As the bassist in Sydney band THE AFFAIR, he relocated to London after the group travelled to England following winning the Hoadley’s Battle of the Sounds competition. In 1973, he joined progressive rockers GONG who featured guitarist and future SYSTEM 7 co-founder Steve Hillage.
After leaving GONG, Howlett formed STRONTIUM 90 which featured Sting, Stewart Copeland, and Andy Summers who of course, subsequently had success as THE POLICE. His production career began in earnest at Dindisc Records, the Virgin Records subsidiary where his then-girlfriend Carol Wilson was Managing Director. There, he worked with fledgling acts such as THE REVILLOS, MARTHA & THE MUFFINS, MODERN EON and OMD.
While his first Top 20 UK chart entry was with MARTHA & THE MUFFINS, it was his three consecutive Top 15 hits with OMD, including the mighty ‘Enola Gay’, that were to make him an in-demand producer between 1981-1985.
Working with a number of synth friendly acts like BLANCMANGE and CHINA CRISIS, this lucrative period was to include a Grammy Award for ‘DNA’ with A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS in the ‘Best Rock Instrumental Performance’ category. His portfolio was not just restricted to electronic pop, with FISCHER Z, ANY TROUBLE, COMSAT ANGELS, THE ALARM and JOAN ARMATRADING among the artists he also worked with.
Compared with a number of his peers, Howlett’s output was small, but it was highly influential in a short period. Although he moved away from album production, he co-founded the Record Producers Guild in 1987 and launched a record label Mauve in 1993.
Today, he lectures in music technology at several universities throughout the world, having been awarded a PhD in record production in 2009, while he also performs with his psychedelic space funk combo HOUSE OF THANDOY and the occasional reunion of GONG.
Presented in calendar year order and then alphabetically, with a restriction of one song per album project to conceive an imaginary 18 song compilation CD, The Electricity Club looks back at the impressive studio career of Mike Howlett…
MARTHA & THE MUFFINS Echo Beach (1980)
MARTHA & THE MUFFINS were six Canadian art students who confusingly had two members named Martha; Gane and Ladly. Combining the spirit of punk and North American styled new wave, ‘Echo Beach’ was a catchy slice of credible pop that featured sax, flute and organ alongside the more conventionally accepted guitars, bass and drums. Reaching No10 in the UK singles chart, it was Howlett’s first big hit and set him off on his successful production path.
Available on the album ‘Metro Music’ via Virgin Records
OMD Messages (1980)
For its single release, OMD had decided to re-record ‘Messages’, one of the key tracks from their self-titled debut. Utilising a pulsing ‘Repeat’ function on a Korg Micro-Preset shaped by hand twisting the octave knob, Howlett harnessed a template of basic primary chord structures and one fingered melodies to produce a UK chart hit that reached No13. As well including Mal Holmes’ separately recorded drums for a cleaner snap, Howlett added several melodic bass guitar lines onto the coda to enhance the warm sound that was quite distinct from Gary Numan and John Foxx.
Available on the album ‘Messages: OMD Greatest Hits’ via Virgin Records
OMD Stanlow (1980)
Just nine months after the release of OMD’s self-titled debut which was recorded in their own recording complex The Gramophone Suite, the band entered Ridge Farm and Advision studios with Howlett for the much more cohesive and gothic follow-up ‘Organisation’. The album’s closer was ‘Stanlow’, a brooding 6 minute epic that conveyed the emotion of returning home after a long journey; the sight of that huge, brightly lit oil refinery from the M56 motorway was apt symbolism. OMD’s intellectual but cryptic lyrical themes set them apart from other synth based acts.
Available on the album ‘Organisation’ via Virgin Records
THE TEARDROP EXPLODES When I Dream (1980)
While THE TEARDROP EXPLODES were not a synthesizer group, their use of synths often confused some to dub them New Romantics as they straddled the line between psychedelic pop and Synth Britannia. The Howlett produced ‘When I Dream’ released in Summer 1980 launched Julian Cope and Co’s debut album ‘Kilimanjaro’. Dressed with detuned synths and low-end sweeps, it got TX closer to the charts but it was to take a brass section and the more obviously conventional production team of Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley to net that first hit in ‘Reward’.
Available on the album ‘The Greatest Hit’ via Mercury Records
MARTHA LADLY & THE SCENERY CLUB Tasmania (1981)
Following designing the cover art to MARTHA & THE MUFFINS second album ‘Trance & Dance’, Martha Ladly won a scholarship to study graphic design and left the band. She also began working with Peter Saville, with her most notable visual contribution being the painting for NEW ORDER’s ‘1981-82’ FACTUS8 EP. She continued a solo music career with her first single ‘Finlandia’ produced by Mike Howlett. While the A-side was akin to Nordic folk, the B-side ‘Tasmania’ was a brooding percussive piece reminiscent of JOY DIVISION with sombre chants from Ladly. One more single ‘Light Years From Love’ emerged in 1983, but she retired from music not long afterwards. She is now a Professor at Ontario College of Art & Design.
