28 November 2008

"A million years passed by, and his work was done..."

My apologies for the length of this blog entry, I just went a bit mad. The title of it seems more appropriate than ever...

Both F-C and ISBW have given Howard Jones a bit of a verbal lamping lately, over his appearance on that mostly pointless Now That's What I Call 1983 thing which was on ITV1 last Friday. I didn't see it (I was working) but I played New Song at the club night to suggest I was there in spirit.

Howard Jones was my childhood hero. He emerged when I was ten, which was the right time for me to be taken in by the image of someone on Top Of The Pops and really want to learn about them and play their music on a tape recorder over and over again. In his orange boiler suit, he did New Song with Jed Hoile (or Hollie, depending on which magazine you read) and I was absolutely, completely hooked.

Before this, my pop interest had largely been kiddish. Shakin' Stevens was popular with under tens for his child-friendly act, and with grandparents who enjoyed the revival of some very old songs. Although I was aware of most of what was going on in the charts, I didn't have the maturity to hook on to a pop star as a mentor or icon. Then along came Howard Jones.

I look back now and I think it was two things in particular that did it for me. The first was the hair - bright orange, spikey and totally unlike anyone else's even in the world of pop. The second was his array of keyboards - he surrounded himself with synths, at two tiers per side, and did that ace thing of playing two at once in any combination - he could turn to his left and play one-up one-down; or to his right and do likewise; or one on each side; or both of those ahead of him; or a combination of one ahead and one to either side. Naivety stopped me from realising (look, I was a child) that Top Of The Pops was a miming show at the time, and only when Nik Kershaw did I Won't Let The Sun Go Down On Me six months later did the penny drop that he was pretending, and Top Of The Pops as a whole was based on pretence.

I didn't buy New Song because the adverts for the inaugural Now! album had begun, with New Song featured, and I asked for it for Christmas. Even then, I was aware of the needless nature of buying singles if they were on an album you were due to get. I was rubbish at record collecting, really.

I got the Now! album as requested (on cassette, and I still have it) and New Song was played more often than anything else on there, either side of (Keep Feeling) Fascination and Please Don't Make Me Cry. My main pressie was a Casio MT-45 keyboard, and soon I was playing the melody to New Song (which is a piece of piss, frankly - B-B-B-B-B A-G-G.... etc) incessantly, until my peace-craving mother came home from the sales with a cheap pair of earphones to plug in. One problem was that I didn't know all the words ("preconceived" wasn't in my ten-year-old's vocabulary, for example) and I didn't start buying Smash Hits until the start of 1984, so I was stuck. Fortunately, Kerry Grannon (who was a 14 year old swimmer at the club I frequented) kindly handwrote them out for me.

What Is Love? came out at Christmas and this time I bought it. It was the first record I ever bought for myself, on my own, with my own money, and that is something of which I remain proud. Again, I still have it, in good condition in its shadowy, silver sleeve. I loved the video - all fallen leaves, berets and donkey jackets.

Hide And Seek was the mournful next single, and I remember seeing Howard do it on Top Of The Pops and my dad - as if to enforce all dad stereotypes regarding kids' music shows - moaning that he couldn't understand a bloody word he was saying. I must confess, I had that trouble with Hide And Seek too, especially in the second verse. I didn't buy it as my 11th birthday was coming and Human's Lib, the debut album, was on my list - thinking ahead again, see. My grandma was the lucky person whom I asked to purchase it for me (and she pretended, in an effort to show that this Crossroads-obsessed septuagenarian who thought pop music was the devil's work, that I'd said Human League, which was impressive for her) and so on May 24th 1984, I unwrapped a precious cassette copy of his album.



I liked that album. Conditioning and its oddball slot-machine beat; Equality and its unpretentious do-gooding; Don't Always Look At The Rain and it's fag-lighter chorus. I was intrigued by William Bryant, enigmatic co-writer of some of the songs, whom to this day I've never heard Howard mention or namecheck. He did a concert on Radio 1 to help promote the album and the screaming and singing from the crowd was fab. Sadly, my cassette got stuck in the tape recorder after only a fortnight or so (you and your mp3s, you don't know you're born...) and the only way to free it was, devastatingly, to reach for the scissors. I never replaced the cassette, only re-purchasing the album when CDs became popular.

My bedroom was now like a shrine to the man. Smash Hits had enclosed one of those super-sized posters in an early 1984 issue which had Howard in yellow luminous socks, tucked into his trousers. Boy George was on the other side. That poster was straight on to my wall, and all subsequent centrespreads or A4 pics which the magazines used were quickly and mercilessly ripped out and blue-tacked.

Pearl In The Shell was next, a great thumping brassy record, and another Top 10 hit. By now, Howard was really starting to take stick because he was something of a clean-liver. He didn't smoke or take drugs, he was a vegetarian and campaigned actively for animal rights. He was once, however, labelled incorrectly as a teetotaller, to which he retorted: "I'm not. I enjoy a drink!" He was a popular star who wasn't living the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, owning a High Wycombe estate with his wife while his mum, in his childhood home down the road, ran his fan club. This made him undesirable, uncool, unrelatable - but it didn't stop him selling a lot of records.

