John Howard – Pop’s Enduring Comeback Kid
November 18, 2014
Prior to 2003, you’d have been forgiven for scratching your head had someone asked if you’d heard the singer, songwriter and pianist John Howard. His sole album (at that point), Kid in a Big World (CBS, 1975), had been unjustly overlooked and a similar fate greeted the series of singles issued in its wake. But thirty years later, when RPM, a division of Cherry Red – a reissues powerhouse – brought the album back to the marketplace, the timing was right. The music monthlies and colour supplements got on board, reappraising the album very favourably and, after toiling in other areas of the music industry, John was back in business as a performing songwriter and recording artist. Since then, a further twelve albums have appeared, and the next one, Hello, My Name Is… arrives later this month. John, whose exuberant and theatrical style is sometimes thought to bridge the gaps between glam, Broadway and singer/songwriter, plays the Servant Jazz Quarters in London on November 26. He spoke to me at length about his past incarnations and his new album.
John in Baker Street, London, clutching a copy of his first album. Photo: Brian David Stevens
Charles Donovan: Kid in a Big World was reissued circa 2004 and this led to you becoming an active singer-songwriter again. Prior to its reissue, it had become a collector’s item and growing cult favourite. Were you aware of this? And did you foresee your resurgence as a recording artist or did you think you were through with it?
John Howard: I first became aware that Kid In A Big World mattered outside of my memories of recording it when I got an email from a chap called Mark Luffman from Australia in 2001/2 where he raved about it after finding the LP in a car boot stall. No-one had ever said such nice things about the album before. It was considered a complete failure by my record company and management in the ’70s and they saw it as an experience best forgotten about. Then around the same time, 2002, there was the In Search Of The Lost Record illustrated book being sold at the Tate Modern shop, which producer Steve Levine, with whom I’d recorded in the ’80s, told me about. It featured the KIABW sleeve as one of the ‘classic album sleeves’. Then over the next year or so I started becoming aware of internet blogs being written about the album, “who was John Howard?”; “Is he still alive?” etc. It seemed to have a genuinely enthusiastic following. That’s what excited and interested back catalogue specialists RPM Records, the unsolicited activity surrounding the album.
In 2001, when my partner and I had moved from Oxfordshire to Pembrokeshire and my father bought me a baby grand piano as a housewarming present, I had messed around with writing a few things which I quickly demo’d and soon forgot about. But it was knowing that Kid would be reissued by RPM in 2003 and realising that my music actually mattered to people, which I was taken surprise by, which really opened my creative drawer again. This time there was a reason to write songs again, with a potential avenue for them to be heard, my music was finally in demand by music buyers.
I was playing on the cruise ships at the time, 2002/3, and each time I lay down in my cabin new lyrics and songs started appearing in my head, which I’d write down, work out in my breaks between performing, and slowly an album of songs began to emerge, which eventually became Same Bed, Different Dreams, an album I started recording in early 2004 but which wasn’t actually released until summer 2006. Before 2003 I’d had no inkling that I would start to record again. What took my by surprise was how comfortable I felt in the studios, rather than trying to get re-used to being in that environment, it immediately felt like I’d come home.
Kid In A Big World, John’s belatedly celebrated debut, 1974. Photography: Mike Nicholson
CD: Why were two in a row of your projects (Technicolour Biography and Can You Hear Me OK?) cancelled? Was someone at CBS lobbying against you?
JH: It wasn’t a case of being lobbied against, not by CBS anyway, but the hostile reaction by BBC radio to my music – more to my being Out Gay – and the fact that in spite of the record company’s initial excitement about my potential to be A Star their interest was waning with each flop, all went to ensure that by 1976 I was without a record deal and all but washed up, at 23! Technicolour Biography was begun with much anticipation by CBS in late 1974 (just two months after we’d completed KIABW), they were expecting an album full of hit singles, but when they heard the basic demos and their expectations were dashed then the project was shelved, unfinished.
