John Howard is a classic songwriter in the mould of The Beatles, Elton John and Al Stewart, whose almost-success with the album Kid In A Big World in the mid-’70s prefaced a slide into obscurity that came to an end with the release of comeback album As I Was Saying in 2005.
His story in the last few years has transitioned from rediscovered lost treasure to prolific songwriter inspiredly making up for lost time. Having moved from Wales to Spain, Howard – who last played in London at a musicOMH live night at the now-closed Luminaire, back in 2006 – has penned a new collection of songs called Storeys, out this week, and is set to play a tiny gig at London’s Servant Jazz Quarters – supporting Ralegh Long, with occasional collaborator Darren Hayman also on the bill.
Continuing our occasional This Music Made Me series, John here guides us through his favourite albums and tells us why they matter so much to him…
The Beatles – With The Beatles
My sister was bought this LP for Christmas ’63 by our parents as she was the MopTops fan at that time. I was 10 years old so was only just starting to develop my own taste in pop music, no heroes yet in place, having been brought up on my Dad’s brilliant but rather faceless Dave Brubeck records. When we played this LP on Christmas morning I was immediately drawn into the sheer enthusiasm bubbling out of every track.
The Fabs sound here like they’re having a ball and the whole ‘becoming stars and tasting huge success’ thing was obviously still something they loved, before they’d wearied of it by ’65. When they released this album they were on the cusp of world domination. They sound like they knew it was just round the corner. It’s still one of my favourite Beatles albums, it still sounds joyous and unbounded. And the amazing sleeve gave the world its look for the next two years.
The Beatles – Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1967 was the year I properly turned onto The Beatles, having been up to this point something of a partial onlooker to my sister’s screamings for ‘Paul!!’ and the occasional subscriber to the odd single. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ had spun my head around at the beginning of the year and then this demolition job smashed everything around it asunder.
I don’t hold with all this Talking Heads Experts Club Membership re-writing of history, where it’s cool to reject ‘Pepper’ as The Best and instead smugly name ‘Revolver’ as The One. It wasn’t. It was great, yes, but ‘Pepper’ was simply mind-blowing, world-changing. My history teacher put it on at the beginning of our lesson just after the LP came out and played it the whole way through instead of teaching us about The Corn Laws, saying, “This is a history lesson, and this album will make history.” But, and this is very important, Pepper HAS to be heard in mono, it’s the only way to listen to it, it’s as it was meant to be heard. The Beatles personally attended the mono mixing sessions, the stereo mixes were done in their absence and you can tell.
Leonard Cohen – Songs Of Love And Hate
This was Cohen’s second Top 5 album, he was enormous at this time (1971). The production on this album was so much stronger than his previous two, his voice is really upfront in the mix, the backings are all very solid and clear, and he literally snarls through many of the songs. I adored his vocal freedom, he didn’t have a great voice but he really knew how to use it.
He attacked the songs, grinding the lyrics into the earth. He sounds angry and dominant here, where he’d sounded quite laissez-faire Paris cafe culture before. I loved this album’s grit. It was around this time that I started to perform my own songs at the folk clubs around Manchester and I can hear me trying to get the same vocal snarl on demos I recorded then. I soon lost the snarl. It wasn’t me. But Leonard made it his own.
An art college friend played me Harper’s ‘Flat Baroque & Berserk’ LP in 1970 and I bought it and loved it, becoming a regular attendee whenever he played Manchester. But it was this, the follow-up, which blew me away. Roy was at the top of his form on this one, he was booked into Abbey Road and given a big budget and full rein along with producer Peter Jenner to let his imagination run riot. David Bedford’s orchestrations on the final track, Me and My Woman are just amazing.
There are only four tracks but they are all astonishing lengthy pieces on which he sings his heart out, multi-tracking his voice and guitar, taking me and everyone else who bought the album on a journey of flights of fancy, imagination and studio wizardry. There are times still when I listen to this and wonder at how he got a particular vocal layering. Every second is simply beautiful. And on headphones, when he does the flawless guitar duet with Jimmy Page, you think your head’s going to come apart. The sound of a man whose destiny has just arrived.
A music lecturer came to my college to give a talk on music as an art form, and to show us how music can challenge as well as entertain. He played us some stuff he assumed we wouldn’t have heard. His assumptions were correct. He played ‘Terry Riley In C’ all the way through and I was mesmerised. It’s basically Middle C being played constantly and rhythmically on piano from start to finish, while other instruments weave in and out, interacting with it, flirting with it, then disappearing again. I was struck by how different instruments can bring their own tensions and time signatures to a piece while the basic single note and tempo stay constant.
There are times when it sounds like the music is being stretched like an elastic band, other times one can imagine a circle of sounds enfolding the single piano note. Sometimes they envelop and cradle, sometimes they threaten to disrupt. But always that constant single note of C bravely continues tapping away, undeterred by what’s happening around it. I have tried to get friends to listen to it but they always ask me to turn it off within a couple of minutes. Which makes me love it all the more.
Laura Nyro – Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat
Laura’s not everyone’s cuppa either, I have friends who I’ve played Nyro to who just can’t take her. She’s certainly not an easy listen. One minute a tender soul songstress tweaking out a cutesy Broadway-type lyric, the next she’s screeching to the top of the Empire State at some feckless fool who dumped her. I bought all three of her early ’70s L.P.s at the same time, loved Eli’s Coming and New York Tendaberry, but it was this album which did it for me from start to finish.
