My Greatest Hits: Howard Jones

The synth-pop luminary picks his own defining moments from his 40 year career

“I’ve been waiting for so long/ To come here now and sing this song.” There aren’t many more fitting opening lines from a debut single than those Howard Jones introduced himself to the world in 1983 with in ‘New Song’. With its cheery, motivational message and bright layers of peppy synthesisers, the track set the direction of the Southampton-born artist’s influential synth pop that would include decade-defining hits ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, ‘What Is Love?’ and ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’.

As he prepares to embark on a UK tour celebrating a 40-year career, Jones talks us through his own highlights from over the years – from the sheer panic of Live Aid to jamming with Ringo and Stevie Wonder.

Releasing my debut single, ‘New Song’

“I think it came in at No.109 in the charts… And it just crept up a few places every week. It looked like we might lose it at any moment. I think it was at No.45 when they run out of people for Top Of The Pops, so I got to do that. And that was it. It exploded. But it was touch and go. I mean, if it hadn’t been the hit it was, who knows what the story would be?

“It was always going to be my debut. I remember playing it for the first time in a tiny little pub called The Osborne Arms and the audience went crazy for it, so we thought that would be the best thing to go with first. It was my manifesto. That was my story. You know. ‘I’ve been waiting for so long…’, and you know, ‘Don’t crack up, bend your brain, see both sides, throw off your mental chains…’ I think people related to that, you know? It’s a song about not letting life drag you down and about being positive about the future.”

Howard Jones - New Song - TOTP - 1983

Getting the unofficial 1984 Olympics anthem, ‘Like To Get To Know You Well’

“It was kind of my idea that it would be a great song for the Olympics. I think the Olympics, to me, represented all nations and all people around the world getting together, having fun, doing sport and getting to know each other. Seeing that, actually, people are really similar. They all care about their families and they all love their moms. It’s a simple sentiment, but if we can get to know each other a bit better, then you’re gonna have a much more peaceful world. I would have loved it to be an official Olympics theme. Maybe in the future.”

Howard Jones - Like To Get To Know You Well

Finding Buddhism

“Buddhist friends kept sending me books because they heard my lyrics and thought I must be in tune with what they all thought. One of them was my friend Jeff Banks, who had been practising for a long time. I was just so impressed with him as a person and I asked him once, ‘what do you do?’ you know, he’s so buoyant all the time and upbeat. He showed me how to charm, and I haven’t stopped. It’s been 26 years. So that’s a practice that you do every day. I’ve always been interested in trying to be a better human being and really being able to treat other people well, you know? Not to make judgments and to respect people. It’s something that, for me, needs practice, just like playing the piano. If I stop practising, then it gradually fades away.

“It all goes into all my songs really. I was saying on the tour that I’ve just done in America, you know, I don’t really make statements about stuff in the press or even on social media, but if you want to know what I think, it’s all in there.”

Playing Live Aid

“What was going through my mind? Panic. Pure terror. Phil Collins had just told me that there was a dodgy key on the piano – it was Queen’s touring piano, which itself was quite thing. I got to the chorus of ‘Hide And Seek’ and you could hear the audience joining in and suddenly it took off. It was an amazing feeling.

Howard Jones - Hide And Seek (Live Aid 1985)

“The occasion was palpable, even just being there. I met Bowie and hung out with Paul and Linda McCartney. She took a picture of me and Paul, which is one of my most treasured possessions. She signed it, which was great. She was an amazing woman. I got to watch that performance by Queen, which was probably the best live performance ever in the history of rock, and I watched U2 emerge as a world force.”

‘Things Can Only Get Better’

“I wrote it on the road after touring the first album. I had my little setup backstage, and I wanted to put the energy that you get from performing every night into the new songs I was writing. So it was written like that. I used to come on the tour bus and play it to the band as I was working on it. It was going down well, everyone was liking it, so I thought it could do well. It wasn’t such a big hit here in the UK, but it got really big in the States.

