Anatomy of the Comeback Kid

john_howard2Strange links result in strange confections.

As a fifteen year old, I remember seeing John Howard's Kid in a Big World in the racks of a local record shop in Northern Ireland. It must have a made a strong impression, because that rather pointless memory from 1975 remains embedded in my grey cells. The sleeve confused me. In those last-gasp days of glam and prog pretentiousness, I couldn't fathom why John Howard wanted to resemble a suburban bank clerk gazing out of a window in a derelict house. The suit he was wearing was the sort of thing my mother kept entombing me in on Sundays. I didn't buy it, though it was to crop up over the years in numerous dump bins until I succumbed, older eyes understanding the effete elements inherent in the sleeve's mannered conceit. Had Howard been allowed to use his original shots, clad in an orange Biba trouser suite with a matching fedora, and seated foppishly between two Afghan hounds, ambiguity wouldn't have been an issue. However, CBS executives went into meltdown over these images, declaring them disgusting and hurling them across the room. The more subdued shots were the formal compromise. CBS was not prepared to promote a cross between Oscar Wilde and Quentin Crisp. That loss was both ours and theirs.

The album turned out to be a polished, poised, and somewhat florid affair, Noel Coward getting fruit with Elton and Ziggy, but the element that flew beyond every reference point was Howard's astonishing panache, both vocally and as a pianist. Determined to find more, I eventually discovered some later singles, again on CBS, which rather curtailed my admiration. I would later come to realize that they were the product of a powerful label trying to manufacture a hit at the expense of an artist's true intentions.

A snippet in Uncut magazine revealed, to someone who had cared enough to ask, that Howard was alive, having drifted into A&R and then into playing piano in the lounges of cruise ships. It reminded me of the final days of someone I was in the process of disinterring from the past -- Bruce Wayne Campbell a.k.a. Jobriath -- who'd finished his days playing to diners and tourists in various Manhattan brunch eateries. Sometime after, the respected rock writer Nina Antonia, whose long journey of re-discovery around Brett Smiley, mirrored my own with Jobriath, asked if I'd heard of John Howard, and would I mind if he rang. He wanted to discuss the possibility of playing Manchester. This rather confused me. I'd always assumed he was a Southerner, but it emerged that he was from Lancashire. My own experience of putting on gigs was limited, usually linked to poetry events, but something was possible.

It was rather odd speaking to the person whose face had crept to the top of various piles of records over the years. He proved great fun, having a wide knowledge of, and fascination with, the detritus of pop. The promised copy of the forthcoming RPM reissue of Kid arrived, sporting bonus cuts that had languished unheard for over three decades. They brought a deeper perspective to the album. Many of them were stronger than those included in the final release. I was both astonished and a little saddened. Talent does take people to places where it usually abandons them like the kid in the album's title. In return, I sent John some of my poetry books.

Paul Lester at Uncut gave Kid a staggering review: "A magnificent collection of rococo balladry and florid vignettes from a singer/songwriter who might have rivaled Elton or Bowie. What a discovery!" For an album that had lain ignored for so long, it was a tremendously overdue but deserved accolade. What proved even more remarkable was the existence of two further albums, recorded for CBS but shelved because the label saw them as lacking commercial appeal. Part of John's contract with CBS stipulated that were he dropped, all his masters would be returned to him. They did, they were, and became dead dreams in the attic, but at least he had control over his musical legacy.

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To celebrate the success of Kid's rediscovery, RPM staged a concert by John at Jermyn Street Theatre in London on April 1, 2004. It was his first gig in the capital in almost three decades. In the audience at the wonderfully intimate venue were Lawrence from Felt, Peter Astor of the Weather Prophets, the poet Jeremy Reed, and NY Dolls biographer Nina Antonia. (John was actually present at the Dolls' legendary Biba gig in 1973.) It was like he'd never been away, and it was exhilarating to be present at a new beginning, especially one that two days later had a five star review in the Guardian by David Peschek.

RPM began working on releasing Technicolour Biography, his abandoned sequel to Kid In A Big World. When it appeared, Max Bell described it as "way beyond fashion, yet uncommonly chic."

As comebacks go, one couldn't have asked for more.

I'd sent John a lyric about Jobriath called "Stardust Falling," plus some of Jobriath's songs. I saw certain similarities in their equally truncated careers. They were bi-coastal contemporaries, and I felt that kinship wouldn't pass him by. It didn't, and the result was our first collaboration, a bittersweet ballad of subdued grandness, which has surfaced on the recently released album on Disques Eurovisions Same Bed Different Dream two years after it was recorded. It rather crept onto that record, like a latecomer to a party.

