Our Daily Bread 536 : John Howard ‘In The Eyeline Of Furtherance’

August 12, 2022

BOOK REVIEW
DOMINIC VALVONA

John Howard ‘In The Eyeline Of Furtherance’
(Fisher King Publishing)

Correlating more or less with the singer-songwriter John Howard’s relatively un-chronicled decades, from the 70s to the dawn of a new millennium, the third and final (though there is room for a fourth volume to chart, what is perhaps, Howard’s most prolific period) autobiography covers an illuminating time spent navigating the corporate shit show of A&R and licensing in the music industry’s MOR departments.

After an almost meteoric rise to fame off the back of his accomplished piano-driven Kid In A Big World songbook in 1975, it soon became apparent, as the first honest account in this series Incidents Crowded With Life documents, that the adulation and glitter would quickly fade. Though never written-off as such Howard was, like a magnitude of artists before him and ever since, continuously hampered and screwed-over; the records ever far and few between as time went on.

The next “big thing” at one point Howard’s real troubles began after a life-changing accident in 1976. In an attempt to escape the mad raging clutches of his Pilipino house mates bit of rough (a violent maniacal Russian sailor as it turned out), Howard jumped from a flat window, breaking his back in the process. Despite this horrific chapter there was still the CBS contract, recording at the fabled Abbey Road studios, the theme song to a Peter Fonda movie and countless promises to lift the mood. But by the end of the 70s and early 80s the music career had all but stalled, with only brief flashes of ill-advised makeovers and one-off songwriting projects. Book two in this life story, Illusions Of Happiness picked up that period, documenting a post recovery Howard on the cusp of a new decade and mounting a comeback. Again, even with such future big names as Trevor Horn and Steve Levine in his corner, nothing really took off. Frustrated by various ill-thought out and misplaced marketing ploys Howard gallivanted to a soundtrack of synthesised Eurovision pop and overproduced easy listening balladry.

Volume three finds a not so much disillusioned Howard as a waning artist making the most of it; playing the cards dealt, moving from front stage to a role behind the scenes in music licensing. Making perfect sense really, keeping a hand in the game so to speak, Howard began this career change of a sort at Pickwick Records in 1986. As it turns out, even this corner of the industry is riven by egos and petty one-upmanship, bitter jealousies. And so there’s a number of “jump ships”, with stints at MCA and Readers Digest to follow. Sorry tales of bad bosses and greed follow as In The Eyeline Of Furtherance fills in the blanks of a decade in which Howard really swam against the tide of the bean-counting petty executives in charge. Even when successful (and Howard was constantly that) his actions would rile whoever was in charge it seems.       

Incognito, the heady and potential brilliance of a creative career all but hidden, Howard takes all the shit that’s thrown at him with a smile: such is life and all that. For what soon becomes apparent is that the travails, knocks haven’t diminished that wry humour and ear for a good anecdote or two; this third book almost like a warm, inviting chat then linear history.

As he is in life, on record, Howard proves a sweet, open and wise companion on a journey bookended by successful (creatively speaking) periods of songwriting. But it’s the bit in the middle that’s regaled here.

What on paper might not exactly seem the most star-studded, glittering or exactly “with-it” of times in the music business, there is however a lot of famous or once-famous names to whet the appetite. Semi-success and what ifs litter the book as Howard attempts to reinvigorate back catalogues and reinvent former stars, setting up a myriad of new recording sessions on the way; the budget always a problem, and the negotiations always needing Howard’s disarming and candid manner, his ability to douse the flames of drama, and sensitivity. That list includes Connie Francis, Lonnie Donegon, Bert Weedon, Buddy Holly’s surviving Crickets, Dusty Springfield, Elkie Brookes and Des O’Conner. Personally of interest to me, with a massive Beach Boys crush, is Howard’s brief L.A. run-in with Bruce Johnston. Anyone who can write both the wistful ‘Disney Girls’ and heart-wrenching ‘Tears In The morning’ is a gifted genius in my books. A chance meeting, pleasantries exchanged, and it’s all over in just a paragraph, but coincidently enough, Doris Day would record her own distinctive version of Johnston’s McCarthy age of innocence lament, ‘Disney Girls’. And in time, we read of Howard’s attempts to try and coax the grand dame into recording a new album in the 80s. I’ve tried myself to prompt Howard to cover some of the more doleful, tearjerker Beach Boys moments – the deeper cuts too. Although Howard did record a pre-Johnston period Pet Sounds spell of magic, ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’, for his own solo album in the 90s – more of that later. Day never did record that album though, but did hand over an astonishing vault of previously left dormant recordings that proved just as fruitful.

