He simply had to cut through all the red tape

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

October 30, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

IT IS PERHAPS one of the best songs from the '80s, a timeless cut. When Simply Red put out "Holding Back the Years" in '86, I assumed the dude was a brotha, of course.

I mean, the penetrating vocals and pain-in-my-heart phrasing came straight out of the Otis Redding dictionary of soul. That kind of singing wasn't in vogue at the time. Plastic, synthesizer-crazed pop was all over the airwaves then. And here comes this moody ballad, topping the charts with its reflective lyrics and soul-saturated vocals.

When I saw Red on MTV -- a fleshy-faced British guy with a head full of stringy carrot-colored curls, I thought it was a joke or something. I know this ain't the dude singing "Holding Back the Years," I thought. But he was the man, whose appreciation of American soul, like the proverbial still waters, runs deep. After his gold-selling remake of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes' "If You Don't Know Me By Now," Red disappeared -- at least on this side of the Atlantic.

"In the time we had two hits in the '80s, we had 10 Top 20 hits in the U.K.," says the artist born Michael Hucknall. He's calling from his hotel suite in Los Angeles. "My success in the U.S. has been warped, which is a shame because most of my sound is based on American culture."

Red, whose latest and eighth album is Home, returns as a new kind of artist: a free one who's more in control of how his music is made and how it reaches you. Musically, the record may not be the singer's most consistent (he still hasn't matched the fluidity and energy of his 1986 debut Picture Book), but the release of Home is a significant step in artistic independence.

You see, Red has put out the new CD without the help of a major label (Warner Music was his recording home for more than a decade) or an independent company. The set is released through his own label, Simplyred.com. It's the first example of an established artist funding his own moves to the level that the album's promotional campaign is indistinguishable from any other international release. It's a bold thing to do. He won't say exactly how much, but Red invested millions of his own money. But like any smart investment, the potential rewards are sweet.

"It's almost unimaginable that it would be so unfair in the record industry," says Red, 43. "The label acts as a bank, giving artists a loan for the product. Then when we pay the loan back plus interest, the label still owns the work. People can't wrap their minds around it, because it is so fundamentally wrong."

One of the bright outcomes of Red's method is that he owns all master recordings. Another is that the artist maintains complete control over the creative process. He doesn't have to deal with some know-nothing label executive telling him to "make it more commercial" or "sing it like this." And after recouping initial marketing costs, royalties are likely to be 200 percent to 400 percent higher than on a standard contract, which, of course, means more dead presidents in Red's pocket.

He says, "The message we're sending out to artists is going to scare major labels, I think -- especially when artists realize they can do so much on their own."

So far, Home has received mixed reviews. Indeed, there are some shining moments (namely the title cut and the funked-up "Fake"), but drab spots (the pointless remakes of the Stylistics' "You Make Me Feel Brand New" and Bob Dylan's "Positively 4th Street") pop up here and there, making the total listening experience a decent but uneven one. The first single, "Sunrise," which samples the Hall & Oates' '81 jam "I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)," has received strong support on adult contemporary stations.

"It took two years to do the record," Red says. "I decided to go back to a style that we used on the first three albums. We built up the arrangements together, the band and I. We rehearsed them in a room and just cut them in the studio."

Although he's more celebrated in England these days, Red isn't concerned with trying to recapture the kind of stardom he achieved in the United States more than 15 years ago. But he is currently playing dates around the country to promote Home. What Red wants most is to remain free. And he hopes fellow artists get hip fast.

He says matter-of-factly, "You would have more sustainable music if you had musicians who could survive in this business. With this project, I want to say to the younger artists that there needs to be reform with the system."

Much respect to Red for putting his money where his heart is.

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