July 26, 2016
July 15, 2016
Carole King’s Hyde Park gig on Sunday 3rd July – her first in the UK since 1989 – was like balm to a wounded city. She united 65,000 people and made it look easy. However, as she recreated Tapestry, her landmark bestseller from 1971, it was a reminder of just how much her other albums wither in its shadow. It’s a frequently repeated myth that nothing she did before or after was as good; in fact, Tapestry was the third in an excellent run of albums, seven of which were absolute sales champs in the US. Then, around 1978, her chart-busting reign ended, although she remained a popular live performer and continued issuing albums, albeit with longer and longer gaps between them. In truth, it may have been impossible for her to live up to Tapestry – and sometimes the critics came gunning for her. To help those who’ve only paid scant attention (or none at all) to her other works, here’s a roundup of her back catalogue. Rather than highlighting the whole discography, I’ve picked a representative sample of ten.
The followup to Tapestry, issued the same year, was a huge success, helped by the presence of hit single ‘Sweet Seasons’. Despite featuring fuller arrangements, it has a muted, reflective quality, evident in ‘Some Kind Of Wonderful’, the album’s sole dip into the Goffin/King archives. In contrast to Tapestry’s forceful and direct approach, Music is a softer-edged and jazzier collection, qualities reflected in its sepia-hued, gatefold cover and guest appearance from Curtis Amy. Music ends with a sudden burst of energy to rival ‘Smackwater Jack’, thanks to the ebullient ‘Back To California’.
2. Rhymes And Reasons (1972)
Presented in another sepia-tinged gatefold, Rhymes And Reasons was the sound of an artist retreating to a quiet space in order to make sense of life, love, politics, the world and fame. People who listen to it once find it bland. People who persist, don’t; repeated listens reveal this album’s mellow magic. The hit was ‘Been To Canaan’, but other highlights include ‘Peace In The Valley’ and ‘Ferguson Road’. The production is more detailed and elaborate, with pianos overdubbed on pianos and orchestral arrangements pointing the way to what would come the following year.
3. Fantasy (1973)
This is the unfairly maligned concept album in which CK imagines herself as a number of different characters (hence Fantasy) as they cope with the vagaries and problems of urban and suburban life. For once, King dispenses entirely with outside lyricists. She also orchestrates, arranges and conducts the whole ambitious, r’n’b-flavoured, Curtis Mayfield-inspired thing from start to finish. Worth the price of entry for the unexpected, dynamic Spanish-language hit ‘Corazon’ alone. In a damning review, the New York Times compared the album unfavourably to new releases by Joni Mitchell and Dory Previn.
4. Wrap Around Joy (1974)
Perhaps bruised by the response to Fantasy, Carole went pop the next year, and her efforts were rewarded with two big hits – ‘Jazzman’ and ‘Nightingale’. Dave Palmer (from the first Steely Dan lineup) supplies all the lyrics. Carole layers her backing vocals as if to create the nostalgic sound of a girl-group chorus. Daughters Louise and Sherry Goffin make their recording debut and David Campbell supplies strings. A classic.
5. Thoroughbred (1975)
Like all its predecessors, Thoroughbred was produced by Lou Adler, but after this, he and Carole would part creatively (with one reunion in 1983). It’s an incredibly consistent album, with a back-to-basics focus on the kind of songwriting that made Tapestry great. The philosophical statement-songs (something at which King excels) ‘Only Love Is Real’ and ‘We All Have To Be Alone’ are exceptional. James Taylor, J.D. Souther, Graham Nash and David Crosby lend support.
6. Simple Things (1977)
Savaged so mercilessly by Rolling Stone that Carole was compelled to write the magazine an open letter in its defence, Simple Things was meant to be a new start – a move to Capitol Records, a new band, with King and Norm Kinney co-producing. It’s easy to scoff at the album’s earnest paeans to nature and spirituality, but she clearly means it all. If you can’t put aside your aversion to pastoral rock, then you’ll miss out on ‘In The Name Of Love’ and ‘One’ – two of King’s most stirring songs. Rolling Stone named Simple Things the ‘Worst Album of the Year’. In the very same pages the year before, Stephen Holden had written a rave review of Thoroughbred. Never again would the magazine get behind a Carole King album. ‘Hard Rock Cafe’, the album’s lead single, was to become one of her last visits to the upper reaches of the Hot 100.
7. Touch The Sky (1979)
An Austin-recorded country-ish album made with Jerry Jeff Walker’s band. It’s much better than its commercial performance would suggest. Made in the aftermath of personal loss (King’s short-lived third marriage had ended with the death of her spouse), it opens with a fabulous, call-to-arms title track in which the artist’s ecological and political frustrations are aired.
8. City Streets (1989)
Definitely the most consistent of King’s four 1980s releases,City Streets includes support from Eric Clapton and is a robust and rocking effort with a should’ve-been-a-hit title track and two of King’s trademark soulful ballads – ‘I Can’t Stop Thinking About You’ and ‘Someone Who Believes In You’.