Can You Hear Me OK? was very much the album which was supposed to put things right. The CBS MD Dick Asher told me in no uncertain terms in the Spring of 1975 that I had to change my producer (Paul Phillips went, replaced by Biddu), alter my style of writing, and come up with a hits-packed album. I tried to do as they asked, came up with lots of hook-laden songs, summery catchy things like ‘I Got My Lady’ and ‘Play Me A Love Song’, Biddu and his arrangers Gerry Shury and Pip Williams wrote great orchestral scores, and we delivered the tapes to CBS expecting them to love what they heard. Instead they bemoaned the loss of their ‘Kid In A Big World’, the very artist they had rejected just a few months earlier, and refused to release Can You Hear Me OK? as well. One single from it, the summer love song ‘I Got My Lady’ saw the light of day in warm, summery January ’76 and it sank without trace.
With Johnny Mathis, outside Broadcasting House, after filming segments for The Musical Time Machine, 1975
CD: What was the effect on you, professionally, psychologically etc, of this?
JH: I don’t remember being particularly affected by being dropped by CBS, probably because the rot had started to set in shortly after Kid was released a year earlier, the label having ‘enjoyed’ seeing me have two flop singles (‘Goodbye Suzie’ and ‘Family Man’) by the time it was issued, and there was after that a slight sense of desperation around me in terms of ‘what do we do now?’, which pervaded through the offices of my management and CBS. I expected to be dropped, told my manager it would happen, so when it did I kind of shrugged my shoulders and moved on to getting live work at London fashionable eateries like April Ashley’s in Knightsbridge and Morton’s in Berkeley Square. I did that for a year, rather successfully in fact, no-one at the restaurants having a clue about my ‘former life’ as a budding pop star, and enjoyed the whole well-dressed busy-ness of it all.
However, when I had my accident at the end of ’76 breaking my back and feet and spent a lot of time in hospital and once home on sticks, then I had the time and the solitude to think about it all. That’s when a kind of quiet depression started to set in which finally surfaced in the summer of ’77, when I found it hard to sleep and would discover emotional comfort listening to Dory Previn albums! It was the fact she’d been through the mill and had survived which helped immensely when playing her LPs at home in the early hours of the morning. We became, in my mind, fellow emotional survivors.
I also found the pop scene of ’76 through to 1980 quite depressing. I hated Punk, though I know I’m in the minority amongst my contemporaries on this one. Its hard, angst-ridden, spit-in-your-face anarchy was alien to me, and I think deep down I simply didn’t believe it or in it. I had sought and found succour in my pop music of the ’60s and early ’70s, it had always made me feel alive and positive. Now this totally negatively-skewed bunch of snarling pop stars made me feel even more detached from the world I’d loved and felt part of. It all added to my sense of isolation at the time.
Punk probably did give the pop scene a well-deserved kick up the arse, it had all become rather flabby and self-obsessed, stadium concerts making millions for the limousine-driven rock idols. But in the end, Punk was as much about making lots of money for the powers behind the safety-pin constructed thrones as the rock scene had been about making big bucks for the same record company moguls in well-cut Italian suits. It was all a mirage and fooled many, especially the music papers. As they did when T.Rex took off in the early ’70s, they were full of headlines about The Sex Pistols or The Clash, they went out of their way to ditch and diss the rich mega-stars who they’d previously raved about. Again, it was all about money in the end.
CD: After a few years as a singles-only artist, you moved into different areas of the music industry. How did you make this transition?
JH: After the brief respite of being re-signed to CBS in 1979 to make two singles with Nicky Graham – later Bros’s producer – I was once again in a bit of a pit by the end of 1980. My new deal at CBS which had given me a new lease of creative life, had not produced any success once again and I was dropped by the company. With little money and a flailing career I got a temp job at a Mail Order record company called World Records, which was based in Richmond, just over the bridge from my Twickenham flat. John Lennon had just been killed in New York which meant World Records’ Beatles Box collection of eight LPs which had proved a surprisingly slow seller through the autumn, was suddenly flying off the shelves and they needed extra staff to cope with the thousands of orders coming in.
