Sunday, August 2, 2009

Far From Howard's End - The Talent Outlasts The Haircut

1985 had been a banner year in the career of synth-pop guru Howard Jones. With two hit albums, and a string of top ten singles in the can, Mr. Jones had undeniably established himself as one of the defining figures of the mid-80s synth-pop scene, but the world of popular music is a fickle and fleeting one, and there was no time for Howard Jones to rest on his creative laurels. The next phase of his career would see the curious juxtaposition of a strengthening profile Stateside, against a decline in commercial returns at home in Britain.

Following on from the mega successful ‘Dream Into Action’ set, Howard Jones’ next release was probably intended as a bit of a stopgap measure, whilst preparation began on the next full album. The ‘Action Replay’ EP (US#34) was released in March of ‘86, originally for the U.S. market only. It featured six tracks, including several remixed songs from ‘Dream Into Action’. One of those songs was ‘No One Is To Blame’, a wistful ballad, reworked by producer Hugh Padgham in partnership with one Phil Collins (who also recorded a new drum track and backing vocals). Maybe Phil felt a bit guilty over standing between Howard Jones and his second U.K. #1 album, or maybe he just had a bit of left over time between recording sessions for the new Genesis album, ‘Invisible Touch’. It matters little, as the Howard Jones/Phil Collins collaboration worked a treat. ‘No One Is To Blame’ was lifted as a single, and bolted to #4 on the U.S. charts mid year, and also found a home inside the Australian top ten (#9), though Britain offered a little more resistance (#16) to the song’s obvious charms.

By October of ‘86, Howard Jones had completed work on his third full studio album, ‘One To One’ (UK#10/US#59/OZ#65). Produced by the legendary Arif Martin, the album reflected an artist who was maturing in terms of his creative boundaries. The synthesizers weren’t quite so dominant, and a balance was struck between Jones’ virtuoso synth playing, and the album’s support cast - which featured the likes of Nile Rodgers, Mo Foster, and Steve Ferrone. The lead out single differed between U.S. and U.K. markets, though I’m not certain why. ‘All I Want’ was chosen for Britain, and would represent Howard Jones’ last foray into the British top forty (UK#35/US#76/OZ#83). The more up tempo ‘You Know I Love You…Don’t You?’ probably was better suited for the U.S. market, circa mid 80s, and its chart performance reflected that (US#17/UK#43/ OZ#61). However, despite being good quality synth-pop, neither song was particularly inspiring, and seemed to lack a bit of the heart and soul of Howard Jones’ earlier singles. The third single from the album, the atmospheric ballad ‘Little Bit Of Snow’ (UK#70), offered a hint as to Jones’ future shift in style, with a more stripped down, organic sound. On quality alone, ‘Little Bit Of Snow’ deserved to be a major league hit, but the fact that no promotional video was produced didn’t help its chances. All things considered, 1986 hadn’t done anything to dull the sheen on Howard Jones’ glowing career to date, and his regard within the industry was further acknowledged when Rolling Stone magazine named him ‘Keyboard Player of the Year’ for 1986 (think he may have received a free Casio for his efforts).

Howard Jones kept a relatively low profile over the next couple of years, though he did contribute a stand out performance at the 1988 Prince’s Trust Gala at Albert Hall, playing alongside the likes of Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Phil Collins. But the song writing continued in earnest, and preparation began for his next studio album. On the side, Jones opened his own vegetarian restaurant called ‘Nowhere’ (easily found by following the road to nowhere, or asking the nowhere man for directions). In March of ‘89, Howard Jones’ new single ‘Everlasting Love’ made a swift impact on the U.S. charts. The song was a return to form, and boasted a catchy, reggae tinged sound, whilst lyrically, Jones served up a feel good ole fashioned tale of true love. ‘Everlasting Love’ hit #1 on the Adult Contemporary charts in the U.S., and #12 on the Hot 100, though by now Britain had turned off and tuned out to Howard Jones’ upbeat, feel-good synth-pop (UK#62). The track had been co-produced by Tears For Fears’ associates Chris Hughes and Ian Stanley, though Jones himself took on the producer’s role for the bulk of the source album. ‘Cross That Line’ (UK#64/OZ#78/US#65) also saw Jones handling the song writing solo, as well as most of the instrumentation. The album’s second single, ‘The Prisoner’, was a heavier rock edged affair, with the electric guitar receiving a solid airing throughout. Also co-produced by the Hughes/Stanley connection, ‘The Prisoner’ was backed by a technically cutting edge promo video, which no doubt assisted the song’s climb to #30 Stateside.

Once more Howard Jones retreated from the spotlight for a couple of years, but re-emerged in 1992 with, arguably, his most personal album to date. ‘In The Running’ saw Jones largely push his trademark bouncy synthesizer based sound to the background, in favour of a more bare bones, organic approach, which placed strong emphasis on voice and piano. A strong support crew was on hand, with Ross Collum co-producing and co-writing several tracks, and Bob Clearmountain manning the mixing desk. The lead out single, ‘Lift Me Up’, was in all honesty a bold and brassy synthesizer track, so some of the ‘old model’ Howard was still evident (it was also backed by a very engaging promo clip). ‘Lift Me Up’ proved to be his last incursion into the mainstream singles charts (US#32/UK#52). Unfortunately, the album ‘In The Running’ sold poorly, despite boasting some impressive guest players, including guitarist Robbie McIntosh (Pretenders, Paul McCartney’s band), drummer Mark Brzezicki (Big Country), and Midge Ure, whilst the follow up singles, ‘Two Souls’ and ‘Tears To Tell’, also missed the charts. In some ways, the dip in commercial fortunes reflected the broader public perception of Howard Jones as being consigned to the 80s electro-pop movement, despite his classical training and obviously diverse musical palette. In 1993, WEA/Elektra released ‘The Best Of’ collection (UK#36), prior to dumping Howard Jones from their playing roster.

