Archive | November, 2014

Alex Highton – Nobody Knows Anything

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Alex Highton – Nobody Knows Anything

Posted on 26 November 2014 by Joe

Alex Highton first came onto our radar two years ago when his debut album Woodditton Wives Club landed on our doormat. This collection of savvy pastoral folk pop, inspired by his own family move from London to the Cambridgeshire village of Woodditton, was beautifully arranged; perfectly mirroring his transition from city to rural life.

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Two years on he’s still producing high quality folk music, but on Nobody Knows Anything his palette is far broader and there is a range of genres at his finger tips. There is also a raft  of notable backing musicians too such as Robert Rotifer on electric guitar, John Howard on piano and the wonderful English folk vocals of Nancy Wallace.

On one hand Nobody Knows Anything is still the rural folk album that Woodditton Wives Club was. There’s the similar Pentangle style double bass, acoustic guitar and the addition of Wallace to add further folk class.

But on the other hand Highton has packed this with squelchy synths, nods to the 1960s psychedelia and pop as well as more modern alternative music by the likes of Field Music. One reviewer had even compared a track to the Only Fools And Horses theme tune.

These two strands of rural folk and modern eclecticism never conflict thankfully, they just weave in and out of each other as old friends and by the end it ceases to matter whether this is a folk album that became more ambitious or an ambitious album that wants to retreat back into the comfort of Cambridgeshire village life.

Take one of the highlights, Sunlight Burns Your Skin, for example. It starts with largely vocals and acoustic guitar. So far so folk. Then Rotifer’s electric guitar comes in and a world of psychedelic pop ushers in with trombone, backing vocals, more trombone, more guitar, more of everything and eventually comes to close with an acapela breakdown.

The same transition from small to downright  huge occurs on You don’t Own This Life, the album’s opener, which starts with some smart guitar picking and ends up with a whole load of clarinet and a trip to Dixieland.

It Falls Together and Fear are the ones that will delight Field Music fans. Like Field Music’s David Brewis, Highton is a fan of Talking Heads and it shows on these two jerky, pop tracks.

And then one of the album’s key tracks Panic ushers in. With its emotion and low key Northern delivery  Panic will particularly appeal to Elbow fans, albeit ones that also like thick squelchy synths, delay effect guitar and film soundtracks. Miserable Rich are another act that bares similarity – particularly on the beautiful Somebody Must Know Something.

As it progresses it’s clear this is no ordinary folk album with its broad range of genres, melody and invention, but for those familiar with Woodditton Wives Club this is unmistakeable Highton, only more so.

9/10

by Joe Lepper

 

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The Specials – Rock City, Nottingham (November 22, 2014)

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The Specials – Rock City, Nottingham (November 22, 2014)

Posted on 24 November 2014 by John Haylock

Longevity in this biz we call show is a rare thing. Loyalty is fickle and attention spans are measured in months not years.

Around 35 years ago The Specials came out of post punk with a love for The Skatalites and Prince Buster and not the usual suspects such as the MC5 or Iggy. They brought a much needed dance vibe to the scene, not inspired by London or Detroit but by Jamaica, and distilled their sound through an industrial wasteland that was 1970s Coventry. Embracing radical politics and married to a rock steady beat it was as part of Two Tone Records, together with such bands as Madness and The Selector, where they had a willing audience of kids who shared their sense of disillusion and cynicism. This lost generation are now middle-aged and were out in force in Nottingham tonight, a testament to the long term affection they still have for this most iconic of bands.

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At 8:30pm prompt Rock City heaved under the relentless badly syncopated dancing of a slightly more mature audience than it usually entertains as this sold out crowd went bonkers when Mr Grumpy look a like Terry Hall finally took to the stage in his badly fitted grey suit. looking like he’d rather be sat at home watching Strictly Come Dancing.

They promptly launched straight into their 1981 number one hit Ghost Town, perhaps one of only a handful of brilliant singles that have actually merited such a position, with it’s eerie sing-a-long chorus and unforgettable lyrics it hits the spot perfectly. In these tighten yer belt times it’s as relevant now as was back in the day.