9. Colour Of Your Dreams (1993)
King’s sole 1990s studio set. According to the liner notes, it wasn’t conceived as an album, but more as a rounding-up of recent studio activities as they came together. Consequently, it lacks the sense of a unifying theme or arc, but it’s by no means without charm or substance. Featured are ‘Now And Forever’ (from A League Of Their Own), a guest appearance from Slash and the uncharacteristically desolate, once-heard-never-forgotten single, ‘Lay Down My Life’.
10. Love Makes The World (2001)
The most commercially-minded of all King’s albums and, to date, her last album of original material. It’s full of celebrity guests. The strategy isn’t without merit; witness the fantastic LGBT-friendly duet with KD Lang, ‘An Uncommon Love’. If Carole really intended to bow out of full-time recording with this album, then its closing trilogy ‘You Will Find Me There’, ‘Safe Again’ and ‘This Time’ are a befittingly brilliant goodbye.
Honourable mentions go to:
Now That Everything’s Been Said (1969) – Carole’s first foray into the album format, made under the group name of The City.
Writer (1970) – the first solo album proper, and it’s impressive.
Really Rosie (1975) – The Maurice Sendak collaboration; a splendid children’s album you don’t have to be a child to get into.
Easy With You (1976) – A shelved album, the existence of which has piqued the curiosity of fans for forty years.
Welcome Home (1978) – in the vein of Simple Things, with a beautiful, anthemic title track.
Pearls (1980) – Goffin/King songbook gets a creditable 80s makeover.
One To One (1982) – the last Carole King album to have a late-seventies feel.
Speeding Time (1983) – the obligatory 1980s synth album.
A Holiday Carole (aka A Christmas Carole) (2011) – A festive album that deftly avoids the sentimental pitfalls of the genre.
July 14, 2016
I was delighted to appear on TRT World’s Showcase to discuss Carole King, Stevie Wonder and Louise Goffin and the Hyde Park BST Festival. Click the still to play the video.
June 27, 2016
I was extremely delighted to take part in a groundbreaking feature for the July 2016 issue of Attitude, in which several LGBT+ representatives held a roundtable discussion with the Duke of Cambridge at Kensington Palace. Here’s an accompanying visualette.
June 26, 2016
Louise Goffin has more than paid her dues. She may be Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s daughter, but in the course of nearly forty years of writing, recording and performing, not once has she come on as a stereotypical, entitled-to-superstardom showbiz heiress. In fact, she has endured the same kinds of peaks and troughs as anyone else coping with the vagaries and capriciousness of the music industry and has conclusively shown herself over and over again to be a talent in her own right. Three times, major labels have taken her in and then ejected her unceremoniously, despite the fact that she has never submitted less than stellar work. But right now she’s riding another high as she prepares to open for her mother at Hyde Park on Sunday 3rd July, and her new collection, The Essential Louise Goffin, Vol 1, is imminent.
Photography: Ben Steinberger
“Because it’s such a big opportunity, I just went into high action mode to get everything in place,” she says, speaking on the phone from California, as she packs for London, radiating an easy warmth and vivacity. Having burst, seemingly fully formed, on to the recording scene in 1979 with the album, Kid Blue, she’s had a career characterised by perseverance and determination. She started out on David Geffen’s fabled Asylum label where her colleagues included Joni Mitchell and Eagles. Kid Blue was a striking debut – a mix of convincing rockers and singer/songwriter odes. Writing or co-writing the songs and accompanying herself on guitar and keyboards, it was clear Louise was no conveyor-belt pop tart or production-line diva. Another album came and went in 1981, and in 1984, pursuing new opportunities, Louise set out on a ten-day trip to London. “It turned into ten years,” she laughs. “I came for ten days, and then it was Christmas and I just kept staying”.
Initially, she was taken in by the Stiff label and it’s easy to imagine her alongside their other signings, perhaps pushed as a kind of Rachel-Sweet-who-writes-songs-and-plays-instruments or an American Kirsty Maccoll. When the deal with Stiff went nowhere, Louise moved to Warners where, toiling with super-producers Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, she created the album, This Is The Place, a highly persuasive, grownup pop confection, flavoured with all the late 80s state-of-the-art, studio trappings. “They did an amazing job on the songs,” she says, “but it was light and pop for me. A lot of things were programmed and I’d been used to playing with bands”.
After This Is The Place, Louise set to work on another album, this time for Warners label EastWest, part of it recorded on Dave Gilmour’s houseboat studio, Astoria. After she’d devoted three years to it, the company summoned her for a talk. “It was the beginning of that era when everything was getting bought up by bigger companies, and they said, ‘You know, Louise, it’s time to go, sorry, it’s been five years and you don’t have a hit’. I was gutted. I thought my life was dead in the water. I’d been writing and recording this great record and now it was never going to come out. It was soul-destroying. Now I listen back to those recordings and I go, ‘Oh, God, some cool tracks, but so much reverb and gated drums, what was I thinking?'”.
