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 John Howard

British Singer-songwriter

Studio Albums

Kid in a Big World

Technicolour Biography

Can You Hear Me Okay

The Dangerous Hours

The Pros and Cons of Passion

Same Bed Different Dreams

As I Was Saying

Barefoot With Angels

Navigate Home

Dry Run

 

Live Albums

 

In the Room Upstairs

More From the Room Upstairs

 

Best Of and Compilations

 

Sketching the Landscape 1973-1979

Creating Impressions - singles and rarities 1980-1990

These Fifty Years - The Best Of

 

EPs

 

My Beautiful Days

Walk on the Wild Side

The Bewley Brothers

 

 

 

John Howard 

click here for interviews with John Howard - Updated January 2nd, 2011

John has an official web which can be accessed by clicking here.

John also has his own section on My Space which you can visit by clicking here.

 

One of the great attractions of music is coming across new artists and delving into their back catalogue.

Which brings me to the strange "success" story of British singer-songwriter John Howard. A few years ago on the strength of a review and a couple of tracks on compilation CDs from a national music magazine, I bought Howard's Kid in a Big World CD.

This album was not so much a sleeper as a comatose delight. Originally it was issued in 1975 but slumbered away for many years probably in the vaults of remainder bins at relatively unknown LP shops in back streets. Kid in a Big World became known as one of the "great forgotten albums of the 1970s". It obtained something of a cult status.

Then magically the album re-surfaced in CD format 28 years later and the record world was able to hear once again just what it had been missing for almost three decades.

RPM Records re-released Kid and you might say "the rest is history," but thankfully it isn't. John started writing again, shelved albums were released and John started touring. The great thing is that listening to John Howard doesn't feel as if you are in a time warp. It does make you feel that you are in the presence of one of this country's great songwriting talents - think early Elton John mixed with a bit of Billy Joel and a smattering of Clifford T Ward and Ray Davies style observations and you might be somewhere close. Oh I forgot a bit of glam Bowie as well.

 

Kid in a Big World - 7.5

There is a definite touch of the first Elton John album about Kid in a Big World. It is so difficult to see how and why this album was ignored for so long. It's poignant but at the same time fun and has an originality often missing from the genre. Lyrically John Howard was very strong even for the early mid 70s which to me have always been the quintessential period for British music. It is conceivable that John was overlooked due to the variety of styles which defied pigeon-holing. 

The opening track "Goodbye Suzie" is evocative both in lyrics and voice  and some of the songs are almost heart-wrenchingly sad in a strangely uplifting way. Kid in a Big World should have been the start of a glittering career and now almost 30 years after its original release it could be. The re-issued CD includes seven tracks not on the original album.

 

Technicolour Biography

This was originally intended as a follow-up to Kid but was never completed. But again it slept in the vaults and RPM records released it in 2004 - some 30 years after it was recorded.

A review will follow

 

Can You Hear Me Okay - 7

Another album shelved by CBS and released by RPM in May 2005. Can You Hear Me is a big departure from Kid - less idiosyncratic but undoubtedly an album written from the heart which is the great thing with John Howard. He personalises the songs. The lyrics are never trite and here the backgrounds have a more middle of the road feel to them. Certainly it's not as immediate as Kid but John took a different direction by calling in Biddu to produce. Biddu is probably best known for the Carl Douglas hit Kung Fu Fighting. This is a million miles from that offering, however.

In some ways it is easy to see why CBS shelved the project. John Howard must have been seen as being many miles from a commercial proposition back in the 1970s. He is much too cultured for that and at the time will have suffered from the craft that has gone into these songs. They aren't immediate. You have to stick with them, but ultimately there's the same lush vocals, the same songwriting skills and a slightly different direction to enjoy which includes a cod falsetto disco song "I Can Breath Again."

 

The Dangerous Hours

Bringing us more up to date, John collaborated with Manchester poet Robert Cochrane in this 2005 release.

