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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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)
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.
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.