The nineties turned out to be a lost decade, though not for lack of industry on her part. She toured the world with Tears for Fears, playing electric guitar, and leant her banjo-playing skills to Bryan Ferry. But her own output ground to a halt. “Not one single thing I did got released in the nineties. It was ridiculous. An entire decade. I was a compulsive songwriter and demo-er. I’d put the reel-to-reel on and I would go bass part, guitar part, keyboard part, vocals, backing vocals, reverb. I was always multi-track recording, I never stopped. It was my favourite thing to do. But nothing came out.”
At the end of the decade, Louise’s boyfriend (now ex-husband), up-and-coming producer Greg Wells, was due to meet Lenny Waronker (producer and industry executive). “He and I had written some songs, and I said, ‘You’d better take some of them in or there won’t be dinner when you come home tonight.’ So he took ‘Sometimes A Circle’ and ‘Instant Photo’. The tape didn’t even have my name on it and Lenny said, ‘Holy shit! Who is this?’ So I got a two-record deal based on that”.
Her confidence bolstered by the fact that the label had wanted her without knowing her family connections, Louise completed the album Sometimes A Circle around the demands of her first pregnancy. It came out to a great reception – it had something for everyone; expansive, creative production, melodies with a twist, surprise chord progressions, lyrics bursting with imagination. By rights, it should have endeared her to Aimee Mann’s audience and beyond. The plan was hatched to build on it with a great follow-up.
Photography: Ben Steinberger
“Then I got a call from Lenny to say that Dreamworks was being gobbled up by Interscope, so here’s some money to say goodbye and good luck”. For the second time, Louise found herself with the beginnings of an album but nowhere to put it. By now a mother of two, she was also going through a divorce. Recording took a back seat until she joined a leg of her mother’s tour in 2008 and needed some product to go with it. She assembled eight songs, some of which had been intended for the second Dreamworks album, called it Bad Little Animals, and put it out herself, inaugurating her label Majority Of One. “I thought of it as my ‘let me throw together everything I’ve recorded’ album. It was very homespun – I handmade the artwork, made up a label name and pressed up the CDs. I never thought of it as a record per se. My father kept saying, ‘I really like that record. Have you heard Bob Dylan’s new record? I think he must have been listening to your record.’ I said, ‘Dad, I don’t think Bob Dylan was listening to my record but thank you for the compliment.’ People do say they really like it, but I don’t have that objectivity about it. My life was so chaotic when I put it together”.
In 2011, a process began that saw Louise embracing her heritage in a new way. Throughout her career, while she had never rejected or denied it, she had, for understandable reasons, kept it at arm’s length. But then she was commissioned to produce her mother’s well-liked and Grammy-nominated album, A Holiday Carole (released as A Christmas Carole in the UK). “In the role of producer, I got to experience her differently. All of a sudden, I was not artist being enmeshed with her. She was not Mom who came before me and is so ridiculously famous that I have to make sure I don’t get gobbled up in that big, iconic whirlwind. Instead, I had to think, ‘How do I bring out the best in this great artist? How do I make her comfortable?’ I had this role that had nothing to do with being a singer/songwriter. I was associated with her but it was no longer a comparative association. It was almost like I was in the parent role in a way. And that record was so enjoyable, aside from the surprise that it got Grammy-nominated. I think I had a lot of skills that I didn’t own before then and mostly that’s from being kicked around and spat out by the music businesses multiple times. It affects an artist’s creative esteem when they get passed on and rejected, they don’t make the money. You start thinking, ‘I’ve been doing this over and over. I must be dysfunctional if I’m gonna go and make another record after having not one of them be in the Top 10′”.
Emboldened by this success, Louise issued her next solo album, Songs From The Mine, in 2014. It reflected an earthier, more rootsy approach than its two predecessors. The following year, the death of her father, Gerry, spurred her to release a tribute EP, Appleonfire. “He had no idea how much people thought of him,” she tells me. “He’d say, ‘I’m just an old hack’. He really did not see himself in any way remotely close to how people talk about him now that he’s gone. What quality of life he might have had known he had that kind of love and support when he was here”. Louise expresses frustration at the way that, in his lifetime, her father’s lyrics were mistakenly bracketed as ‘teen pop’, and we briefly discuss their brilliance; the linguistic economy, depth and intelligence. Now she is issuing her own recording of ‘(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman’ as the lead single from The Essential Louise Goffin Vol 1. “With hindsight, I realise that some gem tracks can just get lost in the shuffle. There’s some really great things that people haven’t heard, so I’ve cherry-picked from my last three records. I’m very happy with it. And I’m very happy that it’s volume 1 – the things that were left off the list didn’t lack merit and can be on another record”.
