Synthpop artist Howard Jones revisits the '80s

Howard Jones in 2012 Matt Kent/howardjones.com

(CBS News) From the early to mid-'80s, the American pop charts were briefly dominated by British acts whose music was synthesizer-driven - among them were Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, the Human League and the Thompson Twins. Not only were these bands known for their synthpop music, but for their videos that showcased their stylish fashion.

Another key player of that decade's synthpop sound was singer/keyboardist/songwriter Howard Jones, known for catchy hit electropop singles such as "What Is Love," "New Song," "Things Can Only Get Better" and "Like to Get to Know You Well." Almost 30 years later, the British artist is still making music and touring, which he is currently doing in the States by performing his first two albums, "Human's Lib" (1983) and "Dream Into Action" (1985), in their entirety.

Howard Jones in 1983
Simon Fowler/howardjones.com

In a recent interview with CBSNews.com, Jones, 57, explains why he decided to focus his tour on those early records: "One, the fans really wanted me to do it. Secondly, we were able to license back my first five albums from Warner Bros. So I was able to remaster them all and make sure that everything was available again.

"At the same time, that gave us access to the multi-track recordings of the first two albums, so we were able to go in and see what actually was played on the albums...and then being able to recreate it in its full glory. So it was a huge amount of work to get it all together and work out all the drum sounds. And now that we've done it, I'm very proud of it."

The current American tour features Jones on keyboards and vocals, along with Jonathan Atkinson on electronic drums and Robbie Bronnimann on additional keyboards. In the past, Jones has performed some of the popular numbers from "Human's Lib" and "Dream Into Action." But for this tour, he acknowledged he had to relearn some of the records' other songs. "Some songs I've never performed live," said Jones, "like, 'Is There a Difference?' and 'Why Look for the Key,' 'In Another,' and 'Dream into Action.' It's been great fun doing that. I loved it."

Jones says that the general perspective of himself was formed by those first two records. "They were the biggest-selling albums as well," he says, "but they also represent a time when electronic music was exploding into pop, and we were using synths, drum machines and stuff that people never heard before, and we were also making videos for MTV. All those things combined to make it a very exciting time for people who were just discovering music that they wanted to make their own. So that generation really attached [themselves] to those albums."

Two tracks from "Human's Lib" - "What Is Love" and "New Song" - were originally the demo songs that got Jones a record deal. "Record companies aren't really good at spotting hits," he says. " I also sent those recordings to every other record company and they didn't want to sign me. (laughs) You have to keep very positive and believe in yourself. "

Jones was on a roll with the "Dream Into Action" album, which yielded his first Top 10 Billboard hit in 1985, "Things Can Only Get Better." That song came out in the same year in which he performed at Live Aid. "With the first album, 'Human's Lib,' I've been touring for three years. I had all those songs ready, went into the studio, recorded them all, all the best ones. But for the second album - mainly that was written on the road. So 'Things Can Only Get Better' was probably written in America...when I was touring around, because there was no time to write other than on the road. Really nearly everything from that album was written while I was touring."

In 1986, Jones had a Billboard Top 10 hit, "No One is to Blame," co-produced by Phil Collins. It originally appeared on "Dream Into Action" but was later re-recorded. "I always thought that 'No One Is to Blame' could be a single," says Jones, "but the way that it was done on the 'Dream into Action' album was a very stripped-down version. Phil Collins was suggested to work with me, and he loved the song. On the weekends, because he's a complete workaholic, we recorded 'No One is to Blame' with Hugh Padgham co-producing as well. It came together very, very quickly."

While Jones' electronic music emphasized the technology of the times, his lyrics harkens back to the old school tradition.

"I wanted to be singing positive messages," he says, "and it was partly to do with my story. I was working in a factory and I always wanted to do my own music. I realized that if I didn't make the effort for myself to change that, I would be there until I was an old man. And I achieved that and I managed to get a record deal and do all the things that I dreamed about doing. So I wanted to put in my music that belief that if I could do it, then anybody could do it - obviously not necessarily music, but whatever field they were in. "

Since the '90s, Jones' music has entered into the acoustic realm, but he still returns to the synthpop sound that has made him famous. "The next album is gonna be certainly very electronic again," he says, "because that's the one I'm feeling like at the moment. I want to really get stuck in that. But who knows what will come after that."

  • David Chiu

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