So here we are getting into the mid 80s, and synth pop is possibly at the peak of its powers. Eurythmics. Yazoo. Blancmange. Somewhere in the midst of it was a young keyboard player and singer who, along with the equally eccentric and enigmatic Thomas Dolby, broke the mould of the synth-duo by proving that technology was now at such a level that you could actually do it all yourself.
What possibly set “New Song” apart from so much of the synth music that was flooding the charts at the time was that Jones’ music was steeped in his beliefs as a practising Buddhist, particularly showing the influence of spiritual mentor and lyricist Bill Bryant who co-wrote many of the lyrics for debut album “Human’s Lib”, including debut single “New Song”.
There is a definite spiritual message with “New Song” that clearly contrasts with so much of the music of the early to mid 80s, which so often celebrated the increasing confident (or some would say arrogant) materialistic attitudes that were evident in so much of the mainstream culture during Margaret Thatcher’s reign of Prime Minister. Whilst there was also a healthy number of musicians who also made a very public stand against the ideas and ideals of Thatcherism (such as anybody involved in the infamous Red Wedge campaign to support Neil Kinnock’s bid to become PM), there were very few artists who were taking the slightly intellectual and spiritually conscious route of Howard Jones. In my exploratory teenage eyes, this made him immediately interesting.
Fancy some lyrics?
I’ve been waiting for so long
To come here now and sing this song
Don’t be fooled by what you see
Don’t be fooled by what you hear
This is a song to all of my friends
They take the challenge to their hearts
Challenging preconceived ideas
Saying goodbye to long standing fears
At that questioning teenage point in my life, anybody who came up with a killer pseudo-intellectual line like “Challenging preconceived ideas” was bound to appear on my radar for further exploration (primarily because I had pseudo-intellectual ambitions myself, if memory serves me correctly). I soaked up follow-up singles “What Is Love?” and “Pearl In The Shell” like a semi-spiritual sponge and then managed to borrow debut album “Human’s Lib” from my local record library (remember those? I owe them so much of my musical education) and recorded it to tape (yes, forgive me) and then I considered myself a convert to music of Howard Jones – yeah, maybe the name had a slight impact upon my decision to. What? No, not Howard you complete (insert appropriate insult here).
From the opening synth drum pattern, through the beautifully plink-plonky opening synth sound, and then adding in wonderfully happy sounding happy clapping, it is thrillingly chirpy and upbeat (almost to the point of being annoyingly chirpy when these older and infinitely more cynical ears hear it now). It features a complex, repeated synth break that clearly shows his excellence and training as a pianist (having studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester), often playing on two keyboards as a more pop orientated, spikey-haired update of the likes of Rick Wakeman – with added Buddhist philosophy.
I think possibly the thing that also attracted me to Howard Jones was that there was something about the whole set up that was just wonderfully weird. Go back and look at the video again, and keep your eyes peeled for the bloke who is doing a brilliant job of symbolising those mental chains.
Did you catch him? His name is Jed Hoile, and he was Howard’s very own mime artist who would improvise choreography and visual symbolism to interpret the philosophical aspects of the song lyrics. Yes, how many other musicians can you name who did performances with their own mime artist? David Bowie? No, he was a mime artist! Check yo knowledge, fool.
Jed is, without a doubt, best seen in the live television appearances That Howard Jones did at the time that “New Song” was climbing up the charts to its eventual peak position of number 3. This is not TOTP but it shows the idea equally well:
Yeah, you didn’t get that with Spandau bloody Ballet my friend. No. Neither with Duran pissing Duran. Nope. It took a person with the vision, deep spirituality, questioning intellectualism and obvious fucking madness of Mr Jones to decide that what he needed was a bloke wearing bloody chains to properly symbolise the idea of mental chains! GENIUS AND MADNESS… in equal measure! Yes, this is why I found myself entranced and totally captured by the good Howard.
I don’t wanna be hip and cool
I don’t wanna play by the rules
Not under the thumb of the cynical few
Or laden down by the doom crew
Don’t crack up
Bend your brain
See both sides
Throw off your mental chains
I was never hip and cool. (I’m still not, so screw you hipster dudes with your stupidly large beards.) I don’t think I had a clue about what I needed to do to become one of the hip and cool kids, even though (as is so often the case with most rejects) I desperately wanted to be accepted and become one of the cool kids myself. So, to see somebody claiming “I don’t wanna be hip and cool / I don’t wanna play by the rules” whilst storming up the charts to the dizzy heights of number three was as inspirational at the time as listening to The Damned, The Clash or The Sex Pistols several years earlier. I think the attitude may have unconsciously seeped into the back of my brain somehow because I eventually accepted my outsider status – if you have seen my post (on Iggy Pop’s “Shades” I believe) where I write about the sixth-form outsider group that made up my friends, you will see where I eventually managed to get to in terms of some sense of self-acceptance… well, ish.
I loved the Howard Jones that was lacking any sense of trendiness and cool. That Howard Jones only lasted for one album, and one remix album (the particularly brilliant “12inch Album”) before splitting from mentor Bill Bryant, taking on proper music management, and then going all mainstream pop. Around the time of second album “Dream Into Action”, the hair got ridiculously big. The clothes were shiny and styled to within an inch of his life. The music involved a full band, including the obligatory mid 80s slap bass (provided by his brother , Martin Jones) and female backing vocalists as Howard started to chase career success, especially in America. He looked and sounded very much like an 80s pop star rather than some weird bloke who had wandered onto the stage of TOTP completely by mistake. Yeah, possibly his most successful song in America was remixed to feature drums by Phil Collins – yeah, you know what to expect when this happens (except that “No One Is To Blame” is actually a pretty good song). By the time of third album, “One To One”, even the spiky hair had buggered off and he looked like a rather dull bank assistant.
Most tellingly, Jed had buggered off to wherever mime artists go when their brief moment in the glare of mime stardom has faded into history. Apparently, he turned 60 last year and enjoys himself by getting African drummers over to wherever he lives for drum festivals. Sounds like exactly the bat-shit crazy stuff that made me admire Howard Jones so much in the first place.
Fancy a recent live performance?
Oh go on…
Needs a bloody good mime artist, don’t you agree?