Album Reviews

John Howard – Kid In A Big World

(RPM) UK release date: 17 November 2003

John Howard - Kid In A Big World Like all things of true and great beauty, this record gives an awful lot while asking for so very little. John Howard‘s Kid In A Big World will pull up the recliner for you, pour you a large fizzy gin, place a bowl of brandy snaps at your table and ask if the music is loud enough. And what is asked of you in return? That you put the needle on the record.

Originally released in 1975, promoted fiercely if briefly, the album wasn’t picked up by radio or backed by any tour, and thus disappeared. Now it’s resurfaced on the dansette in my bedroom. It’s such a perfect record, both of and out of its time. It’s further proof that there are other realities, other worlds concurrent to this one. A world where on being booted out of Roxy Music, Brian Eno drifted into vagrancy. Where Elton John never got past session work, where Marilyn Monroe settled down with Sammy Davis Jnr and lived happily ever after…

The seduction begins with Goodbye Suzie, a rollicking and intimate ballad, depressing and uplifting, a classically English song bringing to mind images of green lawns and drizzle spunked beachfronts… This was play-listed on Radio Luxembourg, and rightly so – the chorus is a great crashing wave of a sing-along, with fantastic call and response sax lines that slither and rise and fall behind its pearly chorus.

Family man is another kitchen sink drama, about a hassled dad with a wife who “Gotta double belly / gotta double chin / she watch a lotta telly / she drink a lotta gin” and “A son / who shoots old people with a gun / I got a daughter / hooked on Jamaican Rum…” All this to an exquisitely tasteful cod-reggae lilt – like Noël Coward jamming with Peter Tosh while Jake Thackray fills the pipes.

The Flame is less aggressive in its gorgeousness but still re-enforces the sweetly spooky feeling that this album is leading you delicately by a fey hand through some twilight garden. Someday In Miami is more Fitzgerald than Coward, and more precise and languorous in its seduction, as Gone Away. These songs are to me what Madeleine was to Proust – they bring back so utterly the feeling of being young and loaded, both in the sense of having just received an enormous publishing advance and having drunk lots of icy vodka and lime.

There are lots of booze references in these songs, I’m glad to say. Wine, rum, gin. Champagne, in tandem with an orchestra – how divine. The whole album has a glow of intoxication. Not that it’s not impeccably produced and played. No, no: it has proper arrangements, dynamics, bridges, meandering tow-paths before a chorus. Quiet and loud bits. A drummer who can read music. Production that sounds right on the biggest stereo and the crummiest portable player.

John’s singing is strangely good, his voice soulful and substantial yet reedy and schoolboy at the same time. It’s like I can hear him flicking his fringe in between certain lines. Confident and affecting as it is here, I’d love to hear it endowed with the richness that time and a lot more drink invariably bestow a singer. But this record is all we have. This one perfect bloom. If I had a day-job or went to school, this is the type of record I’d play before I went in and it would stay with me as armour against the mediocrity of the day.

Side two is slightly more low-key – nothing so hysterically catchy as Suzie and Family man, although Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner comes close, as its theramin and laser guided, superhero-name-dropping chorus swoops and dives around your room like a napalmed kite in a high wind. Melotrons, orchestras, classical piano, big drums, castanets, Herbie Flowers-esque bass-lines, woodwind… So much of this record is a lushly orchestrated sigh in all the right directions, and this peaks in the grand ache of the title track.

Who was in mind when this was written? “You’re a kid in a big world now / stage shows in every town / producers who stare / from your legs / to your bleached hair.” David Bowie obviously comes to mind. Marc Bolan? How many others were there that we never got to hear about? Talented balladeers as beautiful as the next boa-wearing boy, who didn’t get lucky? This sadly soaring hymn to melancholia is the albums’ final masterpiece. Was this song a premonition? Like all the best songs, did John Howard write this as a parting letter to himself?

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