The British synthpop musician Howard Jones recently experienced a surreal moment—perhaos one of many in his long career—during a tour stop in the States. It occurred when he and his wife Jan visited a home improvement store to buy little bags to hang in their bunks on their tour bus. While inside the store, he heard a familiar tune playing on the sound system.
“So we went into Home Depot and just stepped in,” he recalls during his day off from the tour, “and “No One Is to Blame” comes on. And it’s happened to me so many times. It’s weird because you go, ‘Shall I start singing along with it? Or shall I stop people and say do you know this is me singing this music here?’ (laughs). Then if you start singing along with it and dancing around, I expect the security guards would come along and just chuck you out.”
“No One Is to Blame” is one of the keyboardist’s beloved and popular tunes alongside many others like “New Song,” “Things Can Only Get Better,” “What Is Love,” and “Everlasting Love.” That song has been a mainstay of his setlist, including for his current tour with Culture Club and Berlin—all of whom have been giving American audiences a blast of ’80s feels this past month.
“I’ve been working towards going back to playing the sheds for quite a while,” Jones says of his involvement in this multi-act tour. “I’ve done lots of touring in the States, playing smaller places and theaters. I just felt it was really time for us to move up to the sheds and the outdoor amphitheaters because they’re kind of my favorite gigs to play here in the States. And so it finally happened and it’s great to be invited by Culture Club to be on the tour. I think it’s a fantastic lineup.”
Jones had previously toured with Culture Club back in 1998 when the Boy George-led group reunited after more than 10 years apart. “I’ve met George quite a lot since at various things, festivals and charity shows we’ve both been on the bill. I’ve probably met him more than most other ‘80s pop stars. So we definitely have a connection.”
2023 is a special year for Jones not just because he’s touring the States this summer—it’s the 40th anniversary of “New Song,” his debut single that started everything for his career. “It was a new regime at Warner Brothers,” he recalls. “It was Paul Conroy, Rob Dickins and Max Hole, and they were freshly embedded in the company, and they wanted to sign me. And so I was one of their first signings. So it meant a lot to them for it all to go well. And obviously it meant a lot to me as well.
“We released the first single, it comes into the chart, like 107 or something. It took three months to get to number three. So it was scary at every moment, you know, climbing up the chart, but finally got there. And so I’ll always remember that.”
Compared to his fellow British synthpop peers whose songs tended to be detached and nihilistic, Jones’ humanistic and personal lyrics, recall the traditional singer-songwriter approach from the 1970s. Aside from its ebullient melody and state-of-the-art synth sound at the time, “New Song” was lyrically Jones’ manifesto, and it feels relatable today as it did four decades ago.
“It was, “Don’t be fool by what you see/ Don’t be fooled by what you hear,’” he says of some of the lyrics from the song. “And I was singing that last night [at a show in Florida] and thinking that’s even more relevant to this day than it was then, because we have to really question everything. We hear every story, and, even when people A.I. can manufacture a person saying things they didn’t say and all this stuff that we never would’ve even dreamt of back then. So it’s amazing that those two lines really are resonating with me again.”
“New Song” later appeared on Jones’ first full-length studio album, 1984’s Human’s Lib, which was produced by the late Rupert Hine, who would go on to work on several of Jones’ subsequent records. It contained Jones’ second hit single, the haunting What Is Love. “I’d done demos of it and I worked with OMD’s producer on an early demo. And he said to me, ‘You need an intro for this,’ which is interesting. I thought, ‘Well that’s a really good idea. So I wrote the sort of fanfare intro. Which, when you think about it, it’s very influenced by Keith [Emerson]. So it became a big, a big hook. New Song was just going up the charts and I was doing TV for it and everything. And at the same time, we were recording “What Is Love” as the second single in the studio with Rupert. So incredible excitement was going on because we knew they would give the second single a really good chance.”
