In September 1983, a young man from Southampton made his first appearance on Top of The Pops. Armed with a then state of the art synthesiser, huge pineapple shaped haircut and a visual aid in the form of a bendy mime artist, he requested we “throw off our mental chains” and made an instant impression with many teenagers watching. That man was Howard Jones. His debut hit single ‘New Song’ was at the cutting edge of the synth pop movement and his gift for a catchy chorus quickly set him apart from hundreds of other potential electronic pop stars. With the help of subsequent hits ‘What Is Love’ and ‘Pearl In The Shell’, Jones became one of the biggest stars of the following year.
His debut album ‘Human’s Lib’ ranks alongside The Human League’s ‘Dare’ and Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Please’ as one of the best synth pop albums of the decade. The album showed a man who not only made the creation of chorus hooks seem easy, but an artist whose songwriting was far deeper than those singles ever suggested. Between the hard mechanics of ‘Conditioning’, the quest for rebuilding one’s own emotions in ‘Hunt The Self’ and the hints of 80s metrosexualism in the title track, ‘Human’s Lib’ was far and away more thoughtful than it seemed on the surface.
Much has been said and written about the album over the years, but in terms of style, it remains one of the albums which carries best the spirit of the times in which it was released. It has been subjected to various reissues over the years, most notably as part of a box set released in 2010 with ‘Dream Into Action’ and a disc’s worth of live material, but has never been celebrated in such a comprehensive way as this 2018 super deluxe box set.
Fans have purchased the original album several times over and will almost certainly own some of the bonus materials, but for even the most ardent fan, this expansive set – including two CDs, two DVDs, a demo cassette and various pieces of ephemera^ – serves up some unfamiliar treats.
To begin with, there are twenty two previously unreleased audio tracks. The most notable of these, a BBC session recorded for the Kid Jensen show recorded in March 1983, show a future star in the making. Captured on tape a full year before the release of ‘Human’s Lib’, the session recordings retain a rawness that’s surprising for a man with a keyboard and pre-programmed tricks. The reverb on the drum sounds combined with the echo on Jones’s voice throughout ‘New Song’ makes this early live take hugely different from the familiar single version; a couple of the lower registers from the synth also differ. For the long time fan, it’s like discovering treasure somewhere you’ve been a thousand times. The session take for the title track isn’t quite as interesting, but again, an increase in beats and general volume adds a certain urgency, while Howard’s own spoken introduction throws some light upon the complicated relationship retold within the song. Making up the trilogy of tracks, ‘Naturally’ appears as a fully formed piece of synth pop, where Jones offers his best vocal of the session, sounding as confident as a man with years of recording to his credit.
A few rough mixes of familiar tracks fall into the category of being nice to have, but aren’t necessarily essential for anyone but the most HoJo obsessed. ‘Pearl In The Shell’ and ‘Equality’ both come with a harder drum sound in the mix but are otherwise almost identical to the finished tracks. A little more interesting, the rough mix of ‘Hide & Seek’ appears to be a touch heavier in the bottom end and ‘What Is Love’ actually sounds like a very good demo. A few tracks also appear in unreleased “Farmyard Mixes”, which in some cases sound somewhat punchier than the familiar album takes. The huge beats and parping keys throughout the Farmyard Mix of ‘Equality’ are a great example of this, since the recording manages to make something synthetic sound really ballsy. As with the rough mixes, the differences are sometimes slight, but each one gives a new perspective on the mechanics of this much loved album.
The “New Version” of ‘New Song’ (recorded in 1984 and originally from ‘The 12” Album’) makes a very welcome reappearance here and is a brilliant addition to the comprehensive set, featuring a vocal led intro and various drum machine elements that sound slightly more modern than the far more familiar single version. During the second half of the number, in particular, the “new” really comes into play with a piano-led instrumental break that very much looks forward to smoother, later albums like the wonderful ‘In The Running’. Somewhat of an early signature piece, ‘New Song’ also appears in extended form via the 12” mix and a couple of previously unheard takes – one dubbed “alternate 12” mix” and one from the Farmyard sessions. The unreleased “Farmyard” take of the song doesn’t flow quite so well: instead of taking the melodic root and creating the bassline, the bassline is disjointed and occasionally stuttery. It’s a little disorienting…and with the piano solo as per the “New Version” filling part of the instrumental it eventually sounds more settled. It’s also proof enough that there are sometimes big differences between the multiple takes. For those who just can’t get enough of this classic piece of pop, a previously unreleased, bass-heavy version can now also be enjoyed. This “New Mix Version 2” is quite beefy, but an extra bit of reverb on the vocal and the huge bass notes never obscures the piercing synth riffs…and it still sounds like one of the best pop tracks ever – this time, only much bigger.