Same Bed, Different Dreams - 7

Completed in early 2006 and released in March 2007 as the artist's catalogue continued to grow. One of John Howard's great inspirations is the past. So on the opening track "My Girl By the Temptations" we hark back to the glorious days of soul with mentions for John Lennnon and Shirley Temple to name but two. "Oh Midnight" is a beautifully complex song that is a real grower. Similarly "Sacred Heart" has an epic feel about it both from the musical and lyrical point of view.

"Laura Coming Home" is another of those songs that hits the spot in so many ways with its mention of milk and honey mornings (beautiful imagery as always. Same Bed, Different Dreams once again shows John Howard to be a genuine poet as well as artist.

Another outstanding track is Punchin' Judy the story of domestic violence with the heart-rending lines "Something happened to the man I loved, he became a monster, where did I go wrong -" wonderfully evocative lyrics.

 

As I Was Saying - 8.5

John's first new singer-songwriter album for 30 years and released on Cherry Red Records in 2005. And what an exceptionally good album this one is. From the opening words of the opening song "Taking It All To Heart" we know we are in familiar territory: "On reflection is a great place to be" and so it is. The remarkable thing about this is it was recorded 30 years after Kid In a Big World, but it just follows on perfectly from that album - a seamless transition over three decades. John's voice sounds as fresh as it always has. It's just as though cryogenics have been used and the artist's body has been frozen Adam Adamant* like to re-appear 30 years later. 

The Dilemma of of the Homosapien rips along, there's plenty of glitz and glitter throughout the album as if it is a hark back to the golden 70s and there's name checks for Simon Cowell and Mama Cass and many others. To return after so long with such an accomplished album is something of a triumph. These Fifty Years is one of my favourite Howard songs and the album ends with the wonderfully poignant The Time of Day - one of his best songs where his voice has a Phil Ochs feel to it and his piano playing is just simply beautiful.

 

In the Room Upstairs - 7

Heaven's Promise/Echoes of a Better Time/A Willing Deception/Old Light, Cold Light/They/Nothing is Forever Anymore/Blue Lady/Maybe Someday in Miami/ The First to Go/ Such a Drag/This Savage Mercy/The Deal/These Fifty Years/My Beautiful Days/Kid in a Big World.

This live album was recorded over two nights at Manchester's Briton's Protection in May and June 2006. It is a mix of songs written especially for the occasion and mixed with some tried and trusted tracks such as the excellent "Kid in a Big World" and "These Fifty Years." The album is exclusively available on I Tunes. It is a very intimate collection of songs where John allows the audience into his life for what must have been a highly enjoyable evening. Once again much of the material on this album grows on you the more it is played.

 

More From the Room Upstairs -

Goodbye Suzie/Finally Adored/And Even Now/Ballad of Marlowe B West/The Promise/Family Man/Last Stand/More to Life Than This/Blue Days/The Builder From Heaven/Dear Glitterheart

The second part of the live album recorded in Manchester and released on I Tunes. A review will follow:

 

Barefoot With Angels - 7.5

Released in 2008 after being recorded in John's home studio. Released on Spanish record label Hanky Panky it marked the artist's move from the UK to southern Spain. Once again I can thoroughly recommend this album. The more you immerse yourself in John Howard's music the more subtle and beautiful you realise it is. This is slightly lower key but just as effective as "As I Was Saying." 

There is some wonderfully romantic music here. The opening track The Exquisites takes us on yet another journey into the past - familiar territory with mentions for the Beatles, glam rock, Brian Ferry, David Bowie and Top of the Pops. The stand-out track is "Barefoot with Angels" with its early Elton John feel and epic proportions. Together this album and As I was Saying acts as perfect foils. If the former is slightly more upbeat, the latter takes us through a lush panorama of vignettes and subtle melodies.

 

Navigate Home - 8

Lion in My Winter/ All This Time (What Took You So Long)/ Navigate Home/ Portrait of a Mother/ Calm (My Fury Blind)/ Notes to Self/ A Wardrobe Dreams/ In Whose House/ Isn't That The Truth/ Change (Who Changed?)/ Miss Ashton's Disappointment/ The Leaving (Prayer)/ Precious (Alone is Hard to Do).