Like To Get To Know You Well
, dedicated to "the original spirit of the Olympic Games" was next, and I bought this. It taught you via the sleeve how to say the title in ten languages (and used them on the 12" version too, which we found out via the groundbreaking 12" Album, which came out at the same time). I remember snickering at the line "just want to reach to the real you inside" - it took a while before I learned that being figurative was part of the songwriter's art. And the last person you expected to get filthy in lyric was Howard Jones; this at a time when lyrics were being scrutinised like billyo after the Relax saga.



I thought this was the No.1 in waiting - it climbed from 33 to 10 to 4, the sort of progress which offers short odds on a further climb to the top. But it stalled, and still What Is Love? was the closest he'd come. Pity. The latest B-side was Bounce Right Back, a darker song about the perils of espionage, for which Howard and Jed would put on trench coats and shades at live performances. It never got on an album, but it did get on TV Cream's Top 100 B Sides because I made sure of it and, in case you're bothered, wrote the entry for it. No.51, actually.

Christmas 1984, and my disappointment at not seeing Howard at the Band Aid recording is tempered by my acquisition, via my mother, of my first bit of official merchandise. This was how it worked in my family - I'd save my pocket money for something I wanted, then (depending on their mood) my parents would reward me for saving up by buying the item themselves on the understanding that the saved money would then go in the bank, rather than on Texan bars and cans of Quatro. I can't remember how much the T-shirt was, but I was on 50p a week at the time, so I'm guessing it took a while. I was anxious to own it before the South Holderness School festive party for first years.

Mum bought the smallest T-shirt she could find, which was still way too big for me, the underdeveloped 11 year old. I tried it on and I was essentially wearing a dress with Howard Jones' face on it. When my mum's giggling suggestion that she wrap a belt around my waist and have done with it was met with indignation, she threw it in the wash on a high temperature. Then she did it again. And again. It did shrink a little, but now I just had a T-shirt on of the size which suggested I wanted to show off my bare legs. The fact that I was wearing jeans (with zip-up pockets!) was neither here nor there.

So off I went to the party, in an oversized (but not as oversized as originally intended) Howard Jones T-shirt. I got admiring glances from some, and laughter from others. I also got Katrina Lord on one of the Craft House sofas for the evening, so I was happy. I can't say it was down to the T-shirt, as this obviously underestimates my sparkling personality and boyish good looks (I was 11, so my looks couldn't have been anything other than boyish), so we'll assume that the T-shirt just rounded off the positive attributes already in existence. No, we really will. Be quiet at the back.

For Christmas, I got the Howard Jones video. Naturally, this was on Betamax, and consisted of a teen concert given by the great man interspersed by the videos to the first four singles, which played after his live version of the appropriate song. There was a voxpop of High Wycombe's residents with the question "What do you think of Howard Jones?" with replies obviously complimentary, although one market stall holder did shout "rubbish!" which amused my heavy metal devotee brother greatly. That video stayed in my possession for 20 years before it finally went to the charity shop, hoping that someone with a Betamax VCR and a fetish for the 1980s would wander in.

Howard took a break to record his next album, and I remember being really excited when a trailer for Whistle Test popped up during some guff on the telly (almost certainly So You Want To Be Top), stating he would be performing some, er, new songs (arf) on their programme that evening. I think Richard Skinner was hosting.

Whistle Test
was on too late for me, so I taped it for when I returned from school the next day. On came Howard, his orange hair de-spiked a little (I always compare the trichological change between the first two albums as similar to that of Bugs Bunny when he's upset or frightened, and his ears go right down) but ... what's this? He has a band? A band?

Yep, and among them was his own younger brother Martin on bass. I'm sure he was a good bass player, but I've always wondered if the Jones matriarch, in between banking postal orders and sending out Risk memberships to 12 year olds, had turned to Howard and said "can't you give your brother a job?" And so, it came to pass, that Martin Jones, complete with very ordinary haircut, appeared on stage with his big brother. Also there were barking mad brass collective TKO Horns, a Geoff Capes lookalike stand-up drummer who was asking for a coronary and gospel backing singers Afro Diziak, featuring Caron Wheeler.

The bass and drums could have still been synthed by Howard himself, but the horns and the backing singers were there as there was a less electronic feel about the new material. On this Whistle Test session, Howard did Look Mama with the band, then No One Is To Blame alone at the baby grand, then Things Can Only Get Better with his new mates. On the latter, the horns were the mainspring of the song, while the very catchy "woah woah" chorus was parroted by the new singers. It was a hit, surely!