While opening the coupon orders in the post room one morning the company’s Managing Director walked in, saw me, came over to me and asked me why I was working in a post room? “To pay the rent,” I answered. He asked me to go to his office that afternoon where, after quizzing me about my past and finding out how much I knew about music and the music business, he offered me a permanent job in the company’s Repertoire Department. There I got to learn about licensing deals and contracts which stood me in good stead for later jobs in the industry.
By the early ’90s I was made Head of Strategic Marketing at MCA/Universal. It was a fun time, those twenty years ‘on the other side of the desk.’ For the first time in my life I was being paid a good salary, and got to travel First Class and stay in fabulous hotels all round the world. Doing presentations to rooms full of people fulfilled my ‘performance’ need and, honestly, at no time during those years did I ever really miss being a recording artist, that career seemed like a gone time to me, never to return. It shows how wrong we can be.
CD: Since resuming recording, you’ve kept up the formidable work-rate of an album a year, which is remarkably industrious. What determines the pace of your output?
JH: As I’m no longer signed to a record label, releasing all my material on my own imprint via an online distributor, I can decide when I make a new album and when I’ll put it out there. I enjoy that sense of control over my work. I’m not very good at doing nothing, so after a brief rest-up period of a couple of months after I’ve completed an album, I find new songs start to suggest themselves to me, and very soon I’m back at my piano working them up into finished compositions, complete with the arrangements for the backings and vocal harmonies. It just seems to work out that an album is completed within about six months (I play and sing everything on my albums so it does take time to get all that recorded!) and then a release date of around a year since the previous album is about the right time to put it out.
CD: It’s also reminiscent of the 1970s when groups and artists were expected to make an album every year (sometimes issuing two in one year). As someone who’s worked behind the scenes in record companies, do you know why this gradually changed in the 1980s, when albums started coming at the rate of one every two to four years?
JH: I think the reason album release dates started to get more spaced out by the late ’80s was because touring became the way to make the money. Major record companies were ploughing so much into an artist’s career that any money from record sales were being swallowed up by large advances and video production costs, so the artist had to get out on the road and ‘tour an album’. They became like hamsters on marketing wheels, touring constantly in huge venues to sell albums and promote singles the record companies released to promote the albums, ad nauseam. This meant that creativity for about two years went out the window, there was no time to sit and write or go into a studio to record a new album, and the record companies were happy about this as they wanted to squeeze as much as they could out of the album which had cost them a fortune to record and promote.
And on and on it went. I think it served many artists badly, in that by the time they’d recorded a follow-up, four years had sometimes passed and record buyers had moved on, bored with waiting for that follow-up. It did get ridiculous in the ’70s when, as you say, some artists were recording two albums a year – Elton John was one – and quality suffered, but having said that, The Beatles produced two albums a year during their heyday and each album was a gem – and they were constantly on the road as well. The attitudes were different then, of course, it was less of a hungry marketing machine and the industry was still learning how to make the most out of their protégés. By the ’80s it was all about money, get as much out of an expensive artist as you could before their time was up. Ironically, the record companies often speeded up their artists’ demise by touring them so much, but they’d made their money back by then so that was all they cared about.
CD: Some of your albums feature songs that are thematically linked. Is this the case with the new album?
JH: It’s not always intentional but themes tend to develop organically during the writing and recording process. When I was writing songs for the new album, Hello, My Name Is, I realised the recurring theme which was turning up in the lyrics was identity, i.e. how we see ourselves, how others see us, how we’d like to be seen, and the extension of that, how some of us don various personas with different people, believing certain factors in our characters would please or impress some people so we enhance those when in their company and hide those we think may upset them or put them off.
