‘These stories needed to be told’

Picture of Robert Rotifer by Rosie Lovering
Picture of Robert Rotifer by Rosie Lovering

Austrian-born, Canterbury-based singer-songwriter Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is his most personal and autobiographical record yet, with songs about growing up in Vienna and the death of his grandmother, a Jewish communist and resistance fighter in the Second World War. I speak to him to find out why he felt the time was right to tell these stories and how they’re more relevant than ever in the current European political climate…

I’ve been listening to the new album a lot – it’s a great record…

Robert Rotifer: I’m glad and I’m grateful that you like it because I sometimes find it pretty hard going to listen to because it’s very intimate. People have been telling me they like it, but it was really hard for me to let go of some of the stuff. It’s quite intense and there are just ten songs – I felt that if I put 12 songs on it, it would’ve been too much. Also, these days, you want it to sound good on vinyl and the truth is, the less you put on there, the better it sounds.

I think it works really well on vinyl because, thematically, there are two distinct sides to the record. The first half of the album deals with contemporary subjects, including immigration and the smartphone generation, while the second half is a song cycle about you and your family’s experiences of growing up and living in Vienna. 

RR: The songs on the first side give you the background to where the second side comes from. Side one should open your mind – ‘what is this guy talking about?’ – and on side two, you can see where I’m coming from. It has a dramatic curve.

I like the details in the lyrics and the stories that you tell in the songs…

RR: They’re compelling. I couldn’t take into account what people might make of it and I felt there were things that I just needed to write about, which should always be the case. I couldn’t edit myself accordingly to what was going to work with an audience, which was a real self-indulgence, but I’m aware of that.

It’s arguably your most personal and autobiographical record and it’s a Robert Rotifer album, rather than one by your band, Rotifer. Although the guys from Rotifer play on the record, was it always going to be a solo album?

RR: It just happened that all sorts of things conspired – Mike Stone, who plays bass, was very busy and Ian Button (drummer) was busy with Papernut Cambridge. I just felt that I had this personal stuff to get rid of and it seemed right to do the record by myself. Mike and Ian were absolutely fine with it – there was no animosity.

Some of the songs – the title track and Irma la Douce – are about your grandmother, Irma Schwager, who died last year. She was a Jewish communist who fled Austria to escape the Nazis during the Second World War and joined the French resistance. The title track sees you standing outside her old flat in Vienna…

RR: My grandmother died when she was 95. She met my grandfather during immigration, while they were part of the underground Austrian resistance in France – they were both Jewish – not religiously so – but by birth. My mum was born in France when she was in hiding during the Second World War.

My grandparents came back to Vienna in 1945 and moved into a flat that was right next to the Danube Canal – it’s the bit of the Danube that goes right into the city of Vienna. That was one of the last strongholds where the Nazis had hidden.

When my grandparents moved in to the flat, part of the outside wall had collapsed because the Russians had lobbed grenades into the building. Until the very end, you could see bullet scars in the doors and there was a hole in the wood panelling where they’d looked for hidden weapons. After my grandmother died, my mum found pictures of German soldiers in uniform having a jolly in the flat. It had belonged to a Jewish family and was taken over by a Nazi general.

When my grandparents came back, they were offered the flat. For me, it’s a symbolic place and has more to say than just my personal history. With the way politics is going in Central Europe at the moment, I think these stories need to be told – it’s essential to explain to people was it was actually like.

On my grandmother’s 90th birthday, there was a big do, because she was a little bit of a celebrity in leftie circles. I was invited to sing and I sang a song called The Frankfurt Kitchen, which is about a kitchen design from 1928 that was the daddy of all the Ikea kitchens. It was designed by Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky, who was a friend of my grandmother’s.

I played it as a tribute to her friend, who had died, and as I was on stage and my grandmother was standing next to me, I said to her that I was glad that she came back to Vienna, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I asked her why she’d come back and, like a shot, she said that it was because they’d won. I thought that was the best reason ever.

When she died, it became obvious to me that that idea of her coming back had gone – I can’t rely on other generations having fought for me. It was really emotional for me and I felt all these songs about Vienna coming out. While they might be about me, they also say something about where Europe – and the world – is at the moment, from Trump all the way to Nigel Farage and Norbert Hofer [the far-right Austrian presidential candidate who was narrowly defeated earlier this year].

I don’t want to get too political about it because it’s emotional for me, but it’s about feeling safe.

One of my favourite songs on the album is the opening track, If We Hadn’t Had You. It’s a very personal song that’s about your daughter and mentions an anti-war demo in Hyde Park that you took her to. Can you tell me about the background to the song?