Photography: Ben Steinberger
Since this is her first retrospective collection, Louise reflects on some of the lessons her rollercoaster career (“I hate the word ‘career’,” she says, “it doesn’t work for me with music – it’s like ambition!”). “I always look at myself as if I’m still a kid trying to break in – I used to feel like I was just pretending to do this job. But I’m doing what people do who have this job, so that must mean that I am doing this job. I started to feel like that because I decided not to wait around for anyone. I started treating myself like I want to be treated. No one else will treat you better than you treat yourself. The more love and attention I give to the songs I write, the more gratitude I have for the ability to live and breathe in music. I get so much back. Of course, life happens. People get sick that we have to take care of. Children come first – they always need to come first. As adults, we can wait. But I waited – I did wait – and my kids are bigger now, so I can make a record every year”. For Louise’s core audience – the people who see her as herself rather than as a famous daughter – this news could not be more welcome. There used to be gaps of seven to ten years between Louise Goffin albums and although the wait was always worth it, it’s a relief to hear her speak with such renewed vigour and commitment.
June 16, 2016
June 16, 2016
March 8, 2016
In February, Chas Newkey-Burden wrote a cri de coeur about gay men’s misogyny in the Daily Telegraph. I felt compelled to respond in Attitude. Do I think some gay men are misogynistic? Yes. Do I think those particular gay men are misogynistic as a consequence of their being gay? No. In fact, the ‘woman-hating’ homosexual is a damaging stereotype that our persecutors and haters just love to perpetuate.
December 11, 2015
Why do I read things that wind me up late at night? First, some Milo Yiannopoulos and then the new Roger Scruton interview in Spiked. The whole thing can be read here. God, he gets up my nose.
Here he is on homosexuality:
‘What I say in my book Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation (1986), I still think. But it’s much more dangerous to say it now. My view then was that first of all – oh why not say it, you know, I’m old now – homosexuality is not one thing. Lesbianism is usually an attempt by a woman to find that committed love that she can’t get from men any more. Because men exploit women and move on. So it’s very often a reaction to that sort of disappointment. Whereas male homosexuality, because it’s not constrained by a woman’s need to fix a man down, is hugely promiscuous – the statistics are quite horrifying. And there’s also the obsession with the sexual organs rather than the relationship, this vector towards phallicism, the obsession with the young, all kinds of things like that, which mean that, as I see it, homosexual desire, especially between men, is not the same kind of thing as heterosexual desire, even though it’s not a perversion.
‘This doesn’t mean you’re condemning people or that they should be discriminated against. But nor should we old-fashioned, sad heterosexuals, minority interest though we might be, be deprived of those institutions that we have built out of our self-sacrificing forms of love. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say now between you and me, but it isn’t a perfectly reasonable thing to say or a possible thing to say in public any more.’
Here he is on gay marriage:
‘The arguments in favour of offering something to a previously disprivileged group are all very well and they do have weight. But much more important is the effect of this on the institution of marriage. My view is that here we need some serious anthropology. You have to recognise that rites of passage are not personal possessions, they are possessions of the whole community, they are the ways in which the community defines itself and defines its obligation towards the next generation. So you don’t make these radical, metaphysical alterations to an institution such as marriage without there being long-term consequences. And nobody seemed to want to talk about the long-term consequences. And my marriage means my children as much as my wife, and those children are the product of our union and our whole being on this earth is vindicated in them. That, of course, can’t be reproduced now in quite the same way.’
These days, he’s much more mealy-mouthed, disingenuous and timid in his anti-gay screeds than he used to be, but it’s all there, starting with his statement that lesbianism isn’t real; it’s the last resort of the woman so pathetic she can’t jolly well get it together and keep her man, the flimsy feminist statement of the failed woman. Then, forgetting to mention that when he was 27, his wife-to-be was a one-year-old, with staggering hypocrisy he declares that gay men are obsessed with the young (yes, he’s still doing the ‘homosexuality = paedophilia’ routine, and anyway, that’s news to me, having only ever had boyfriends my own age). We’re obsessed with the genitals rather than the person (if he thinks this is a gay trait, someone should tell him about Page 3, Penthouse, Parade if it still exists, Spearmint Rhino and the hardcore heterosexual porn industry – it ain’t gay men who came up with the idea of reducing a person to his or her sex organs), and our very alliances diminish the sanctity of his marriage, affecting even his children’s welfare (yes, really).
So the statistics regarding our promiscuity horrify him. But why should they horrify him? What is so wrong with him that the he feels violated by the promiscuity of a gay man he’s never met? Why is he not inclined to look inward and ask himself this question, instead of laying all the blame for his horror on the promiscuous gay man? And why on earth does he think that gay men should curb their appetites in order to protect him from unpleasant feelings like horror? Why do gay men’s sex lives concern and interest him so much that he feels compelled to go into print about them, again and again and again, using absuredly hyperbolic words like ‘horrifying’? And why doesn’t heterosexual promiscuity horrify him? He doesn’t even mention it. And that points to something. It points to the fact that he glosses over or ignores information, ideas and statistics that don’t support his viewpoint – they’re simply not there. They don’t exist.
When discussing gay men, a hobby which seems to obsess him, he almost always manages carefully to sneak in the idea of a connection between homosexuality and paedophilia. When he speaks of the gay man’s supposed infatuation with the ‘young’, you and I know what he’s trying to come out and say. But any evidence suggesting that this trait, this worshiping at the fount of youth, is shared by heterosexuals – evidence such as his own marriage to a barely post-adolescent child-bride 28 years his junior, the legions of married men who trade in for a younger model (Scruton saved time by going straight for the younger model without suffering the indignity of spending time with someone his own age first) or the inexhaustible abundance of ‘woman dressed as schoolgirl’ porn – is ignored.
