Pioneer is definitely not a big enough word to quantify Howard Jones' impact on the musical tapestry of the past 40 years.
With his colossal bank of keyboards that gave him an encyclopedia of sounds that would drape over his audience and open our ears to a new wave of musical ideas, Howard made a new era in musical technology more accessible to the masses.
Howard helped define the synth-pop sound that dominated the airwaves back in the 1980s, with infectious hits like "What is Love," "Things Can Only Get Better," and "No One is to Blame" that still garners immense airplay even in the new millennium.
"I've always said that I feel very fortunate to have been able to perform for so long," he said. "America embraced me pretty early on and it's always a treat to see the fans enjoy what you're doing. I've got a really unique relationship with my fans."
But in 2023, Howard is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his debut single "New Song" being released. The song that kickstarted this whole magnificent journey started for this humble Englishman that continues to mystify and envelope his fans in his musical web that, for many, has become the soundtrack of their lives.
To celebrate this milestone, Howard is doing what he does best - perform for his fans, as he's out on the road going across America with Culture Club and Berlin.
Howard said he remembers playing in the amphitheaters in America back in the 80s and welcomed the chance to relive those fond memories.
"It's been going so well. I'm just loving, playing these outdoor amphitheaters or sheds as they're called. It's unique to America," Jones said during a recent interview with Sinclair Broadcast Group. "And I obviously played them all during the 80s. I've had all those memories, and then going back now, playing them again. It's just so great. And people are still coming. They know all the songs. It's just a joy. Honestly, I feel so well, you know, how lucky am I to be doing what I love after all this time."
But when asked if he feels like it was just yesterday when he released his first album, "Human's Lib" and toured America, he said he felt like he's done more than four decades of living.
"It feels like more than 40 years because when I look back on what we've done, all the gigs and the amount of records I've made, not to mention the amount of changes that have happened to me as a person in that time," he said. "I mean as a young man to where I am now. It feels like several lifetimes."
He's come far since his days of dreaming to one day play Madison Square Garden. But it was a near-fatal auto accident that gave Howard an epiphany that music is what he should do with his life and he couldn't waste another day.
Howard's love for music turned into an obsession during his teenage years, especially his affinity for the piano. He also began to experiment with synthesizers, which were still relatively new at the time. As he got older, Howard continued to hone his craft while trying to make ends meet doing various jobs, including as a piano teacher. That is where Howard met his future wife, Jan Smith.
But one day, while they were both working dead end jobs, Howard came up with a plan so they could still put food on the table, but also work together.
"I was working in a factory during the day and then doing other job like giving piano lessons. Jan was working in the tax office," he said. "One day, I traded in our car for a van. And I said to Jan that we've got to get out of these jobs because we need to work on the music. So I had this job where we could work together and deliver vegetables to people at their house."
But one night, a drunk driver would give Howard to inspiration to forge ahead with his music with the blessing of his wife.
"And that one night, that accident happened. A drunk driver hit the front of the van while we were parked on the side of the road. Jan was trapped underneath the van and hurt her spine. And you know, Jan could have been killed that night. I could have been killed that night because I was in the van as well. And we came to this realization that there's no time to waste. You just go for what you really want to do with your life because it could have ended that night. You know don't hold back. And so we decided to do that. And then the money that Jan got for her compensation, she wanted me to have it to buy gear. So, I bought Jupiter 8 and 808 drum machine and it just flew from there."
Many believe Howard was an overnight success, hitting the charts with his first single and his debut album "Human's Lib" doing double platinum in England and giving him a foothold in America. But not many got to see Howard spending many years perfecting his one-man electronic show and building a following around where he lived in High Wycombe, about 30 miles northwest of London.
Practically surrounded by keyboards and drum machines, Howard knew that the people coming to his show were experiencing something that they had never before. He said he was always writing and then playing new material for his fans at his gigs to get a sense of how they responded to them.
"People really hadn't seen those instruments before or heard those sounds before. This was all new territory, but I knew I was on to something. But it took years and years before I was able to building an audience and get the record companies to take notice," he said. "I worked on building an audience around where I lived, as people would follow me wherever I went in the country. So when record companies came down to see me, they knew that people were getting it because the places are all full. So when we finally got done at the Marquee Club in London and I mean it was full of people coming from where I lived from High Wycombe and the surrounding areas. It was very organic. And so once I got on TV and on the radio, it was of its time, you know, the music did fit in with what was going on. I was very fortunate, you know, that it worked out."
Those sold out shows soon brought Howard to the attention of Elektra Records, who signed him to a deal. Things were starting to pan out for the keyboard wizard, but even after signing his deal, what Howard was most obsessed with was getting on the radio.
