Welcome To The Human Race: Howard Jones – ‘In The Running’

Cherry Red have once again pulled out all of the stops for the ‘forgotten man’ of 1980s pop, writes Ken Shinn.

“The early 1990s, with the rise of grunge and hip-hop, was certainly a musically tumultuous time for ’80s synth troubadours, but Jones remained very much determined to plough his own furrow and In The Running – last of his five-album deal with Warner Records, with a definite feeling of a parting of the ways in the air – emerged as triumphantly personal, as definitively his own, as any of his previous works.”

When I last wrote about Howard Jones, my piece on Cross That Line not only had me compare myself to Ray Stantz, unintentionally summoning up something that wasn’t as easy to cope with as he’d thought: but I also confessed that, in asking to review it, I’d made the big initial mistake of confusing him for Nik Kershaw. In my defence, I’d say that with the distance of Time, many of those feather-haired, slightly fey-voiced 1980s synth troubadours can meld into one amorphous gestalt, producing enjoyable yet ultimately ephemeral three-minute packages of Pop. And, among these, Jones had – shall we say – a reputation.

You see, whereas the likes of Kershaw produced often-bouncy, lyrically-impenetrable tunes with a good beat, Jones wore his artistic and philosophical heart very much on his sleeve, and – like Jon Pertwee’s Doctor – was very serious about what he did. Just not, necessarily, the way that he did it.

Which brings us to Jones’s fifth album, originally released in 1992: In The Running. The early 1990s, with the rise of grunge and hip-hop, was certainly a musically tumultuous time, but Jones remained very much determined to plough his own furrow and In The Running emerged as triumphantly personal, as definitively his own, as any of his previous works.

The last of his five-album deal with Warner Records, a definite feeling of a parting of the ways was in the air. Jones had a suspicion that this album –– would be the last one that they’d want him to record for them, and indeed it was. With the passing of the years, it became just one more musical relic buried by the drifting sands of Time, just waiting for some musical archaeologist to restore it to the light and re-appraise its value, its artistry. And now, Cherry Red has allowed us to do just that.

So, track by track, let’s brush away the dust, and see what treasures may lie beneath.

‘I’ve got your picture in the palm of my hand…’

Lift Me Up kicks off with a punchy fanfare reminiscent of Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, before turning into a lovely, strutting piano-powered anthem to the power of friendship and help at the moment when it’s most needed. Jones’s vocals soar and cajole to marvellous effect. As an album-opener, it grabs the attention and holds it. A definite winner, it promises good, even great things, for what lies ahead.

‘The matters of the heart, we watch them grow…’

Fallin’ Away is an appropriately heart-felt paean to the days when Life was generally easier. The piano here is more ambling, somehow more reflective, than the assertive one heard on the previous track. A wistful tribute to the pleasures of the Past which nonetheless asserts clearly that we can’t leave the Future behind. The Past is beguiling, but it needs to fall away to let us have the promise of what lies ahead.

‘We got the same beat runnin’ round through this crazy town…’

Show Me opens with piano that’s decidedly ominous, shimmering and rumbling like a looming storm cloud: appropriate sounds for a song that, under its seemingly love song-like surface, is in fact about climate change, global despoliation, and the possible early death of our planet. The message is reinforced by the keening, howling guitar near the end: the World is doomed unless we do something about it. It’s a message that remains relevant.

‘He saw flames in the department store…’

The Voices Are Back. And the music behind them is decidedly chilled, but this in itself forms a starkly effective contrast to a narrative that tells us, with affecting calm, the tale of a sufferer from mental illness. Born from Jones’s own personal experience of friends afflicted with such problems, this song is filled with a quietly impassioned humanity that is all the more powerful for its restraint. Moving and marvellous.

‘They’re sending back pictures from Saturn and Mars…’

Exodus isn’t so much a triumphant ode to Freedom as Bob Marley made his song of the same name. Much as he did on Cross That Line, Jones steps effortlessly from intimate songs of uncertainty to grandiose ones, as he warns against a maybe not-so-distant Future where the Earth is as good as dead, and the only survival will lie in fleeing. A terrifying prospect which Jones warns us against, urging that we can prevent this – and must.

‘The time has come to watch you go, watch you go…’

Tears To Tell, for all of its apparent jaunty swagger, brings us back once more to tales of personal, rather than planetary, trauma. A relationship – between lovers? Between friends? Does it really matter? – is over, and the optimism of the tune doesn’t mask the sorrow, the pain that such an event can cause, and often does. This is one of those songs that speaks directly and strongly to a shared Human experience, a piece of gentle but insistent power.

