Simply Red is the wild card on this year’s Obama summer playlist. You expect the former president’s curated playlists to be loaded with impeccably hip picks, from all over the worlds of pop, soul, jazz, rock & roll, and his 2021 Summer Playlist is no exception. He’s got vintage classics like Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, he’s got cool kids like Jazmine Sullivan and Migos and Wye Oak. Prestige grooves, all the way. But then right there near the top, sticking out like a sore thumb, exactly one Eighties crying-mom classic: Simply Red’s 1986 mall-pop ballad “Holding Back the Years.”
What does it mean in 2021 for Simply Red to become the kind of cultural artifact that America’s leading statesman can point to with pride and designate as a theme song for this land of ours, in these troubled times? “Holding Back the Years” sure doesn’t fit in with the rest of the glamorous playlist. Yet there’s something undeniable about this song. A miserable Eighties ballad about waking up and shaking off years of daily trauma? For some strange reason, that feels like a national anthem.
First things first: if you don’t recognize the song, it’s probably because you think the title is “I’ll Keep Holding On.” But you definitely know this song. “Holding Back the Years” comes from the U.K. group Simply Red. Mick Hucknall was a red-headed, pasty-faced Manchester kid who came out of the punk scene: as everybody learned from 24 Hour Party People, he was there for the infamous 1977 Sex Pistols gig, attended by every future rock legend in town (and nobody else). But his heart belonged to American R&B, and Simply Red hit Number One in the summer of 1986 with “Holding Back the Years.”
Simply Red was just one of a passel of mid-Eighties lounge-soul balladeers to emerge from the U.K., emerging from the postpunk doldrums. Sade, the Style Council, Everything but the Girl, my beloved Blow Monkeys: depressive music for depressive times. Simply Red’s first Top 40 hit was explicitly about the mass unemployment of the Reagan-Thatcher years: a cover of the Valentine Bros.’ 1982 R&B single “Money’s Too Tight (to Mention).” But “Holding Back the Years” is about an emotional wasteland. Hucknall sings about what a miserable mess his life has been, ever since childhood. But the chorus is one line he repeats, over and over: “I’ll keep holding on.”
It’s a song about knowing it’s time to move on, but refusing to let go of a no-win situation, resigning yourself to more of the same. There’s no climax, no catchy hook, just one heartache after another. Something about this song spoke to people. Your mom probably thought it was by Carly Simon. (Lots of people did.) But it was soulful enough for the Isley Brothers to cover.
“Holding Back the Years” summed up a state of emotional stagnation, at a time of cultural stagnation. America was overdosing on dreariness in 1986, the year Huey Lewis scored a hit song informing us it’s “Hip to Be Square.” The year Jermaine Stewart sang, “We Don’t Have to Take Our Clothes Off (to Have a Good Time).” The year people gladly paid money to see Top Gun. Remember the Top Gun opening scene, with the words: “Indian Ocean. Present Day”? That’s how the year felt: It was always going to be Present Day. This was a permanent condition — the Reagan-Thatcher era had wiped out all possibilities for a future. As the noted historian William Joel has put it, this was the winter of “AIDS, crack, Bernie Goetz.”
“Holding Back the Years” didn’t suggest any kind of solution to this malaise: it just summed up the feeling honestly. It had a similar vibe to an earlier 1986 Number One hit, Madonna’s “Live to Tell.” Both Mick and Madonna have a sad story to tell. They’ve gotten burned before by hoping things would change, but they’re not giving up hope. They’re determined to keep that bitter miserable memory alive just because that feeling — this really happened, it’s not just in my head — that’s what keeps them feeling alive. Like Madonna, Mick just wants to live to tell.
“Holding Back the Years” had a slow-burning reign on the radio, topping the charts right in between Billy Ocean and Genesis. It was also the summer of the Smiths’ The Queen Is Dead, which articulated the same Northern English melancholy: the whole vibe of “when you want to live, where you start, where do you go?” It hits home in the wreckage of 2021, when we’re recovering from years of political trauma, when we’re supposed to be thrilled it’s been six whole months since the last presidentially approved terrorist attack on the Capitol.
Simply Red’s best came a year later, in the summer of 1987: “The Right Thing,” one of the era’s finest songs about the timeless topic of learning how to give oral sex, “on the job,” as it were. Mick tries his damnedest, while the backup singers urge, “Get off your back, boy! Get on track, boy!” (The Eighties were such a hotbed of emotionally evocative oral sex songs, from various perspectives, but that’s a topic for another day.)
But it wasn’t as big as “Holding Back the Years” — people just liked Mick a lot better when he was suffering. Simply Red fluked into another Number One in 1989, a cover of “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” — imagine having the gall to remake a Teddy Pendergrass ballad, then imagine being English. The world decided to forget this atrocity ever happened, and the world got that one right.
“Holding Back the Years” is the quintessential 1986 song, but it’s never faded away. As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan recently noted, the song had an afterlife in hip-hop, getting sampled by Masta P in his 1996 No Limit classic “The Ghetto Won’t Change” and Brand Nubian in “Hold On.”
And this song about summer-’86 stagnation works beautifully as a soundtrack to summer-’21 stagnation. That’s why “Holding Back the Years” lives on. Sometimes it’s comforting to hear a singer who isn’t promising or even planning to make it better. Sometimes you just want to hear him hold on to that misery. Well played, Mr. President.