The beat goes on for king of electro-pop

HIS blond hair's not as spiky as it was in the halcyon days of the 1980s but Howard Jones is nevertheless in fine form. He's got firm opinions on the music industry, the fickle nature of fame and shows like The X Factor, and isn't afraid to air them.

HIS blond hair's not as spiky as it was in the halcyon days of the 1980s but Howard Jones is nevertheless in fine form. He's got firm opinions on the music industry, the fickle nature of fame and shows like The X Factor, and isn't afraid to air them.

But, then, he's always been slightly on the outside looking in. Twenty-odd years ago he had legions of fans and five top-10 hits in the UK, but was never fully embraced by the music press. Not that it ever worried him.

America fell for his charms in a way that many bands and singers could only envy, and his musical career developed along routes that would surprise the casual observer: acoustic work and piano solos proving there's much more in his repertoire than electronic pop.

In many ways life's busier than ever as he flits between England, North America and mainland Europe for concerts. Dates in Dubai and Australia are already pencilled into the diary for 2007, and May has been set aside for work on a new album.

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Before that, however, it's time for a retro look back at the 1980s as Howard Jones joins Toyah and ABC's Martin Fry for the Hitmakers tour, which arrives at Ipswich Regent on November 3 (2006).

Some musicians are a bit sniffy about re-visiting their hits of yesteryear. Not him.

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“It's a very difficult one. You've got to be in touch with what your audience want, as well as showing them that you're also moving forward as an artist and that you're not just stuck in a timewarp.

“Some artists will ruthlessly play just the new album - no hits at all. I think that's just a bit churlish, to be honest. There's a lot of people who have got this huge investment in your earlier work - that's why they're there - and it has to be acknowledged. I'm trying to tread the line at my concerts: I play plenty of the hits, but I also play new stuff. At the acoustic shows, I play new stuff that's not even out yet.”

Judging by his schedule, he's not treading water.

“I've always worked pretty hard, I think. I suppose it's reaching 50, really.” He was 51 in February. “This decade feels like the most important decade of my life. I might not be able to do this in 10 years' time, so there's a real sense of urgency. You've got to get out there and do as much as you can, and take it as far as it will go. That's really been my attitude. And as a result of that I've been inundated with offers and gigs, and that's great, and I say Yes most of the time. And really enjoy it as well.”

It brings to mind a line from his song Things Can Only Get Better: “Get to sixty and feel no regret”.

“Exactly! That is the principle. It's like you realise what your function is: to be an artist. I've always tried to put out a very positive message. I came from working in a factory; I did not have it given to me on a plate, and most people don't. So I wanted to get across the idea that if I could do it, other people could do it. If you've got a dream about something, then you really must do it, because life's too short. As I get older, I feel even more like that.”

That sudden success 23 years ago or so took some getting used to, he admits.

“It was a bit of a shock. I'd been working in a factory for about six or nine months before” - that famous clingfilm factory in High Wycombe. “I was staying up until four o'clock in the morning doing demos in little studios, nobody knew me from Adam and, almost overnight, that changed. So that was a bit of a psychology issue to handle for anyone.

“It is a bit strange to walk into a pub and everybody turns round and starts talking about you. It's like being a paranoid man but it's actually true. But I'm not complaining! I got to do all the things I really wanted to do.”

Fans might have taken him to their hearts in the 1980s, but significant elements of the music press turned up their noses. He reckons they didn't like the fact that his music was happy and he was on an even keel.

“I wasn't miserable, I wasn't taking drugs, I wasn't presenting a 'Life is sh**' attitude. That doesn't go down well with music journalism, and never has. In general I just found the whole rock and pop world to be so . . . well, it's supposed to be alternative and liberated, but in fact it's a very, very conservative, with a small c, and very narrow world, where it's very black and white: this person's rubbish and this person isn't. It's puerile and infantile.

“It really mustn't be taken seriously - and of course, when you're in the middle of it, then you do! And it hurts. In retrospect I'm glad I didn't change; I didn't alter what I said. And I was aware of the effect; that I was going to attract that sort of response.”

Was it the electro-pop revolution that put the music press's nose out of joint in the 1980s?

“It was one of the things. I just think that rock music never got over the '60 and judges everything by the '60s. Electronic music has no reference to that - it's a new thing, born out of a technological age. It's not born out of long hair and the drugs that people took then, and the attitude. It's almost been dismissed as 'not proper'. So . . . that's fine. It's not going to stop me doing it.

“My view recently has been that we live in an age that is very technology-driven, but we are still human beings. So what we have to do is come to a point where technology and a human-centred philosophy work together.”