I think the only time we’re ever truly ourselves is in the early hours of the morning when we’re lying awake and going over our lives or things that have happened to us years before or recently, trying to make sense of it, trying to work out if we did wrong or could have done better. That’s probably the nearest we come to being a child again, though now we’re burdened by doubts and worries of which certainly I as a child had few. As I say, these linked themes are never planned but tend to evolve during the creative process because that’s probably what’s in my mind at the time. The only time I’ve actually planned an album from start to finish before beginning recording, with a definite storyline sketched out, was when I did You Shall Go To The Ball in 2012, which was a musical journey through my revisited past songs linked by soundscapes which had elements of the song about to follow interwoven.
CD: Which musicians have served as inspiration to you over the years?
JH: It’s more songwriters who have inspired me than musicians. I’ve never considered myself a ‘musician’s musician’, I could never jam with other musicians, for example, I’m much too much of a stickler for perfection, or my idea of it, for that, and I don’t actually think of myself as a pianist, I am a singer-songwriter who plays piano. One goes with the other in my head and I find it hard to split them. So, in answer to your question (!), the obvious ones would be The Beatles, Brian Wilson and Dylan when I was growing up in the ’60s, they’re the ones who made me want to be a singer-songwriter; producers like George Martin and Phil Spector made a big impression on me, giving me the ambition to record my music, and Burt Bacharach’s compositional style always fascinated me;
Noel Coward certainly was an influence, when he died in 1973 I bought an album by him and played it to death, such a clever lyricist; Terry Riley, the avant garde composer with his astonishing pieces like ‘In C’, had a huge effect on me in terms of breaking musical rules and seeing what happened with a song when you did that; then as I was getting more into writing my own material by the early ’70s and going out to folk clubs to perform them, artists like Roy Harper, The Incredible String Band, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro, and off-the-wall artists like Frank Zappa, started having a big effect on me. But also there were the childhood influences which came from my father’s musical tastes and record collection, such as Dave Brubeck and Peter Nero, and stage musical writers like Lerner & Lowe, Cole Porter, Rogers, Hart and Hammerstein, their internal rhymes and clever use of words affecting words had quite an impact on me. The first song I remember loving to bits and listening to all the time was ‘On The Street Where You Live’, from My Fair Lady. I still love to hear it today. And of course, Bowie’s Ziggy period in the ’70s was very inspirational, along with bands like Roxy Music and Mott. I have always admired Stars, those artists who transcend simple success and make it something magical through their sheer charisma and talent.
I think that’s where being inspired by other artists stopped, once I began my own recording career in late 1973 then I’d reached the point where I didn’t feel I needed those detached heroes any longer, I was on my own and doing my own thing regardless of what was big at the time. Pop music, per se, ceased to amaze me from the mid-’70s onwards and I became more of an interested bystander than an involved fan. Those early influences have stayed with me, of course, and will always be there in my musical DNA. I’ve admired artists like k.d. lang, Prince, Rufus Wainwright in more recent times but I can honestly say that they haven’t had any effect on my own musical output. There were other great singer-songwriters around in the ’70s, like Nick Drake and Shelagh MacDonald, who you may think were an influence on my writing, but I only actually first heard their material in recent years. I remember seeing Drake’s Five Leaves Left album in a record shop in Manchester in the early ’70s and considered buying it but decided to invest my £2 in a Dylan bootleg instead. It was only in the ’90s that I first heard Nick’s music and I immediately bought a 4-CD Box Set of his recordings. Beautiful stuff. I was introduced to Shelagh MacDonald’s material by my Dangerous Hours co-writer Robert Cochrane in about 2005, really very recently, and I so liked her song ‘Canadian Man’ that I covered it for my 2008 EP Songs For The Lost & Found, which Shelagh heard and sent me a beautiful email about, and we’re now in regular touch.
CD: What are the most pronounced ways in which your second recording career differs from your first?
