A pioneer of the electronic sound, Howard Jones enjoyed huge success in the 1980s, both in the UK, Europe and the States. A string of hit singles, millions of album sales and a Live Aid appearance are no small achievements and he was at the forefront of the burgeoning electronic scene. The 90s saw his contract with Warner Bros end and a new chapter of his career begin.
In 2010 Howard remastered and reissued his first two classic albums, 1984’s Human’s Lib and 1985’s Dream Into Action, released on his own Dtox label. He will be heading out on tour in 2012 to play the two albums back to back and in full across a series of shows.
I recently caught up with Howard to talk about those albums, his label and whether the 80s really were the decade that style forgot…
Having owned both Human’s Lib and Dream Into Action I was intrigued to see that although the concerts would see both albums played in full, the running order for each was reshuffled. Was this a re-evaluation of the track listing and a chance to put the tracks in an order Howard had envisioned from the start or was it just for the live arena?
‘It is purely for the live flow of the tracks, if I had gone with the (original) order then ‘New Song’ and ‘What Is Love?…’ he tails off before concluding ‘Normally when I do a set list for gigs I put the big songs that everyone knows towards the end and kind of tailor it towards the live flow of the show’. Pausing for a moment he adds ‘I’ve taken a bit more liberty with the actual big hits, a big part of the live (experience) is to have audience involvement. Whereas most tracks are exactly as they are on the album, for the big hits like ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ I extend the choruses and have breakdowns. It’s a nod to the realities of performing live’ he confesses.
Another notable difference is that ‘Dream Into Action’ is played first with ‘Human’s Lib’ second despite the fact that ‘Dream Into Action’ was actually his second album, I wondered what the motivation was behind this.
‘I did it that way round for the UK because Human’s Lib was the biggest album here but when I’m in the states I do it the other way round, Human’s Lib first then Dream Into Action, as Dream Into Action was the bigger album in America’. Personally I have always preferred ‘Dream Into Action’, the title track has an almost Depeche Mode feel to it and the singles from this LP were always my favourite Jones singles, so I was curious to know if Howard had a preference, or whether that was like picking your favourite child.
‘It’s really hard, Dream Into Action has No One Is To Blame and things like Automaton which I absolutely love, especially now I’m playing it live again and the title track Dream Into Action itself’ he stops to think before explaining further ‘Probably from the point of view of challenging things to play live, it really stretches me. There is so much to remember and variety of moods and sounds but in the terms of consistent album it would be Human’s Lib as it sticks to the plot, Dream Into Action is more eclectic’.
Howard personally remastered the albums and they are released on his own label, D-Tox, with this in mind we discussed his thoughts on them now, would he still record the tracks in the same way if he were to do them today:
‘That’s a very good question, there would be things I would change, especially in the terms of arrangements’ clearly something he has thought about he continues straight on ‘Some of them are quite eccentric and perhaps things like Hunt The Self I would have made the amount of riffs more consistent, it is a bit random. As I have got older I‘ve got much more into symmetry of arrangements and how they work next to each other’ thinking for a second he summarises ‘The actual meat and potatoes of the song I’m fine with.’
So musically he was pretty content with things but given the fact they were recorded almost 20 years ago I wondered whether he still felt the same about the lyrics he had written. Did they still reflect the way he feels now or were there hints of youthful naivety?
‘That’s very interesting, it’s a bit like a diary of your younger self, it reflects the way I was thinking and feeling then’ considering this he goes deeper, ‘I actually feel really comfortable about singing them, especially Human’s Lib’ wryly he adds ‘except maybe the Human’s Lib title track which is a little bit out of character. I wouldn’t write a track like that now, although actually it is quite ironic but it is bit like a Jeremy Clarkson moment’ he chuckles before quoting the lyrics ‘Sometimes I’d like to go to bed with 100 women or men and lose my mind in lust and drink’ but he justifies this by revealing the origins of the track. ‘That song came from my punk era more. When I started my one man show I was very influenced by punk even though I was doing electronic music and that sort of comes from that era but all the others I’m really comfortable with’.
Having found myself defending the sounds of the 80s on many occasions over the years, a decade much maligned for its perceived style over substance, I was pleased to hear Howard has done a series of radio shows for Absolute Radio bestowing the virtues of the decade that fashion forgot.