Sadly and not surprisingly tonight there’s no Jerry Dammers, but still with four original members they prove they still can do the business, along with Terry Hall is  bassist Horace Panter, drummer John Bradburry and the legend that is Lynval Golding on guitar. Together they execute their exquisite back catalogue with military precision.

Consistently intelligent lyrics, infectious ska beat and right on politics you can skank to; they cram everything into the quickest ninety minutes you’ll ever experience as joyous renditions of Doesn’t Make It Alright, Rat Race, It’s Up To You, Too Much Too Young, Gangsters, Sterotype and Monkey Man.

Twice during the show Hall stopped proceedings to berate the crowd for throwing beer stageward, probably afraid that some errant splashes of extortionately priced lager might get on his suit, at one point threatening to leave the stage if it happens again. Later some poor sod is singled out as a culprit and with much cheering is forcibly extricated from the crowd and unceremoniously ejected from the venue. Safe to carry on without fear of a hefty dry cleaning bill Hall and co finished with an ecstatically received A Message To You Rudy. A five ska gig.

by John Haylock

 

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John Howard – Hello My Name Is

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John Howard – Hello My Name Is

Posted on 24 November 2014 by Joe

Since stepping onto the comeback trail around a decade ago singer songwriter John Howard has proved himself to be a prolific recording artist. From his home studio in Spain he is regularly producing at least a release a year. It’s a far cry from his desperate attempts to release albums in the 1970s as his label CBS gradually lost interest in him.

This year has been particularly busy, with this latest full album following on from one of his regular cover EPs and a live album recorded from his 2013 gig at the Servant Jazz Quarters, a venue he is returning to in November this year.

There’s more to come as well. He is teaming up later this year with Gare Du Nord Records artists Robert Rotifer (Rotifer) and Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge) as well as Paul Weller’s bassist Andy Lewis to form a band, the name of which is currently under wraps. In his interview with us earlier this month Howard also revealed plans for a further covers EP.

But back to this current release and here we find Howard in reflective mood again, looking back on his 70s career and London’s gay culture, his 1990s career as a record company executive and current feelings of identity.

Hello_My_Name_Is_2400 front cover

There is also story telling as well, a format he excelled in during 2013’s album Storeys about characters in an imagined apartment block. It is his story telling ability that creates the best track on Hello My Name Is, Bob/Bobbi, which focuses on the double life of a drag queen who sadly says goodbye to his glamorous female alter ego. Howard discusses the real life Bob that the song is based on further in our interview with him earlier this month.

Bloomsbury Chapter is another standout, inspired by an email exchange with Rotifer and taking the listener back to Howard’s time in London in the 1970s and “the memories of various romantic break-ups at that time.”

Another reflective track is Same Mistakes, a song about the passing of heroes and loved ones. Howard explains that part of the song is about the detached yet personal loss of heroes like John Lennon and Janis Joplin he and his friends felt when they died. He adds that the middle eight section is recounting more personal loss. This “is really to do with how I wish I’d said so much more to my mum who died forty years ago at the age of just 50,” says Howard. “I wish I’d told her how much she meant to me, I don’t think I ever did, but I guess she knew anyway,” he adds.

The album comes to a close with Secrets, inspired by his time in the 1990s as a record executive, a role that never really sat well with a man who two decades before was hoping to embark on a successful career as a recording artist. Howard explains: “They were great days in many ways, for the first time in my life earning a fabulous salary and travelling First Class round the world for conferences and meetings, but I was constantly waiting for someone to ‘suss me’, to discover I hadn’t a clue what  the marketing guys were rabbiting on about in their bizarre company jargon.”

This crisis of identity is a fitting end to an album that offers a fascinating insight into how we perceive ourselves. The album also provides another interesting chapter in the Howard narrative, of an artist reawakened from the past to become a fiercely independent artist of the present.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

For more information about John Howard and details of how to order Hello My Name Is visit here.

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Perfume Genius – Lido, Berlin (November 17, 2014)

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Perfume Genius – Lido, Berlin (November 17, 2014)

Posted on 19 November 2014 by Dominic Blewett

It’s strange there are still tickets for sale. Very few artists have released no duds, and it’s particularly rare that one should have put out three almost flawless offerings since their inception. But that’s the situation: regardless of how good Perfume Genius is, Lido is full, but (unjustifiably) not sold out.