Jones was one of many U.K. acts who landed on the U.S. charts during the first half of the ‘80s as he saw his songs begin appearing on American radio and MTV. “It was one of my absolute aims to do well in America, because I’d lived in Canada when I was a kid. So I was really influenced by all the American music coming out as a kid and hearing British music as well. So I got both influences. So we did a lot of touring, all the small clubs all around America, and went to see as many radio stations as you could possibly see and really put the man hours to try to make it work. And, you know, even those first two singles did pretty well. They got into the top 30, which was fantastic for a new artist. But we did have MTV on our side because the parochial videos we made in London and then Paris really meant something to the MTV audience.”
The year 1985 was a very eventful one for Jones as he performed the song “Hide and Seek” at the all-star Live Aid benefit concert, which was televised to a global audience. He also released his second album, Dream Into Action, which further extended his streak of hit singles like “Things Can Only Get Better,” “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “Life in One Day.” “That was back in the studio with Rupert and Steve [Tayler, engineer]. We were on a high because Human’s Lib had done so well and there’s a huge momentum. The only thing is that I didn’t have any songs after the first album. So I was frantically writing when I was on the road and “Things” was one of the songs I wrote on the road. And I had a little, recording setup for me in every dressing room I was in. I used to do little demos and come onto the bus and play it to the band and see what they thought.
“But I think also because we were playing these huge gigs and there was so much energy at the gigs, I thought, you know, that energy came into the writing. Sometimes when you sit at home writing songs on your own, it’s a bit more sort of introspective and reflective. Whereas I’m writing in the middle of the storm, doing a gig in front of thousands of people every night. So that energy went into that album and, and certainly that song “Things.””
Jones scored another and perhaps his most popular U.S. hit with the aforementioned “No One Is to Blame.” It originally appeared on Dream Into Action and then was later rerecorded for the 1986 Action Replay EP and co-produced by Phil Collins, who also played drums and sang backing vocals on it. At the time, Jones felt the track had the potential of being a big radio song. “But the version that we’d done on Dream Into Action wasn’t going to be the version that would do that,” he says. “So I’d met Phil, because I’d worked with him on the Prince’s Trust concerts in London. So we sent him the song and he loved the song and we got on really well. So in two weekends, we recorded it at Genesis’ studio. And I had my backing singers that I’d been using, Afrodiziak, that I’d been on tour with. So they added their brilliant texture to the thing. It turned out really well.”
Over the next couple of albums, Jones’s music has acoustic piano and mature sophisticated singer-songwriter, particularly 1992’s underrated In the Running, with the notable songs “Lift Me Up,” “Tears to Tell” and “Two Souls.” “I worked with [producer] Ross Cullum on that, who I’d worked with doing “Everlasting Love” and “The Prisoner” [from the 1989 album Cross That Line]. I was so into Don Henley at the time and his writing and the mood of his work. I think there’s a bit of that influence in there. And we even came to L.A. and worked with some of the people who worked on his record.
“Each record has been quite different for me because I’m always wanting to try something new and experiment and see where I can go with different styles and genres but all sort of based around songs really. And then my friend Bob Clearmountain mixed it as well, so it’s got that fabulous mix that he did for us in London. I was really pleased with that record. When you look back, you go, “I’m very proud of it, even though it didn’t reach the audience that I thought it might.”
Even as his music evolved, Jones never abandoned the synthpop sound that put him on the map early in his career. Since 2015, he has released a trilogy of albums — Engage, Transform, and last year’s Dialogue — that harkened back to his early electronic music roots while pointing ahead to the future. Additionally, he has another new album in the works. Meanwhile, a career-spanning compilation, Celebrate It Together: The Very Best Of Howard Jones 1983-2023, is due out this October to mark Jones’ 40 years as a recording artist.
“Well, I find it increasingly difficult to motivate myself to make new records because it takes me so long and there’s so much effort goes in,” he explains. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, I know my great super fans want me to do it, but I need to sort of get some motivation from someone.’ So I decided I would commit to doing four albums over the decade. And I named them and I said, ‘This is what they’re gonna be called.’ It was a way for me to fulfill my promise to the fans. And it’s worked so far. I’ve got one more to do, which I think I’ll do next year.”
‘The Letting It Go Show’ tour with Culture Club featuring Howard Jones and Berlin continues through August 20.