Despite his estimable legacy as a performer and multi-instrumentalist, Howard Jones had faced opposition to his tech-heavy sound. “The musician’s union tried to have me banned,” the singer reported to Houston Public Media’s Michael Hagerty. “They said I was taking jobs away from musicians.” This is an interesting charge, especially given the current strikes in Hollywood over the use of technology in entertainment.
Though actors and writers are struggling with the advancement of technology, pop music has embraced it for years, ever since the pioneering work of Isao Tomita, Giorgio Moroder, and Wendy Carlos. The synthesizer became ubiquitous in the late 1970s and 1980s as dance music grew from disco and new wave into the New Romantic movement and dance-pop, as well as house, electronica, and techno. Howard Jones made a significant impact during the neon-lit 1980s, becoming one of the central figures of the Second British Invasion.
Between 1983 and 2023, Howard Jones scored ten top 40 UK hits and nine top 40 US hits. His first record, 1984’s Human’s Lib, reached number one on the UK album charts, and his sophomore release, 1985’s Dream into Action, reached the US top ten, selling over a million copies. Though some of his LPs are considered classics, his most significant impact would be a singles act on pop and dance radio. A great ambassador of 1980s MTV pop, he’s a pioneer who has also been able to let his music grow, pivoting into electropop, house-pop, and dance music after his salad days. A compilation is the best way to appreciate Jones’ considerable gifts.
So, we arrive at Celebrate Together: The Very Best of Howard Jones 1983-2023, a dizzying compilation that features over 60 tracks, including his radio hits, remixes, and live versions, as well as his more esoteric dance work from the 2000s. Celebrate Together isn’t Jones’ first compilation – there are several remix albums and greatest-hits collections – but the set is notable because not only does it look to his hit days (dividing his singles into four categories: the radio pop singles, his ballads, his dance work, and some obscure curios), but Jones participates in gathering together his work. Along with the memorable hits that scream “1980s!” Jones also cherry-picks some tracks from some of his later-day singles, which shows fantastic growth for the artist.
When reviewing Celebrate It Together, we see several sides of Jones’ musical persona, which should not be reduced to the synth-heavy pop artist of the 1980s. Because Jones had a hand in anthologizing his work, we’re getting a fantastic overview, predictably dominated by his hit-making days, which provides a nostalgic look at the New Romantic movement. Jones rose above the crowd due to his uncanny knack for pop songwriting and his light, soulful tenor. Including some of the more obscure tracks on the compilation and his recent work shows that he shouldn’t be tied to the 1980s.
Pop in the 1980s was a fascinating moment. It was a flamboyant time, with artists playing with gender and fashion, with the men wearing more makeup and hair lacquer than the women. The clothing was over-the-top and gaudy, with shimmery fabrics and linebacker shoulder pads. The aesthetics were flashy, ridiculous, and ostentatious. When watching Top of the Pops or MTV, it would be easy to assume that the decade was a nonstop carousel ride. However, this pop showiness scored a politically anxious time led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who championed rugged individualism, nationalism, and steely consumerism.
Jones’ dominance as a performer came out of this swirling contradiction. His first single, “New Song”, perfectly introduces Howard Jones, the artist. A twirling, bubbly synthpop number with a funky beat, “New Song” is Jones’ self-described “manifesto” in which he captures the DIY ethos of many New Romantic and New Wave artists. Referencing his performing roots in clubs, Jones bounces through “New Song”, celebrating being young and chasing fame and fortune. The other important part of “New Song”, specifically the production, is its affection and debt to Black pop music. Throughout Jones’ career, he would look to soul-pop and urban pop, like most New Romantic singers. Like his peers George Michael and Boy George, his singing would also bear the influences of Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and Eddie Kendricks.
Running through Jones’ biggest hits, it’s easy to see why he was able to amass such an impressive run of singles in the US and the UK. He was responsible for some of the most indelible moments of 1980s pop radio at his peak. His work during this period is joyfully extravagant, embracing the decade’s musical excesses. The horn-filled Motown-esque stomper “Things Can Only Get Better” is blue-eyed Tamla-pop at its catchiest. “No One Is to Blame” is a syrupy synth-ballad that features Jones’ most soulful, gospel-like vocals. (American soul fan Phil Collins took on production duties on “No One Is to Blame”, which explains its soulful tone.) On “Everlasting Love”, Jones teams up with another 1980s peer, Ian Stanley of Tears for Fears, to release a mid-tempo, bass-heavy dance number that pointed to a slight shift in his sound, as its 1989 release pointed to a new decade, which would require a sonic makeover.
As the consummate dance-pop musician, Jones gets the escapist power of dance music. The dance floor is where people forget their troubles and give in to the physical and emotional release that a great dance-pop song provides. In “Life in One Day”, Jones plays a pop-pied piper, leading his listeners by the hand to a great party. “The old man said to me,” Jones trills fruitily over Rupert Hines’ busy production, “don’t always take life so seriously…try and enjoy the here and now / The future will take care of itself somehow.” The positive message of “Life in One Day” urges us to stop and enjoy the revelry instead of rushing through life. “Don’t try to live your life in one day,” he advises. “Don’t go speed your time away.” Like Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” or “Dancing on the Ceiling”, Jones’ “Life in One Day” is an exuberant call to action: dance and have fun. Over 35 years later, he released the pulsing disco-pop “Celebrate It Together”, which recalls the themes of “Life in One Day”, affirming the power of disco and celebrating dance music.
The ingenious way Celebrate It Together is structured means that listeners can appreciate Jones’ various gifts. Though dance and electropop dominate, the “Chill” disc proves that the singer-songwriter is just as effective on slower numbers. On the final CD, “Curiosities”, Jones unveils more esoteric material. These songs represent Jones’ attempts at stretching as an artist and songwriter. Though not an overtly political artist like Bono or Bob Geldof, he did appear at Live Aid in 1985. Still, he largely eschewed topical issues in his music, which makes a curio like “Cookin’ in the Kitchen” such a fascinating track. Instead of the glossy dance-pop of his 1980s music, the 1993 track from his Working in the Backroom album is a sinewy soul track with deep, rumbling bass and jazzy trip-hop flecks; the lyrics take on urban blight, homelessness, racism, and hate crimes.
Celebrate It Together predictably loses some steam once we leave the heady times of the 1980s and embark on the 1990s and beyond, during which Jones was adapting to the changes in musical taste and an aging audience. These changes don’t mean that the music of the last 20 to 25 years isn’t good, but it doesn’t have the same cultural or aesthetic impact as the 1980s hits. Still, some remarkable gems sprinkled in the 2000s recall Jones at his MTV peak. For example, the driving electro-house of “Revolution of the Heart” from 2005 is a euphoric club banger. “The Human Touch” from his 2015 Engage is an urgent, sleek EDM number that is propulsive and exciting. The excellence of these later-day tunes shows that Howard Jones wasn’t just a trendy pop warbler but a gifted singer-songwriter who understood the craft behind the perfect pop song better than most.