Our Daily Bread 445: Best Of John Howard

May 12, 2021

ALBUM FEATURE/REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

John Howard ‘Best Of…’
(Kool Kat Musik/I Don’t Hear A Single) 14th May 2021

The musical career of John Howard (five decades and still counting) has hardly been plain sailing; with a majority of the songs he both wrote and recorded during his initial short-lived ascendance in the mid 1970s either shelved or sidelined. In fact, the bon vivant pianist, troubadour, former A&R man and now author’s musical output has arguably been more prolific, yielded better riches, in the last decade than it ever did when the young burgeoning star was on the cusp of success in 1974, after signing to CBS.

Hampered however by a myriad of setbacks and travails (both professionally and personally), the eyes-wide-open Lancashire gay lad in the big smoke found his recording career quickly stifled, even blocked by a thoroughly unsympathetic and often ruthless music industry after the commercial failure of his debut album, Kid In A Big World in 1975. Though gaining some critical acclaim at the time, the album’s singles failed to meet with the approval of the radio camarilla. The debut single from that starry-eyed but resigned to the usury of others thematic album, the grandeur sighed melodrama ‘Goodbye Suzie’, was deemed far too downbeat for the daytime audience needed to make it a hit. And to be fair, the fateful subject of this stage tragedy does end up dead. But what a way to go! Drowned to the soundtrack of a graceful and most lovely of slow building chorus maladies. 

That single opens this, the first proper, wide-ranging ‘Best Of…’ compilation of Howard’s songbook to ever be released: ahead it seems of a new album, Single Return; as denoted by the Bacharach shares the piano stool with Brecht vision of the former Aztec Camera instigator Roddy Frame’s starry lower case universal yet personal anthem ‘Small World’. A bookended collection if you like, with the very first rudimental demos from a teenage Howard appearing alongside those from a future release. 

Chronicled so far in two autobiographical volumes of memories, this survey’s track list mirrors Howard’s oft toing and froing between actual realized projects: of which there is many. There’s a lot of music on this 2XCD spanning celebration that never saw the light of day when it was recorded during the backend of the Glam epoch; a hell of a lot it subsequently picked up and redistributed across various low key compilation EPs and albums, released a decade or two (even three) later. There are a litany of reasons for this: the already mentioned lack of support, the interference of others, but also by a terrible, almost fatal, accident that threatened to cut his career short. Pursued by mad Russian sailor, a ‘bit of rough’, brought back to his shared accommodation by his colourful Filipino gay flat mates (relocating to London to escape the clutches of dictator Ferdinand Marcos), Howard would end up breaking both his back and his feet escaping this manic, intent on murder, when jumping from a window to escape. Recovery was convoluted, yet Howard did return to the bar stool, recording studio and pen thank god.

Under the Kid In A Big World trilogy umbrella a quick succession of albums were recorded in a two-year window of opportunity. Only the first of which, and the only that gives its name to this flurry of recordings, actually made it to the release stage. The album that announced Howard’s arrival is for obvious reasons well represented on this compilation. Dressed like Annie Hall era Diane Keaton shopping at Biba, Howard’s blossoming as a quality balladeer of semi-foppish stagey drama is both very much of its time. There’s the doleful, softly soothed if fearful and yearned Bernie and Elton melodrama title track, the Steve Harley accented and Bolan “lalala” marimba bobbing ‘Family Man’ (actually released as a single on the said sainted day for lovers), and attempt at Fitzgerald roaring twenties Hollywood glam, ‘Maybe Some Day In Miami’. Despite some of the over-production (mostly against Howard’s wishes) and schmaltz, there’s always something deeper and often autobiographical in many of these songs; an artistry that saves such pop cabaret hits from mediocrity.

During the CBS label years, Howard would record songs for both the Technicolour Biography and Can You Hear Me OK? albums. Both put on the indefinite backburner at the time, but appearing in smatterings at a later date, some of this material now appears here. The former is represented by the sorrowful CSN&Y-esque ‘Oh Dad (Look What You Done)’, the Elton fandango with Mick Ronson plaintive ‘Take Up Your Partners (Finale)’, and the sadly romantic, cerebral character arc mini opus title track (a touch of Robin Gibb and even Freddie Mercury on that one). The latter of those two albums is represented by the Lynsey de Paul disco swinger ‘I Got My Lady’, daytime TV weepy, fluty and theatrical album title track, and Gibb Brothers (them again) lawsuit sound-a-like ‘I Can Breathe Again’.