There’s a rather less fortunate (in hindsight) run-in with Gary Glitter however. The yet to be exposed sex-offender and former glam titan was on the comeback trial again (again!). And yes, he is a pompous creep and as self-deluded as you’d expect. I have to feel sorry for the poor idiot who brought Glitter’s back catalogue, for what he believed was a bargain (the millions still), only for the story of Glitter’s pedophile offences to break days later in all the national papers.

During this stint Howard’s former life as a rising star is uncovered after he’s corralled into one of the office bands; little knowing just what a talent they had in their midst. That is until Howard opens his mouth, dust’s off the valves. A long story short Howard is gently pushed into the studio. The results, his first solo album in a long while; a songbook of covers that includes standards by Lou Reed, K.D. Lang, and a version of George Harrison’s ‘Something’ from the perspective of a gay man: “Something in the way ‘he’ moves….”

The music, important as it is, counts as just half the story. For like previous volumes in this saga, In The Eyeline Of Furtherance also tells the story of gay life in Britain. That’s its liberation, the AIDS crisis and the prejudice that comes with it. A series of friends we met in previous books pass away in one especially candid but sensitively handled chapter; Howard chronicling tiny biography style, part obituary, paragraphs on the deaths from the epidemic in his close circle. Obviously tragic, and painful, it proves a poignant and timely focus on the damage done, the loss of a gay generation to an apocalyptic, doomsday disease. Howard does also write about the advancement in medication and the lifting of the AIDS stigma, and so there is a reasonably positive future outlined too.

We also find our narrator stalked by his obsessive, violent ex, Bayliss; going as far as to even beat up Howard’s friends to get at him. From following Howard in the street, outside his haunts and even pestering him at work, the escalation becomes increasingly dangerous. In a most self-deluded, creepy and outright crazy way, this is all to get Howard back. Sensibly of course, our narrator has a new man in his life: a life partner in fact. Neil the stage actor of some modest repute becomes a confidante, lover and, eventually, Howard’s husband. The road to happiness didn’t exactly start out well, the pair, initially, meeting in a rather seedy, sticky-floored backstreet emporium of illicit sex. But I won’t spoil that particular eye-opening hook-up.

Unfortunately we are witness to the detrition and eventual passing of Howard’s father, in what are some of the most revealing passages in the book. A strong figure of old is reduced to the controlling and outright hostile prejudices of a second wife; either totally unaware of her racism and homophobia, or a particular bitter character. Though these days cuddled in “trigger warnings”, Howard takes such things more in his stride, whilst clearly and without bearing his own prejudices, calls out such acts of verbal and aggressive vitriol.  

Having enough of the whole sorry A&R business after losing his job at Readers Digest in the late 90s, the book’s opening paragraph begins at the end of this cycle, with Howard and Neil sunning it up poolside abroad: the G & T’s poured and lubricating a sense of relief but satisfaction and optimism about the future.

Howard is at peace with himself, with little left to prove: or even the need. Yet the next twenty years, right up to the very present, would prove to be his most prolific period; a revival turn recording career unburdened by labels or management interference. In fact there’s even a new album, a long-form one-track album at that, waiting in the wings to drop.

Howard’s life will for many, only have existed, or started, since the noughties. But this third volume will remedy that, showing a whole other life, a whole other side. Full of experiences, from the thoroughly unmodernised corridors of music licensing and management in the executive power-grabs of the late 80s and 90s to the period when Howard turned “Muscle Mary” and pumped iron – going from his delicate whip of a frame to full-on 15 stone plus Charles Atlas, scaring many of his circle of friends in the process, such was the transformation  -, everything that happened in that decade plus arc shaped him into a rather sagacious and adroit artist. Whilst that initial stardom faded quite quickly, Howard’s alternative pathway still led to a creatively successful career; maybe a trip round the houses but he got to an enviable position in the end; on his own terms, making the music he wants, whenever and however he wants, and always finding an willing audience. This latest volume should be, if anything, a testament to staying power, and also a guide to surviving the business without necessarily playing its games or beholden to it. New artists, musicians could learn a lot.     

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 I love across genres from around the world that I think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and I and the blog only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy the 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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