And he is good, very good. Opener ‘My Body’, from this year’s release ‘Too Bright’ is a weird, savage starter, showcasing the more muscular, synth-stabbing direction the new material encompasses. And this weight carries over to the old stuff. ‘Take Me Home’ and ‘Dark Parts’, coming immediately after the opener, are as pretty as you’d expect, but they sound bigger, fuller, more confident than before.

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I saw Perfume Genius this summer, at a festival in Poland. Back then the new album wasn’t out, and only a couple of the new tracks got aired; it was 95% material from ‘Learning’ and ‘Put Your Back N 2 It’. So the performance reflected those albums’ gossamer-light melodies and heavy, haunting sadness. Perfume Genius, aka Mike Hadreas, seemed to hover far off inside his skin, or somewhere just outside. He seemed to tremble, unsure of how to hold himself, of whether he’d get to the end. It’s nothing like that tonight. With his bold new songs revealed, the change he’s undergone in less than six months is profound. Sure he still vanishes from time to time into a private jet of dry ice, and his black-clad body can disappear against the black backdrop, magician-like, leaving his head and hands wobbling dismembered in the air, but he’s always there.

He writhes and bucks and dances and owns his songs unapologetically. Laterally, he has a very flexible neck; it stirs the soundwaves. He screams. Even the ballads seem bolstered by a new strength. It’s sometimes not a coherent set, but then his albums hinge on extremely dark changes of emotion, so perhaps coherence can’t be met yet. He plays songs, like ‘All Waters’ which some bands might not play live. It sounds too much like a sketch. But whether it is or it isn’t, it’s formed enough to be staggeringly beautiful, which is the factual heart of this music, both old and new.

During this performance he reveals a soul that is as vulnerable as before, but he’s visibly growing into himself and outwards, with more anger and armour to protect him. It’s a bristling kind of transformation that makes me think he’s going to be around for a long while, not using the new layers of his music to hide behind, but as extra canvas on which to paint the sad, beautiful colours within.

by Dominic Blewett

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Junkboy – Sovereign Sky

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Junkboy – Sovereign Sky

Posted on 14 November 2014 by Joe

Come take a barefoot run across the Sussex Downs, sandals in hand, kaftan lapping in the wind as we head with Junkboy down to the coast. These are the images that this hidden 2014 gem conveys with its echoes of flower-power California and good old fashioned British folk and pop.

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The coastal vibe is strong for good reason as Junkboy are brothers Rich and Mik Hanscomb who hail from Southend-on-Sea and now reside on the Sussex coast. This second album from the pair, which follows on from 2010’s Koyo, is packed full of  great tunes as they  mine their own record collections for influence. Pentangle perhaps comes across most strongly in Priory Park, which features the added sounds of birds and the wind in the trees (perhaps from the real park of the same name in Southend) all blended with acoustic guitar string bending and laid back percussion. It’s a great opener with a single electric guitar chord at the end to reveal the pop to come.

Cellos and violin figure strongly too, particularly on Redwood to give it a nice psychedelic pop vibe. It is no surprise to hear XTC’s influence here, seeing as back in the mid 1980s they proved fine exponents of psychedelic pop with their Dukes of Stratosphear incarnation. Rainfalls is the track here that is most like XTC with its soaring chorus.

Their press release name checks American Analogue Set too and I can certainly hear their influence in this album’s laid back pop and shuffling rhythms.

Special mention goes to Release the Sunshine, the album’s standout track. Surely this sun soaked slice of pop is a cover? Not so, it’s pure Junkboy, who on the evidence of this album appear to be one of the UK music scene’s best kept secrets.