Perhaps the nastiest volley he lobs at gay men (or ‘gays’ as he would have it) is that their love is not self-sacrificing, presumably because it doesn’t produce children. Let’s leave aside for now the gay couples who’ve either adopted or conceived children with the help of women (I dread to think what mean-spirited things he might have to say about that). Doesn’t he have any memory of the AIDS crisis, the time when gay men died in the arms of their fellows in droves while quite a lot of our straight brothers and sisters turned cold backs on us, pausing only to mention that our deaths were richly-deserved, divine punishments for our moral failings (a stance it is hard to imagine Mr. Scruton being at odds with)? When I, with the help of two friends, nursed my boyfriend through the final stages, was I not putting someone else before myself, even though, like most people who’ve gone through the experience, I will always look back and curse myself for the clumsiness of the care I provided? Some, but by no means all, heterosexual parents slip into a belief that parenthood is the only meaningful or significant self-sacrifice, when in fact it can sometimes be one of the most irresponsible, flash, glib, and narcissistic ones, prompted by the vain desire to see one’s own genes running around in another human. And it can be argued that there is more dignity, less ostentation, and more selflessness in one man or woman providing palliative care for another one, to whom he or she is not obligated by a blood connection, than there is in a couple brashly foisting a bevy of sprogs on an overpopulated world.
The glib convenience of Scruton’s arguments irritates me. It’s all so transparently self-serving. Having become a parent late in life, he decides that parenthood is a virtue in and of itself. Parenthood is not a virtue. Only good parenthood is that. And talking of virtues, Scruton never tires of pointing to his own in a way that the genuinely virtuous never do. He gets married, he then says that marriage is virtuous. He has children, he then says that parenthood is virtuous. He takes up hunting, but his way of hunting has, conveniently, nothing to do with anything as gauche as social climbing but everything to do with a virtuous and wholesome love of the land and horses. Anything he does automatically becomes a virtue. How convenient.
I don’t know what to make of the strange, pasteurised fantasyland that he’s painted around his life, refashioning himself as a bogus country squire in Wiltshire while decrying snobbery and professing concern for working class people. I stumble and back away a bit from people whose artifice is so pathological that they invent themselves instead of being. I don’t know what to make of the way Scruton wants the press to know that his children go to boarding school. One can only conclude that it is important to him that other people know this.
The Spiked interview ends with some bizarre product placement for his wife’s artisanal cheeses (it’s hard to think of anything as self-consciously New Notting Hill as that – it’s a fashionable pose to strike, and one that she shares with Alex James of Blur).
There are so many other ways in which I find Scruton’s ideas unpalatable. (He presents himself as a staunch defender of free speech, but on free expression, he’s another kettle of fish, believing that women should be modest, unthreatening to men, with genteel, diminished sexual appetites – figuratively veiled, rather than literally.) For now, though, enough.
October 9, 2015
At some point in early adolescence, I began to realise that a person’s fame was not necessarily commensurate with her talent. And never has this been more the case than with singer/songwriter/author (and occasional actress) Catherine Howe, whose music beggars almost all available adjectives. Since first appearing in album format in 1971, she has been creating work which, thanks to her alchemical abilities, sounds as if it has already had a long existence and been absorbed into the national culture. But owing to a combination of distribution and promotional hiccups, and perhaps also her own reluctance to present herself as an ‘image’, during her stints on major labels in the 70s, she didn’t rack up the kind of sales or the degree of name-recognition that she deserved (and continues to deserve), despite bagging an Ivor Novello award along the way. We spoke on the occasion of the release of her new album (a Catherine Howe album on the spine of the CD, although each band member is given equal billing on the front cover), Because It Would Be Beautiful.
Photo: Sue Kirby
Catherine’s early childhood was spent in Yorkshire. “It was filled with older brothers and sisters and their collections of 45s and 78s,” she recalls. “Our parents came to Yorkshire from Essex during World War II so the feeling of not quite fitting in at school might have been due to our southern strangeness in a northern industrial town”. Her first experience of music-making was inauspicious: “I reacted badly to piano lessons,” she confesses. But when her singing voice was discovered, everything changed and at the age of twelve, she was sent to Corona Stage School in Hammersmith, London. Since Corona wasn’t a boarding school, this meant lodging with a foster family. “Corona was good because everyone there was sparky and open-minded. Bad because it was two hundred miles from home. The adjustment from a happy home to an unhappy one was interesting in the difficulties and miseries it presented. I am left with a small insight into why children who go through institutionalised care can find life so hard”.