Tracks like When I Was A Freeport And You Were The Main Drag, and Blackpatch, were slices of pop genius, but always with that stop-start tempo thing which either drives you nuts or fills you with glee. She enjoyed great success when her songs were covered by the likes of Fifth Dimension, Streisand and Blood, Sweat & Tears, but they had to iron the ‘tempo glitches’ out first to make the songs commercial. Laura didn’t give a damn about that. She was uncompromising, her epics wove in and out of time-signatures with seeming ease, cocking a confident snook at commerciality. Amazingly nothing ever fell apart. Everyone involved in the making of her albums knew exactly what they were doing.
Bob Dylan – Seems Like A Freeze-Out (Bootleg)
I bought this from under the counter in a record shop in Manchester about 1971, it was in clear yellow vinyl and sounded so out there. The tracks were all outtakes and demos which straddled Highway 61 and Blonde and Blonde. This was before the days of wide-ranging Anthology collections and bonus cuts on albums and it allowed us a rare glimpse into what might have been and how the creative process worked. It felt like we’d been allowed into the studios by the back door.
My favourite track is ‘She’s Your Lover Now’, it breaks down towards the end in a glorious “what the -?” way. Amazingly for such a terrific song Dylan didn’t bother redoing it, he had so much material at that point he simply forgot about it and moved on to another track. There were great lines like “you just sit around and ask for ashtrays – can’t you reach?” which immediately took you to some stoned-out trendy party in New York, and for a lad dreaming his life away in sunny Ramsbottom it felt so exotic. Bob gave no-one the benefit of the doubt, you were either with him or you weren’t. His folk fans had deserted him by this time but there was whole new set of record buyers who adored Dylan The Rock Star.
David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars
I first heard this at a college disco. Yes! A Disco!! The DJ played it all the way through and rather than emptying the dancefloor it completely filled up with all these young longhairs grooving and grinding to every track. It sounded like someone’s Greatest Hits album but we’d never heard the hits before. Like an alien’s idea of rock music, which was what Bowie intended.
I’d heard Bowie’s previous album ‘Hunky Dory’ just a few weeks earlier and loved it, especially ‘The Bewlay Brothers’ but ‘Ziggy’ was something else. He sounded so cocksure, with a wry smile in his voice which said “Hey kids, I know something your parents don’t – wanna join me?”. No-one had done this since The Beatles ‘went weird’ in ’67 and frightened the grown-ups while entrancing teenagers like me. Ziggy was swishing and bopping like Bolan with a hard-on. ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’ was a film screenplay in four minutes. Bowie set scenes with every song and you were there with him. I do believe this was the album which signalled the end of T.Rex. Marc had paved the way with some gorgeous singles but by summer ’72 he was becoming samey and a bit self-obssessed. Ziggy gave pop music a kick up the arse and began the march to Punk and New Wave.
Orchestra Luna – Orchestra Luna
A lady who worked in the the Artist Liaisons office at CBS, to which I was signed in ’74, gave me this LP. I still have that vinyl copy. It sounds like an off-Broadway production from the 1940s but with a ’70s street-savvy arty knowingness. Songs like ‘Were You Dancin’ On Paper’, ‘Fay Wray’ and ‘Doris Dreams’ create an off-kilter American Dream world, but always with the hint that something unsettling this way comes. Like when we’re waking from a dream which is turning into a nightmare, things are getting odd and anxious, people are smiling but not in a good way.
‘OL’ look and sound like a trendy young stage troupe performing in an empty theatre, it’s all very jolly and brilliantly done but it’s never what it seems. Even when they very convincingly do the stage hit ‘You Gotta Have Heart’ it’s suddenly interrupted by the blast of a poem about the angst of playing American baseball, like the singer’s been kicked into the orchestra pit by the art school bully boy.
My flatmate in London had this LP and I became obssessed with it, to the point that he ended up hating it! I loved the layered vocals, the seemingly off-the-cuff bv’s, the joyful whoops out of the blue. It could have been chaotic but Gaye’s musicality and clear vision kept it all together. His heartfelt glorious singing filled me with utter joy, he was totally in command of his performance. With one album he moved Motown out of Happy Kids Street into decaying concrete blocks.
It was probably the first Motown release which could have been from any other label. It sounded more like a Stax record, the Tamla echo chambers had been replaced by flat-sounding percussion and keyboards, the reverby finger-snapping was now distant bongos, the cheery boy-meets-girl mini-operas were now plaintive comments on the state of our world and what we’ve done to it. But in the midst of all that, there was Marvin’s beautiful voice, like honey on a troubled sea. Instead of shouting and ranting, he lamented. It could break your heart. Save The Children still makes me blub.
I’d been a fan of Joni’s since I heard her debut album at a friend’s house in ’69, her crystal clear vocals, decorative piano work and chiming specially-tuned guitars always very much her own. But Hejira painted a different picture. Here we can hear Mitchell’s heavy cigarette smoking starting to take its toll, the swooping soaring octave changes are replaced by a new atonal husky wryness, the spick and span innocent abroad in shiny Laurel Canyon now the world-weary well-travelled hobo in some dusty desert cafe, telling us through the smoke and whisky about all she’s seen through the years.
The ringing guitars are also gone, in their place a fretless bass and sparse backing drone and chug along, giving the songs a shifting brittleness I’d not heard from Mitchell before. ‘Amelia’ quickly became one of my desert island songs, lines about ‘the hexagram of the heavens’ when describing a 747 overhead proved her lyrical erudition was intact as ever, but now it was used to convey a much older wiser view from, in my eyes, an even higher pedestal.
John Howard’s album Storeys is out on 25 November 2013. He plays London’s Servant Jazz Quarters, supporting Ralegh Long, on 27 November.
For more about John Howard, go to kidinabigworld.co.uk.