JH: I’m enjoying it this time round. That’s the main difference. I didn’t really enjoy it back in the ’70s. I’d be dressed and made-up up for photo shoots and concerts, record at places like Abbey Road and Apple, be wined and dined and told how fabulous I was, and then go back to my tiny bedsit, flat broke, wondering if the next single I’d just finished would sell, and fearing it wouldn’t, “so what then?”. One regret I have is that I wish I’d been more impressed with everything that was happening to me back then. I should have felt amazing walking into Abbey Road studios, where my heroes had recorded; I should have loved shopping for clothes at Biba and Herbie Frogg; doing concerts at The Purcell Rooms and The Marquee.
But my main memory of that time is just getting on with it, doing what I did as well as I could and hoping it would please the people who mattered to my career. One always felt on approval, trying to impress, hanging on to every compliment like a lifeline. I was very young, didn’t know how to handle being in the midst of such expectations. It probably all happened too quickly for me too. When I’d arrived in London in August 1973, I was planning to spend a couple of years gigging, making a name for myself as I’d done up in the North West, and then looking for a record deal, the right record deal. Instead, I was spotted playing at The Troubadour within a
month of my arrival in London and had a record deal with CBS a couple of months later. It should have been exciting but I just remember wondering when it would all come to an end. None of it ever felt quite real.
Now, I love writing, recording and performing, this time it is fun. I’m making albums I’m proud of, which sound exactly as I hear them in my head when planning them, I’m in control of how and when they’re made and released, how they look and sound, and can make my own decisions at my leisure. I’m also 61, so have no expectations or ambitions for a future career. It is what it is now and I love it. When I no longer love it, I’ll stop. I’m very lucky to have been given a second chance by a chance reissue.
CD: You seem to have embraced the new music platforms (e.g. YouTube, streaming services, downloads). Do you have any misgivings about them or am I right in thinking you’re all for them?
JH: I know it’s currently fashionable to bitch about streaming sites like Spotify. Taylor Swift has, I believe, taken all her recordings down from streaming sites. That’s of course up to her. My feeling is I’ll never make a lot of money from my recordings, I’m not a big enough artist, will always be ‘niche’, so what the hell if I just get pin money from Spotify? Every streaming of one of my tracks means someone out there is listening to it and hopefully enjoying it, every download means someone has taken the time and money to buy something of mine. It’s all completely unsolicited, no-one has advertised my recordings and suggested they buy them, people find them by various word-of-mouth Tweeting and Facebooking, the Social Network has had a huge effect on my career. It’s very complimentary and I feel rather honoured about it. I have some musician friends who complain bitterly about Spotify and the like “ripping them off”. And I always say in reply to them, be grateful someone wants to hear what you do. Recently, my track ‘Believe Me, Richard’ from my 2013 album Storeys had the most streamings of anything I’ve ever released. To me that’s like having a hit single. It certainly feels a whole lot better knowing that, than forty years ago knowing my record company couldn’t get anyone at BBC Radio interested in playing ‘Goodbye Suzie’ .
After performing at Glam-Ou-Rama, London. Photography: Brian David Stevens
CD: Your concert in November is the second London show you’ve done since moving to Spain (I think). What should we expect and might you continue coming over to sing and play every year?
JH: I never plan doing a show, I wait to be invited! Seriously, it’s great that the Gare Du Nord label of artists have taken me to their hearts and want to help promote my music via shows in London and various other projects they’re discussing with me. They’re a very proactive and massively creative bunch of people. I really loved doing last year’s gig at the Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston and look forward to returning there on the 26th of this month. I’ll do a few old favourites, some more recent songs and a couple of brand new ones. Part of the show will be done solo, some of it with my band for the evening (Robert Rotifer, Ian Button and Andy Lewis) and it should be a blast. I don’t know when there’ll be another show, we’ll see. I’d love to do one next year, of course, but ask me next year! I don’t have the energy levels any longer for constant touring, even a series of gigs might exhaust me! But occasional ‘poppings up’ on the live circuit suits me very well.