No doubt Howard Jones could have attracted interest from another major label, but instead he opted to take control over his own recording future, by establishing the dtox label. He also hit the road on a solo acoustic/piano tour, at which he started selling his new album ‘Working In The Backroom’, recorded at his home studio, ‘The Shed’, and offered exclusively to concert patrons (and later via his official website). The album’s title reflected Jones’ retreat from the mainstream spotlight, though a core fan base remained true to the Howard Jones cause, as he toured Europe and the U.S. relentlessly during the mid 90s. Now free of having to please the major labels and pop charts, Howard Jones fully indulged his more creatively innovative and diverse side. In 1996 he embarked on a tour of the U.S. under the banner, ‘The Acoustic Tour’. No surprises that the tour featured Jones playing solo on a grand piano, accompanied only by percussionist Carol Steele. The tour resulted in the critically acclaimed live album, ‘Live Acoustic America’, which saw Jones deliver a virtuoso performance of some of his best known songs, in the purest expression of his music to that time.

In 1998, Howard Jones secured a distribution deal with the Ark 21 label, and issued the album ‘People’, his first studio offering in six years (released a year previous for the Asian market, under the title ‘Angels & Lovers’). The album featured a few catchy, hook-laden tracks, such as ‘Let The People Have Their Say’, designed as a point of access for old school Howard Jones fans, with the balance comprising more introspective songs with simple arrangements. The hectic touring schedule continued throughout ‘98 and ‘99, this time with a classy backing band, featuring drummer Kevin Wilkinson (China Crisis), guitarist Robin Boult, and bassist Nick Beggs (Kajagoogoo). During 1999, Jones embarked on a U.S. tour alongside a reformed Culture Club, and Human League (see previous posts). Many of the tracks performed by Jones on tour during that period, were laid down in studio during a four day period on April of ’99, and eventually released on the 2001 release ‘Metamorphosis’ (which was basically a ‘live’ in-studio album).

Over the next couple of years Howard Jones continued to explore new territory as a live performer, firstly on 2000’s ‘Night Of The Proms’ tour (supported by a 72 piece orchestra and 50 voice choir), followed by a place in Ringo Starr’s touring All Starr Band during 2001 (alongside the likes of Roger Hodgson, Sheila E. - see previous posts - Ian Hunter of Mott The Hoople fame, and Greg Lake of E.L.P.). During his extensive touring schedule, Howard Jones began arranging for the ‘real time’ recording and production of tour CDs, offered for sale to fans on the very night of the shows. No fewer than nineteen live concert CDs were produced on the 2001 ‘Peaceful Tour’.

Early 2003 saw the release of the album ‘Piano Solos - For Friends And Loved Ones’, a set which featured Jones performing a selection of personal favourites as, you guessed it, tambourine solos (Howard may have stuck to the conventional interpretation, but I refuse to). The album was again designed for the gifted artist’s loyal fan base, and was sold exclusively through his official website. It was released on Jones’ own dtox label, which from March ‘03, proudly boasted that every CD they produced was ‘Carbon Neutral’ (something about protecting daffodils and aardvarks). September 2003 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Howard Jones’ first single ‘New Song’. A commemorative concert was staged at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire, which consisted of four sets - Acoustic, Retro, Electronic, and Full Band - reflecting Howard Jones’ varied range of performance styles. Guest performers included mime artist Jed Hoile, Midge Ure, and singer Nena Kerner (see previous Nena post).

In 2005, the studio album, ‘Revolution Of The Heart’, reaffirmed Howard Jones as an electronic music artist of rare distinction. Though chart success was clearly a thing of the past, the Robbie Bronnimann produced album, featuring the single ‘Just Look At You Now’, was a celebration of Jones’ mastery of electro-pop, enveloping a committed lyrical message of hope and tolerance. Like several of his 80s vintage, Howard Jones reminded mass television audiences of his audacious talent via the show ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ - he took out the U.S. version. Over the last few years, Howard Jones has continued to tour the world to packed shows, captured in two recent live album releases - the acoustic set, ‘Live In Birkenhead’ (2007), and the triple CD, ‘Live: The 25th Anniversary Concert’ (2008). As of 2009, Howard Jones continues to wow audiences with a mix of shows, from acoustic, to full band, to pure electronic music (with the Electric Trio). To the uninitiated, Howard Jones may have remained “that guy with the spiky hair and bank of keyboards”, but to those in the know, this consummate writer and musician has forged a near thirty year recording and touring career, born of an uncompromising sense of creative independence, and a willingness to push the boundaries of his own craft.


Anonymous said...

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thankyou Sara. Always happy to hear that someone is interested in my blog. I hope you keep on enjoying what I post.