RR: My daughter said I always writing depressing and sad stuff – she asked me to write something nice and I thought that if she’s said that, then the most obvious thing to do is to write a nice song about her. But I wanted to write a song that wasn’t mawkish.

I’ve tried to explain that parental happiness is also withdrawal from what happens around you – you’ve got the luxury of something which is so much more important… But I also wanted to make it clear that because you have kids you don’t have a higher calling. My daughter absolutely loves the song.

You’ve recorded two versions of If We Hadn’t Had You – the one on the album has a guitar solo by you, but the version you released on a EP earlier this year features a saxello solo by 80-year-old Canterbury jazz legend Tony Coe, who played on John Martyn’s classic album Solid Air. How did you get him involved?

RR: Living in Canterbury, I was aware of Tony Coe – I’d seen him play at jazz gigs. He was around in the Ronnie Scott’s scene in the ‘50s.

He says that Solid Air was just a session for him – that it wasn’t a very exciting afternoon, but, for the rest of us, it’s good enough!

I got him to play on another album that I was co-producing with Andy Lewis and at the end of the session we still had some time, so I asked him to listen to If We Hadn’t Had You, which I thought could do with some saxophone on it. He really liked the song and I loved what he did.

When I’d mixed my album I knew that, thematically, If We Hadn’t Had You had to be the first song on it, but with the sound [of the saxello], you would expect the rest of the record to have that aspect to it, but it doesn’t – it’s like opening a door to a room that you then don’t use anymore. After thinking long and hard about it, I tried a guitar solo on it and, all of a sudden, it got a different flavour that fitted the rest of the album. I decided to do an EP with the Tony Coe version on it to give credit to it and not lose it.

Picture by Stephan Brueckler
Picture by Stephan Brueckler


Let’s talk about the sound of the album. It’s pretty stripped-down in places – there’s plenty of room for the songs to breathe, with acoustic guitar, organ and horn, but then there’s also some freewheeling electric guitar, heavier sounds and some psych-pop and jazzy touches. It’s a hard record to describe and nail down – it’s almost as if the songs are led by the lyrics, rather than the music…

RR: Yes – completely.

What were you aiming for with this record?

RR: I’m a big fan of French records from the ‘60s and ‘70s – what I like about them is the way the vocals are mixed right upfront, so you can hear what Jacques Dutronc or Serge Gainsbourg is telling you. That’s the opposite of what’s happened in the mastering wars of the zero years. This was the first time I’d ever mixed a record myself and I recorded almost all of it myself.

Writing-wise what I was aiming for with this record was that I wanted to get away from that guitarist’s thing of ‘here’s four chords and let’s sing over the top’. I wanted to write it more like a piano player would. I wrote some of the songs on piano.

I’d like to ask you more about your musical influences. You moved to England from Vienna just over 19 years ago, in early 1997, but you first visited England in 1982, as a 12-year old. What music were you into when you were young?

RR: My parents sent me to Canvey Island in 1982, when I was 12. Before then, I had been terribly Anglophile. It was a formative experience – in 1982 in Essex you saw second-generation mods running around and the look was magical to me. I was such a Beatles fan as a kid and I’d got into The Kinks and The Who.

So when you were growing up in Austria, you didn’t listen to local music?

RR: There was local rock music…. The case for Austrian indigenous pop music, whatever that means, because it’s a multicultural society, is quite important for me. I’ve been the co-founder and curator of the Vienna Popfest, which is a huge thing – it’s an annual festival where tens of thousands of people turn up. It’s anything that you could possibly describe as ‘pop’, but one of the great things about Vienna is that people are very schooled in the avant-garde – they keep an ear open for music that is odd. So at the Popfest you can have people playing something that in no other place in the world would be considered pop.

I like Austrian pop music, but when I lived there, there was this thing called Austropop, which was complacent, stolid and boring pop music. There were people with horrible hairdos and DX7 keyboards… As a teenager, I tried to get away from it as much as possible.

Then there was the Austrian version of Neue Deutsche Welle – the German New Wave thing. It was a mixture of what the Germans did and Austropop, which was even more fake to me.

I sang in English and I always played in very Anglophile bands – there was a mod and ‘60s culture going on. I became a music journalist in ‘91/’92 – I was studying, but I was offered a job because I wrote an article about Billy Bragg that people liked. I then went freelance and got into radio, which I still do today.

I ended up being the Britpop correspondent – I went to festivals like Reading and Glastonbury and hung around the hospitality area. If you were accredited, you could stick a microphone in Jarvis Cocker’s direction and he would talk to you.


Your new album is being released on Gare du Nord Records – a label that you’re heavily involved with.  Any other new records and projects in the pipeline?

