ALBUM REVIEW/Dominic Valvona

John Howard ‘LOOK! The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois’
(Kool Kat Musik) 11th March 2022

Depending on how you measure success of course, you could view John Howard’s career in two ways: the artistic kind (which is really the only one that counts at the end of the day) and the stardom kind. Failing in the later stakes after the damp squib that followed in the wake of the piano-player-songwriter’s 1975 debut on a major label, Kid In A Big World, John’s career hit the rocks; restricted on various occasions by a both idiotic and sympathetic cadre of managers, publicists, producers, labels and well-wishers. All to no avail.

However, through a myriad of anecdotal relayed projects (all written down by the raconteur troubadour, so far, in three volumes of entertaining autobiography) continued across the 70s and 80s, John had to wait until the noughties to finally pick and choose his projects, and to work with whom he wished: on his own terms. Arguably more successful and creatively on fire now than he ever was in the heady heydays of the 70s, he’s enjoying himself; able at last to bang out a concept album without the merest hint or resistance or scoff.

Personally, I’m still holding out for a sequel to the longform cerebral Across The Door Sill album from 2016, and a cover album of Beach Boys maladies, but until then, here’s John’s latest opus; arriving off the back of a rich prolific run of records.

Although billed as a musical concept songbook based on the fictional transgender character Daniel Wood, later to transition into the Paris cause célèbre Danielle Du Bois, LOOK! The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois is a barely veiled sympathetic magnum opus to the late April Ashley. Perhaps amongst the first men to go through sex reassignment surgery at a time when it was so taboo that you had to fly out to a clinic in Casablanca, April’s own life story mirrors that of John’s fictional creation. But I also detect something of, parallels with, John’s own story of escape and search for identity; only allowed to live out his true homosexual spirit when moving away from home to London, where he thrived.

And so, this is a story of identity, rebirth and the lengths someone is willing to go to accomplish their dreams; to transition and discard a previous life, even if it comes back to haunt them: which it does. However, the projection of Daniel Wood is different to that inspired biography, with the boy wonder, despite various travails, a bullying WWII veteran father and a puzzled mother, making it big in the burgeoning music scene of the late 50s and early 60s. With his hit carousel and theatrical harpsichord furnished ‘Every Day A New Adventure’ wowing both national and international audiences alike, the bucks and offers come flooding in. There’s even talk of a Hollywood movie biopic. But Daniel’s journey ends here, as Danielle’s begins: the young pop star leaving it all behind, bound for that reassignment appointment at an exclusive clinic in Paris.

As Daniel is left behind to be dredged back up as a “whatever happened to?” salacious redtop exposé decades later, a new belle hot foots it around the Paris cabaret circuit, struts it out in style through the salons of the exclusive bohemian and arts set; later adored as a sensation and heroine of the LGBT plus community. In another age, able to live as they always wanted, the final deathbed dream sequence reimagines, in theatrical staged pomp, the school daze that never were; played out to a camp rock ‘n’ roll and glam musical accompaniment, a dying, fulfilled Danielle is whisked away by guardian angels to a fantastical classroom of the 1950s to perform an upbeat cast number as the woman she always knew she was.

Despite being of the times and almost overtly on-trend, this album feels like unfinished business; more the ambitious follow-up to Kid In A Big World then a follow-on from his recent catalogue. Musically too, this seems a 70s conceptual piece – not that there’s anything wrong with that – with shades of early Elton & Bernie, Gilbert O’ Sullivan, Bruce Johnston, pre-disco Bee Gees and even a tint of Russell Meal vocally.

In the linear story’s feather boa panache and garish swished parades through the French capital (and even namechecked alongside a soiree of French stars that includes Brigitte Bardot, Gainsbourg and references to the intelligencer: see Jean Genet) there’s a decadent air of Charles Aznavour. And although of course musically at opposite ends, there’s The Who’s Tommy mirror symbolism (both to gaze into but ultimately smash) going on, and the bookend framing of an overture and a reprise. ‘Last Night He Woke Up Screaming’ is the overture of a kind, moving through a slightly ominous nursey rhyme, a sorrowful church organ service, and a lushly swooned backstory; the reprise, ‘A Place In Time (After-ture)’ repeats that dissonant lullaby whilst revisiting musical passages, refrains and touching melodies from the entire album.

John does however evoke a more contemporary Rufus Wainwright on songs like the descriptive left banke accordion wafted goodbye plaintive ‘Good Day Daniel’, and on the cabaret celebration in the face of mortality and aging ‘Still Gorgeous’: a raunchy anthem that ‘brings down the house’.     

Filled with brocade and gilded sentiment, chamber orchestrated swells and stage musicals, LOOK! The Unknown Story Of Danielle Du Bois shows a full gamut of variety; a showcase for John’s musicianship, arranging skills and song writing. A perfumed, lush songbook fit for the stage, John’s homage to his late friend shines a sympathetic light on not just April’s travails but those transgender trailblazers (and I’d put the late Jan Morris in that list) that struggled, and still do, to lead the life they should without recrimination and prejudice. All very platitude inducing, but correct nonetheless. John Howard once more has that magic touch, seemingly in his elements, the sagacious polymath enriching us all with his best work five decades on from his initial break. Not many artists can do that.

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