"My goal was always to have my songs on the radio," he said. "I grew up listening to the radio and all those songs that I listened to meant so much to me."
And to get on the radio, Howard knew he needed a song that would get everyone's attention, so he joined forces with producer Colin Thurston, who produced Duran Duran's first two albums and worked on David Bowie's "Heroes" album, to work on his debut single "New Song," a song that quantified not only Howard's one-man band direction, but his philosophy on life as well.
"I remember working on 'New Song' in the front room of the home that Jan and I had in High Wycombe," he said. "It was just experimenting with all the different synthesizers and working within the limitations of the time. This was before computers really. I was working with primitive sequencers and during this time of experimentation, this song evolved and I knew I had come onto something special. I couldn't wait to get on stage and perform it for my fans. I mean this song was my manifesto about my work. I mean it's about letting go of fear and seeing both sides of an argument and throwing off the things that hold you back mentally. It is really a positive song. And my fans, who have been so supportive of my work, just loved it."
"New Song" was released in August 1983 and stormed up to No. 3 on the UK Singles Chart, while staying on the charts for 20 weeks. It would later reach No. 27 in 1984 when it was released in America. He made his first appearance on Top of the Pops in September 1983.
The momentum from "New Song" would continue as Howard went into the studio to record the songs for his debut album. And Howard couldn't have asked for a better producer than the legendary Rupert Hine. Hine had worked with artists such as The Fixx, Saga and Chris de Burgh and would later produce several tracks for Tina Turner's multi-platinum album "Private Dancer," including the smash hit "Better Be Good To Me."
Howard said that on their first meeting at Rupert's home, where they talked about the songs for the album, that " I quickly realized that this guy really understood where I was coming from."
"It was amazing good fortune for me to end up with Rupert as my producer," he said. "Rupert was so in tune with me on so many levels. First of all, he loved the lyrics because the lyrics actually meant something and were about philosophy. They weren't about sort of corny, you know, love lyrics. He just loved he loved where I was coming from philosophically. And then he was was a total keyboard nut as well, just like me, I loved working with technology, but had this great vision for, for how, you know, how records should sound and how engaging they should be. So, I just was so happy when the record company, you know, suggested that I worked with Rupert, and they could have put me with a lot of other producers that were having Top 40 hits at the time, but they wouldn't have been right for me. Rupert was right for me because he had the edge. And so yeah, so perfect."
And Rupert said it wasn't a challenge at all to work with Howard and honing his brilliant compositions into a singular stream that would be not only radio friendly, but keep Howard's positive message.
"It was always very exciting, very intriguing. Howard always came with most of the arrangement ideas in his head already and most of the time actually being played, as well, between his various keyboard lines and various keyboards," said Hine during an interview back in 2011 with Songfacts. "And because I was also a multi-keyboardist myself, and used to making records out of keyboard sounds at that time and making it work, that was probably the reason it wasn't a challenge. But the idea was that it should be at this very strong pop end of songwriting, which I wasn't doing. I was doing sort of dark and mysterious almost soundtrack-like work on my own albums at that time, and Howard was really full-on pop songs. But his songwriting and his arrangements or techniques were very, very musical - he's one of the most musical artists I've ever worked with. Classically trained, he was, in fact, a piano teacher when he was making his first record, and had been for years. So he's extremely skilled, and that came across and made the whole recording process that much more fun, particularly because it was really full-on pop music."
Hine set his new protégé at ease immediately by telling him to set up his entire keyboard setup he'd been using in the clubs right in front of the speakers in the studio. It was a way to capture the energy and excitement of Howard's live show on vinyl.
"Rupert just kept it exciting to be there. The energy level was so amazing. We were never over thinking things," he said. "He only ever let me do four vocal takes on any any song. Only four. And then he would use those four to get the best bits. So Rupert's genius to me was keeping everything. Capturing the excitement and then getting it on the record. It's there on the record."
All the years of hard work and playing in those London area clubs finally paid off, as Howard's debut album "Human's Lib" went double platinum in the United Kingdom and spawned four hit singles, including "What Is Love," "Pearl in the Shell," and "Hide and Seek," which Howard performed in front of billions of people around the world in 1985 during Live Aid at Wembley Stadium - a performance that he is still extremely proud of nearly 40 years later.
"I heard that Bob (Geldof) and Midge (Ure) were going to do Live Aid. I told my manager David (Stopps) that I have to be involved in this. It's the most brilliant project maybe for the whole of the 80s. We're saving people's lives and really showing that the 80s wasn't just about greed and and power. I wanted to be part of this so I canceled shows on the West Coast and me and (my backing vocalists) Afrodiziak flew back to London. I did one song and that was enough to be a part of that wonderful event."