8/10

by Joe Lepper

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Belle and Sebastian – The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill (Oct 29, 2014)

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Belle and Sebastian – The De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill (Oct 29, 2014)

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Dorian

It seems wrong to start a review of such an excellent gig on a negative note, but I feel the need to run through things in a chronological order. The minor gripe about the evening is the support act that greets us as we arrive at Bexhill’s wonderful De La Warr Pavilion. Arriving at 7.30 seemed reasonable, given a 7pm ticket start time, but the running order lists the support act as being “DJ Justin Spear” with the main band not hitting the stage until 9pm. Listening to someone play records, and with not a huge amount of finesse, to a near-empty room is not a great way to spend your time; even if those records are pretty good.

Thankfully the building, and the surrounding environment, is not a bad place to hang out and there is a pretty decent gift shop to waste a bit of time in before the main event starts.

Belle and Sebastian

When the band does take the stage, in the expected large numbers, any disappointment about a lack of decent support is soon forgotten. The songs, both new and old, sound great and the near-perfect concert hall is packed to the rafters with happy fans. A casual Stuart Murdoch and a neatly turned out Stevie Jackson are center stage for most of the evening and it is their songs (the bulk by Murdoch) that the audience know by heart. That is except for the brace of songs from the band’s forthcoming album, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance, including the new single ‘The Party Line’. This song has received some radio play recently and reveals a hitherto unknown 80s Disco influence on the band. It is an oddity in the set, but sounds pretty good nonetheless.

The band are very aware that they have a dedicated following, and the audience have largely been with them for many years, so they don’t insist on only playing songs from their more recent albums. Indeed it is the album they released between 1996 and 2000 (along with a smattering of EP only songs recorded in the same period) that make up the bulk of the set. The Boy With The Arab Strap, now 16 years old, gets the most tracks by my calculation and it is these songs that get the best response from the crowd.

It is the title track from that album which inspires Murdoch to encourage more dancing and stage participation. Several hundred people eagerly accept the invitation and the band disappear from view for the bulk of the song. Astonishingly they keep the song going without error and it is a rather magical moment (a video of this can be found on YouTube here).

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In some ways it is a shame that this song wasn’t saved for the encore, it is one of those moments that is hard to top, even in a gig of this high a quality. However, nobody complains when the band continue for a few more tracks before leaving the stage. The evening of songs has been close to perfect, and nobody could honestly quibble about the choice of songs played, so the clamour for an encore is an unsurprising one.

When the band does return to the stage we are treated to one final song, ‘Sleep The Clock Around’. This is a song that contains the perfect essence of melancholy, melody and positivity that makes them such a unique and wonderful band. They are the only band I’ve ever seen that have left my hands sore, not from applause but from the in-song hand-clapping.

The band release their new album in January 2015 and the full tour starts in the same month taking in New Zealand, Australia, the far east and America before returning to the UK for 14 dates in May.

By Dorian Rogers

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Interview: John Howard

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Interview: John Howard

Posted on 11 November 2014 by Joe

John Howard’s story is one of the best, albeit lesser known, in music. During the 1970s he was signed to CBS as the latest singer-songwriting talent. But it was a career that faltered before it began. Adjusting to failure he dusted himself off, took a job behind the scenes in the music industry and then years later embarked on a second music career, this time in an internet age where he continues to produce some of his best work.

It was another singer songwriter, Ralegh Long, who introduced us to his music and through a subsequent flurry of emails we forged a friendship with Howard and so did Long and his fellow artists at Gare Du Nord Records.

Howard is now a regular collaborator with the Gare Du Nord stable of artists, that also includes Robert Rotifer, Ian Button (Papernut Cambridge and Death in Vegas) and Alex Highton.

John Howard (Spain, 2010)

John Howard (Spain, 2010)

This month sees Howard return to the UK from his home in Spain for a rare live performance as part of a Gare Du Nord showcase at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, where his backing band will feature Rotifer, Button and Paul Weller’s bassist Andy Lewis. This is the same line up that backed him at his last UK gig, at the same venue last year. November also marks the release of his  latest album, Hello My Name Is.

As he prepares to pack his bags for the UK Neonfiller’s Joe Lepper caught up with him to ask him about his two contrasting musical careers in the 1970s and modern day, changing gay culture, forthcoming releases as well as some of the characters and themes on Hello My Name Is. We even find time to discuss the benefits and pitfalls of  social media, musical theatre and the evil that lurks in The X-Factor and other TV talent shows.

