If you don’t fancy reading the thick end of 3,000 nerdy words about an album you’ve likely never heard and never will hear, I suggest you might want to stop here. Why not take a look at my interview with Ginger Natalie if blogging is your thing, or read my report of UEA’s Korfballers’ national triumph?
Still with us? Great! Make yourself a cuppa, get ready to stick on the hi-fi and settle down.
I’ve wanted for a while to talk about John Howard’s 1975 debut album Kid in a Big World, recently re-issued by Pedro Vizcaino’s You are the Cosmos label on vinyl.
I thought I’d listen to it with new ears, having owned the RPM CD reissue for a good few years now. I’ve always appreciated the album but have never gone to great lengths to digest it properly, much preferring the writing and specifically the vocals of Howard’s post-millennium (post-resurgence) material. Now the reissue, along with the release of the first volume of Howard’s this year and a superb recent feature by David Quantick in Record Collector magazine made me want to look at the album in more depth.
And it’s only after doing that I’ve realised what a masterpiece Kid in a Big World really is.
As an unashamed John Howard fan, it’s always been a dream of mine to own this record on vinyl. Every time I go into a second-hand record shop, I looked (and still do!) for an original CBS pressing, made rarer by its relative commercial flop at the time and the subsequent rise of interest in Howard. Finding a 7 inch single of Goodbye Suzie or Family Man is the stuff of dreams. Now, thanks to Spanish indie label You are the Kosmos, I’m able to hold a beautiful re-pressing of the Kid LP complete with the iconic cover artwork and all-round excellent packaging.
So, let’s have a look at the album itself.
Now, I could easily have conducted a track-by-track interview with the extremely accommodating and gracious Mr. Howard, always keen to read my work and help me with articles and whom I hope to meet soon; quoted from his autobiography or taken pieces from many of the contemporary reviews of the album. But there’s little point doing that if I want to write anything new or interesting. Many of Howard’s superb lyrics then, as today, are open to different interpretations, so I can only really talk about what comes to me when listening to the album, and why that makes me think it’s such a great work.
Let’s crack on, then.
The two best-known songs, if you can call them that, are the ill-fated singles, the failure of which due to BBC radio blacklisting ultimately contributed to the album’s lack of initial success and the petering out of Howard’s first career. The epic Goodbye Suzie (supposedly too depressing for Radio 1 – it isn’t) and the lively, cheeky Family Man (anti women – it isn’t) sound fresh today, the former a touching, emotional, but realistic ballad to a wasted young life, the latter a jaunty burst of humour. Compare the two markedly different tunes, which met the same fate in the BBC control room, and you’ll understand why Howard and CBS were resigned to the belief that nothing he could do would be enough to gain radio play.
After the singles comes The Flame, which is where the album really kicks into gear. After a light, airy piano intro, the song quickly switches into a nostalgic ode to the past. Its lyrics are a masterpiece by Howard, full of curious phrases, contradiction and obfuscation as his character meets an old flame. We never find out if it’s intentional or a total coincidence. He once dearly loved the lady, but only knew her “very nearly”. She whispers, when questioned how her life is, “passing by” – does she say that about her life post-relationship? Or is it a description of her movement past Howard’s character, now a mere distraction to her at best? She seems to be getting along just fine.
After all that, in a few lines exhibiting Howard’s unbelievable vocal range, he says “there isn’t much that I can say” – if you knew someone that well and feel you have so many loose ends, why would you be left not only physically, but mentally speechless? Finally, without wanting to turn this into a GCSE English Language essay, he then admits to thinking about her “almost every day”. After reported speech to the woman, now the voice says this directly to the listener, not to her – you wonder if he ever tells her this out loud or not. And why only almost every day?
Perhaps the biggest pity about Kid’s commercial failure was the lack of interesting theories about the lyrics. The bass is one of the things that lights up the album from this point forward, combining superbly with Howard’s piano. The tune is excellent, helped by some delicious guitar licks in select places.
Howard really starts showing off on the camped-up, louche (a favoured adjective of those describing Howard’s early work – it had to be done, sorry!) vocal delivery of Maybe Someday in Miami, a nice break after the thought-provoking Goodbye Suzie and The Flame. It’s the album’s catchiest song by far. The images here, of bands, quality alcoholic beverages and general decadence crop up repeatedly throughout the record (lying lovers creating insecurity is another big one that we’re spared here), but the pure, carefree escapism (see also Spellbound) shows the pliability of Howard as a songwriter and lyricist.