And out it came. Gary Davies was beaming with pride as he introduced Howard back on to Top Of The Pops in a seriously sycophantic manner. You could tell the public liked having him back - Things Can Only Get Better entered the charts at 18, and peaked a fortnight later at 5. I bought the 12" single, which featured a long instrumental version of album track Why Look For The Key? on the flip, entitled You Jazzy Nork. I used it for years as backing music when doing financial news on hospital radio. No, really.

Look Mama came next, a song about parental interference in one's private life and career path (though he may well have written it after Mrs Jones insisted young Martin got on the next record) and it reached 10. Life In One Day, a shanty-ish bit of weirdness with acoustic guitar underscore, got into the Top 20. No One Is To Blame, a less likeable song (made all the more hateable once Phil Collins got his hands on it and covered it in drums, natch) stuttered into the Top 30.

Within all this, Howard did Live Aid. Badly. Now I was at football practice on the afternoon of July 13th 1985, but had scoured the pull-out guide to Live Aid which the Hull Daily Mail had graciously included in its Friday edition. Howard was due on at roughly 4pm, as far as I recall. It wasn't running late when I got home just before that time (indeed it did okay for schedule until Pete Townshend started arseing about, of course) and Howard came on, nervous, said "hello", went on about sharing the experience with everyone, played Hide And Seek on Freddie Mercury's piano, got the audience to sing the chorus, then buggered off again. That was it. How come he only got to do one song? Nik Kershaw got to do four! Swizz.



I bought Dream Into Action, the album, and liked it, but my interest was waning. The last Howard Jones related memory of my time actively enjoying the man's work and existence was when he did the Comic Relief live show, alongside Afro Diziak, doing a semi-acapella version of Life In One Day. You might recall the announcer (Alan Dedicoat?) introducing Joan Armatrading, who walked on with guitar, waved, then walked off again, so instead he said "Oh, well in that case, please welcome Howard Jones!" who did his turn. I've never got to the bottom of that Armatrading no-show. It was probably a daft joke.

Howard had a baby that summer, called Osheen (who's now an actor, I believe) and his comeback single of late 1986 was called All I Want. It was poor. I watched him do it on Top Of The Pops and the flame had gone out. He was trying to attract an adult audience now, not a 13 year old lad, and I fell by his wayside. The single struggled just into the Top 40, and he's never been there since. The follow-ups were as unremarkable, but I remember Everlasting Love coming out in 1989 which was excellent, and I still think so now. Yet even though the 1989 record-buying public were reviving Tears For Fears after three years away, still putting Duran Duran into the Top 10 and almost forgiving Spandau Ballet their sins, they would not do likewise for Howard Jones. It peaked somewhere in the 60s, I think. Not long after, he released his first cover version - a rendition of I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World) which was very good, without even casting the merest cloud on Donald Fagen's bit of immortality, and it didn't chart. Howard's newer material was, occasionally, getting into the US Top 10 (City Song) but the UK didn't want to know, and the only thing I bought after Dream Into Action was his Best Of... collection a good decade or so after his relevance had ceased. And, of course, my CD copy of Human's Lib, probably 15 years after the cassette had been ruined.

My adulthood has allowed me to like Howard Jones all over again, simply because I think he was a worthy and skilled hero for a boy of ten in 1983 to adopt. He was popular but not notorious, he was genuinely brilliant as a musician, and he had a physical image that helped identify the 80s for those of us who don't just blithely label it as the decade that taste forgot. Squeaky clean he may have been, but it should always be about the music - if it's good, anything else is forgivable. And Howard Jones' music, for the era it represented, was ace.

5 comments:

Five-Centres said...

Phew!

Now don't get me wrong. I love the music - I bought New Song and various others, I have all the hits on my ipod. It's just that I found then and still find today, the man to be a bit of a bellend.

Brian Cleary said...

Great post Matthew.

I always liked HJ too, I stilll think that 'No One Is To Blame' is a classic.

I was a bit late buying his stuff - mainly because my folks wouldn't give me the money to buy any stuff. I bought the cassette of the All I Want album about 6 weeks after it was released for 1.99 in a bargain bin. I only bought it for 'U Know U Love Me Don't U' or whatever it was called. You could say that his muse had left the building by that stage.

As a devout Donald Fagen fan I thought that I would hate his version of IGY but I really like it.

Finally one HJ fact always sticks in my mind - when the best of was released in around 93 the sleevenotes said ' here's to the next ten years' and the reviewer in Q summed it up best 'I doubt it'.

Valentine Suicide said...

Both Howard Jones and Duran Duran are seriously awful, Matt. You really should have come to this conclusion on your own by this late stage. There is a reason they end up those penny-dreadful TV shows, and on Christmas nostalgia tours.

Matthew Rudd said...

Heh. I thought you were in exile? For his time, he was ace. But can we say that about you, VS?

Dave Nightingale said...

Matthew..

Don't crack up
Bend Your Brain
See both sides...
Throw off your mental chains..

Dug out my greatest hits today,and played it loud,and went back to 1983 (metaphorically speaking)...now where's my back copies of Smash Hits and Nik Kershaw albums? :-)