With a new decade dawning, and awareness that the rise of dance music was changing the musical landscape, Simply Red’s fourth album, Stars, saw the band move from synth-based sophisti-pop to a more contemporary sound. As a master interpreter of easy-listening ballads and pop-soul craftsmanship, flame-haired frontman Mick Hucknall drew upon his love of jazz, R&B, funk and reggae to create an unrivalled classic that stands the test of time as a touchstone in the latter-day development of blue-eyed soul.
Listen to ‘Stars’ here.
“It felt like the next record needed to be different”
By early 1990, Hucknall had already been lauded as a pop sensation. Simply Red’s third album, A New Flame, had become their first UK No.1 record and was certified seven-times platinum in the UK. As the band’s subsequent world tour came to a close, it would be easy to assume the group had reached their peak, but Mick Hucknall had only just started.
Though nobody had any reason to doubt his talents, it weighed heavy on Hucknall’s mind that the most successful hits from Simply Red’s previous albums were cover versions, such as Money’s Too Tight (To Mention), from their debut album, Picture Book, and If You Don’t Know Me By Now. As a result, Hucknall was eager to reassert himself as a songwriter. “After the huge success of A New Flame, I set myself the challenge of composing a whole album of original songs,” he explained. “I used to sit at home with an acoustic guitar and a Sony Walkman, and I wrote the songs that way.”
Given that the singer had spent some downtime frequenting The Haçienda and DJing across clubs in Europe, the demos he recorded showed he was keen to incorporate dance music into his group’s new direction. This delighted producer Stewart Levine, who also wanted to freshen Simply Red’s approach: “It felt like the next record needed to be different,” he reflected.
A big turning point came when Hucknall first heard Soul II Soul’s 1989 single Keep On Movin’. “I really liked the way in which they’d used drum machines that didn’t sound synthetic,” Hucknall later said. The chief architect of that sound had been drum programmer Gota Yashiki, who had also worked with Seal and on Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U. Hucknall promptly invited him to join Simply Red’s recording sessions in Paris.
“It really felt like we were in this war zone”
With news of the First Gulf War all over the TV, Simply Red’s time in the French capital was difficult. Outside the studio, riots were erupting on the streets and bomb scares were plentiful, proving enormously distracting to the band. “It really felt like we were in this war zone,” Hucknall recalled. “I think it all got just too much for us.”
In dire need of a change of scene, the musicians decamped to Condulmer – a beautiful 16th-century villa on the outskirts of Venice, Italy – and Simply Red’s fourth album soon started to take shape. Recovering from their experience in Paris, it became clear that Gota Yashiki’s involvement had injected new energy into the group’s sound.
Yashiki’s influence was immediately apparent on Stars’ lead single, Something Got Me Started, which showcased Gota’s exuberant acid-jazz groove and a smooth sax solo from Ian Kirkham. Released on 9 September 1991, it peaked at No.11 in the UK and set the perfect tone for Simply Red’s sonic volte-face.