‘Whatever happened to the value of our love?…’

Two Souls is a positively epic track, strident in its melody for all of the intimacy of its message. An adjunct to its immediate predecessor, it was born from Jones’s concerns that his workaholic nature was perhaps distancing him from his loved ones, his family, his friends. Yet its message is ultimately an optimistic one, that there is always room for change, for improvement. Where the previous track pulls things apart, this one holds them together.

‘You’re walkin’ round like a doll without a head…’

Gun Turned On The World is another warning song. Arguably of a vein with Trent Reznor’s Hurt or Suicidal Tendencies’ Institutionalized, it’s the tale of someone so hurting, so angry with existence, that it threatens to turn out and harm not just oneself, but everybody else. And, effectively, Jones fights it with an upbeat quality, his warnings poking fun not at the victim, but at the pointlessness of their loathing – self and otherwise. This one is glorious.

‘Give me one last try…’

One Last Try, which Jones describes as his own tribute to Brian Wilson, is a gently humanistic piece very like the best of Wilson’s work. Slow-paced and reflective, it’s a delicately-beautiful artifice which confirms that, no matter how bad things may seem, that there is always the possibility of improvement, even transcendence, if we’re only willing to put in the effort to make such things so. Soothing as it is inspiring, in its own small way.

‘It was that night at nowhere…’

City Song, which finished the original release of the album, is an odd, somewhat nervous note on which to end. Another warning, it tells of the joys of living among a vibrant mass of Humanity, but also of the disconnectedness, the loneliness that can come from being just another face in the crowd. Again, though, it tempers this sorrow with the simple advice that it can all be made better, if only we can find the courage to connect.

But wait, as the adverts say – there’s more!

‘Standing tough, under stars and stripes, we can tell…’

I.G.Y. (What A Beautiful World), named for the International Geophysics Year, is by great Donald Fagen, and the optimism is in full flow. Looking forward to an Utopia straight out of the boldest science fiction imaginings, an Utopia that can be made real. This is soaring, encouraging, beautiful stuff: the misgivings and sorrows usurped by a new, glorious hope made real. And, for Doctor Who fans, there’s even a wheel in Space.

‘No, he won’t go drinkin’ with his friends no more…’

New Man is a fond eye cast at someone who, however clumsily, is trying to better themselves: the story of a former reprobate who isn’t quite reformed yet, someone who appreciates the simple pleasures of the flesh, but is at least educated enough, wise enough, to know that some changes need to be made if the people that really matter in his life are to be as happy as he is. Again, this encourages rather than chides. Humorous and humane.

‘You’re working overtime, you know it doesn’t do you no good…’

Takin’ The Time is a further tale of Mercy, of the recognition of the need to strike a balance between the creative and the self-preservative. More than a mere platitude to stop once in a while and smell the flowers, it’s advice from a loving doctor to show oneself a little more kindness. Not in the pure laziness of self-indulgence, but in the very real need to be compassionate to oneself to hold body and soul together. Wise and joyous advice.

‘It’s a cold World, it’s a cruel World, when you haven’t got no one to love…’

You Say closes out the extended album with one last urging for connection, for tenderness, as opposed to loneliness and the increasing risk of the hardening and cooling of one’s ability to love. It is the perfect way to end a work which, while constantly worried, constantly nervous about the possible threats which may lie ahead, remains determined to ensure that all of our tales have a happier ending for everyone involved.

So, then, ends In The Running: but this wonderful collection is far from done yet. As with the previous re-release of Cross That Line, Cherry Red Records have pulled out all of the stops. An additional two CDs and a DVD give us in-depth access to instrumental and remixed versions of many of the key songs on the album, as well as new takes on some of Jones’s other tunes, in addition to an in-depth interview and commentary with the man himself on the creation of In The Running, plus performances on Pebble Mill and promo videos, and typically excellent sleeve notes from Anil Prasad. Once again, Cherry Red has done the man proud.

In the final analysis, Howard Jones is probably always going to be something of the ‘forgotten man’ of 1980s pop music. Not as pantomime histrionic and flamboyant as an Adam Ant, Holly Johnson, or even Nik Kershaw. He was always the quieter voice, the more thoughtful one – perhaps, in the end, he may have made a better poet than a musician. But he still creates, as an independent artist. And his words and his music survive. Where other musicians may shout, scream, yell in our faces, Howard Jones will always be an incisive, humanistic, still, small voice of Calm. And this will always be A Good Thing. Hail Howard!

Howard Jones: ‘In The Running’ Expanded Deluxe 3CD/1DVD Set released 21 May 2021 by Cherry Red Records. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

 Ken Shinn is a lifelong fan of all things cult and is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His 55 years have seen him contribute to works overseen by the likes of TV Cream and the British Horror Films Group, as well as a whole batch of short stories of the fantastic, with his first novel on the way. Whatever the field, he intends to enjoy Cult in all its forms for many years to come.

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