Sunday, June 7, 2009
The Mysterious Lyrics of Howard Jones (and William Bryant)
I was relaxing in my favorite way this evening, by shuffling through my box of vinyl and thinking about what to play. My hands fell on the original US maxi single of "New Song" by Howard Jones. This extended version is different from the one on The 12" Album and was recently released on CD through Hi-Bias as part of their RetroActive series.
As I listened to the second track, "Conditioning", I started thinking about the lyrics. I always liked the line, "Well we think that you are John or Dave", just so different from normal pop lyrics. So, let me back up for a second to talk about my history with Howard.
The first album I ever owned was Dream Into Action, Howard's 1985 album. I bought it because I had liked both "Things Can Only Get Better" and "Look Mama" and one of the guys at school, who was generally considered cool, had a Howard Jones backpack. This was before I discovered Ultravox, New Order, or The Cure and he was the first artist I considered myself to be a big fan of. I can remember bringing home the album on the bus that day, being so excited because it was so much more substantial than the wispy singles I had previously been buying up. I also remember copying the album to a C-60 cassette tape and hand coloring the insert to make it look like the real one.
I really liked the album, and it was the first time that I realized that artists could produce meaningful work that was not a chart single or written in that format. One of my favorite tracks from the album was "Is There A Difference?" and I really identified with the concept of how people often drifted around without direction but we should seek fulfillment for ourselves.
I grew out of Howard quite fast. The follow up album One To One, produced by Arif Mardin, largely abandoned the whimsical synth sounds I had liked so much and by that time I was a dedicated Ultravox fan. Although I kept a copy of Dream Into Action, and eventually replaced it with a CD version. My favorite tracks were always from that album or from Human's Lib and also some of the B-Sides from that early period.
So with that background, let's get to the present and how I was looking at the lyrics for "Conditioning". For some reason I has always assumed that Howard wrote all his own lyrics, especially as there seemed to be a common, humanistic thread running through them all. I then noticed that the name "William Bryant" cropped up as the writer of the lyrics to "What Is Love", "Conditioning", "Human's Lib", "Hunt The Self" and several others, including my favorite B-Side, "It Just Doesn't Matter". It begged the question, just who was William Bryant and why have I never heard of his name in connection with Howard Jones before?
Of course the internet is an amazing place, and I found an interesting biography of Mr. Bryant here. Based on this account, it would appear that Bill Bryant was the person that encouraged Howard's pop career as well as his quest for spiritual enlightenment, and provided the impetus for much of the direction that he would continue to go in, developing the lyrics and encouraging the addition of mime to the concerts, among other things.
What's interesting to me is that there is absolutely no mention of any of this in Howard's official biographies, or sleeve notes, or on his website. It is claimed that the association was dropped by Howard as soon as he signed for WEA/Elektra and he never gave any further credit except for what was required by copyright law.
Naturally, I think there is a bigger story in this. Was Bryant a crank that Howard became reluctant to acknowledge? What broke apart their friendship, if, indeed that relationship existed in the way it was described? Whatever the truth is, it is clear that the lyrical concepts that Bryant is given credit for putting down on paper were important enough to signpost a direction that Howard would continue to take in all his subsequent work.
Well, that's enough sleuthing for today!
Howard Jones - It Just Doesn't Matter
Howard Jones - Conditioning