In his cover notes to Navigate Home, John Howard states that songs just started pouring out, which is in itself extremely interesting. By the time they reach their 50s most artists are settling down to pipe and slipper music. The angry young men have turned into peaceful middle age. Then you have the likes of John Howard whose output is increasing both in quantity and quality. Perhaps it was the years in the wilderness, almost hiding his talents, perhaps unsure of his ability. Thankfully that talent is now on show for all to enjoy. John's voice never slips. It is just a tragedy that his music doesn't find a larger audience - or perhaps that is its attraction. You see to like John's music simply illustrates that there are hidden gems out there. All you have to do is scratch beneath the surface. Navigate Home is glorious. For me whatever the stresses of the day have been, simply listening to a John Howard album sooths the furrowed brow and makes you feel human again. Navigate Home is simply an extension of everything he has done in the past - beautiful melodies, lush orchestration, deep lyrics about love and life.

John cares about his music. He cares about what we think of it. It's wonderful to find an artist who lets us into his world as much as this. I know John won't mind if I quote from his notes as they say much more than I ever could

"I wanted the album to reflect a sense of travel, of seeking out and finding, of upheaval and settlement, of loss and renewal, of reflection and anticipation where the past had brought us and what the future held"

In other words a man at the crossroads of life - setting off in a different direction with more than a nod to some of the great songwriters of our generation. There are mentions for such influences as  Laura Nyro, Carl Wilson and Jimmy Webb (more of this later). Of course John doesn't just imagine and write about the upheaval - he has lived it as well.

John Howard lets us into his life in a welter of subtle colours. The album opens with one of his most beautiful songs "Lion in My Winter" which starts the journey. "Portrait of a Mother" is a clever song following a visit to a David Hockney portrait exhibition in London. The whole journey idea is no better shown than in Notes to Self which is designed to sound like a train rushing along and reminded me greatly of the W H Auden poem The Night Train.

Of course there is always a touch of glam with John Howard and here it comes in the form of one of his longest songs. "A Wardrobe Dreams" weighs in at well over 10 minutes and ends with some wonderfully evocative and tuneful piano work. It's certainly more glam rock than Lion, Witch and Wardrobe.

Change (Who Changed?) is John's homage to the genius of Jimmy Webb. To me Webb remains the greatest living songwriter, so the inclusion of a track inspired by By the Time I Get to Phoenix is highly appropriate. I particularly like "Miss Ashton's Disappointment." For a start it's a story song and it also lets us into another corner of John's life - his days learning the piano and the breakdown of the relationship with his teacher the day he put lyrics to Fur Elise. It wasn't a popular move but it taught the young John that what he really wanted to be was a singer-songwriter. And I have to say that in this song John mentions Richard Harris and MacArthur Park. There's also mentions for Brian Wilson and I swear a touch of Jacques Brel in this one - need I say more. The album ends with another romantic number Precious (Alone is Hard to Do) written for two friends who were getting married. I can think of no more appropriate song to tie the knot to.

I have only mentioned some of the songs on the album. The others are just as vital in their own way in a feelgood induced journey through the singers, past, present and future. Dramatic, lush, luxurious - this is music for grown up people.

 

These Fifty Years - The Best of John Howard - 7

Goodbye Suzie/ Kid in a Big World/ Can You Hear Me OK/ Dear Glitterheart/ These Fifty Years/ Success/ Barefoot With Angels/ This Strange Mercy/ Ballad of Marlowe B West/ The Bewley Brothers/ Walk on the Wild Side/ My Beautiful Days/ Be Not So Fearful/ Stay/ Blue Days/ Neil (You Can Depend on Me)/ Misty/ Good in Time

Very often the job of a best of collection is to show the different sides of an artist. In other words you simply can't have an album full of up tempo numbers or ballads (unless of course you refer to this in the title). So does John Howard show us his many sides? Well yes he does. Here we have some of the early material such as a beautiful lush version of Kid in a Big World, put alongside the glam of "Dear Glitterheart" and the later material  like Neil (You Can Depend on Me) and the excellent "Barefoot with Angels" And thrown in are a number of covers including the classic Misty and two on the surface unusual choices in Bowie's The Bewley Brothers and Lou Reed's classic Walk on the Wild Side. Thankfully John makes no attempt to emulate Reed's style but puts his own harmonious slant on Walk - whether you enjoy this take on a classic track is a matter of personal taste. Overall it's a good introduction to John's music with plenty of variety and a collection thoughtfully put together.

