HOWARD JONES – At The BBC

Beginning with their massive box set celebrating ‘Human’s Lib’ issued in November 2019, Cherry Red Records have really gone the extra mile with their Howard Jones reissues. Each release has been afforded a wealth of extras, including bonus DVDs featuring archive live footage and TV appearances where available, and the addition of demos and alternate takes accompanying the main albums has been a fan’s dream. It was especially pleasing to see some love for Howard’s 1992 release ‘In The Running’, an album which saw him transition from 80s synth pop hero to a slicker, older singer-songwriter. Although overlooked by many at the time, it now stands proudly as one of the most enduring albums in the artist’s catalogue.

Complimenting the vastly expanded studio albums, this five disc box set of live materials allows for a different kind of exploration of HoJo’s past, but in hearing performances recorded between 1983-87 it really brings home the fact that he was, arguably, the greatest synth pop performer of the era.

The first disc rounds up various sessions recorded for Radio One in 1983 and 1985. This is the only time this set has any obvious overlap with previous reissues, in that the two Kid Jensen sessions were included in the super deluxe ‘Human’s Lib’ and ‘No-One Is To Blame’ from the 1985 Janice Long session crept out on the ‘Dream Into Action’ 2CD/DVD set that same week. Nevertheless, this still leaves a few nuggets to be discovered, and the rest of the Janice Long session is now present and correct…and it’s great. The source tapes have a pristine sound, and this really comes through on a take of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ which boasts a hard, rhythmic sound and synth horns that are so much brighter than their studio counterpart. The live elements really shine through via the vocal, and Jones occasionally wobbles on a couple of higher notes, but otherwise sounds really natural and really confident in showcasing the then new tune. Naturally, some of the synth sounds during ‘Look Mama’ are of their time, but the previously unreleased session take still manages to convey some fine pop, helped by a deep synth bass sound and the kind of vocal that veers between pleading, fragility and forthright pop authority. The mechanical edges of ‘Dream Into Action’ are almost robotic, yet there’s an odd, almost funk undertone to this take that really punches through the rigidity. Vocally, it’s Howard’s finest moment during the first Long session, approaching each syllable with a broad melodic stroke that also helps the disjointed musical elements flow.

Obviously, with the reliance on so many pre-programmed elements, there aren’t always huge differences between these versions and the studio masters, but long time fans will certainly discover enough small variations – especially vocally – to make them a welcome addition to the collection. The most important thing is the sound quality, and in a world where so much of the BBC archive has been misplaced or wiped, the fact that the masters for these sessions have not only survived, but can now be enjoyed in something approaching flawless audio, is certainly something to celebrate.

The second disc offers a further BBC studio session from a slightly later period, with Jones promoting ‘One To One’ on the Janice Long Show in 1987. The session in question doesn’t quite have the freshness or urgency of the 1983 sessions, partly due to the tracks being recorded some five months after the parent album’s release – and therefore not really being new to anyone – but also due to a couple of the chosen numbers sounding rather more dated when heard retrospectively. The recording of ‘Balance of Love’ features a choir of backing vocals that feels rather more Style Council than a work by Howard Jones, and with that comes a very late 80s vibe, but its synthesized slap bass somehow manages to sound more dated than anything, despite never being too far removed from its studio equivalent. The electro/street sounds influence during ‘Don’t Want To Fight’ is potentially worse, but you can’t ignore Howard’s very enthusiastic vocal throughout, and the psudo reggae ‘Give Me Strength’ highlights one of ‘One To One’s weaker tracks, despite a decent performance.

The session is redeemed by a superb vocal/piano performance of ‘Little Bit of Snow’, which is beautiful in its sheer purity, with Jones offering a gliding vocal over shiny electric piano chords interspersed with gorgeous descending melodies. The session also benefits from a couple of deviations: Howard’s decision to reprise ‘Conditioning’ from ‘Human’s Lib’ shows how sharp his debut remained four years on, and since that track didn’t get an airing at either of the ’83 sessions, it’s more than just a welcome throwback, and a cover of Donald Fagen’s classic ‘IGY’ demonstrates a love for a classic singer/songwriter. The tune’s jazzy bounce translates very well to a synth pop stance, whilst Jones’s lead vocal slides very naturally into a great melody, almost making it sound as if it were written for him. Looking back, it’s easy to see this as Howard paving the way for the more sophisticated, smoother style that he would take to glory on his 1992 album ‘In The Running’. Overall, it’s a hit and miss session, but for the bigger fan, ‘Little Bit of Snow’ and ‘IGY’ ensure it’s a keeper.

Making up for the ’87 session, a recording from London’s Paris Theatre in ’83 (made for the BBC ‘In Concert’ series) is superb. Comprising only six tracks, it’s short, but it’s very much quality over quantity. The very audible audience is small, but very enthusiastic (especially the woman really yelling before Jones breaks into his first song). Howard really his early, most mechanical tunes come to life: the funky bass throughout ‘New Song’, in particular, has a presence that feels a little quirkier than the studio take and the high notes on the chorus take on an almost cheeky presence. The core of the track is exactly as you’d expect; Jones hits his vocal with a genuine confidence and the main keyboard refrain calls out with an urgency. That would be enough to show why ‘New Song’ became an instant pop classic, but this version’s dramatic shift to a real piano midway – throwing out the kind of melody that pre-empted Italian House tunes of the late 80s – really shows it to be an easily malleable work.