“I always think that the great thing about the the 80s is, if you look at the charts from that time, it’s so eclectic. There were so many genres running side-by-side, and I think that’s what makes it so strong. People were really working hard on making songs work. I think music was more important to people then, mainly because there are so many other things to get into now, but then it was all about music and what sort of tribe you belonged to.”

Howard Jones - Things Can Only Get Better

Breaking the USA

“Well, ‘No One Is To Blame’ became one of the first big hits over there. Originally, the song was on Dream Into Action, but it was a very stripped-down production. But I always thought it could be a good radio song, so I pushed for it. I went in to see the head of Elektra but he said no, it’s a B-side. I kept believing in it and I sent it to Phil Collins, and he loved it and said he would be happy to produce it with me. So we recorded it over two weekends at Genesis studios. But it’s interesting that people know the song but they don’t necessarily know it’s me, because it was different to a lot of the other things I was doing.

“I was always received differently in the States. It’s my biggest place to tour and they’ve always had me on the radio. I feel very lucky.”

Howard Jones - No One Is To Blame

Playing with Ringo

“I mean, I wouldn’t be in anyone else’s band. But if Ringo phones up asks if I’d like to go on tour with him in the summer? Yeah, definitely. The band itself was incredible. That year it was Sheila E from Prince’s band on drums. Greg Lake on bass, from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, one of my hero bands. And then there was Roger Hodgson from Supertramp. It was the sort of Rolls Royce of touring, you know? Private jets, police escorts, the whole lot.

“Ringo was just great. He was full of wise words. He’d be sitting behind me on the plane with his wife Barbara Bach telling stories about the Beatles and John and Paul, and all of the difficulties he’d been through in his life and how he’d come through it. He’s a very inspirational man, a very cool guy and a brilliant drummer. Those sound checks when we were all jamming together, his groove is just… what can you say? It’s just so good.”

Howard Jones - Things Can Only Get Better - with Ringo Starr

Playing synths with Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Thomas Dolby at the 1985 Grammy Award ceremony

“I think Queen had written on one of their albums: ‘No synthesisers have been used on this album’, and up until that point that had kind of been the badge of honour. I don’t know whose idea it was, but there was an idea to put the record straight about keyboards and new technology – that you can use it to do great things, it’s just another instrument. The whole experience was amazing. I got to hang with Stevie quite a bit in the studio, jamming together, and I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It really went on and on, he really enjoyed jamming, like a kind of musical conversation. Herbie is incredible as well.

“So I think it put the record straight. You had the old guard who had been pioneering the use of keyboards, and then you had the new boys taking it further.”

SYNTHESIZER MEDLEY (From the 1985 Grammy Awards ceremony)

Playing Maddison Square Garden

“Growing up in the UK and reading NME and Melody Maker, it seemed like if you really wanted to make it in America you had to play Madison Square Garden. I never thought it would happen. In fact, I had a bet with my manager, David, that if we ever got to play it he would go on stage before me and sing ‘Little Ole Wine Drinker Me’, because we’d never thought it would happen. But it did. And he did do it. And Tony Bennett was in the audience. He brought his daughter to see to see the show. He was about six rows in front of David.

“I replay shows like that over in my head. I think when you have so much adrenaline flowing through it must cement the memories more than normal.”

Celebrating 40 years

“I’m thinking of it more like, ‘this is where we’ve got to.’ It’s the best band I’ve ever had, the best people working on lights. We started off not having a clue how to do any of it, and this is where we’ve got to. People in the UK haven’t seen the show we’ve been doing around the world, so I don’t put too much pressure on myself. I can’t compete with Beyoncé and those kinds of shows… It’s about music and the songs with me. I don’t even like using video anymore because it distracts people from the music. Great lights, great music, and concentrate on the human beings on the stage and what’s being said.

“I’m not normally a sentimental person at all, but for me it’s more that the fans have stuck with me for 40 years. So it’s a celebration of them, more than anything else.”

Howard Jones - 40th Anniversary UK Tour (Autumn 2023)

Get tickets for Howard Jones’ UK tour, with special guest Blancmange, starting 6–18 October