‘I didn’t manage to get any guests in but I have so much to say about the tracks I’ve chosen and the people I’ve met that made the music that I had more than enough to cover four shows’ he enthuses ‘there is some absolutely excellent music’ he pauses ‘and there is some dross as well but that applies to every era’.
Waving the flag for the 80s further he goes on to say ‘what was great about the 80s was we had all these new instruments and technology in the studio and we are going to use it and experiment. I think that spirit was one of the best things about that time’ clearly passionate about the decade that bought him the most fame he presses on, ‘people went on to develop and refine it more, but that is where it started, electronic music was born in that time. It was the birth of the dance music; people are using a refined version of those instruments now’.
Elaborating on this slightly we talk about the backlash the 80s received during the 90s where they were virtually written out of history before the noughties bought them some much needed reappraisal and some belated respect.
‘I think it has been an interesting curve as you say. My assessment about why the 80s did have a bad rap from journalists and credible publications is that most of it wasn’t rock n roll, it was coming from a different place. The music business being so conservative didn’t like the fact it wasn’t guitars and long hair…. The haircuts and the clothes (didn’t help), but it was a reactionary thing’ Howard concedes ‘but there was dross as people were experimenting, but if you look at all the different types of music going on it was great’.
To me the likes of Howard Jones and Tears For Fears always seemed to be more mature, grown up musicians, whilst I love Duran Duran I would admit it is often more frivolous, they always wanted to be popstars, I asked Howard whether he had actually wanted the ‘Pop Star’ tag or if this had been forced upon him with his success.
‘I was completely fine with it, honestly’ he assures me ‘I didn’t really have a reference point, I just thought it was great people wanted me to be in those magazines and I could still be myself, I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I mean I made a big thing about being a vegetarian and loads of people took up vegetarianism from reading about it in Smash hits, I know for a fact this is true’.
Further justifying this Howard goes on, ‘I didn’t feel I had to compromise who I was, the clothes, the look and the hair, that was me, I was doing that before I got on Top Of The Pops. All those small gigs I played, that was the style I created, that was me, it was genuine’.
Talking specifically about his frequent appearances in the music magazines of the day Howard states ‘So being in Smash hits was fine, (but) I wasn’t in NME which was fine. I didn’t want to be thought of as a ‘cool’ artist anyway as I didn’t like the way they built up artists that wanted to tear everything down, I didn’t belong to that, I wanted to be neutral’ he says earnestly.
Sticking with the 80s theme for just a little longer, I wanted to know which acts Howard rated from the decade that perhaps don’t get the recognition they deserved and straight away he had his answer.
‘Japan are an absolutely revolutionary band’ he stated without hesitation ‘unfortunately because of the way they looked they were not taken as seriously as they should be. Their music was so original you can’t even trace back where it came from, that is really a hell of an achievement’ he considers the question further and adds ‘and then Scritti (Politti) to me was just gorgeous music, so beautifully crafted. They are two essential bands not to be missed’.
So you can’t have the good without the bad can you? Whilst perhaps I would easily come up with a list of 80s atrocities *cough* Spandau Ballet, Howard would not be pressed into giving me any bands he didn’t like. Rather telling he did say ‘well I had my favourites… and the ones I didn’t like as much’ but he would not be drawn into it. He really is a nice chap.
Drawing a line under the 80s conversation I just had to find out some insider information on Live Aid. I was enthralled by it as a child and as I have got older you hear more stories about the goings on behind the scenes, the making and breaking of careers, and the egos. I wanted to ask what Howard’s memories of the day were or if it had just been a blur.
‘It was (actually) one of those days in my life I do remember most of what went on. We all came out at the end so I stayed to see what was going on’ he recalls ‘seeing Queen and U2 and all those incredible performances, I met David Bowie and talked to Princess Diana that day’. But what about the behind the scenes politics, what was it like on the other side of the stage…..
‘(Well) I did it very simply, one song on my own (Hide and Seek from Human’s Lib)’ clearly not wanting to be drawn too deep into dishing the dirt he continues, ‘Geldof said you have got to have sold a million albums in the last year to be part of it, I’d done that’ he says without a shred of ego ‘ I fought to be part of it, I wanted to be part of this historic event’ he asserts ‘So I got my manager to phone up and say ‘Howard really wants to do this so we’ll be there!’. I passed the criteria and sometimes you have to be actively part of it, not just wait around to be asked’.
