In the second of a two-part interview, singer-songwriter John Howard – who releases his new album, John Howard & The Night Mail – later this month, tells me about being ‘rediscovered’, his childhood, how being openly-gay affected his pop career, and his plans for the rest of the year and beyond…
Your debut album, Kid In A Big World, was released in 1975. Looking back at those days now, how do you feel about them?
Do you regret that you didn’t become a big pop star? Did you want fame, fortune and success?
John Howard: The Kid… days feel like they were experienced by another person now… I look back and can’t actually remember too much about it. I always regret that I have very few recollections of recording the album at Abbey Road. That should have been a huge deal for me.
I’d spent all my latter-‘60s days staring at photos of The Beatles in Beatles Monthly recording at the studio, and here I was, there!
But I don’t remember feeling anything except, ‘OK, let’s make this album as good as we possibly can.’
It’s bizarre how little I remember. I think youth and its arrogance have a lot to do with that. I believed I had the talent to be signed to a big label like CBS and wasn’t surprised when we recorded at Abbey Road and then Apple in 1974.
I’d always thought I would be successful. I had built up a pretty good following of fans doing gigs in the Manchester area in the early ‘70s, and the move to London in ‘73 was specifically to find a manager, which I did within a few weeks of arriving, and to get a record deal, which I had by the end of ‘73.
I’d also been commissioned to write the theme song of the new Peter Fonda/William Holden movie, Open Season, recorded the song in Rome in January ‘74 to an arrangement written by the film’s orchestrator, and was told on a weekly basis by CBS staff that I was “gonna be huge!”. I was 21 and believed them, of course.
Since first hearing The Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever I had decided that I not only wanted to be a singer-songwriter, I also wanted to be a recording artist.
I couldn’t think of anything more exciting than coming up with something as sensational as that record (dream on, darling!).
Regret, though, is the way to madness. I’m not actually a particularly nostalgic person, I don’t tend to dwell on the past, the good or the bad, and am only reminded of it occasionally when Neil [my husband] puts on one of my earlier albums. He often listens to my stuff, I rarely do…
How does it feel to have been rediscovered and reappraised for Kid In A Big World and to have been picked up on by musicians like Darren Hayman, Andy Lewis, Ian Button and Robert Rotifer?
JH: I went through almost the exact same rediscovery ten years ago, when Alexis Petridis in his 2005 Guardian review of The Dangerous Hours wrote, “So obscure was singer-songwriter John Howard that his recent re-emergence seemed less like a comeback than an archaeological find: you half-expected his return to live performance last year to be prefaced by the appearance of Tony Robinson, explaining that there had been a fascinating discovery in trench one.”
I’ve been rediscovered so many times now, the trench is looking a wee bit the worse for wear!
For me, The Night Mail album is part of a sequence of events helmed by Robert Rotifer since 2012. In fact, while I hope the album does well, and I’m knocked out by how well it’s being received, I want it to succeed mainly for Robert.
He has believed in my music for over three years now and has worked doggedly – and at times persuasively – to get me out of my ‘solo comfort zone’ into working with a band again with the support of a bona fide great record label.
He has done all that, even when I told him that although I loved what we’d recorded, I didn’t think he stood a cat in hell’s chance of finding a record deal for it, he proved me wrong.
In many ways Robert has become not only my friend and band colleague and writing compatriot, he is also my champion, my cajoler, my ego-support. He won’t take no lightly. Which for someone like me who is these days rather lazy when it comes to making too much effort unless pushed, is rather perfect.
Where did you grow up and what kind of childhood did you have?
JH: I was brought up in Lancashire. I was born in 1953 – the grandchild of millworkers and Potteries boys and girls, son of a middle-class draughtsman born into a pub business he rejected, and a working class secretary who always wanted better out of life, and got it.
I was surrounded by a lot of urban decay and greyness, but raised in a lovely little council house backing onto endless fields.
People say the world was in black and white until ‘65, but I don’t agree, my childhood is full of colours in my head. I was a very happy little kid, albeit with fears of my mother dying young – which she did – and always with a sense I was ‘different’ from the other lads at school, which I was.
There was always the conflict of Roman Catholics versus Church of England – my mum’s and dad’s families, respectively).
My dad’s early married life was made a misery by his mother-in-law who resented him not being a ‘good Catholic boy’, and my mum was always made to feel ‘not quite good enough’ by her mother-in-law who had raised herself to what she felt was a life one rung above the others.
