Howard Jones at the BBC

‘Howard Jones at the BBC’ Looks at a Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man

Howard Jones at the BBC highlights the new wave and synthpop star’s early ascension and the role of BBC Radio in his discovery and development.

Howard Jones at the BBC
Howard Jones
Cherry Red Records
26 November 2021

The release of the five-disc set, Howard Jones at the BBC  by Cherry Red Records, provides a window into the development, discovery, and rise in popularity of one of the 1980s most popular new wave and synthpop practitioners. As such, it provides a slice of an oft-derided but particularly generative time in popular music.

Sandwiched between the 1970s—an era that saw the formation of the classic rock genre, the rise and fall of disco, and the emergence of punk—and the 1990s grunge explosion, the 1980s are occasionally dismissed as an era of style over substance. It’s where MTV’s influence in pop stardom seemed to underscore the theme of the 1989 Andre Agassi commercial for Canon that “Image is everything”. But the movement dubbed the “Second British Invasion” consisted of substance beyond the complex, artistic coiffures sported by Kajagoogoo, A Flock of Seagulls, and Howard Jones.

Music began to emerge from the UK driven by the versatility of the synthesizer and the rhythmic precision of drum machines as the era of new wave and synthpop dominated radio and television airwaves. One of the shining stars of the synthpop wave was Welsh singer, songwriter, and musician Howard Jones whose debut album, 1984’s Human’s Lib, entered the UK Album Charts in the no. 1 position, thus establishing Jones as one of the bright stars of the era.

This comprehensive set, newly released by Cherry Red Records, transports the listener to four years (1983-1987) that capture the emergence and early evolution of Jones as an artist and pop superstar. The five discs consist of three live performances Jones performed on the air for the Kid Jensen Show and the Janice Long Show on BBC 1 along with the original five-song demo recording initially rejected by DJ John Peel in 1982 and later broadcast by Kid Jensen in 1983, helping lead to Jones’ recording contract with Warner Music. The other performances in the collection are from live concerts in Aylesbury, the Royal Albert Hall, and the Manchester Apollo Theatre broadcast on BBC Radio 1. 

The set revisits what made Jones such a powerful presence in the new wave and synthpop movement: his adept talent at catchy hooks, the synthesizer-driven compositions, and quasi-philosophical lyrics capturing the ambivalent, uneasy hope of the era under Margaret Thatcher. The catchy “whoa whoa whoa” hook of “Things Can Only Get Better” is built on Jones’ youthful hope for a better tomorrow, mindful of the fear and uncertainty that accompany it. This is one of the insightful gifts of the collection. It gives us a glimpse into a particular mindset within youth culture grappling with the issues of coming of age in the 1980s amidst continued inequality and the specter of the nuclear threat in the Cold War era. 

For example, “What is Love?” functions as the anti-romantic love song, naming the uncertainty hidden by our romantic notions. “Does anybody love anybody anyway?” “Conditioning” and “New Song” highlight the young adult struggle with identity and conformity in conservative capitalist society. There is also the illumination of the deadly end game embodied in global politics. “Natural” poses the question, “Destruction of our enemy, does it make us right?” These and other lyrics are in conversation with sentiments of the time, like Sting’s 1985 question of whether the Russians loved their children too. The play of ambiguity and uncertainty in a delicate dance with a measured hope may illuminate part of the mainstream appeal of this body of work at the time.

Another strength of the collection is the colorful 16-page CD booklet that includes notes by Anil Prasad in conversation with Howard Jones. It is a look back at a fertile season for the artist and a historical marking of the importance of BBC Radio to aspiring pop artists during this time. The listener can track Jones’ artistic development and popular ascension through this collection.

The expansiveness of the set also holds its limitations. The five-disc collection contains 61 tracks total. Of those, 30 come from Jones’ stellar ten-track debut album, Human’s Lib. That guarantees a good deal of repetition over the set. While there are exciting developments within the work that can be tracked—the demo of “What is Love?” (originally titled “Love?”) is about a half-beat slower than the album version. It’s a change that maintains the ambiguous uncertainty of the tune while making it danceable. The technical and nuanced differences between repeated tracks isn’t dramatic enough to justify the repetition outside of historical fidelity to the original broadcasts.

Howard Jones at the BBC is an intriguing peek into the creative work of one of the 1980s synthpop giants. It offers a sampling of some of the genre’s finest examples, along with the lyrical strivings that embodied a certain hopeful ambiguity that resonated widely in and outside the UK. Its comprehensive sweep is limited to four years in Jones’ career, a time of fertile creativity but the limitations and repetition this brings may also limit the appeal of this set to hardcore Howard Jones fans and completists rather than serving as a gateway into his work. 

RATING 6 / 10
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