Neonfiller: Your latest album covers themes of perception and identity. What is your perception of yourself as an artist? How do you think others perceive you?

JH: That young aspiring artist of the 1970s feels like a different person to me. I don’t really recognise him. I was so confident and arrogant back then, I believed I couldn’t fail.

So failure when it came was something of a shock, even though it crept up on me over about two years, between 1974 and 1976. I’d had such a clear vision of the music I would make up to that point. But failure with doing my own thing,  in my own personal style, meant that to try and achieve ‘a hit record’ I had to go down several other musical avenues, none of which felt right or natural and didn’t succeed either. It taught me lot though, and the fact I managed to get up, dust myself down, and simply get on with things, rather than let it knock the stuffing out me made much stronger and resilient.

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Now, as a rediscovered artist from the ‘70s I have two fairly distinct sets of fans. There are those who can’t really get past my ‘Biba Glam Balladeer’ period, who consider Goodbye Suzie my only single which means anything, and post a ‘Like’ on Facebook whenever I put up a video of a ‘70s track on my Facebook page, but entirely ignore anything more recent.

Then there are those fans who probably discovered me via the unexpected rave reviews of my re-released 1970s albums and have thankfully gone beyond that. This group have followed, bought and supported the albums I’ve written and recorded since 2005.

I am, of course, very proud of some of my ‘70s output, and will always be grateful for its rediscovery giving me a new career again, but I sometimes wish some people could accept that I’m not that pin-stripe suited Kid In A Big World anymore. That album and period is just a small part of what makes me what I am in 2014. I hope that doesn’t sound ungrateful or sour. It’s not meant to at all. Just an observation of how some people see me, or want me to be preserved in 1970s aspic.

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I remember turning up at a gig in London in 2006, we were hulking my keyboard and stuff into the venue and a bloke ran up to me shouting, “It’s John Howard! Where is your suit? Why are you not wearing your suit?”. I was in jeans and t-shirt with my stage gear packed in my bag. “You’re wearing jeans,” he cried, hands clasped to his head. I felt I’d completely let him down, and in fact I had. The hilarious thing is I never wore suits in the ‘70s except for photo sessions and concerts, I wore jeans and T shirts back then as well. People’s perceptions, which, as you say, is what this new album covers.

Neonfiller: You mention in your press release about interaction through social media making the world smaller but at the same time making us lose a sense of self. What is your relationship with social media like?

JH: Social Media has been a godsend for my career. If I’d had it at my fingertips forty years ago things would have been very different. Back then, an artist was completely at the mercy of his or her record company and not being signed to a ‘major record company’ does mean I miss out on all the ‘big time’ promotional stuff. But I’m happy to fore go that to keep control of what and how I do things.

My main concern with social media is how one can be fooled into thinking you matter more because of it, by how many ‘friends’ you have, when in truth we can still name our true friends on one hand. And that can create a sense of worthlessness when we start to crave approval, many times during the day in some cases, which can only lead to disappointment. It depends how strong one is mentally and emotionally, and on how good our personal life is, in terms of how one copes with apparent ‘rejection’ or ‘being ignored’. It’s all so transitory too, you put up a post and down it scrolls within seconds from the home feed, its importance and immediacy sinking before your very eyes. If you don’t take it – and what people write to you and about you – too seriously, then it’s fun, often very useful, and a door-opener in many ways I would not have thought possible when I started out as a singer-songwriter in 1970.

Neonfiller: Some of the tales on Hello My Names Is are extremely sad. The protagonist in ‘Bob/Bobbi’ is particularly tragic. Tell us more about the characters on this album.

JH: As with most of my observational songs, they are mainly an amalgam of different people I’ve known or read about.  Bob/Bobbi was different in that it is actually about one person who I knew, though even in this song other memories and experiences are interwoven into ‘Bob/Bobbi’s’ story.