On his early tours, it was just Howard and his keyboards. He said that minimalist approach was groundbreaking in a way that nobody had done it before in a way or were totally dependent on technology. With his arsenal of keyboards that included a Roland Jupiter 8, Yamaha DX-7, Pro One, Moog Prodigy and more, Howard was able to create sounds that had never before been possible, but in the beginning, it came with a price, especially when critics saw him leave his keyboards and interact with the audience.
"Some people didn't think we were actually playing (on stage)," he told the Los Angeles Times. "They thought we just programmed the music and that was it, which was completely unfair. Actually, I was programming synthesizer sequences as I played , so that when I left the keyboard setup, the only things running were the arpeggiating patterns on one keyboard, and a five- or six-note sequenced loop. I was generating the music at that moment, and it was right on the edge. But no one had done that one-man kind of show before, so how could people know what I was doing?"
"I'm really proud of those early one-man show tours," he said. "The technology was advancing so much that allowed for me to go down and buy stuff at a local music store and put on a one-man show. It allowed me to be really creative. The problem was being that dependent on technology is that things can go wrong and did go wrong. You just have to deal with it as a musician. It was pioneering for its time and something I'm really proud of."
America has always held a special place with Howard, as he immediately felt a connection with the American audience. "I remember my first proper tour of the States was with Joe Jackson and the Eurythmics, (back in 1984)," he said. "I just remember the really big crowds and they really responded to me and my songs. I was still a one-man band back then so they immediately took me in"
After the success of "Human's Lib," Howard raced back into the studio to record his biggest selling album to date "Dream Into Action," which went on to sell over a million copies in America on the wings of the lead single "Things Can Only Get Better." In 1985, Howard was on top of the world, playing the world's biggest arenas, including Madison Square Garden, which was a dream of his since he was a teenager.
"I mean, it was like, Whoa, how did that happen? I mean for a kid growing up in England, reading the New Musical Express and Melody Maker, Madison Square Garden was like the Holy Grail," he said "I never thought that would ever happen. It was such an exciting time. And there was a sense that we really need to enjoy this because you never know if this is going to happen again."
But it was one song off "Dream Into Action," that was never released as as single that would become Howard's biggest hit in America.
And it was all because of a request that superstar Phil Collins made of Howard in the hours before they went into the studio.
"No One Is To Blame" was initially released on Howard's second album, but with a much darker musical landscape. Howard knew that he couldn't let this song fall on deaf ears.
"I'd always thought that radio wouldn't go 'No One Is To Blame' in that form," he said. "But I thought we could do a version that radio would like. I said to the record company that this could be a big hit, but they were very skeptical about that. I kept believing in it. And then I'd met Phil because we've done a Prince's Trust concert and all sorts of charity things. So I feel we knew each other and got on really well. And so I sent the song to him and he really loved it and wanted to do it. I think he could hear what I was thinking we could do with it."
But Phil's request of Howard was to program a drum track so he could play along to during the re-recording of the song, which took place over two weekends in 1985.
"A lot (Phil's) own solo records were made with a sort of drum machine. He liked playing along with it," he said. "And he said 'look, program me something that I can play with it. And it's funny because I was talking to David Paich recently from Toto. And he said when he first heard the record, the whole band were like in the studio playing it over and over again, trying to work out what that was at the front. When I played it to Phil, and Hugh Padgham, who co-produced it with him, they absolutely loved it. And as you say, it became the biggest hook of the song. It's the first thing you hear and they wanted to keep all of it, you know. So yeah, it was funny how things happen, isn't it. But I was so panicked because Phil had asked me to do this drum piece. I thought this one's got to be really special because Phil's gonna play with it. So, I made a massive effort to make good tonight."
That drum track would later become the biggest hook of the song and propel "No One Is To Blame" to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and become his signature song in the States. Howard has released 15 studio albums, eight live albums and several more compilation albums since making the decision to go after his dream and put it all into action.
And now 40 years since he was in the studio with Rupert Hine and the release of "New Song," Howard is still appreciative of his fans and the enjoyment people get out of his songs - old and new. When asked if he was to make his debut album in 2023, Howard said there wouldn't be much he would change.
"I wouldn't change the songs at all. Those songs were a reflection of my time and experiences," he said. I suppose if I was to make my first album today, it wouldn't be done in a top-end, expensive studio like we did back in the day. I could have just recorded it at home. It was a very different time (back in the 80s.) The budgets are not as huge for an album as they were back then. But I like the freedom that working at your home studio affords you. I can now send a track to my drummer (over the net) and give him a good template that I want and he can spend the day in his own studio working it up. We can talk during the process live over the computer. That side of (the recording process) is absolutely brilliant. "But it still comes back to the songs. They are just filled with positive messages and gives people a bit of hope. They make people smile. That's all you can ask for as a songwriter."
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