In the winter of 2004, John suggested setting several of my poems to his music. I was both flattered and concerned. They'd never been written with that purpose in mind. To change course, I began submitting lyrics to him like showers of rice. This man who had always turned out his own fabulously crafted lines generously responded by suggesting an album using my words. I was delighted. The most I'd anticipated was the occasional song that would appear amongst an album of his own. By the spring of 2005 we had The Dangerous Hours pressed and available. My misguided efforts to throw John off the scent of my poems thankfully hadn't been successful. "The Luxury of Rain," several short poems that he'd connected with a haunting piano setting, proved a perfect intro to the album. He'd also gone for the core of "The Thin Man," tribute to the bawdy Carry One series of films and especially Charles Hawtrey, the delightfully eccentric comedian referred to in the title. The final result, "What a Carry On" is a saucy seaside postcard set to music. Exquisitely English, it raises knowing smiles.

In a four-star review in the Guardian, Alexis Petridis wrote, "So obscure was singer/songwriter John Howard that his recent re-emergence seemed less like a comeback than an archaeological find." Howard's only album had vanished in 1975. Reissued to critical raves, its florid, glam piano balladry seemed more contemporary in the age of Rufus Wainwright than it must have done at the height of pub rock.

"Judging by this new collaboration with Morrissey-approved poet Robert Cochrane, the intervening years have done nothing to blunt the edge on Howard's songs. Nor have they dulled the flamboyance of his delivery; he is imperious on "Such a Drag," louche on "Dear Glitterheart," movingly bittersweet on "Death and the Bridesmaid Boy." Thirty years on, he still sounds astonishing -- a man making up for lost time with enviable panache."

After The Dangerous Hours was completed, Cherry Hill approached John with the idea of doing another album of new material. "As I Was Saying" resulted in him appearing on BBC Radio 4's Midweek. He was his usual engaging self, and it proved another stab in the great wall of indifference. For the new album, he decided to re-record "Dear Glitterheart," my stream-of-consciousness glam lyric from The Dangerous Hours. Although rather loopy, the song captured people's attention with its odd mix of pathos and defiance. There were guitars this time, pure Bowie 1973, thought the outcome remained Proust after an attack of glittering moths.

However, poverty can be the strange mistress of invention. Prolific to the point of overflowing, John was recently bemoaning the expense of funding another recording session and the faltering progress of things in general. "I worry that I've rather over-filled the cup with material since Kid in a Big World was reissued, but I have lot of time to make up for, and whilst songs are coming through, I want them out there for the people to hear."

The drip, drip progress towards greater recognition, rather than a wave of it, is both frustrating and disheartening. I vilely suggested a live album. "Of new material?" he queried, which is how In The Room Upstairs: John Howard Live at The Briton's Protection was born.

The Briton's Protection is a rare oasis surviving from Manchester's past, a Victorian pub of side rooms and corridors. The room upstairs can be hired, and has hosted astrology groups, political meetings, birthday parties, wakes, poetry readings, and rock gigs. Once a rallying point for the Hacienda crowd, it being a hundred yards round the corner, it retains a music-based core, mingling with the after-work brigade. Badly Drawn Boy can be found propping up the bar, favored hat on head, along with assorted members of Elbow and I Am Kloot. John did a residency there, third Saturday of February through to April 2005. It was candlelit. There were flowers, and the audience loved the intimacy. Back we came in May to record the live album of new songs, with June booked to cover any flaws.

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John Howard live is an unusual experience. He isn't just a singer/songwriter. Effortlessly English and charmingly effete, he's an old-fashioned entertainer. There is no geeky awkwardness, no embarrassing silences. His voice is timeless, that of a man twenty years his junior. Songs get introduced with touching and at times very funny anecdotes. He is deliciously self-deprecating, but the pleasure he takes from his craft is infectious. His hands glide across the keys with casual panache. By the end he is drenched in sweat and draped in applause. He deserves to play large halls, but given the route his career has taken, a room upstairs isn't a bad place to be for now. Having heard the rough mix of the recordings, the live album will translate the intimacy of these performances of entirely new songs to all those who couldn't be there.

There are now six John Howard albums available, three from the past and three from the present. Six in just over two years after none for thirty certainly shows what can be done with lost time. He remains a discreet but developing cult star. The Scissor Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, and El Presidente are his far-from-natural children of the failed revolution that took thirty years to finally succeed without sniggers.

In the '70s he was asked to be the lead singer of Iron Maiden. In the '80s, Bronski Beat. Thankfully he politely declined both of these gilded chances. He was himself then, and can return as such, not the victim of an extraordinary fifteen minutes of Warhol's prediction.

The kid in a big world has grown, but there remains a world of space yet to be claimed.

Strange links continue to result in strange confections. - Robert Cochrane

In the Room Upstairs will be released via Bad Pressings in March 2007.

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Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and is presently completing Gone Tomorrow, a biography of the rock singer Jobriath, which will appear via SAF in 2007.