Moving away from talk of the past I decided to find out more about Howards’ record label, Dtox. Started in 1997 , all of his subsequent UK releases have been through Dtox and he has been prolific over the last decade with new studio sets, live albums and his remastered back catalogue.
‘At the end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s my deal finished with Warner Bros (five album deal) and they didn’t want to renew it’ he reveals matter of factly ‘it was a bit of a shock as I was still in full creative flow. I have to admit I had six weeks of being incredibly depressed thinking it was all over’.
Whilst many stars would have allowed themselves to wallow in their change in fortunes, Howard Jones is far more resilient and decided to be proactive about his future ‘I suddenly realised it’s just the beginning, with the internet and websites it was possible to have an independent career where you make your own records and videos, contact the fans yourself and book your own tours’.
‘I recorded an album very quickly, booked a tour and did a solo synth tour and I haven’t looked back. Obviously my profile is nothing like it was in the 80s but that suits me fine as I can just get on with it and not have to appear in the red top press’. There is no hint of resentment in his voice, whilst clearly he looks back with fondness on his 80s heyday, the here and now is upper most in his mind.
I’ve long been the advocate of the physical format for music, downloads leave me cold as everyone knows. Owning the remastered issues of Human’s Lib and Dream Into Action I have seen they have been lovingly presented in a clamshell box with slipcases so I assumed that presentation was still an important factor to Howard with his label.
‘Having the control of the primary things you make to me is really important’ he concurs ‘I like lovely products that you can hold. As much care you put into the music you put into the way it is presented, so when you have your label you can do that’ clearly a man after my own heart.
‘What I’ve found is that if fans have to pay a little bit more for a nice box then they are happy to do that. We try to be creative with the packaging and we will continue to do that’ he says emphatically ‘I don’t sell millions of records like the 80s, I sell thousands now but I want each one of those to be really special. I want people to think they’ve got something you can’t really get anywhere else, it binds the artists and the fans more, you have to care about the fans think’.
It seems clear the label is something Howard is both committed to and passionate about, more than just there to service a need to release his music it brings him closer to his fan base and he obviously understands and respects this. Mainly focused on his own releases I wanted to know if there were other artists he was working with on the label.
‘I signed an incredible artist called Martin Grech and he got signed to a huge licence deal from my label with Interscope/EMI’ however things didn’t quite run smoothly as Howard explains ‘what happened was the artist was kind of seduced by the big label and wanted to ditch me! After I’d worked with him for five years and I just thought oh man, you know!’ in fairness though, Howard seems to have taken it with good humour rather than bitterness. So did this sour the idea of working with others on the label?
‘Rather than investing so much time in other people I thought I should get on my own stuff. If artists do come along that I really want to support I won’t rule it out in the future but I’ll probably be a bit more wary’ he chuckles ‘(I’ll) try to explain that if you want loving care over your work and support then you need a different attitude you can’t be seduced by the big time. If you want to be around in 20 years’ time it is best to stick with people who really care about your work and not just money’. A sentiment I am all too familiar with.
Having had my own experiences with running an independent label I wondered if he felt the same as me that despite the change in the very nature of the music industry and the decline of the major labels, most bands still desperately crave that major label contract.
‘There is still this idea that to really make it you have to be on a big label playing stadiums, it may work for a while but who will support you on your difficult fourth album when you want to do something different?’ he jokes knowingly.
And on that note, we wrap things up as Howard politely lets me know I am running over time. It was fantastic to be able to talk to another of my childhood musical heroes, especially as he was very amicable throughout. I’ll be heading out to catch the full live experience next year and I urge you to do the same, go on, let a little 80s magic back in your life!
As told to Jules.
Howard Jones performs the entirety of his albums “Human’s Lib” and “Dream Into Action” in the UK during April 2012.
Ticket Hotline: 0844 477 2000, www.ticketweb.co.uk.
O2 Academy Bristol (April 11)
O2 Academy Sheffield (April 12)
O2 Academy Liverpool (April 13)
O2 Academy Birmingham (April 14)
O2 Academy Newcastle (April 17)
O2 ABC Glasgow (April 18)
O2 Academy Bournemouth (April 20)
O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (April 21)
More info: www.howardjones.com.
Howard Jones new live DVD “Humans Lib & Dream Into Action – Live at The indigO2 London” can be ordered from – http://www.howardjones.com/shop.html#.
Portrait photos: (c) Simon Fowler. Live photo: (c) Fredrik Svensson.