RR: This is an exclusive. There’s a new Papernut Cambridge album already finished. One afternoon, we decided to try and organise something like The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus – it’s called The Cambridge Circus! I’m really looking forward to that.


Robert Rotifer’s new album, Not Your Door, is released on July 1 on Gare du Nord Records – CD/LP and download.  For more information, go to http://www.robertrotifer.co.uk  & http://robertrotifer.bandcamp.com

The album launch party takes place on June 30 at Servant Jazz Quarters in London: tickets are available here.

Best Albums of 2015



As we approach the end of the year and overindulge in festive celebrations, hangovers are a daily occurrence.

They also played a major part in the making of Say It With Garage Flowers’ favourite album of 2015 – Minesweeping by O’Connell & Love.

One of the most eclectic and richly rewarding albums of recent times, it’s a collaboration between Larry Love, the lead singer of South London country-blues-gospel-electronica outlaws Alabama 3 and songwriting partner Brendan O’Connell.

As Larry told me when I interviewed him about the making of the record: “What was interesting with Minesweeping was the use of hangovers in the recording process. Brendan was financing the project and, basically, at the end of the night, we’d chuck some drunken ideas down, but the most important stuff was done in the morning after. I knew that unless I did some songs in the morning, Brendan wouldn’t buy me a pint in the afternoon.”

Reviewing it earlier this year, I described it as, ‘a hung-over road trip through the badlands, stopping to pick up some hitchhikers on the way – namely guest vocalists Rumer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, June Miles-Kingston, Tenor Fly and Pete Doherty.’

The record opens with the moody, Cash-like, acoustic death row ballad, Like A Wave Breaks On A Rock, visits Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood territory for the drunken, playful duet Hangover Me (feat. Rumer), travels across Europe for the sublime, blissed-out, Stonesy country-soul of  It Was The Sweetest Thing,hangs out by the riverside for the gorgeous pastoral folk of Shake Off Your Shoes (feat.Rumer) and heads out to the ocean for the Celtic sea shanty-inspired Where Silence Meets The Sea.

Larry Love and Brendan O’Connell

It’s an album that wears its influences on the sleeve of its beer-stained shirt – it’s like rifling through a record collection of classic rock and roll, folk, blues, country and soul.

There are nods to late ‘70s Dylan (The Man Inside The Mask), Motown (Love Is Like A Rolling Stone – feat.Tenor Fly ), Leonard Cohen (Come On, Boy – feat. Junes Miles-Kingston) and The Band (If It’s Not Broken).

I’m really looking forward to seeing O’Connell & Love play this record live in 2016 – according to Larry, there are plans for a UK tour.

In the meantime, I’m going to pour myself a large glass of something dark and strong and lose myself in Minesweeping.

One for the road, anyone?

As albums of the year go, singer-songwriters, alt.country, power-pop and Americana dominate my list.

Richard Hawley turned in a classic with Hollow Meadows, which was less psychedelic than its predecessor, Standing At The Sky’s Edge, and largely rooted in country, folk and the lush, late-night, ‘50s-tinged melancholy ballads that dominated his earlier albums. Although there was still room for some bluesy-garage rock (Which Way) and anthemic, widescreen guitar pop (Heart of Oak).

I was lucky enough to meet Richard after one of his gigs this year and when I told him that I preferred his new album to the one before, he simply said, ‘Well – you can’t please everyone, Sean…’

Other singer-songwriters who released great albums this year included Manchester’s Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun sounded like Lee Hazlewood on a spacewalk – and Vinny Peculiar, whose Down The Bright Stream was a witty, funny and moving collection of brilliantly observed pop songs, steeped in childhood nostalgia, teenage memories and wry social commentary.

Nev Cottee
Nev Cottee

John Howard’s new project – John Howard & The Night Mail – was a wonderful record, full of quirky, witty, intelligent, theatrical and nostalgic songs, from Zombies-like psych-pop to slinky retro mod-soul, glam-rock and observational Ray Davies-style tales of people’s everyday lives.

Detroit’s Nick Piunti – a Say It With Garage Flowers favourite – returned in a blaze of glory with Beyond The Static, which was the follow-up to his critically acclaimed power-pop record 13 In My Head, while Dublin-born singer-songwriter Marc Carroll’s latest album, Love Is All or Love Is Not At All, was his most political record yet.

Dead Flowers – who topped Say It With Garage Flowers’ album of the year list back in 2013 with their debut, Midnight At The Wheel Club, didn’t disappoint with their new record – Minor & Grand, which was often louder and much more electrified than their first album.

Manchester band Last Harbour made Caul – a brooding, cinematic masterpiece that recalled Bowie’s Berlin period, the industrial, electronic atmosphere of Joy Division and the gothic splendour of Scott Walker and Nick Cave.