It never really impacted on me, as I ran around the fields and played near the brooks, lost in my world of fantasy, where a visit to The Kardomah cafe in Manchester presented an exotic playground, with its large wooden elephants dotted round the huge dining room and the smell of freshly ground coffee always in the air.
I would spend my days at home listening to my parents’ album of My Fair Lady, falling in love with songs like On The Street Where You Live and its fabulous internal rhymes, and trying out my foxtrot to the 78s piled up inside the radiogram.
I loved listening to my dad playing the piano – he’s a great jazz pianist – and always wanted to learn. I wrote my first song at four to my budgerigar Joey and took classical piano lessons from the age of six.
It was only my burgeoning love of pop music in the ‘60s which prevented me following a career as a classical pianist, which my tutor had her eyes set on for me. I gave up at 16 and never read a piece of sheet music again.
The song Safety In Numbers, from your new album, tackles sexual prejudices.
What was it like being an openly gay man in the music scene in the ’70s? Did it hamper your career? Have things changed now, or do you still encounter prejudice?
JH: In 2007, I wrote a song called My Beautiful Days. It’s now one of my oft-requested live numbers. It covers the way things have changed between now and back in the ‘70s in terms of attitudes towards gay performers.
I was recently re-reading an interview David Bowie gave in 1971 following the release of Hunky Dory, where he said he was gay, but in reality, he meant he was bi-sexual – and even that is questionable.
I think his publicly stated sexuality then was more about appealing to as wide an audience as possible, being ‘gay’ was becoming more an accepted lifestyle choice around that time, and he probably felt it made him seem rebellious in the eyes of ‘the grown-ups’.
Bolan had that feyness some took as signs of his being gay. But both men were happily married chaps. Not gay at all, in fact. And ‘that was ok, then’, in the eyes of The Establishment (the BBC etc).
It was considered acceptable by them to allow a load of straight blokes wearing make-up and earrings to stomp and pout around Top Of The Pops playing at being camp, as long as it sort of sent it all up, a la Sweet.
Remember that we now view TV characters like John Inman’s Mr Humphries as out-and-out gay, but there were times in the Are You Being Served? and its later follow-up Grace & Favour series when the scriptwriters created situations where one was made to wonder if he was just a straight ‘cissy’ mummy’s boy, rather than an out gay man.
Larry Grayson was camp as Christmas but he never once said he was gay. Just a little effeminate, darling. Or in Noel Coward’s time, ‘He’s rather theatrical, isn’t he?’
At that time it was considered career suicide to openly say you were a gay man. Bi-sexual was alright, as it didn’t mean you were completely turned off having sex with a woman. It had just enough frisson of naughtiness while not upsetting too many apples off the cart.
I realised how much things had changed in the late ‘90s, when George Michael was arrested for importuning in a Los Angeles loo. The scummy tabloids all rubbed their hands with glee thinking, “At last, we’ve brought the queen down! Let’s enjoy his destruction together, tabloid readers!” after years of trying to ‘out’ him.
Instead, George’s record sales tripled overnight, his latest Best Of became a huge seller, and when he appeared on the Parkinson chat show to talk about his arrest, he made a joke about it, which made us all laugh, and a nation fell in love with him all over again. Wonderful.
I never hid my sexuality, called everyone ‘darling’ and was just myself. A friend once told me I was ‘the most naturally gay man’ he had ever met.
I’ve always assumed that from the moment I walk into a room people will know I am gay. Not because I mince in, crack me wrists and start looking at men in a lascivious way, but just from how I am. I believe I give off a ‘gay vibe’. We gays called it ‘gaydar’.
Other gays sense it immediately, but in my case I think most straight people do too, especially women. They have an extra sense about such things. It’s probably because of the way we look – or don’t look – at them. Our eyes don’t immediately go to their boobs, and we’re more likely to compliment them on the dress they’re wearing or their shoes than stare at their breasts, and if we do do that it’s usually because we’re thinking aesthetically, ‘What a gorgeous-looking woman’ as we would if we’d met Marilyn Monroe or Sophia Loren in the ‘50s.
Well, this ‘vibe’ was obviously something which upset some people at organisations like the BBC. I was unaware of it at the time, thinking my lack of radio plays and therefore poor record sales was more to do with the fact my album [Kid In A Big World – 1975] wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was.
Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that CBS were disappointed with Kid… when we delivered it to them, so I thought they’d lost faith in it, which resulted in uninspiring sales.
It was only years later, during a visit to our home in Pembrokeshire in 2005 that my producer back in the ‘70s, Paul Phillips, told me he believed my failure to secure Radio 1 plays was due to my being gay. He told me that at the end of my performance at The Purcell Room in 1975, while the audience clapped and shouted for more – well, they did – he’d turned to his neighbour, a high-up producer at Radio 1 and raved about me to him, expecting a similar opinion back.
He was met with a very obvious case of homophobia, the guy’s reaction was very much “Him?? Played by the BBC??! I don’t think so!”.
When I told my 1970s manager’s widow about this a few weeks later, she reiterated something similar, which she had also kept to herself for 30 years for fear of upsetting me.
She told me that on talking to the same chap at that 1975 after-show ‘do’, he’d said to her, “Well, we won’t be playing HIM on Radio 1!”.
In those days, no Radio 1 plays meant very poor sales for a single, and singles sold albums for pop acts, so Kid… flopped, causing a sense of panic at my record label, CBS.
“What are we going to do with him?” set in around the corridors and offices of Soho Square and I, or my career, never recovered from that.
Instead of releasing my follow-up album Technicolour Biography, the label cancelled recording sessions, put me in the studio with disco producer Biddu and hoped that would put a stop to ‘all this gay stuff he’s writing about odd parties on the beach with bohemian types’ and push me into writing some good old hetero hits.
Instead I wrote about an affair I’d just had which had ended, leaving me rather devastated, all couched in ‘more commercial songs’ but still with an obvious sense of me singing to a bloke.
The only exception was a catchy little number, the ironically titled I Got My Lady, which was me having a bit of fun trying to write a hetero hit.
CBS released it with great relief as a single, but when that too was rejected by Radio 1 and bombed, the company decided enough was enough, pulled the Biddu-produced album from their schedules and said ‘bye, ‘bye.
I struggled to get any record deals after that, only recording the occasional single with people like Trevor Horn (pre-Frankie and Buggles) and Steve Levine (pre-Culture Club).
By the early ‘80s I’d had enough and took up an offer to work in the music industry itself, where my gayness was immediately accepted, indeed embraced by all my industry colleagues.
I would have gone through the rest of my life thinking the reason I’d failed as a pop singer in the ‘70s was because my recordings weren’t any good, should RPM/Cherry Red not have reissued Kid.., to such wide acclaim, and then followed that up with releases of Technicolour Biography and the Biddu-productions Can You Hear Me OK?, which also got amazing reviews, which led to me returning to performing and recording again and having that conversation with Paul Phillips in 2005.
That year I played a wonderfully camp gig in Highgate’s Glam-Ou-Rama Club, where the audience treated me like a returned hero from Planet Ziggy. I had finally succeeded! On my terms.
Are you looking forward to the new album launch in London [Sept 8 – The Phoenix Club] and taking the record out on the road?
JH: Yes, I always enjoy performing on stage. Especially when there are people there to hear me! The Phoenix Artist Club looks like a wonderfully bohemian venue and I’m very excited about performing there. It’s only a stone’s throw away from where my manager’s office was in Denmark Street in the ‘70s and CBS was situated across the road in Soho Square.
It was also in Denmark Street where I did the launch show for As I Was Saying, in 2006 at the 12 Bar Club, so it’s seems fitting the UK launch show for The Night Mail should be in that area.
Future gigs are still to be arranged and don’t look like they’ll happen ‘til the New Year now, but that’s fine, there’s no rush. I am the human proof of that!
How do you see the rest of the year shaping up?
JH: True to form, I don’t stop writing and recording, and already have another solo album completed and ready for release sometime next year.
I’m not sure through which label, or exactly when it will come out, but it will at some point next year.
I’m also recording a new EP of Randy Newman songs, which should come out early 2016. That’ll be an online-only release. All my EPs tend to be cover-jobs! I like occasionally recording songs I love by other writers, from Bowie to Button and back again, and five track EPs are a great vehicle for that.
What happens through the autumn will largely be determined in many ways by how well The Night Mail album does. Stay bright, pop pickers!
John Howard & The Night Mail is released on August 21 (Tapete).
For more info: http://www.tapeterecords.de
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The album launch gig will take place on September 8, at the Phoenix Artist Club in London.