In other words, Man must harness technology as a tool for human expression, but not let it dominate him.

“There's this attitude that all technology is bad and anti-human. It's not, obviously. I mean, take the wheel . . .”

In fact, the communications revolution is making him reassess the way a writer markets his music.

“One questions the whole idea of releasing new work now. I think the figures are that for every legitimate download there's 40 illegal ones. Basically, people think of music being free on the internet, and that isn't going to change, so the way of thinking really has to change. You may as well give your music away free as a kind of advert for your gigs, and build it on that. I'm close to thinking that's the best way to go.”

His level-headedness and philosophical lyrics often made people think Howard Jones was a Buddhist, but he began practising only 13 years ago. It was, though, a logical progression, he feels. What does it do for him?

“I put it like this: It helps me to win the battle each day between the positive and the negative sides of myself. I think everybody's got as much capacity for destructive behaviour as constructive behaviour. My practice helps me to win by at least 1%. Instead of going under, you create positive things instead.”

Today, he recognises he's “definitely not a mass appeal artist”, but is content there is an audience enjoying his creative output. “I'm just really happy to work away and have my friends around the world who support what I do.”

What does he think of The X Factor?, which can be cruelly black and white in its treatment of people harbouring a dream?

“It's complex. There is a side of it that, when I watch, I enjoy. People off the street are being given a chance. The side I don't like is these three authoritarian figures saying 'You're rubbish. You're not.' That is such a bad example of how to be. It's one step away from police-state government!

“What I feel like screaming at the TV is 'Don't listen to these people. Do what you think is right.' Sometimes you see the performers do that, and I love that. Other people, it destroys them. They're told they're no good and they believe it. That's the saddest thing.

“But I'm not dismissing it as entirely bad. People like Lemar came out of those kinds of programme” - the BBC's Fame Academy in 2002 - “and he's made probably the best album of this year: and done it his own way. So people can triumph through all that stuff.”

Howard and wife Jan, who have been together since before his big breakthrough, have three children: Osheen, 20; Mica, 17, and Jasper, 12. It seems as if Osheen is destined to follow an artistic route, though not without a word of wisdom from dad.

He's studying drama, English and education at Cambridge, and last summer co-directed a Cambridge University Amateur Dramatic Club play at the Edinburgh Fringe - coincidentally, his father was in the city with his piano show for part of the time.

“He's probably going to go a long way because he's worked hard and is very focused,” says proud dad.

“What I say to him is that it's great to do the art that you want to do, but you must remember you have to earn a living at it. If you don't, you're always not quite in control. You've got to earn enough to be able to set your own agenda.

“So in Edinburgh he was on the street, every day, with the cast, getting punters in. They did break even. Every artist can't just do what the hell they like, because you end up losing the freedom of doing the art, doing the music, that you want to do.”

There speaks a man who still remembers the clingfilm factory.

“That's right, because that funded all the keyboards.”

And the dream.

NOW here's a funny thing: Howard Jones made it big in America, but the songs that went down well there generally didn't fare so well on this side of the Atlantic. And vice-versa.

His breakthrough New Song, for instance, reached number three in the UK and 27 in the U.S. What Is Love was number two here and 33 there, and Like To Get To Know You Well was four and 49.

No One Is To Blame, conversely, reached number four in the United States, yet peaked here at 16. Everlasting Love: 12 and 62.

Today, his royalty statements show that 94% of his revenue comes from outside the UK.

His American popularity was, he reflects, “almost like a totally different career”.

How come?

“There are various reasons. When we started, as things were going well here, we thought we really must in parallel start working especially in America - touring and doing all the stuff you should do to get yourself known.

“Also, MTV was just breaking; I had videos, and that was the new media. The songs had very positive links, and America really liked that. They said that although it was electronic music, something novel and new, it had a song-based tradition.

“So I think it was those factors - but mainly the hard work that you have to do. You have to do every city; you have to play the clubs from the ground up, and work your way up. It means months on the road.”

In America, too, there are many radio stations playing hits from the '60s onwards, “so even if you're young, you get exposed to the history of pop”.

Sounds as if he should be living on the other side of the Pond, rather than looking out at the countryside around Taunton on an overcast autumn afternoon.

“We have thought about going to live there, but it's the end of you to go and live in America, because everybody thinks you're great and wonderful, and there's nothing to fight against, and you become like a soft-bellied, gutless artist!

“In Britain, they try to thrash you at every turn, and so you become strong and your work has a vitality that can't be gained in any other way. I'm British: I'm going to stay here,” he laughs.

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