In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Mick Hucknall was a punk — or, anyway, he was some kind of punk. In 1976, a few days before Hucknall’s 16th birthday, the Sex Pistols played their first show in Manchester. That show was famously under-attended, but a whole lot of people claim that they were there. Hucknall is one of them. By that time, Hucknall was already getting work as a club DJ, playing soul and reggae records. Later on, Hucknall formed a sort of new wave group called the Frantic Elevators and toured with the Fall. After the Frantic Elevators broke up, Hucknall formed Simply Red. Other members of his band had roots in Manchester’s Factory Records scene. But when Hucknall and Simply Red got famous, they did it with some floridly, extravagantly unpunk music.
We’ve heard this story before. The same thing happened with Boy George, who came up in the London club underground and who made soft, prettified versions of American soul music that did big numbers on adult-contemporary radio. But by virtue of his out-front sexuality and femininity, Boy George was still a confrontational figure. Hucknall was not. In Simply Red’s video for “Holding Back The Years,” Hucknall is a willowy urchin, wandering the English countryside and reminiscing on his unhappy youth. He’s a lost, fragile little kid. He’s not threatening anyone.
Hucknall really did have an unhappy youth, and that’s what “Holding Back The Years” is about. Hucknall was just barely old enough to be cognizant when Beatlemania took hold. (The #1 song in the US when Hucknall was born was the Everly Brothers’ “Cathy’s Clown.”) Hucknall wanted to be a pop singer, or maybe a soul singer, but his father wasn’t having it. Hucknall’s mother had left the family when he was young, and his father, a barber, raised him. Hucknall’s father wanted him to get a real job, and he didn’t think much of Hucknall’s art-school pretensions or his pop-star aspirations. There was static.
When he wrote “Holding Back The Years,” Hucknall was 17, and he’d already started the Frantic Elevators. One of his art teachers had told him that much of the best art was made through stream of consciousness. Hucknall tried to write a few songs the same way, and one of those songs was “Holding Back The Years.” (The song is credited to Hucknall and his Frantic Elevators bandmate Neil Moss. Years later, Hucknall told The Guardian, “Neil didn’t write it, but we wrote so many songs together that I gave him a credit to remember the great times we had.” Awful nice of him!) The Frantic Elevators released “Holding Back The Years” as an indie single in 1982, and it didn’t go anywhere.
A couple of years later, after the Frantic Elevators broke up, Hucknall started a new band. At first, he wanted to call it Red, after his frizzy ginger hair. Then, after telling a few people that the band’s name was “simply Red,” he figured that it sounded better as Simply Red. Hucknall recruited Manchester session players to fill out the rest of the band. Two members, bassist Tony Bowers and drummer Chris Joyce, had been in the early Factory Records band the Durutti Column. Another, trumpeter Tim Kellett, was a student at a music school. Elektra signed the band and sent them to work with Stuart Levine, a former jazz saxophonist who’d produced Hugh Masekela’s flukey 1968 instrumental hit “Grazing In The Grass” and Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ bombastic 1982 soundtrack ballad “Up Where We Belong.”
Simply Red’s first single was 1985’s “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention),” a cover of an American R&B song about hard times. The original was a 1982 single from the Valentine Brothers, a relatively obscure group from Ohio; Hucknall had found it while DJing. Simply Red’s version made it to #13 in the UK and #28 in the US. It was a good start. But the follow-up, a new version of the Frantic Elevators’ “Holding Back The Years,” was what put Simply Red over the top.
Hucknall has said that he didn’t know what “Holding Back The Years” was about until after he’d written it. Lyrically, it’s a sad song about fear of adulthood and about feeling out-of-place in your own family: “Strangled by the wishes of pater/ Hoping for the arms of mater/ Get to me the sooner or later.” Hucknall wails that he’s “wasted all those years” even though he was a literal child when he wrote it. Some of his lines are truly bleak: “Nothing had the chance to be good/ ‘Cause nothing ever could.” But when he revisited the Frantic Elevators original, Hucknall added a new chorus: “I’ll keep holding on,” repeated over and over, like a mantra. It’s a pledge of resilience on a song about vulnerability.
Musically, “Holding Back The Years” is pure pastiche, but it’s pretty good pastiche. The song has groove, and it has atmosphere. The backbeat is slow and warm. There’s Fender Rhodes, but it’s not the sickly digital Fender Rhodes sound of so many mid-’80s ballads. There’s synth, but it’s icy and purposeful, and it’s not just decoration. The bass and guitars play slick little counter-rhythms. Really, Hucknall’s voice, the band’s main selling point, is my least favorite thing about the song. Hucknall delivers most of the song in an overwrought scraggle-moan, a white British kid’s pantomime of Black American soul-gospel theatrics. With that “I’ll keep holding on” bit, the song has a real chorus, and Hucknall holds back when he delivers it. That, more than the Otis Redding wailing that he attempts elsewhere, is what sells the song.
Picture Book, Simply Red’s debut album, comes dangerously close to turning Hucknall’s voice into a gimmick. The album works best when it steers into the band’s non-soul influences, like the big reggae thump of the title track, or when the band applies those soul influences elsewhere. Simply Red turn the Talking Heads’ ballad “Heaven” into Stax-style soul, which works better than you might expect. But when they go for R&B rave-up, it gets old fast. In the years ahead, though, Simply Red steered away from any and all punk-related sounds and into full-on crushed-velvet territory. Commercially, this worked out well for them. We’ll see them in this column again. And their next #1 hit? I simply dread it.
BONUS BEATS: “Holding Back The Years” was an adult-contemporary hit in the US, but it also reached a respectable #29 on the R&B charts. In the years ahead, samples from “Holding Back The Years” showed up on a surprising amount of ’90s rap tracks. For example, here’s 8Ball & MJG rapping over a “Holding Back The Years” sample on the title track of their classic 1993 debut album Comin’ Out Hard:
(8Ball & MJG don’t have any Hot 100 hits as lead artists, but their highest-charting single as guest rappers is Three 6 Mafia’s 2005 classic “Stay Fly,” which peaked at #13.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Brand Nubian built their 1994 single “Hold On” on a sample of “Holding Back The Years.” Here’s the video:
(Brand Nubian’s highest-charting single, 1998’s “Don’t Let It Go To Your Head,” peaked at 54.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Master P’s 1996 track “The Ghetto Won’t Change,” which features perfectly-named Mo B. Dick singing the hook from “Holding Back The Years”:
(Master P’s two highest-charting singles as lead artist, 1998’s “I Got The Hook Up!” and “Make ‘Em Say Uhh!,” both peaked at #16. As a guest-rapper, P’s highest-charting single is Montell Jordan’s “Let’s Ride,” which also featured Silkk The Shocker and which peaked at #2 in 1998. It’s a 7. Mo B. Dick never charted as lead artist, but he did guest on Master P’s 1999 single “Goodbye To My Homies,” which also featured Silkk The Shocker and Sons Of Funk and which peaked at #27.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Isley Brothers’ ultra-smooth 1996 “Holding Back The Years” cover:
(The Isley Brothers’ highest-charting single, 1969’s “It’s Your Thing,” peaked at #2. It’s a 10.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Z-Ro flipping the “Holding Back The Years” hook on his 2008 track “Rollin'”: