Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Howard Jones - A Synth Wizard Dreams Into Action

In September 1984, Howard Jones was riding high on the U.K. charts with his latest hit, ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’. The song had just been released in Australia, and Jones made an appearance as guest host on Australia’s famed ‘Countdown’ music show. Jones wowed ‘em with two ‘live’ in-studio performances, of his late ‘83/early ‘84 hit, ‘What Is Love?’, and he closed the show with the new release ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’. I recall sitting transfixed by Jones’ remarkable dexterity on keyboard and synth combo - of course I was a little naïve in those days, and still believed the guest performers on ‘Countdown’ actually played live (which very few did). Regardless, Howard Jones already had a well deserved reputation as a synth-guru, and virtual one man electronic-band. He moved with apparent ease between bass lines, percussion tracks, and catchy synth riffs, all without missing a trick - all this whilst managing to maintain control of a seemingly bizarre head of hair. And there I was, struggling to even contemplate the challenge of patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time (nope still can‘t manage that one convincingly). Dazzling dexterity and innate musical genius obviously don’t come as free giveaways with the Jones name. Did I just type that? I meant Smith.

Howard Jones was actually born John Howard Jones, and it’s entirely possible that he reverted to plain ole Howard to avoid any confusion with the latter day Australian Prime Minister. Actually, that’s not very likely at all, given Jones was born during 1955, in Southampton, England. At any rate, the call of music far out shouted any political ambitions, and by age seven young Howard was tinkering away on the piano. That he was a prodigious talent may, or may not have been evident at that point, but one thing was certain, in time Howard Jones would remove any semblance of doubt over that question. By his teenage years, Jones’ family had relocated to Canada, where for a few years he continued to nurture his love of music. It was in Canada that Jones joined his first band as an organist, whilst still in high school - a progressive rock outfit called Warrior.

The Canadian experience was a relatively brief one, and by his college years, Howard Jones was based back in England. He continued to play with a number of different semi-professional bands, but by the mid 70s, he had enrolled in the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. Not unlike a young Iva Davies of the same period (see previous Flowers/Icehouse posts), Jones improved his understanding of musical theory, and honed his craft as a pianist and composer. But life as a classical pianist wasn’t for Howard Jones, and soon his love of popular music led him to break free of the stifling pro-classical environment. During the late 70s, Jones balanced playing in local Southampton jazz and funk outfits, with a need to pay the bills on time. So the keyboardist by night, ran a produce-delivery business by day, and gave piano lessons on the side. Fate then stepped in, as fate often does (usually wearing big jackboots), to radically change the direction of Howard Jones’ music career.

Howard’s wife Jan also worked in the fruit and veg business, and was injured in a vehicle accident whilst on a delivery run. A successful compensation claim resulted in her buying Howard his first synthesizer, a Moog Prodigy (previously he’d used a borrowed kit). As it turned out, a different delivery man, of the musical instrument variety, delivered two synthesizers to the Jones home. What’s better than one ‘you beaut’ Moog synthesizer? Two ‘you beaut’ Moog synthesizers! So, Howard Jones paid for the second synth, and began working on combining the sounds of both instruments, at the same time. During 1979, he began scoring gigs around the High Wycombe district as a solo act. At his solo shows, Jones would perform using only polyphonic keyboards, a sequencer, and a drum machine to accompany his vocals, which meant not having to split the pay check at the end of the gig (though he did have to shout the drum machine coffee). Possibly because he felt lonely on stage, Jones would often have a local mime artist, Jed Hoile, perform improvised choreography during his shows. Hoile would remain a regular support performer on Howard Jones tours over future years.

During a residency at London’s famed Marquee Club, Jones came to the attention of renowned BBC DJ, and talent spotter, John Peel (how many artists owe a debt to Peel for their first big break?), who arranged for Jones to play one of Peel’s famous BBC sessions. The BBC show brought Jones to the notice of the music industry at large. It was the early 80s, and ’New Wave’ was still enjoying boom times. Jones soon found himself playing tour support for the likes of OMD and China Crisis (see previous post). During the summer of ‘83, at the ripe old age of 28, Howard Jones was signed to the WEA recording label (Elektra in the U.S.). Having been writing and performing music for the most part of a decade, Jones had more than enough quality material on hand to record. His classical training, combined with his pop sensibility, would have led the suits at WEA to anticipate Jones’ debut set with quiet confidence.

Howard Jones’ debut single, ‘New Song’, made an almost immediate impact on the British charts, post its September ‘83 release. By October, he was booked to perform the song on ‘Top of the Pops’, the appearance helping to propel ‘New Song’ inside the British top ten (#3/US#27/OZ#60). The precise and austere synthesized atmosphere of ‘New Song’ gave an insight into Jones’ affection for the synth-pop movement, but unlike some of his technology-intensive contemporaries, Jones’ lyrics imbued his work with a warmth and accessibility not often associated with the synth-pop crowd. Rolling Stone magazine referred to Jones as “a high-tech hippie”, with his lyrics espousing humanist ideals, positive thoughts, and positive actions. Jones largely dispensed with the doom and gloom aspect of synth-pop, in lyrics like ‘New Song’s “Not under the thumb of the cynical few, or laden down by the doom crew”. The freewheeling lyrical love-in continued on Jones’ next single, ‘What Is Love?’. Perhaps the public had also had their fill of cold, melancholy synth-pop, as ‘What Is Love?’ found an answer at #2 on the British charts following its November ‘83 release (US#33/OZ#31). Jones’ ear for melodic hooks was well attuned, and when combined with his cheery, upbeat lyricism, it worked a treat on a music buying public, increasingly disposed to a more buoyant brand of popular music.

In February of ‘84, the lyrically introspective ‘Hide And Seek’ (UK#12) hit the British charts by way of a lead in to the much anticipated release of Howard Jones’ debut album. Co-produced by Colin Thurston and Rupert Hine (see previous post), ‘Human Lib’ hit British stores in March of ‘84, and immediately hit #1 on the charts (for two weeks - OZ#68/US#59). Howard Jones penned all the album’s eleven tracks (in partnership on a few with co-lyricist William Bryant), and the album was proof that technically precise synth-pop could be imbued with melodic charm, and lyrical warmth. Howard’s hooks permeated the album throughout - some tracks were eminently danceable, though anything but dance-pop - and no doubt the tracks further sprung to life via thought provoking, but utterly unpretentious lyrics. The bittersweet lament of ‘Pearl In The Shell’ offered listeners a change of mood, and the album’s third British top ten single (#7) during mid ‘84. In June of ‘84, Jones hired his old haunt, the Marquee Club, to perform his ‘Human Lib’ album in front of a specially invited guest list of record company suits - as if he needed to say “I told you so”. Stateside, the groundswell of support for Howard Jones was growing, via regular rotation of his music videos on MTV, and the popularity of his refreshing brand of sunny-side up synth-pop with college radio stations.

In August of ‘84, Jones released the new single, ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’. Lyrically, the song promoted ideals of world unity, seeing beyond artificial barriers, to the purity of humanity - or something like that. Apparently Jones dedicated the song to the original spirit of the Olympic Games, perhaps by way of lament, given the current/recent Olympic events (boycotts and rampant commercialism) of the time. The invitingly catchy melody of ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ was sufficiently endearing to push sales for the song to the upper reaches of the British charts (#4/OZ#16/US#49). In late ‘84, the obligatory remix album was released, with the less than inspiring title of ‘The 12” Album’, though at least some thought was put into the cover art, which featured a ‘miniature’ Howard Jones standing alongside a 12” ruler. The six tracks contained within offered little to any but Jones’ core fan base, which to be fair is probably who were the target audience (UK#15/OZ#56).

In early ‘85, Howard Jones began touring with a full backing band, which meant dispensing with one time stage sidekick and mime, Jed Hoile. The completely mimeless Jones entered the studio, supported by backing singers Afrodiziak (the trio of Claudia Fontaine, Naomi Thompson, and Caron Wheeler - who went on to front Soul II Soul), the TKO Horns (Dave Pleurs, Alan Whetton, Jim Patterson, Brian Maurice), and producer Rupert Hine. They all exited sometime a few months later, having laid down a dozen tracks for Jones’ sophomore album, ‘Dream Into Action’. The rhythmically lithe single ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was released a few weeks in advance of the album, and became Howard Jones’ biggest hit to date (UK#6/US#5/OZ#11), officially sweeping aside any residual resistance in the U.S. The song’s lyrics were few, but succinctly encapsulated the notion of positive thought, whilst musically, ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ pointed towards a synth-pop wizard at the peak of his creative powers.

The ‘Dream Into Action’ album made a bigger splash Stateside (#10/OZ#17), whilst it peaked at #2 in Britain. Jones was denied his second British #1 album by Phil Collins’ ‘No Jacket Required’, which in retrospect was mildly ironic, given Collins and Jones would soon collaborate on the latter’s biggest hit single Stateside. The follow up singles, the musically quirky ‘Look Mama’ (UK#10/OZ#20), which featured spoken word dialogue sampled from the 1974 film ‘Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore’, and the lyrically clever, and upbeat ‘Life In One Day’ (UK#14/US#19), further consolidated Howard Jones’ global profile. By the time of his performance at the Wembley ‘Live Aid’ concert in July of ‘85, Howard Jones was a bona fide synth-pop idol.

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