blue emerged triumphantly. Marking the start of a whole new chapter for Simply Red, it proved that a willingness to take risks and explore new musical avenues can ultimately pay off.

Buy Simply Red vinyl and more at the Dig! store.

More Like This

‘Swing Fever’ Review: Rod Stewart And Jools Holland Heat Up The Jazz Classics
In Depth

‘Swing Fever’ Review: Rod Stewart And Jools Holland Heat Up The Jazz Classics

Both respectful and inventive, ‘Swing Fever’ finds Rod Stewart and Jools Holland adding a new chapter to the Great American Songbook.

‘The Yes Album’: How Yes Mounted A Prog-Rock Breakthrough
In Depth

‘The Yes Album’: How Yes Mounted A Prog-Rock Breakthrough

Created in a revolutionary act of survival, Yes’ third LP, ‘The Yes Album’, is a seminal classic that launched prog-rock into the mainstream.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up