Do you remember the 80s? The merging of technology and music, bands performing behind a mountain of gadgets and gizmos? Of course you do. And that means you remember Howard Jones.
Jones’s unique brand of synth-pop took off in 1983 with the top three single New Song and number one album Human’s Lib. Now he’s back on the road, including a gig in Manchester this month with his Electric Band. In a career spanning 35 years, and in an ever-changing music industry, I wonder if Jones’s approach to song writing has changed.
“I love developing the pop song format and will always try to give it a new twist,” he tells me. “But the creative process is still basically the same. I give myself time at the piano working out chords, and getting an idea about what I want to say. I want it to be emotive and move people. The thing that has changed, though, is being able to get songs recorded more quickly and easily. I always set out to use the technology of the day and try to stay on top of it. Having to learn something new keeps me fresh as it’s challenging for my brain and how I think.”
In the past, the charts represented a reliable barometer of public taste, based on people going out and purchasing physical copies of favourite tracks. With streaming and multiple plays now part of the mix, songs clog up the charts for months. Jones first found success in an era when a single could sell 100,000 copies in a week. Surely this makes it harder to write a hit now?
“I don’t think anybody can get their head round how much things have changed, or what to do as a result,” he says. “I just do stuff I feel really good about but so much of it has to do with profile, so it’s important to try to attach new tracks to different things. I’ve recently done songs for three films which is a good way of getting my music out to different audiences. People also value seeing an act live so that’s also really important.”
With a back catalogue of hits including What Is Love?, Like To Get To Know You Well and No One Is To Blame, performing live can be a challenge for an artist who is continuing to make new music. For Jones, it’s an intricate balancing act.
“I really want to give people what they expect but, at the same time, I want to show that I’m still moving forward and keep people interested so I will always put new tracks into the set to keep it fresh. They have to fit in and, although they don’t sound like the 80s, they still have a relationship to that era because it’s me doing it.”
He continues: “It’s a fine line because the real fans know all the big songs so want to hear something a little different. I want to keep them interested but I don’t want to send everyone else to the bar. With this tour, I’m really excited to let people see the new band and we’ll be covering the whole career in terms of material.”
Re-runs of Top of the Pops on BBC 4 have reached 1984 – when Jones was a regular fixture on the show – but it’s not a case of reminiscing for the singer.
“I never watched them at the time,” he says. “I was hardly ever in the country when they were on, so I’ve seen a few lately for the very first time. I can dispassionately watch myself on there, so I’ve been far more fascinated to watch the other artists. I can’t believe the eclecticism of the era. The last one I saw had Iron Maiden followed by Agadoo, then there was Tears for Fears and then me. I just thought ‘wow, that’s really covering all the bases’. It’s really healthy that it was so diverse back then. You could really hate one band and really love the next one. It’s what you do when you’re young and so supportive of what you like and don’t like.”
One of the biggest musical events of the era was the legendary Live Aid concert at Wembley in 1985. Anyone who was anyone in the music business performed for the world, in London and beyond, to raise funds for famine relief. It is an experience Jones remains thrilled by.
“It was bloody amazing,” he enthuses. “And I’m so pleased I was part of it. I made great efforts to ensure I was involved because I’d missed out on singing on the Band Aid single due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I was touring in America but flew back with my backing singers for Live Aid. I performed Hide & Seek on my own at the piano, which was great to do because I was known as the synth guy, but I’d played the piano since I was a kid so it was one of the most natural things for me. I went out on stage and started the song and the audience just joined in on the chorus. It was the most incredible feeling because everyone was so behind you and supportive. The whole day was unbelievable. I met David Bowie, Paul and Linda McCartney, Queen and I spoke to Diana. Wonderful.”
You don’t last 35 years in the music business without learning some important lessons. Now Jones is enjoying passing his experience on to to new acts.
“I’ve been mentoring and helping young artists to get going in this new industry environment. The priority however remains the relationship with the fans. Finding whatever way you can to keep that relationship strong is the best starting point. You also have to embrace all the new ways to get your music out, and being social media savvy is also crucial. If you can’t do it yourself, then get a buddy who is great at it to help you because you have to use whatever channels are available and be original and creative within them. You’ve also got to play live and just be out there with people in front of you, even if it’s only five or ten to start with.”
He adds: “If you don’t want to make a connection or love performing live then you really shouldn’t be doing this.”
Artists currently impressing Jones are wide ranging and embrace both new and veteran performers.
“I’m a big fan of American electronic artist BT and I’m going to collaborate with him on my new album. I also love Laura Marling who is amazing and a true artist. She was still in school when I gave her the support slot on one of my tours and I’ve watched her career develop ever since. The new Alison Moyet album is an incredible piece of work and a great example of an artist who has kept developing. That record is really original and nothing to do with the 80s.”
One of Jones’s biggest hits posed a question that, even now, I often wonder what the answer is. So it felt it only fair to ask him: what is love?
“The song was more about asking the question I guess but, for me, the third verse gives a clue to what I think. Love is letting people be what they want to be and not imposing yourself on them or expecting them to be like you. It’s loving somebody enough to let them go if it’s best for them and being secure enough in yourself that you don’t disappear. That’s my take but who knows, eh?”
I couldn’t let an interview with an 80s star end without asking a question very much in keeping with the Smash Hits pop press of the era. Who would win in an arm wrestling competition – Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw?
“Ha! Well, to be honest I think it would be a gentleman’s draw because I don’t think either of us would be particularly interested in winning. Nik is a lovely guy and a ridiculously talented songwriter and guitar player. I’ve always had such a respect for him.”
Howard Jones Electric Band play at the O2 Ritz in Manchester on November 24, 2017. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.
For tour details, click here.