The emotional hardships aside, Catherine’s talent for singing and drama were nurtured in a creative environment she shared with Judy and Sally Geeson, Susan George, Sheila Young, Dennis Waterman, Richard O’Sullivan and Helen Worth. “Those were the days when drama schools weren’t expected to put their pupils through GCEs so we left with no academic qualifications whatsoever. No chance of university”. In any case, Catherine felt a certainty about the path she wanted her life to take. “Music was the thing. Music brings us something no other art form can. And I knew from early on that I’d been born with the songwriter gene”. It wasn’t going to take her long to find a record company willing to share this conviction.
By the late sixties, Catherine’s parents had moved south, so London was no great distance. Although Catherine found work on stage and in television (Z-Cars, Doctor Who, Dixon of Dock Green and more), acting was never going to be more than a Plan B. “It was an accident that happened when I went to Corona,” she says. After shopping her music around the capital, she struck a deal with a smallish label called Reflection Records, much of whose output was distributed by CBS. She was paired with a brilliant American producer, Bobby Scott (co-writer of ‘He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother’), and the result was What A Beautiful Place, recorded at Trident Studios in Soho. The album’s nine songs – whimsical and highly poetic, some inspired by the beauty of coastal Dorset, others by Catherine’s first home in the north – were luxuriously arranged, with help from the London Symphony Orchestra, and the cover depicted Catherine gazing mystically across sunlit waters at Kenwood House. This was also the first time her lovely, glistening, yet thoroughly unpretentious singing voice was unleashed upon the world. There was at least one potential pop single in ‘Nothing More Than Strangers’. Radio reaction to promo copies was encouragingly positive and everything seemed set for a decent commercial breakthrough. Then, as rapidly as it had come together, it fell apart. “The English and American producers argued with each other over property, so the recording was restrained under a legal injunction and withdrawn”. Catherine kept a remarkably sanguine head on her young shoulders: “I had no idea what anyone thought of the album, so its disappearance didn’t shock me too much. I just took it as something unavoidable and carried on keeping body and soul together through odd jobs”.
The ‘lost classic’, What A Beautiful Place (1971) Photo: Kings Road Music
It required only a few more years for Catherine to re-emerge on record, this time with the support of a bona fide big player – RCA. “RCA was great. Happy times,” she remarks. The first fruits of this alliance was the album Harry, which came packaged, perhaps unwisely, in a cover that made it look a bit like a trad folk collection rather than the adult pop/singer-songwriter album it really was. Nevertheless, it got considerable press and the title track, a romantic ballad with Catherine on piano and vocals, was a resounding success on radio, winning her a coveted Ivor Novello award and making her – after Lynsey de Paul – the second ever female recipient. “The Ivor presentation took place at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane in 1975. It was a good day. The sun shone,” she says, her memory apparently unwilling to yield any other details.
But there was a problem. Turntable hits such as ‘Harry’ were not translating into sales hits. At first, Catherine thought she must somehow be the problem. It wasn’t until some time later that she discovered the blame lay elsewhere. “My manager said we were performing in towns where none of the record stores had my albums on their shelves. And a well-liked A&R executive was kind enough to whistle-blow on the feet-dragging of some departments”.
Photos: Giuseppe Botteghi / Roy Round
Undaunted, Catherine pressed onward, and her second RCA album, Silent Mother Nature, was a remarkable leap forward and an accurate capturing of her own artistic vision. Catherine mentions a “difficulty in maintaining creative principles in a male-dominated world” when it comes to explaining the rather tentative qualities of the first RCA album, which was a mix of covers and originals. The second, on the other hand, opens with a bang and, over the course of twelve original Howe songs, takes in elements of soul, pop and folk with aplomb. The album beat Kate Bush by two years in being the first singer/songwriter release to feature a track prompted by a Bronte novel (‘Lucy Snowe’, inspired by Charlotte Bronte’s Villette), a feat that Catherine brushes aside with characteristic modesty: “There’s nothing to compare between them, apart from the fact that they’re both inspired by a Bronte sister. Kate Bush stands quite alone and I can’t see any logic behind a comparison”. Regardless of that, in a recent, glowing reappraisal of her work, The Guardian called Catherine a “Kate Bush before her time, an English girl with a pretty face and an artlessly pretty voice” and, indeed, some of her early ballads would not have sounded out of place on Bush’s first two albums.
Silent Mother Nature, 1976
When Catherine says, “RCA was terrific and they nearly pulled me through the lumbering corporate machinery”, it’s the ‘nearly’ that is telling, because despite three years of positive press and radio support, the elusive sales hit did not materialise. Another attempt to get her into the national consciousness, seemed promising – Catherine was invited to join the cast of the BBC’s magazine show, That’s Life, to perform topical and humorous songs. But the ruse backfired. “I shouldn’t have agreed to it, for their sake as well as mine. I followed Victoria Wood, which in itself was an impossibility. I felt excruciatingly uncomfortable and inadequate and they, quite rightly, got rid of me as soon as they could”.