Most of the classic 12” mixes – including the nine minute version of ‘Pearl In The Shell’ from the promotional US 12” and ‘Total Conditioning’ – take pride of place, accentuating the importance of extended mixes of the day, but for big fans, the repetition of material and the differences between the mixes will provide many hours of listening pleasure.
The super deluxe box set’s biggest draw, though – aside from that excellent radio session – comes from a wealth of visual materials, many of which are making their debut on DVD for the first time. For years, fans have awaited a DVD reissue of ‘Live In Japan’. Previously only available on a now very hard to find VHS, this is absolutely essential for anyone who even vaguely considers themselves interested in Jones’s early works. Granted, it isn’t always the most visually stunning as far as concert movies go, but the performances are absolutely wonderful. Mega-hit ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’, in particular, has plenty of bounce and while the always quirky ‘Conditioning’ sounds closer to its studio counterpart, there are suitably mechanical visual elements from mime artist Jed Hoile. Across the fourteen tracks, the two men manage to work a sizeable stage well considering the lack of extra people and decent visuals, but the best thing about ‘Live In Japan’ is that – as much as can be expected – it does appear to be live and not HoJo lip-synching or otherwise subjected to re-recorded bits done during post-production. After years of the show only being partially accessible from a YouTube upload with wavering, muffled sound, ‘Live In Japan’ is now safe and secure in a relatively clean state. It’s tempting to add “to be enjoyed by future generations”, but for those who weren’t around in the 80s, this’ll look like it was beamed in from a drama school from an alien world. They just don’t make ’em like this any more – it really is an 80s treasure, probably beaten only by Duran Duran in terms of a visual record of 80s pop for those who won’t remember it the first time around.
Also, various clips from Top of The Pops provide terrific nostalgia, with Jed appearing with Howard for that eye-opening first appearance of ‘New Song’, before the other big singles showcase Howard as one of the era’s best pop songwriters. Digging deeper, there’s a take of ‘What Is Love?’ from the largely forgotten music show Oxford Roadshow that’s a bit like a cross between The Tube and a forerunner for Friday At The Dome. Although it couldn’t hope to come close to being as enjoyable as the Japanese gig, it’s still an important piece of history. Rounding up the visuals are each of the official promo clips, including the superior UK version of ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ where Howard strolls around London meeting giggly girls and signing autographs for his earliest fans. Best of all, the original ‘New Song’ clip with HoJo and Jed dancing in a pickle factory and visiting the London Underground. It necessarily isn’t as nostalgic as the TOTP clip, but is among those videos that best represents the fun of the era. For the more curious viewer, the DVD elements also includes footage of Howard rehearsing at home and performing live at The Gordon Arms in High Wickham. As you’d expect from something that’s essentially a home movie, it’s all far from high definition stuff, but these are certainly small pieces of treasure that long standing fans will be glad to have seen.
Like so many super deluxe box sets, ‘Human’s Lib’ has one flaw: a decision was made to mix formats and also include various bits and pieces that serve no real purpose than bump up the price. The LP picture disc looks terrific, but in reality few people will actually play it when there are CDs handy; those who still value CDs would almost certainly wish this piece of vinyl had been sold separately and have the price of the box setreduced accordingly. For history’s sake there are also replicas of Howard’s original “White Demo” cassette, the ‘Human’s Lib’ tour programme and a fan club card. They all look nice enough, but they’ll never have that “cool factor” of still owning the original items. Still, nothing’s perfect…
[^ Bendy Jed doll not supplied]
‘Human’s Lib’ is not just one of the best albums of it’s era – it’s probably one of the five finest synth pop albums ever made. The alternate versions and DVD elements are enough alone to recommend a well curated package, but this opportunity to revisit almost every important nut and bolt of a classic debut’s construction makes for a fine box set for those with the time and money.
[A smaller and more affordable package containing highlights spread across two CDs and a single DVD is also available.]