Autobiography Review/Dominic Valvona

John Howard ‘‘Illusions Of Happiness’
(Fisher King Publishing) 7th August 2020/510p

The fickle nature of the music industry is of course well-documented in countless embittered and lamentable autobiographies, but you have to feel for the ever candid piano singer, songwriter John Howard who’s second volume of memoirs lays out a repetitive travail of ill advised artistic (re)launches and knockbacks.

We last left the half glass full kind of artist-turn-A&R man-turn-artist-again Howard dejected after the failure of his inaugural solo songbook, Kid In A Big World, in the mid 70s. Signed to CBS Records with an enviable shot at the big time, the critically favoured adroit album should have made him a star. Unfortunately it wasn’t meant to be. In a recurring pattern that the author details throughout his previous, and this latest, volume in those memoirs, the haphazard misjudgments and mishandling by others and a lack of radio play ruined what should have been a gilded ascent in the recording business. CBS for their part (another recurring partner in the Howard story) would unceremoniously drop their burgeoning artist the following just a year later; more or less clueless with what to do with him.

The personal encounters of a formerly suppressed Catholic living in post-war austere Lancashire, escaping a life in the priesthood to fill his boots in gay London, was another of the recurring themes in that inaugural volume of plagued-with-bad-luck stories, Incidents Crowded With Life. It ended with Howard waking up in hospital with a broken back after leaping to safety (or he thought) from the flat he shared with a bevy of illegal Filipinos (living in London after escaping the Marcos regime); escaping his flat mate’s rough trade Russian sailor turn raving blood thirsty robbing manic. Though the author is not one to dwell or lament, this incident would be life changing both physically and mentally. The second volume of what will be a trio of such autobiographical legacies, the sadly entitled Illusions Of Happiness picks up Howard recovering from his injuries, laid-up in a hospital bed. A cast of drop-in visitors however adds some light relief to what is essentially a most traumatic chapter: From one of many gay sharp tongues, “You look like Aubrey Beardsley on heroin.”

In and out of consciousness, recuperating and dreaming of his parents whilst taking on all the legalities of chasing after a compensation claim without dropping his Filipino friends in the shit, this chronological (for the most part) memoir follows a broken, rejected talent clawing his way back, yet eventually finding solace and content, not as a solo artist, but as an A&R man. By the end of this book, the sometime vocalist and songwriter is not only working his way through discount specialist labels and cottage industry reissue, re-licensing specialists but contentedly single, having given the eventual elbow to his forever young and continuously unfaithful Canadian partner Bayliss.

Despite the CBS debacle, Howard persuade a music career throughout; often meeting by chance acquaintances and by design a burgeoning Trevor Horn and Steve Levine, amongst others. Countless tracks are cut, promises made but plagued by the convoluted and scheming nature of the industry, nothing ever quite pays off. Looking like a cross between a Biba fop and Diane Keaton from Annie Hall in the mid 70s, Howard goes through a number of style changes in pursuit of striking the right chord with the record buying public and hitting the trends. In one such transformation, Howard is pushed towards donning a knock-off version of Gary Numan’s visitor-from-the-future look when he tried to launch his space oddity sci-fi musical concept, Cal Mylar. This is when things get insane, as a quasi-Ziggy Stardust, quasi-Superman and his mortal alter ego Clark Kent themed concept grows legs and runs and runs; taking in a host of producers, agents and labels in its wake. Still, songs from the project spring up and are reconstructed and released to no avail.

Despite not taking off, Howard works with various producers, musicians and songwriting partners in the years covered by this book, and quality wise, conjures up some memorable songs. One of which, ‘Don’t Shine Your Light’ even makes in into the Eurovision list of potential entries: reaching multiple stages but losing out in the end to some forgettable dross.

Pushed and pulled in all directions by a host of labels; promised so much but constantly let down, Howard finds himself heckled by the new Turks (the Sex Pistols) whilst playing his pianist lounge set at a pre-New Romantics Blitz, working (badly) the counter at an upmarket deli, laying down guide vocals for artists far less talented, and even taking on the role (again, badly) as a photocopier at a corporate enterprise; all to keep the proverbial roof over his head as he awaits that lucky record deal. Along the way the fleeting and ridiculous nature of the music business is laid bare as the troubadour is wined and dined, or invited to hobnob with bigwigs and the recording stars (at one point surreally invited to lunch with Cliff Richard and a strange entourage of 70s faces).


Not just a musical autobiography, Illusions includes all the salacious details of Howard’s personal life, his lovers, partners and vivid accounts of the gay scene in late 70s and early 80s London. This is often handled with a wry, sometimes dark, humour; especially when Howard and his boe with another friend book a stay at a gay nightmare of Fawlty Towers B&B in Manchester: S&M, an attempted suicide and the bursting in of a strangely nonplussed police making for a sadly dark comedy of errors. But the ominous specter of the AIDS crisis is never far away as the 80s sections of this book get going. Especially as friends, housemates and peers start contracting it. Howard dodged that bullet thank god, yet is nevertheless verbally attacked in the street for deigning to be an easy and obvious target of ignorance and prejudice: it is also the only real time Howard has come across such hostility towards his sexuality before.

On the upside, Howard is asked to sit for a masterfully painted portrait (the relaxed sitter pose that adorns this book cover) by Paul Brasson , which ends up hanging in the National Gallery, and finds a carefree existence of bliss on the gay mecca of Mykonos: a veritable oasis in which Howard will return to throughout the decade covered in this book. All life’s major landmarks and hurdles are paraded throughout a story about essentially taking the knocks and finding solace. Howard still only in his early thirties by the end of this second volume is already quite sagacious after packing in a lifetime of drama.


A tale of compromise, in which the heart sinks as another chapter heading indicates a set back in his recording career, and always within touching distance of making the big time with a catalogue of “what ifs” (from working with both a pre-Buggles Horn and pre-Culture Club Levine), Howard is surprisingly far from bitter or despondent by the journey’s end. In fact, by the end of this volume he’s found a job as an executive at Pickwick and moving into a new home; coming full circle as we find him picking out furniture for this abode.

As to that Sex Pistols anecdote, Howard, with more than a little Noel Coward wit and reading his audience well, tames the yobbish adolescents with a medley of T-Rex classics that leaves the punks raving in the aisles wanting more. Though he leaves us on a ruminating if poignant chapter, unlucky in love but finally finding financial security, Howard has a lot more to entertain and share with us yet.

Related posts from the ARCHIVES:

John Howard ‘Incidents Crowded With Life’

John Howard ‘To The Left Of The Moon’s Reflection’

John Howard ‘Cut The Wire’

John Howard ‘Across The Door Sill’

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