Going back before even this trilogy, and appearing thirty-odd years later on the cozily nostalgic entitled Front Room Fables EP, there’s a genuine rarity from a seventeen year-old Howard finding his soul and craft. From the sitting room, the grainy acoustic guitar driven home demo of ‘I’ll Feel What I Feel’ shows a strong penchant for the music of Donovan and Roy Harper, rather than the glitz of what was to come. That Harper reference isn’t so surprising, as an older Howard covered the erstwhile counter-culture English troubadour’s ‘Another Day’, which, as it goes is included on this compilation.  Unless you know your Howard back catalogue inside-out, the next chunk of this collection’s curated track list gets confusing; taken as they are from other smaller, more concentrated samplers of Howard’s 70s and 80s output released in the 90s and much later still. The Hidden Beauty compilation from 2008 is a case in point: a collated survey of misplaced and rare recordings. There’s a strong showing from that album in particular with Howard channeling a heart aching Lennon on the romantic plaint demo from ’79, ‘Loving You’, and tenderly evoking shades of Love Affair, McCartney and unsurprisingly, considering it was produced by Eddie Pumer, Fairfield Parlour on ‘Smalltown Adventures’.  Meanwhile the spindled, warm 60s sounding ‘Three Years’ (one of a few songs never before available until now on CD) finds Howard in Butch Cassidy Bacharach territory, and caught between Gilbert O’Sullivan and Sparks on the superhero caper ‘Comic Strip’

From Howard’s litany of ill-advised and realized re-launches, there was an awful sci-fi concept that saw him don a pastiche of Midge Ure and Gary Numan mimicry in an attempt to buck the trends of the early 80s. Thankfully there isn’t much from that period, only some good ideas turned into over-ripe, over-produced schmaltz for the disco and pop age. If we leap forward, we arguably find some of Howard’s best work is relatively more recent. Though fed up enough to jack it in (to a point) and turn A&R man during the 80s and 90s, Howard still continued to tickle the ivory and carry on recording: from 1989, there’s the inclusion of Howard’s love letter of support to his husband, ‘Neil (You Can Depend On Me)’; another over-produced 80s glitter of daytime Pebble Mill soft pop rock that could have been a missing hit for Cliff Richard; produced strangely enough by Acker Bilk!

Into another decade completely Cole Porter shares the keyboard with Rufus Wainwright, whilst a melody that strongly suggests CSN&Y’s ‘Our House’ and a ’68 period Kinks, on the 2005 recorded ‘The Dilemma Of The Homosapien’. We actually hear a proper poetic tinseled lyrical homage to Rufus on this compilation; one of a few that also includes Howard’s Broadway sign off sigh to the glam fated Jobriath; putting music and sagacious voice to Robert Cochrane’s lyrics on the 2006 curtain call malady ‘Stardust Falling’.

In a freer age, able to cast off the burdens (mostly) and prejudices that went some way to curtailing his career in the 70s, Howard is almost a rejuvenated character these days. The expectations of fame are now long gone: Howard is pretty much free to record when and however he likes; untethered to fashions and the industry. But with age comes the impossible to avoid rumminations and reflections on the past, of which there is much to wade through on this compilation. Offerings include many dedications to mum and dad, and the growing pained ‘Injuries Sustained In Surviving’, taken from the most recent album, To The Left Of The Moon’s Reflection. Considering the topics and travails of that number, the accompaniment and cadence has an air of a hearty Dylan-esque chiming breeze to it. From the album previous to that one, Cut The Wire, there’s the no less reflective Friends era Beach Boys missing diaphanous ‘lifetime of love’ ballad, ‘Becoming’.

Added to those are an abundance of songs collated from another ten albums and EPs and missives; some show tunes here, an unfinished track saved for posterity there; a borrowed Anthony Reynolds penned dreamy malady next to both of them. Personally though, I’d have liked to have seen something from Howard’s extraordinary long form experimental songbook, Across The Door Sill; if not only because its damn brilliant and full of descriptive, almost filmic, lyrics, but also because it shows an entirely different side to this talented assiduous artist’s storytelling skills and poised musicality. Saying that, it would sound admittedly a little incongruous to the rest of the collection’s soundtrack. I would have also loved to see Howard’s fantastic cover version of ‘The Bewlay Brothers’, which I rate amongst his best performances. It wasn’t to be: maybe on the next compilation.

We do have however a brilliant, refreshing and upbeat live performance of Howard and the band that led to the creatively successful Night Mail album collaboration. Howard and ensemble are captured at the Servant Jazz Quarter playing a Mike Scott meets Ian Hunter-esque bouncy and warm version of ‘Deadly Nightshade’. Again, ever the professional, yet loosened up and enjoying the whole thing, Howard happily sits alongside a younger generation of admirers with nothing to prove, just unadulterated joy.

An exhaustive, far-ranging compilation the first official ‘Best Of…’ will attract diehards and those still unacquainted with Howard’s back and future catalogue alike. It makes for a flourishing, rich songbook of his stage, cabaret, AOR, pop, rock and glam infused timeless craft. This is a celebration as much as declaration of fandom to an artist in their fifth flush of youth; the first real pause in creating, to look back at both what is and what could have been. The auguries are good for that future, with Howard showing no signs of stopping: if someone is willing to hear it, Howard is willing to play it.

A History Of John Howard On The Monolith Cocktail:

To The Left Of The Moon’s Reflection Album

Cut The Wire Album

From The Morning Album

It’s Not All Over Yet Single

Across The Door Sill Album

Incidents Crowded With Life Autobiography

Illusions Of Happiness Autobiography Volume 2

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.

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