 

Exhibiting Tendencies - 7.5

In the Heartache of a Home/Hymn to the Parchment/I Am Dead Again/Favourite Chair/Nothing But the Truth That I Lied/Forgetful/Dying Day (The What We Had)/Return of the Comeback Kid/Make a Start/In There Somewhere/Tales and Fabrications/ Blue Afternoon at the Old Plantation/Not Forgotten.

John Howard's 2011 offering is another glorious collection of well crafted songs but this time with a slightly more introverted feel to them. Singing and writing songs from your own life experiences can at times touch on the mawkish but John Howard never falls into this trap. Here he mixes the autobiographical with a number of scenes triggered from incidents from his past and also vignettes from friends and acquaintances..

It's almost as if John is a voyeur but of course in the best possible taste. Listening to a John Howard album can be demanding, but at the same time soothing. It can be life enriching from a poetical point of view but also an emotionally raw journey.

The songs on this album are deceptively low key, at times hiding some angst. The 2011 John Howard is mentally in a good place - happy with his lot and new found happiness. So it may come as a shock that on occasions here he is looking back at times when he was less happy, times when he felt betrayed by relationships. To look backwards from the safety of his present situation makes for powerful emotions in the listener as if John is deliberately saying "Yes I'm happy now, but it hasn't always been this way, but now for the first time I can really face my demons.

John's lyrics are as always evocative, whether he is talking about age, the state of his skin or sunrise in his now native Spain. He paints pastoral word pictures over landscapes of gloriously washed and brushed sound with layers of piano and melody.

More than ever before the artist is embracing new technologies, releasing this album in download format months before it is available on CD. John Howard is every inch the modern man, writing modern songs that never become isolated and fit together like a comfortable pair of gloves on a winter's day. In effect John is transposing the seasons, moving back from winter into spring and summer in a highly musical way.

Significantly my two favourite songs are both epics. Return of the Comeback Kid weighs in at over nine minutes and harkens back to the days of Kid in a Big World. The final piece Not Forgotten is virtually flawless. Lasting over 10 minutes, it is a haunting re-affirmation of the power of love "only love lifts you up." This song and this whole album weaves a subtle but beautiful magic and once again proves that musically and lyrically there is no better British songwriter working at the moment. And the bonus is John loves what he does, is passionate about it and his fans and lives to share his music.

You can read his thoughts on the new album by clicking here

Dry Run - 7.5

Lion in My Winter/ All This Time (What Took You So Long)/ Navigate Home/ Portrait of a Mother/ Calm (My Fury Blind)/ Notes to Self/ A Wardrobe Dreams/ In Whose House/ Isn't That The Truth/ Change (Who Changed?)/ Miss Ashton's Disappointment/ The Leaving (Prayer)/ Precious (Alone is Hard to Do)/ In Your Dreams/ Genius

Listen to this album and then ask the question "Why is John Howard still relatively unknown?" The answer is presumably because he doesn't receive air time on Radio Two and the like. JH is one of the most under-rated singer songwriters. We should be celebrating his art and not scratching around to find somebody who has heard of him. Dry Run is basically the demos for what became Navigate Home. 

So what we have are two albums recorded a few years apart and released a few years apart, but containing the same material, but in very different formats. Whereas Navigate Home is drenched with strings, orchestration and production, Dry Run has the rawness of John sitting at his piano. There is a certain irony in the fact that Dry Run essentially came before Navigate but the release dates were the other way round. These demos are much more than raw hotch potches or offcuts of the original. They are beautifully crafted songs in their own right. This album is the equivalent of a water colour painter's original sketches. John recorded these in Pembrokeshire when he was on the point of moving to his new home in Spain. What we must term the "orchestral" Navigate Home was recorded in his new studio in Murcia. So the intriguing question is in what order should the two albums be listened to? Do we start with the poignancy of the original vocal/piano songs and then go to the highly polished studio album or do we listen to the final product and then return to the original sketches to see just where the inspiration came from? Well it's all a matter of choice. 