Having already been heard on the Janice Long session from ’87 with a few extra samples and voices, a live recording of ‘Conditioning’ is as different again, with Jones choosing to recreate the track using a synth tone that sounds like a stretched tape during the intro and reaching for some really high notes during the pre-chorus, and the less familiar ‘Dreams of A Better Place’ works a jerky rhythm and almost funk like groove, sounding like a natural progression from the ‘Human’s Lib’ material, even if it seems a little slight in comparison. The massive hit ‘What Is Love’ still sounds like peak 80s pop, even when performed with extra vocal reverb and a few heavier keyboard tones and an unexpected instrumental break that sounds like a synthesized guitar solo, before a pair of deeper cuts close the recording. In its live clothes, ‘Equality’ sounds sharp and Devo-esque at times, whilst retaining Howard’s distinctive pop heart via a strong vocal, and ‘Don’t Always Look At The Rain’ boasts some fine piano work and a sense of quiet that very much contrasts the other tunes. It’s a real pleasure to hear such a performance uninterrupted by crowd noise, and lovers of HoJo’s reflective tunes will definitely find a new favourite here. This BBC box is full of treats, but it’s honestly worth picking up just for a decent copy of this old transcription disc.

The rest of the box is devoted to live concert recordings, and although the three remaining shows are up against some serious competition with that 1983 transcription disc, each one provides a very enjoyable piece of history. A set from Aylesbury Friars in 1984 sounds a little thinner in a couple of places, but it’s hard to fault the set list or most of the performance itself. The opening ‘Hunt The Self’ is extremely busy, but its sharp synth sounds really set the tone for the hour that follows, and Jones sounds especially pumped throwing out an energised vocal. Things settle down a little for the massive hit ‘Pearl In The Shell’, but the vocal still conveys a nervous energy that reminds everyone of the live setting. A couple of the synth horns sound wonky, but aside from that, the number shows off some great synth pop and ‘Always Asking Questions’ lends the gig an early highlight via a much punchier performance that brings out the bass notes and some great, sharp synth sounds throughout.

Calming the mood, ‘Don’t Look At The Rain’ has taken pride of place as a piano showpiece, but unlike the Paris Theatre show, the crowd are very involved and Howard actively encourages participation. It’s none the worse for that, and it definitely offers something of a very different experience, before ‘Human’s Lib’ album cut ‘Change The Man’ and mega-hit ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ appear to raise the roof. Into the second half of the set, things really don’t tail off. The hard drums and mechanics powering ‘Equality’ sound positively fierce on this occasion; ‘Dream of A Better Place’ is occasionally a little fudgy, but the continued mechanical sound lends a decent punch, and hits ‘Hide & Seek’, ‘New Song’ and ‘What Is Love’ are obvious crowd pleasers.

A Royal Albert Hall gig from December ’84 shows Jones moving on from some of the old ‘Lib’ favourites and road testing stuff from the soon to be released ‘Dream Into Action’ LP. It’d be another three months until ‘Dream’ appeared on record shop shelves, but already, the core of the album sounds very strong in the live set. ‘Look Mama’ shows off a great bassline driving some more melodic synth work and despite Howard coming in slightly too high on the opening verse, everything soon drops into place, and the purer pop aspects of the track signify it’ll soon have a solid foothold in the canon, whilst the really dark ‘Hunger For The Flesh’ takes a long time to unwind via some deep ambient drones. It’s hard to imagine it capturing an audience in a venue of that size in a pre-release state, but heard years after the fact, it’s quite fascinating. The much more accessible ‘No One Is To Blame’ is presented in a piano-oriented arrangement that sounds grand enough to sound like an overhang from the previous decade, and Howard is in spectacular voice, especially considering he has much less to hide behind from a musical standpoint.

As great as these tracks are, the hits are better received, and this gig is a perfect reminder that ‘New Song’, ‘What Is Love’ and ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ already challenge anyone else from the era in terms of perfect pop. With this recording boasting more bass than the earlier studio sessions or even the studio albums, it’s almost like hearing them anew, and ‘New Song’ is especially fun, with Jones really teasing the audience with an extended intro. They know what’s coming; they know they’re going to love it, but he keeps them hanging until the last possible moment.

The final disc features the entire soundtrack from the “Oxford Roadshow” gig from 1985. Recorded at the Manchester Apollo, a good chunk of the show was released as b-side fillers on various ‘Dream Into Action’ singles back in the day, so fans will instinctively know what they’re getting here. During the opening ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ its clear that this recording sounds a little more muted, but rather than that being the cause and effect of the source material, it sounds as if Jones is opting for less harsh rhythm tracks on a number of songs. It initially makes this sound less immediate than the earlier gigs, but after a couple of tracks, your ears fully adjust. By the time the lovely piano/vocal version of ‘Hide & Seek’ rolls around with its lovely, floaty atmosphere and full audience vocal, and ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’ asserts its perfect pop credentials yet again, the listening experience becomes almost as good as any other. Although there are only small variations on the material beyond that, the previously unreleased versions of ‘What Is Love’ (with more audience singing) and ‘No One Is To Blame’ (by now taking a very stately place among HoJo’s big singles) are particular highlights.

Naturally, this five disc excursion isn’t aimed at the casual fan, or someone looking for a relatively light piece of nostalgia. Its very comprehensive approach means that there’s a huge amount of track repetition (even if the versions always subtly differ) and most of the live sources aren’t as perfect as the studio cuts. For the big fan, however, it’s a genuine treasure trove; a brilliantly curated dive into a past that reminds the world that BBC In Concert wasn’t always about hard rock and prog bands, and that despite often being thought of as a studio based talent, Howard was – and remains – a strong live performer. If you consider yourself a big enough fan for a five disc romp with Jones in all of his 80s pomp, you won’t be disappointed.

Read a review of the Human’s Lib box set here.
Read a review of the In The Running super deluxe edition here.

October 2021

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