Instrumental duo Steelism, with their spy film guitar licks and surf-rock riffs, came up with a record (615 To FAME) that harked back to the glory days of ’60s instrumental rock & roll, but also threw in country, soul and blues – and even a touch of krautrock – to create their own dramatic soundtracks.

UK Americana label Clubhouse Records had a great year in 2015, releasing superb albums by alt.country band Case Hardin (Colours Simple), whose singer-songwriter Pete Gow played a solo show that I promoted back in October, and The Dreaming Spires (Searching For The Supertruth)– Oxford’s prime exponents of ‘60s-style jangle-pop.

I must declare a vested interest in one of my favourite records of 2015 – The Other Half, a collaboration between top UK crime writer Mark Billingham and country duo My Darling Clementine.

Mark discovered My Darling Clementine by first reading about them on my blog, so, I’d like to think that I set the wheels in motion that led them to record their story of love, loss and murder that’s told in words and music and set in a rundown Memphis bar.

Sadly, not everyone who released superb albums in 2015 lived to tell the tale. Gifted, but troubled, singer-songwriter Gavin Clark (Sunhouse, Clayhill) died in February, but he left behind Evangelist – a project that was completed by James Griffith and Pablo Clements, members of UNKLE/Toydrum and the owners of the Toy Room Studios in Brighton.

Loosely based on Gavin’s life, it was a dark, edgy, atmospheric and psychedelic-tinged trip that made for uneasy – yet essential – listening.

And finally, here are some nods to acts who didn’t release studio albums this year, but put out some records that I loved.

I’m not normally a huge fan of live albums, but Johnny Marr’s Adrenalin Baby was brilliant and really captured the feel and atmosphere of his gigs – it’s worth it just to hear his outstanding, europhic version of Electronic’s Getting Away With It.

And talking of live shows, UK folk duo The Rails gave away a seven-track acoustic EP called Australia at their gigs this year.

It served as a good stopgap until their next album and featured a killer, stripped-down cover of Edwyn Collins’ Low Expectations.

Liverpudlian singer-songwriter Steve Roberts followed up his 2013 concept record Cold Wars Part 1 EP with the five-track sequel – What Would You Die For? [Cold Wars Part Two].

The standout track This Is A Cold War was a stately, Beatlesesque piano-led ballad. Lennon and McCarthy?

And while we’re on the subject of spies, being a huge James Bond fan, I really enjoyed A Girl And A Guna 34-track tribute album of 007 songs and soundtracks by artists including Darren Hayman, Robert Rotifer, Ralegh Long and Papernut Cambridge.

Say It With Garage Flowers will return in 2016…

Here’s a list of my favourite albums of 2015 and a Spotify playlist to accompany it:

  1. O’Connell & Love – Minesweeping
  2. Richard Hawley – Hollow Meadows
  3. Vinny Peculiar – Down The Bright Stream
  4. John Howard & The Night Mail – John Howard & The Night Mail
  5. Nev Cottee – Strange News From The Sun
  6. The Dreaming Spires – Searching For The Supertruth
  7. Dead Flowers – Minor & Grand
  8. Evangelist [Gavin Clark & Toydrum] – Evangelist
  9. Duke Garwood – Heavy Love
  10. Mark Billingham & My Darling Clementine – The Other Half
  11. Nick Piunti – Beyond The Static
  12. Case Hardin – Colours Simple
  13. Last Harbour – Caul
  14. Steelism – 615 To FAME
  15. Bob Dylan – Shadows In The Night
  16. Jason Isbell – Something More Than Free
  17. Marc Carroll – Love Is All or Not At All
  18. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  19. Gaz Coombes – Matador
  20. Wilco – Star Wars
  21. The Sopranistas – Cutting Down The Bird Hotel
  22. Dave Gahan & Soulsavers – Angels & Ghosts
  23. New Order – Music Complete
  24. GospelBeacH – Pacific Surf Line
  25. Sarah Cracknell – Red Kite
  26. Kontiki Suite – The Greatest Show On Earth
  27. Ryley Walker – Primrose Green
  28. Hurricane #1 – Find What You Love And Let It Kill You
  29. Jacob Golden – The Invisible Record
  30. Ian Webber – Year of the Horse
  31. Bill Fay – Who Is The Sender?

‘I’ve been rediscovered so many times now…’


Left to right: John Howard; Robert Rotifer; Ian Button and Andy Lewis
Left to right: John Howard; Robert Rotifer; Ian Button and Andy Lewis


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.


technicolour biography


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

Facebook – click here

The album launch gig will take place on September 8, at the Phoenix Artist Club in London.