After the solid start, you wonder if either the deceptively good Gone Away or Missing Key would mark a mid-album lull – but it’s not true in the case of either. With Gone Away, we ricochet back from the cocksureness of Spellbound and Maybe Someday in Miami to personal introspection more like The Flame. Here, he has to move away to escape the sad memories of a lying, cheating lover he can never truly rid himself of. The lower tone, however, doesn’t stop Howard really opening up his gorgeous lungs on the chorus, or mean there isn’t another excellent four-string part.
In fact, Family Man B-Side Missing Key turns out to be, by some distance, the best song on the album and one of the best of Howard’s career. The lyrics are without question the main feature of this song. It’s a long time before we get to the first chorus, going through two full verses lasting well over a minute before the strong piano riff kicks in and the drums, which underpin the whole song, go up a notch.
The word choices and metaphors here are excellent, a review can’t do them justice as much as a listen can, so go and get it in your ears now. The choruses, when they finally come, are well constructed and dramatic.
We then go straight into the upbeat, bombastic Spellbound, another left-turn in terms of mood in a record that never sits still and is constantly traversing Howard’s wildly fluctuating emotional state of the time. Here, we have another lying partner and another trip away for Howard’s protagonist, but completely re-imagined from Gone Away – his “vacation” seems more like Miami here than the grim terrace you imagine Gone Away’s man disappearing to. Above a brass section and more of those fantastic guitar splashes, this time Howard takes ownership of the situation and decides to do something about it himself rather than turning introspective and brooding.
If you go straight from Missing Key to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, perhaps it’s a tad simplistic to say the lyrics go from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it’s fair to say that geeky, “college misfit” Howard has his day here – see Comic Strip on the recently released Hidden Beauty compilation for more like this. All I can say about this quirky tune is that I sometimes wish I could have a dose of whatever inspired Howard to write it. The characters and situations are so unbelievable as to be genuinely funny, surely Howard’s intention. Sultry and shady until he really opens up, Howard is back to his most theatrical behind the mic. His preening, pouting vocals in this are aided with various sound effects that were probably well ahead of their time but sound perfect in such a wacky number. There’s more top bass, nevertheless.
The first time you hear this I guarantee you’ll think it’s really silly, but its dextrousness and cool aloofness is one of the things that makes Kid in a Big World work so well and gives an early indication that Howard would become a genius of many songwriting genres and guises.
Deadly Nightshade is outstanding. It was revived brilliantly by the band that would become John Howard and the Night Mail live in 2013 at the Servant Jazz Quarters. But here, the original still sounds urgent and somehow uplifting – this is one that has really stood the test of time. Another story of taking back ownership of betrayal, pitched somewhere between Gone Away and Spellbound.
The well-loved title track is a mournful, wry look at the life of a young star and his insecurities, exploring (or, more likely, speculating over) the bleaker side of fame – you can’t blame Howard for thinking the protagonist could well have been him soon. Embellished with slow violin and flutes, Howard’s expansive voice as the drama rises and falls is accompanied at every step by his excellent, hammering piano. Naturally, the album’s finish sounds a little dated nowadays, but that’s part of its charm, the whole thing dripping in period authenticity at a time when the sky was the limit for decadent glam and the nicer you spoke, the better.
It’s the closing song of a ten-track album that needs to be no longer. All the emotions, paces, moods are covered here, and it seems neither to be underselling the record buyer or outstaying its welcome on the turntable.
Although it was only the original LP that was reissued on vinyl, Howard’s other material from this time is worthy of mention.
A number of other songs from these sessions have variously resurfaced in recent years, in the Sketching the Landscape demos compilation, plus the aforementioned RPM CD reissue’s bonus tracks and sister-vinyl issue to Kid, The Hidden Beauty. It was a noted in Quantick’s feature how single-minded, focused and brimming with ideas Howard was during the sessions, as a starry eyed Bury boy taking in the bright lights of London both personally and professionally. In truth Howard probably could have recorded two perfectly passable albums, or at the very least an extra EP, from the 1973 Kid sessions alone.
My comments about being the perfect length aside, the bugger about vinyl is of course the length limitation. The best of the rest is Party Deux, a demo which was very unlucky to miss the cut. A little more low-key in terms of melody than much of Howard’s Kid era output but nonetheless a grower, also for fans of his more eccentric Noel Coward-esque vocals – listen to his dramatic, almost-incredulous “this can’t be the party I was invited to” about halfway through, which precedes a superb exhibition of Howard’s vocal range in the bridge to the verse looking back on his childhood.
The same reason might have put paid to a proper recording of offcut Small Town, Big Adventures, a peppy, fast, listenable tune with some vivid characters. Of course, a demo is just that, a demonstration, not a finished product, and the quality of the master here is a pity. It has a few warps which are a real shame but shouldn’t put most off what is really a superb song and a great way into Howard for fans of modern pop.
