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After 35 years, Howard Jones still wants to sing a "New Song"
Howard Jones released his first single, “New Song,” 35 years ago.
And it was something new indeed.
Bubbly and brimming with optimism, “New Song” was part of a wave of pop music dominated by synthesizers and other new electronic technologies. It was the launch pad for a series of ’80s hits from Jones — including “Things Can Only Get Better,” “Life In One Day” and “No One Is To Blame” with Phil Collins — which established the British artist as a vanguard personality during MTV’s ascendant era.
“I’ve always thought I’m primarily a songwriter, and I like to dress that up in lots of different ways,” the 63-year-old Jones says by phone. He’s in the midst of a The Songs And The Stories tour, playing stripped-down versions of his material. “It would have been simpler to just have a kind of normal rock band lineup and do my music like that, but I was keen to use the technology of the day. I was always into technology and keyboards and synthesizers and those were the instruments that were just emerging.
“So I thought, ‘Nobody’s ever really worked with these instruments before. This is the most exciting thing to do. This is the cutting edge of music’ — at that time. So that’s what really excited me, to do something different. I’ve always tried to keep that edge as I go forward.”
Stepping out like that did have its perils, of course. “Countless times things would go wrong, mainly live,” recalls Jones, who studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England, before launching his recording career. “Nobody had really taken those instruments out live to play with them, so we had to resolve all the issues.” Particularly challenging was a lack of memory programs in the old gear, which meant Jones had to make chalk marks on his controls and change them in between songs.
“It would take bloomin’ ages to do,” he recalls, forcing him to learn to ad lib and also use an interpretive dancer, Jed Hoile, to fill the time. “You couldn’t just recall things with the press of a button. So I really had to learn how to talk to the audience as I was getting all my stuff together on stage.”
Jones wasn’t alone in the pursuit. He was in league with acts such as Human League, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), Depeche Mode, Thomas Dolby, the Thompson Twins and others that used synthesizers as their primary instrument.
“I didn’t know any of them at the time, but I did feel that we were part of doing something new,” Jones says. “There was no sort of connection where we were all talking regularly or meeting up to discuss the latest synthesizers. But I did feel there was that movement going on, and it was great. I was an avid radio listener since 9 years sold, so hearing all of our (songs) was great.
“And it was especially great coming to America with all these new instruments and sounds and people loving it.”
Jones is gratified that people still seem to gravitate toward his songs, from “New Song” on.
“I’m very happy about what it’s saying to people, still, which is not to be afraid, to go for the things that you really think you should do with your life and not feel like you have to bend to somebody else’s will — just keep going, don’t crack up, be strong and you’ll get there in the end,” notes Jones, who’s working on a new album — the follow-up to “Engage” — after contributing a track to the upcoming “Animal Crackers” film. “That’s still completely relevant now, maybe more than ever.”
So, truly, things CAN only get better?
“It’s easy to feel like we’re in a mess here, anymore, but there’s no point in actually dwelling on that for very long,” Jones says. “We have to take up the challenge that it’s up to us to change this and ask, ‘What kind of society do we want?’ and if we want something, then we have to work towards changing it and we have to be hopeful about the future.
“I’m very fortunate to still be able to believe in those lyrics that I wrote such a long time ago.”
• If You Go: Howard Jones — The Songs and The Stories, with Rachael Sage, is Sunday, March 11 (doors open at 7 p.m.), at Saint Andrews Hall, 431 E. Congress St., Detroit. Tickets are $59.50 and
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