Synthpop legend Howard Jones talks us through events that led to his 1983 breakthrough single, ‘New Song’
“I’ve always been a keyboard player, I’d spend my Saturday afternoons down the Hammond organ shop in High Wycombe. My dad eventually bought me a Lowrey Heritage organ, because we couldn’t afford a Hammond. Anything with keys, I was interested in. There was a drummer in a band I played in who was a real whizz with electronics, and he built me a synth from a kit in a magazine. It was always going out of tune because the oscillators were so dodgy, but the main sound that it made was just incredibly exciting.
“I felt very privileged to be making music back then. It was around the time that the equipment was becoming increasingly accessible, so you could just go down to your local music store and there it was. I was doing four or five jobs to try and buy as much as I could. It felt like you were doing something that no one had ever done before, and there was a great excitement that came with that.
“The next step was my one-man show – being on stage with all the gear around me. I had eight-track drum machines sending triggers to the Juno, which was arpeggiating, and I had a Pro One, which had a 12-note sequence that was triggered by output from the 808 – and it was all running live. Then Jed [Hoile, mime artist] came on board. He was a friend who used to come to the shows and dance in the audience. I just thought it’d be better if he was involved on stage, so that was a kind of natural progression.
“In 1983, The Marquee Club in London offered me a residency on Mondays – not the best night of the week, but we did four Mondays in a row, and got all the fans from High Wycombe to come up, and they were brilliant. We had quite a few A&R and publishers along too, but they didn’t seem keen to sign me. Paul Conroy, the general manager at Stiff Records, was the only person who got what I was doing. I was just about to sign to Stiff, when he got offered a job at Warners, and said, ‘Don’t sign with Stiff, come with me!’, so obviously I did.
“The first album, ‘Human’s Lib’, was essentially my live set. I’d made some cassettes that I would sell at the shows – they were live recordings from my front room. Whatever I could do with that gear were the limitations I had for writing. All the songs on ‘Human’s Lib’ were generated that way. The first track I recorded in a studio was ‘New Song’, with Duran Duran producer Colin Thurston, because everyone thought that would be a good single. I did a Radio One session for Kid Jensen in March 1983 – I always maintain that was the definitive version of ‘New Song’. It was recorded totally live with a drummer playing Simmons drums. When I went into the studio with Colin, we tried to recapture that live version, but it just didn’t work. We ended up getting various people in to try to fix it, but to no avail. Obviously, it didn’t make any difference in the end, because when it was released as a single it did really well.
“Working with producer Rupert Hine and engineer Stephen Tayler on the ‘Human’s Lib’ album was the perfect match for me, because they were beginning to do some interesting work with electronics and sampling in the studio. That whole experience of making records was a total education for me – it was amazing good fortune to be paired with them. I always felt Rupert’s work was quite edgy and that despite his catalogue of work, he wasn’t really a pop-orientated producer at all – he was really into sound sculpture and using new technology. I had such a great time working with them, I ended up doing my second album ‘Dream Into Action’ with them as well.
“‘What Is Love?’ questions that whole concept of romantic love and people thinking that romantic love is the answer to their life – it is not a love song. It’s almost like an un-love song. Rupert and Steve helped me with the arrangements, and just made it sound so great. I really do think it has stood the test of time – the song is still played over 35 years later, so it must be sounding OK to somebody!
“My new album, ‘Transform’, goes back to those electronic roots. I really wanted to do a full-on synth record again and I’ve always been such a fan of Brian Transeau, BT. He’s a true pioneer of electronic music, so it was great to have him produce the new record. We met when I went to one of his gigs in Miami, where he was doing this orchestral/electronic hybrid thing. Apparently, I was a big influence on him when he was younger so he invited me back to his studio where he’s got this huge Eurorack set-up. I said, ‘We should do some stuff together’ and he said, “Man, I would die to do that!”. So that’s what we did. It was a really good combination.”
‘Transform’ is out on D-TOX