Howard sounds a bit Bowie-esque as he really stretches his voice on Werewolves, using the piano to build up tension and really let rip on the chorus – again it’s a shame about the less than audiophile-level recording of the extremes of his vocal output on this well-written and characterised tune with great metaphor use.
Pearl Parade, a love letter to Ginger Rogers, is misty-eyed with beautiful description (not to mention the piano, bass and vocals), as smooth as her dancing in every way, while Cue Dream Sequence is a great story song, looking at people as Howard is wont to do, with some nice piano and climactic vocals. Three Years is an uplifting tale of overcoming self-doubt, giving oneself a shake and getting back up, one of his very best and a natural choice to open the Hidden Beauty compilation. Black Leather Lucy is another quirky, interesting character investigation bursting with wit with a light but relatively unremarkable melodic or story progression and a brave but not brilliantly executed chorus, and The Business Side of Beauty is cut from similar cloth but a much better listen, a cute look at the trials of a young model. 3am Egos is an interesting tale of the streets, with striking attention to detail and nice, melodic multi-tracked vocals with a catchy warbled hook, while popular Goodbye Suzie B-Side Third Man is short (clocking in at less than two minutes) and expertly jazz-infused, with a more than a dash of humour thrown in to Howard’s signature people-watching.
Alternative versions of Goodbye Suzie, Family Man, Kid in a Big World and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also exist, the first a slightly altered and little more polished version placing much greater emphasis on the rhythm section and string part, at times almost overpowering Howard’s vocals in the middle. The few seconds of backing vocals are turned up inexplicably loudly, there’s slightly rougher brass (with a great extra saxophone flourish low in the mix to end the chorus halfway through) and more emphasised (almost clumsily so) sound effects, mixed by Tony Meehan, which is in fact the original version – read what John told me about them last year here. There’s also a separate single edit, barely discernible from the album version, with a little strummed guitar added, a couple of lines embellished slightly with another identical vocal track and slightly more prominent bass, and possibly drums and piano once the band gets started – but nothing like as much as the full alternative mix.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a barer piano demo which has a sweeter, smoother (and less wacky) vocal. With nicer emphasis on the lyrics and great piano, and a completely different and less in-your-face tone, it’s a good one for the collectors, but not comparable to the brilliant madness of the original which was definitely changed for the better to bring out the quirkiness of the songwriting.
Kid in a Big World’s alternative version, on the These Fifty Years collection is vocally played with a straighter bat (though still allows Howard to hit the highs without quite reaching the emotional depths of the original) and instrumentally is totally original, a masterful, pastoral-sounding band-effort featuring well-polished and engineered strings and brass alongside far more flamboyant, tinkly piano. It seems to be crying out for radio play or film licensing but pays this price by taking the sting slightly out of the deeper, more bitter emotional nuances of the more straightforward and earthy album track.
Family Man, on the Technicolour Biography RPM CD reissue, like Goodbye Suzie, features more drums, some electric guitar, a different bass-line, more emphasis on the piano to start with (before it is almost totally drowned out in a wall of sound) with strange but (once you get used to them) likable backing vocals, plus some significant, more poppy, off-the-wall electrical sound effects on the chorus. There’s some slightly different lyrical emphasis in the delivery, not that it changes the overall tone much. In an attempt to make an electro-glam hit fit for the closing credits of Top of the Pops, an even more beautifully odd, swaggering song is made, but sadly it didn’t address the problems the radio chiefs had with Howard, so no hit came.
The thing is, Kid in a Big World really shouldn’t have been Howard’s masterpiece. It’s a great album, but it should have been just the start. No matter, when judged in its own right it is an amazing collection of songwriting which traverses the emotions while showing off Howard’s beautiful, malleable voice and some virtuoso instrumental parts too.
I’m so glad he’s getting the recognition this record deserves. Kid in a Big World is a superb album, and it’s fantastic that it’s finally being given various reissues in the UK, Europe and, soon, Japan, and at least a tiny fraction of the publicity it deserves. Its main success, however, will be introducing more people to the talent of Howard – go out there, dear listener, and see what else of his takes your fancy.
All albums mentioned can be purchased on CD from John’s website here.
Kid in a Big World’s vinyl reissue, with a free MP3 download, is available from You are the Cosmos here. Next in their series of Howard vinyl reissues is his Biddu-produced third LP Can You Hear Me Ok?, a more disco-influenced record, which is due out on the 15th October and can be pre-ordered from this Friday direct from the label here.
I know I’ve been really slack with Albums of the Quarter – more to come soon I promise!