An additional strategy to lift her profile was to pair her on tour with some of the era’s stars, including David Soul (“A delight! Just a really nice bloke and a great singer”), Chris de Burgh (“less approachable, very private. I loved his songs”), Andy Fairweather Low and Randy Edelman (“gentlemen”). “Everyone finds these tours a slog,” she remarks. “Travelling all day, performing at night and trying to sleep in a different hotel room each night, with an ice-making machine clanking in the corridor on the other side of the wall, three inches from your head. I saw David not long ago. Still lovely”. There was also a TV show with Judie Tzuke, which, says Catherine, “turned out well for both of us”.
Next came a new partnership, with the German Ariola label, and a project with classically-trained producer, Mike Batt, who masterminded her 1978 single, ‘Sit Down And Think Again’. “Mike was a really nice man. He promised to stay for a whole album if the single was a hit. It wasn’t a hit, so the album didn’t get made. The highlight of that session was hearing ‘Bright Eyes’ [written by Batt] the day before Art Garfunkel recorded his vocal. I told Mike I thought it was beautiful, which it is”. Work then began with a different producer (Richard Hewson) on the album that would become 1979’s Dragonfly Days, but by this point, the grind was getting to Catherine. “I’d reached the end of my emotional tether when that album was conceived and recorded. I abdicated all responsibility and turned up at the studio only because it was happening. It was a very bad time for me and my feelings about the album are ambiguous”. This despondency is not remotely audible on the record – the album is a self-written, pop masterpiece that stands comfortably alongside Silent Mother Nature. The menacing energy of ‘Mark My Word’ recalls Laura Nyro’s ‘Eli’s Coming’ and a dignified sadness informs the ballads, in particular ‘It Isn’t Really Loneliness’. As work got under way to promote the album and its three singles, the label attempted to give Catherine a Carly Simon-style makeover, and the accompanying promotional photographs bear this strategy out, depicting her striking fashion-mag, hair-tossing poses. “It was embarrassing and slightly depressing. There’s a knack to successful resistance which, sadly, I didn’t have. I think was considered awkward but the photos were still shot, albeit by a clever photographer who could catch unguarded moments, and I colluded.”
Catherine’s recording career quietly wound down at the turn of the decade. Ariola attempted to keep it going with some non-album singles, the last of which was an interpretation of the Goffin/King classic, ‘Going Back’, issued in 1980. “It was produced by lovely Pip Williams. I remember its release and radio plays. That’s about all I do remember. I wasn’t well by that point. Distribution was poor, both then and earlier”. There couldn’t have been a more apt song with which to bow out, since it’s a wistful examination of childhood and a yearning to rediscover its purity and simplicity, which is exactly what Catherine set about doing. “All I had in mind was to get back to Yorkshire. In retrospect, I see that this was me going right back to the time before I left for Corona. It was the start of linking up again with the person I would have been had I never left home when I was twelve years old”.
She came out of an industry notorious for corrupting and breaking people relatively unscathed. “The 60s and 70s had a lot going for them,” she reflects. “The music industry was spectacular but not easy for young women to navigate, and it never will be for anyone who doesn’t have a good business head on their shoulders. It was good, but it required shrewdness and not everyone has that”. When Catherine recently saw the biographical documentary, Amy, it struck a considerable chord with her. “The industry is still destroying talented people,” she says. “The film was a testament to the beautiful talent of a vulnerable woman. It’s the terrible moment when creative souls and business pragmatists come together. The opportunity for users of all kinds to use others was well in place when I was a young woman. It looks as if we’re only just beginning to deal with it”.
After 1980, having made her own bid for freedom, Catherine spent the next quarter-century out of the public eye. She married and had a daughter, Jenny, in 1990, completed an Open University degree course, and moved to the Midlands. “Jenny and the late education were life-changing, horizon-expanding experiences and made me ready to write and record again”.
Around this time, I came across Catherine’s RCA and Ariola output in the much-missed, utterly chaotic Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho. It was 1999 and the idea of searching for people online was still an amusing novelty. But a search for Catherine Howe revealed absolutely nothing. It was as if she had disappeared. Still, over the next few years, I made repeat searches from time to time – and then, in 2003, there it was; a small entry on the BPI website with what looked like a recent photograph of Catherine and mention of an album called Princelet Street in the works. “My friend from the seventies, Kevin Healy, and I started work on the recordings in about 2000,” recalls Catherine.
Princelet Street came out in 2005 and picked up sonically where ‘Going Back’ had left off, very much in the pop/singer-songwriter vein. Among its highlights were the hymn-like ‘Say The Word’ and two ballads looking back on love with the perspective of a more mature head, ‘You Never Know’ and ‘C’est La Vie’. But really, it was a whole album of highlights, all of which merit further description. Catherine’s raised profile led to renewed interest and within a matter of years, her first three albums had made it on to CD (where, along with the digital download format, they remain available). In particular, the re-emergence on to the market of What A Beautiful Place (via luxury American reissue label, Numero) led to a flurry of good press, hailing the album as a lost classic and manoeuvring Catherine into the pantheon of cult geniuses, alongside Judee Sill, Vashti Bunyan and Linda Perhacs.