Hello_My_Name_Is_2400 front cover

Bob was a guy my partner Neil and I met while on holiday in The Canaries in the late ‘90s. We got chatting to him at the bar of the complex we were staying in – though chatting is something of an exaggeration as he wasn’t very talkative. He was very dour, smoked his cigar with head down and answered my nosy questions with occasional nods. Later that evening, Neil and I were sitting at the same bar and suddenly, like a flash of gorgeous pink and purple, out of one of the apartments came this beautiful creature, long tight dress, fabulous hair and make-up, feather boa, giggling and dancing down to the taxi rank by the main gate, jumping up and down with excitement. “That’s Bobbi,” one of our bar acquaintances said, “isn’t she amazing?”. It was Bob in full drag, a slim lithe laughing creature, in love with life and basking in how fabulous she looked and felt.

The next day, there was dour ol’ Bob sitting at the bar again. This happened every day and night of the week. On our last day, I sat next to Bob to say goodbye and after a few puffs of his cigar, he turned to me and said, “Last night was Bobbi’s last fling. I’m putting her away now. She’s gone.” I tried to ask him why but he didn’t want to expand on it, stood, nodded goodbye and left the bar. We never saw Bob again. This rather poignant episode has stayed with me ever since.

The ‘character’ in City St. Sirens is based in part on a young guy I heard talking to his mum on his mobile on the train. She had obviously asked how he was, concerned about her son in the Big City and he answered as brightly as he could “I’m Fine!” But it didn’t convince me at all, and I’m sure didn’t her either. It took me back to when I first arrived in London in 1973 at the age of 20, living in digs in Epping, looking for job to pay the rent, feeling shattered and my mum sounding worried on the phone. “Are you alright, son?” she’d ask, and there’s me trying to sound positive. “Yes, I’m fine, honest, mum, really” knowing she wasn’t convinced at all. But I did love living in London.

Neonfiller: Born Too Early is an intriguing song with its focus on sexuality and the double lives of some gay men. Tell us more about this song and the messages it is conveying?

JH: Yes, this one plays around with the ‘butch/bitch’ thing certainly gay men of my generation went through. I had a friend back in the ‘70s who used to wear a T Shirt with ‘Butch’ on the front and ‘Bitch’ on the back. I used that as the starting point of juxtapositioning things like ‘Bent as Shirley, McQueen Straight’ in the lyric, using wordplay, which I always enjoy.  Now of course, such terms seem laughable, from another age, and they are, but they were the language my friends and I used back then. All the gay men I knew had ‘camp names’ for each other – I was ‘Mary’ as my friend Bill (‘Beryl’) thought it perfectly summed up my ‘dizzy bitch’ personality.

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The lyrics “Big and burly, inert, innate, slender twirly, Dance Till Eight flashing in your eyes and a glass of Riesling in your hand” are all images from my early 20s, when I would dress up in my best gear at weekends and dance the night away, then we’d all drive to a morning diner in Fulham called Up All Night and eat burgers before crashing out on someone’s floor.

Gay pubs in the ‘70s were full of ‘femme’ and ‘butch’ guys, eyeing each other up, while, hilariously, between the sheets those roles were quite often reversed! There are times when I feel I was born at the right time, others I wish I’d been born in a different age. I sometimes long for the chic 1920s world Noel Coward inhabited but also know it was a very difficult and dangerous time to be gay. I grew up in a decade where being gay was finally legalised, and the ‘70s felt very free and abandoned to me, certainly in London.

The line “Some men stopped and stared, chance some of them stayed the night and never cared how their wives swallow lies” describes how I was quite often picked up in various clubs and bars I was performing in by guys who had just a few nights earlier been at the club with their wives. These double lives again. Sometimes the knowingness of young people today astonishes me, the gaucheness of my own youth just isn’t there, people in their teens seem very grown up in their attitudes, and being gay, which was such a talking point, especially among straight friends in the ‘70s, is now considered uninteresting by young folk, which is great but also alien to me still.

I grew up feeling different, actually glad to be different, and it’s a bit unnerving when you are no longer regarded as anything different or special “just because you’re gay.” Being ‘different’ together was how we survived together.

Neonfiller: How has the music industry changed for gay men since your first career in the 1970s?

