There is a mews just off Kensington High Street. At the end is a large and stately townhouse. The windows are dusty, the lights never on. Retrieve the rusted key from under the battered urn and step inside. The floor is drowning is browned envelopes, decades old. Final demands, invitations to long-gone opening nights, guest passes to long defunct nightclubs.
In an upstairs room, a tailor’s dummy is pricked with pins. Plans for extravagant suits and costumes layer the surfaces, the papers crumbling. Old newspapers, a copy of Ritz magazine dated March 1975. In the hall a hat, scarf and cane – the abandoned regalia of the eternal dandy.
Technicolor Biography is described by its auter as the album that nearly was. To cut a painfully detailed story short, John’s follow up to the majestic and pretty near perfect Kid In A Big World was scuppered by its own record company.
What’s left is like the scaffolding of some beautiful unrealized building: the voice and piano tracks recorded as demos for the aborted sequel. And it’s an eerie listening experience, but such is the nature and strength of Mr. Howard’s writing and performance that this album sound less like an unfinished masterpiece and more like a weird, quixotic and exotic entity in its own right.
Take Up Your Partners ushers us in, as graceful and as effortless as the activity it describes… A night of fandango, black tie, cha-cha and tango. And of course, (hurrah)! – Pernod!
The title track is next, sounding like the hangover to the night out of the preceding track. Grand, grand piano and a masterful vocal hinting at distant choirs and philharmonics, telling of wide-screen sagas of beaches and car lots, of premieres at empty cinemas. It’s like Coward writes Kerouac – “drank with all the stars / slept in disused cars”.
Arch kitchen-sink drama next; the kind Suede used to have a go at on their B-sides. Were Bert and Co closet Howie fans? I’m not so keen on Blink In The Darkness. It seems oddly dated, with its mid ’70s lyrics and a melody leaning toward Ralph McTell‘s Streets of London. Too early a draft to be heard?
Back on track with The Deal. It sounds like it was recorded on an old upright in a Clapham bedsit. You can hear the wallpaper peeling. Haven’t I heard this over the opening credits of one of my favourite (unmade) ’70s films? Flawless vocal. One of his best on record.
Don’t It Just Hurt reminds us of rented mattresses, gas meters and the horrific burden of our unwanted virginity. Oh yes, and ain’t we all been there…
A more panoramic production brings in Hall Of Mirrors. My favourite – a song about the fear of impending fame and the alienation it brings. Yet fame never came. As John relates in the sleeve notes: “And then I turned another corner”. It brings to mind old Cocteau films and slow motion gestures. The album’s true title song – written just before that townhouse was abandoned? “Insanity / will always be / the chance to end up laughing”. They don’t write ‘em like this anymore.
Coconut Bible (Wear My Doubts Like Ivy) is a stream of Edward Lear through Lennon nonsense verse, set to a nursery rhyme tune. Lonely Woman next – a piano motif sets the scene on the film set of a city forever caught at 3 o’clock in the morning. You’re there, between the fingers and piano keys, the impeccable voice breathing into the goosebumps on your neck. Never more apparent than in this song – the motif of a man living out the movie of his life as actor and director.
Other Side Of Town is a song sung by those left behind. Would Bowie ever have been so self-effacing as to write a song like this? No. But it’s a song he would have covered.
We end on the personal; the young sex-symbol-in-waiting being stood up by some “unpredictable and smalltime hoodlum I was seeing at the time”. Another fine piece of craftsmanship, a mood of faint melancholy, beautifully poised and arrested in its own post adolescent aspic. We’re ushered out by a reprise of Take Up Your Partners: the dance, in every sense, goes on.
And on… Four extra tracks are the aural equivalent of Russian coffee or a cognac – and oh my! The highlight is a ‘lounge’ version of ‘Kid’. After the beguiling austerity of the previous songs, listening to dear Johnny Boy backed by Harry Gold’s BBC Light orchestra is like being eaten alive by opium-administering angels. The word gorgeous was born for this track. The album is worth buying for this alone.
Back at the townhouse we discover the cellar. Stocked with dusty bottles of Burgundy and crates of fine Cognac. And while the Pernod may be off, nothing ages like a fine vintage wine.