Recent years have seen her form a band with veteran guitarist and singer Vo Fletcher, an alliance that spawned 2010’s acoustic folk album, English Tale, with accompanying live dates around the country. Now, on Because It Would Be Beautiful, they are joined by electric-violinist Ric Sanders (Soft Machine, Fairport Convention) and percussionist/drummer Michael Gregory. “Vo is one of the most intuitive musicians I have ever worked with,” remarks Catherine. “He gets the songs unfailingly.” And although the bulk of the new songs are Catherine’s, the foursome took a democratic approach in the studio: “The tracks are live events, including Ric’s astonishing violin solos which take off on waves of ecstasy through his echo unit. The recording is cooperative, intended to get away from the songwriter/producer/session musician routine in favour of everyone bringing their own, unhindered brilliance to it. It’s going to be hard to place in a genre, but we’ve ended up with something quite interesting”. Not only interesting, but also diverse – with elements of bossa nova, Americana, folk, pop and roots coming together.
Photos: Annie Edwards / Sue Kirby
Catherine’s second recording career has been without the benefit of a major label. “Being independent has some good points. It’s novel to be in charge of everything, artwork and manufacture as well as writing and recording. The disadvantages are isolation and tireless administration”. After issuing Princelet Street and English Tale herself (with a distribution deal), Because It Would Be Beautiful is coming out on Talking Elephant, a label known more for its high-quality reissues. “It’s nice to be working with others, but nothing compares with a big label – that was a great and mystifying experience”.
Without being derivative or self-consciously retro, Catherine’s songs still have that uncanny quality of sounding, on first listen, like something you’ve already known and loved for a considerable length of time but – like many songwriters – she’s a little reluctant to deconstruct and describe her process. “I can’t really analyse it,” she says. “Let’s say that it goes something like this: I taken an idea or a feeling to the piano and let it come back to me. If it comes back true then I continue until it’s finished. I never leave a song and think I can come back to pick it up later because in the interim its essence has returned to wherever it came from. There have been moments when I’ve had to pull on to the hard shoulder of a motorway to write something down. I would never do this for any other non-emergency reason,” she adds. “I will just say that one vital role of a songwriter is to know when to jettison a song which isn’t reaching the mark. When I’m functioning properly, I’m fairly ruthless in this regard!”
Because It Would Be Beautiful, 2015
Over the years, certain characteristics of Catherine’s material have given way to others, and the new album is notable for a number of what could be best described as period-songs (‘This Old Peg’, ‘Mayfair Cot’, ‘Charlie Bender’). Catherine explains, “Having been born with the songwriter gene and the historian gene, I’ve been aware from early on that I was combining the two and the habit’s grown stronger over the years. It’s my habit to walk through towns and cities because I love to commune with the traces of those who have lived and worked there. I draw on this all the time – along with stories and images which are strong and moving. ‘Charlie Bender’ comes straight from the records of Coram Fields Foundling Hospital. Most of the babies left there never saw their mothers again, but Charlie’s mother came back for him after ten years. ‘Mayfair Cot’ comes from a striking, nineteenth-century photograph of a young patient, sitting up in her cot at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children. Both songs follow the folk storytelling tradition”. The ‘historian gene’ is something that Catherine has also taken the time to demonstrate in prose, with Halifax 1842: A Year of Crisis and George Jacob Holyoake’s Journey of 1842, and she is now at work on her first novel.
Outstanding ambitions include “an international hit”, “circumnavigation of the earth in a space rocket” and “growing into someone who’s a bit more useful to society”. Catherine’s also in talks to issue a collection of demos. “They were recorded between 1975 and 2015 – a number of good songs which never made their way on to albums. It would be nice to see them fledged and away”.
The great strength of the singer/songwriters who emerged in the 1970s was their refusal to fit the straitjacket of a single genre. But this was also what made so many of them hard to market. And this double-edged blessing is very much one of Catherine’s. “I can’t claim a genre and I wonder at the purpose of it. Rockers in the 60s thought of writers like Brian Wilson as pop artists. But I doubt Brian Wilson thought he was writing pop when he produced Pet Sounds. It’s all too muddy and confusing for me. My early influences were Buddy Holly, Lennon and McCartney, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Carole King, Hal David, Burt Bacharach and Bob Gaudio. Almost entirely American and entirely reflecting the music that was available to me at the time. The thing is, when writing I don’t feel espoused to a particular style. I suppose it’s pop. Or is it? I used not to think so. Some of the lyrics are a bit dark. Maybe dark pop might be a useful description. I know identification is important commercially but I’m afraid I don’t identify with any particular genre because I enjoy them all. And besides, the creative process is dynamic. Everything influences everything else”.
The idea of everything influencing everything is never more apparent than when one traces the fascinating arc of Catherine’s career so far. Seven albums in, with more to follow “when the songs come”, it’s possible to hear how each one holds clues as to the direction and content of its successor (for example, Princelet Street’s ‘Yorkshire Hills’ is a foretaste of the albionesque folk of English Tale). It’s a journey of feelings, stories and experiences married to exquisite melodies and chord progressions that uninitiated would be well advised to embark on.