JH: I wrote a song called My Beautiful Days in 2007 after a conversation I’d had with my former CBS producer Paul Phillips about why I hadn’t been a success back in the ‘70s. Paul shocked me by telling me he believed it was because some people on high at BBC radio back then were homophobic. Around the same time my former manager’s widow also told me she’d had a conversation with a particular producer who had intimated to her that my sexuality would prevent me getting plays on Radio 1.

That seems completely unbelievable now, doesn’t it? I remember when George Michael was arrested for ‘lewd acts in a public toilet’ in L.A. in the ‘90s, the trash tabloids were gleefully getting ready for him to get a public roasting. Instead, George went on Michael Parkinson’s show and talked openly about the incident, laughing about it, and making the audience laugh about it too. Within a week his record sales were tripling.

John Howard at Les Ambassadeurs, Park Lane, August 1974.

John Howard at Les Ambassadeurs, Park Lane, August 1974.

The ironic thing about my situation in the ‘70s was that it came at the same time we had the campest of pop stars cavorting around Top of The Pops. But the difference then was that none of those pop stars admitted to being gay, they were all ‘straight’, were married, had girlfriends, so it was considered a bit of a laugh to wear make-up, huge earrings and feather boas and swish around a BBC set.

David Bowie got headlines in the early ‘70s for ‘coming out’ as ‘bisexual’. The ‘announcement’ in, I think, Melody Maker made him the talking point of the press just as Ziggy was being launched. Then he’d arrive at press conferences with his wife on his arm. “That’s ok then,” said those on high. But here was me, totally out as a gay man, not hiding behind ‘bisexuality’. The poor old Beeb just considered it a step too far.

The BBC thought up all sorts of excuses not to play my singles, “too depressing”, “anti-female”, all quite bizarre reasons. One of the singer-songwriters I admire now is Rufus Wainwright, completely out as a gay man, admired by millions, straight and gay.

Neonfiller: Every now and again you like to release a covers collection, often by less well-known artists. Which tracks and artists are next on your radar? Also what other releases are in the pipeline?

JH: The next covers E.P. I do will be going back to my 1970s songwriting heroes. I want to record a song by The Incredible String Band, who I adored in the early ‘70s; a Nick Drake song, which I was planning to do a few years ago but there was such a media saturation of Nick’s material then about that time that I decided to hold off. I want to record another Shelagh MacDonald song, such a wonderful singer-songwriter who has also had something of a comeback to performing and recording in the last couple years after disappearing in the ‘70s. She very kindly got in touch with me when she’d heard my version of her ‘Canadian Man’ and we’re now in regular touch with each other. I’m still mulling over the other two songwriters I want to cover for the next E.P., but I think a Sandy Denny song would be lovely to do.

John Howard (l) and Andy Lewis (r), November 2013

John Howard (l) and Andy Lewis (r), November 2013

I am also soon to begin work on a new album with the band I’ve gigged with at The Servant Jazz Quarters (Rotifer, Button and Lewis) last November. It will be recorded as a band album, together in the studio at the same time, and it’s a long time since I did that – As I Was Saying in 2005 to be exact. This time we’ve written all the songs together, so there will be Rotifer-Howard, Button-Howard and Lewis-Howard songs on there. Seeing what, say, Robert does musically with a lyric I’ve sent him, ditto Ian and Andy, has been fascinating, and vice versa for them.

Neonfiller: You are playing at the Servant Jazz Quarters in London for the second time later this month. What does it mean to you to be able to return to the UK and perform in front of an audience and meet up with your friends at Gare Du Nord records?

JH: It means a lot to me. The response I had at last year’s SJQ gig completely overwhelmed me, I wasn’t expecting such an amazing reaction. Before I left the UK in 2006, I’d played quite a few gigs up and down the country, Manchester, Brighton, Chester, London, and was getting very depressed at the dwindling audience numbers – the last gig I played in Chester had 15 people there, and half of those were close friends who’d – thank goodness – made the effort to come and hear me. Somehow the word was not getting out there about me  and I decided to retire from live performing again.

John Howard at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 2013.

John Howard at the Servant Jazz Quarters, London, 2013.