The important thing is the artist felt there was enough in the original demos to justify releasing them as well. It's almost a novel idea. Demos and sketches are often released as an addition to an original album, they are often released along with other bits and pieces. Rarely are they released as  a companion to an existing full album. I must qualify that comment, however, as Dry Run also includes two other tracks - In Your Dreams and Genius which didn't make the original album. Above all, these vignettes illustrate the art of John Howard - almost as if he is playing a live performance in your own front room - that's how personal the pieces are and that's why these pieces sound as bright and fresh as those on Navigate Home. They incorporate the golden shades of Autumn along with the new life of Spring, the sun drenched feel of summer and the crispness of autumn. John explains the thinking behind Dry Run and you can read what he has to say by clicking here

 

You Shall Go To The Ball - 8

Soundscape No 1 (Return Visit)/ Technicolour Biography/ Soundscape No 2 (Dance With Me)/ Pearl Parade/ A Quiet Success/ Soundscape No 3 (It's Full of Stars)/ Star Through My Window/ Take Up Your Partners/ Soundscape No 4 (Hard Floor, Hard Times)/ Don't It Just Hurt/ Soundscape No 5 (It Controls Your Soul)/ The Other Side of Town/ The Deal/ Hall of Mirrors/ Soundscape N0 6 (One More Exit)

For me it has become increasingly difficult to differentiate between John Howard's albums - such is their overall excellence - and You Shall Go To The Ball breaks new ground whilst retaining that similar glorious feel to it.

In many ways this is a thematic album. Put simply, the artists returns to his roots to re-record songs, many of which were demos, in a refreshing new way. I didn't find that the album gripped me immediately but, after continuous plays to the exclusion of virtually everything else, I can now understand a little of what has been achieved.

For a start there's six soundscapes and nine songs which give the whole album an ethereal feel - certainly the sum of its parts which seem to mould together to give a listening experience, rather than just a group of songs. The Soundscapes seem to hold everything together. At times they are bleak and at other times strangely uplifting, sampling and looping scraps from John Howard's past.

Without them the album would have been much weaker. It's almost as if John has wanted to piece together something rather avant garde  within a framework of exemplary songwriting and this is what he has achieved. The Soundscapes give way to some excellent songs with Technicolour Biography and A Quiet Success stand out tracks. John Howard pours his heart and soul into his songs and You Shall Go To The Ball once again underlines what a lost talent he is and how frustrating it must be to see so many less lights meeting with success. Here we have sing-a-long tracks like "The Other Side of Town" with its swingy 60s choruses, rubbing shoulders with the glam of Pearl Parade and Take Up Your Partners, both of which see John in familiar musical territory. The Deal even has him entering Gospel territory with swirling organ. The brilliant thing about this album is it is instantly recognisable as John Howard music but at the same time hugely fresh and vibrant and to make songs that are up to 40 years old sound relevant to our modern world takes no little skill.

As often with John Howard, the first thing you notice is his melodies. Then you start listening to the lyrics and realise there is much more to many of these songs than at first meets the eye. Many of these songs build to climaxes that continually grab the listener's attention.

Overall I would say that You Shall Go To The Ball sees John Howard returning home in mind and spirit - creating a soundscape of ideas and music that is virtually impossible to categorise. The fact that he recorded the whole thing himself shows what a Mercurial talent he is. The title says it all. There is a ball for John to attend. It may not be the glitzy, glamorous ball of today's throwaway society but it is the ball inhabited and visited by so many genuine and genuinely overlooked talents.

Play this loud and play it often and you will understand just where John Howard is coming from and, perhaps more importantly, understand a little of where he is going to.

 

* - Adam Adamant was a British television programme that ran from 1966 to 1967 and featured Gerald Harper as an Edwardian adventurer brought back to life in England of 1966.