I still wanted to write and record, firstly because I love it, and secondly because, although I’ll never be a big album seller, there are people who buy what I do all over the world. It was the live circuit which just wasn’t turning onto me. I did a couple of shows once I got to Spain in the autumn of 2007, which my then record company, Bilbao-based Hanky Panky Records arranged for me (they’d released my album Barefoot With Angels that year) but once that album had done its bit their interest waned and there were no more shows in Spain either.

Robert Rotifer, Ian Button, Andy Lewis and John Howard (l-r)

Robert Rotifer, Ian Button, Andy Lewis and John Howard (l-r)

The traditional ‘paper’ magazines also lost interest over time, so your fantastic interest in and coverage of my work in Neon Filler, along with a couple of other online music magazines, has been a real fillip for me in the last couple of years. It’s reignited my belief in what I do, seeing how there is still journalistic interest in my music. It matters to read reviews of what I release. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t.

It’s actually because of you that I am finally back performing on stage again! You gave my 2012 album You Shall Go To The Ball! an amazing write-up in Neon Filler and introduced me to Robert Rotifer and Ralegh Long, who unbeknownst to me were fans of mine. Robert, Ralegh and their Gare Du Nord compatriot Ian Button have been simply fantastic. They made me feel so welcome last year when I performed at The SJQ at their invitation, and that enthusiasm for what I do has never waned or lessened.

Neonfiller: Sometimes when on the rare occasions I watch Britain’s Got Talent or X Factor I wonder how you would go down among the mainstream prime time TV audience and the likes of Simon Cowell. Now don’t laugh, but would you ever consider applying for one of these shows?

JH: I absolutely loathe those programmes and what they stand for. Of course Britain’s got talent, as does every country in the world, it’s what the likes of Cowell do with that talent which bothers and angers me. He and his cohorts turn individuality into conveyor belt mush, autotuned-to-f**k vocals, the girls all sounding like Cowell’s’ musical wet dream of producing the love child of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey, all singing 15 notes where one will do, and the male singers all ending up sounding like solo members of Westlife.

I call BGT and the X Factor ‘Cruelty TV’, the whole Coliseum atmosphere he creates, the audience baying for blood when they dislike a performer and cheering to the rafters when they see someone they approve of.

Cowell and his co-presenters have often defended this approach by saying that all artists have to get used to rejection in their careers, so the way singers are treated on X Factor. What tosh. Any rejection most artists experience from a manager, agent or record company is done in private, not with millions of people looking on. It’s just an excuse to make these self-important smug bastard judges feel like big men who get to wield their ‘power’ in public.

I guess you know the answer to your question then – No.

Neonfiller: Finally, I get a sense of drama from your songs. Your music and lyrics seem tailor made for the stage. Storeys in particular springs to mind. Have you written a musical that is sitting collecting dust somewhere?

JH: This is something that has been said to me ever since I started writing and performing in 1970. I never start out with any song intending it to have a dramatic twist but somehow, it usually does. I think the dramatic thing actually occurs because I love singing so much, and I always have had a physical need to take a melody from its base and let it soar. I discovered this ‘bent’ in my writing early on and as my voice got stronger then that happened increasingly more. I consider myself lucky that I can still do that. I think it’s fairly unusual to be able to still ‘soar’ vocally at 61. Don’t know why I still can, though I believe the fact I have never gigged very much has a lot to do with it. So there’s a kind of explanation of why my songs have that theatrical structure. I do love stage and screen musicals, always have, and my partner Neil and I regularly settle down of an evening to watch something like Oklahoma or South Pacific on DVD, every song is a classic, every performance a gem.

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I did have a couple of attempts at writing a stage musical back in the ‘70s, one was based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray and I got as far as writing two songs for it then got bored, or events took over to take my attention away from it.

I feel very comfortable doing what I do, I know how to write and put across a song, I know how to record those songs, I know what arrangements I want for those songs, and I know how to get those songs out on the market. But a musical? It takes years to just get it on, if you ever get that far. The sheer effort which would likely end in failure exhausts me just thinking about it.

For more information about John Howard visit his website here.

Details about his November 26th gig at The Servant Jazz Quarters, London, can be found here.

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