Originally released as the B-side to the single ‘Finlandia’ via Dindisc Records, currently unavailable
MODERN EON Euthenics (1981)
Mike Howlett had effectively become house producer at Dindisc Records and that led him to work with most of their artist roster at some point. His production of MODERN EON’s ‘Euthenics’ was a re-recorded version of a single that had been out on Liverpool indie label Inevitable in 1980. With a sprightly but solemn sound like fellow Scousers WAH! HEAT and HAMBI & THE DANCE, the band showed some promise. Led by Alix Plain, the line-up that recorded this version of ‘Euthenics’ included Tim Lever and Cliff Hewitt who later respectively showed up in DEAD OR ALIVE and APOLLO 440.
Originally released as a single via Dindisc Records, currently unavailable
OMD Souvenir (1981)
Howlett’s contribution to the success of ‘Souvenir’ cannot be underestimated, with the nightmare scenario of spinning taped choir loops alongside early synthesizer technology. And all this while dealing with a rather disillusioned Andy McCluskey, who was feeling left out of a song written by his bandmates Paul Humphreys and Martin Cooper. But even after recording was completed, Howlett still felt ‘Souvenir’ didn’t sound quite right, until he varispeeded it up to the point of Humphreys almost sounding like Alvin The Chipmunk. The end result? OMD’s biggest UK hit!
Available on the album ‘Architecture & Morality’ via Virgin Records
THOMPSON TWINS Perfect Game (1981)
Before THOMPSON TWINS settled into being the Alex Sadkin produced electropop trio of Tom Bailey, Alannah Currie and Joe Leeway, they were a seven strong combo with a more conventionally driven musical outlook. Previous to that, they were a five-piece art squat collective and Mike Howlett produced their guitar driven third single ‘Perfect Game’. The band later signed to Arista Records and released the more synth friendly single ‘In The Name Of Love’ in 1982, thus setting them on the path to becoming one of the most loved / loathed acts of the period.
Available on the album ‘A Product Of…’ / ‘Set’ via Edsel Records
BLANCMANGE I Can’t Explain (1982)
With a blistering opening of Linn Drum and elastic synth bass, the aggressive ‘I Can’t Explain’ opened BLANCMANGE’s ‘Happy Families’ and set the scene for an impressive debut album. With a sub-Ian Curtis vocal from Neil Arthur, the overall result wasn’t far off an electronic take of JOY DIVISION’s ‘Interzone’, which in turn had been based on the Northern Soul favourite ‘Keep on Keeping on’ by NF PORTER. This post-punk / soul hybrid feeling was enhanced further once David Rhodes’ frantic processed guitar kicked in alongside the bizarre, staccato gospel backing vocals.
Available on the album ‘Happy Families’ via Edsel Records
A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS Space Age Love Song (1982)
With titles ‘like Modern Love Is Automatic’ and ‘Telecommunication’, the futuristic Sci-Fi vibe of A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS came to its zenith with ‘Space Age Love Song’. Howlett’s brilliantly punchy production integrated synths with guitars, which undoubtedly helped this often forgotten Liverpool band gain a foothold in the traditionally synthphobic territory of the USA. But the song was popular in Europe too, as exemplified by MARSHEAUX’s blatant interpolation for ‘Dream Of A Disco’.
Available on the album ‘A Flock Of Seagulls’ via Cherry Pop
GANG OF FOUR I Love A Man In A Uniform (1982)
A popular cult single from the Leeds combo named after the Chinese Communist faction led by Madam Mao, ‘I Love A Man In A Uniform’ was a fine example of the scratchy post-punk funk that was prevalent with alternative acts such as A CERTAIN RATIO, PIGBAG and BAUHAUS. Exploring the public fascination with the military, it was also perhaps a passing dig at ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN who the year previously had perfected a camouflaged look that their fans were copying. Howlett certainly gave plenty of space in his production to “Lay down thy raincoat and groove”.
Available on the album ‘A Brief History Of The 20th Century’ via EMI Music
TEARS FOR FEARS Pale Shelter (1982)
With the title inspired by Henry Moore, Roland Orzabal described ‘Pale Shelter’ as “a kind of a love song, though more referring to one’s parents than to a girl” – the original single version was produced by Howlett and subtitled ‘You Don’t Give Me Love’ but failed to chart. It began with an unsettling, reverse spoken vocal from Orzabal. Much darker and obviously synthetic than the familiar re-recording produced by Ross Cullum and Chris Hughes for debut album ‘The Hurting’.
Available on the deluxe album ‘The Hurting’ via Mercury Records
TV21 All Join Hands (1982)
Named after the Gerry Anderson offshoot comic, TV21 primarily used conventional instrumentation, but their Howlett produced single ‘All Join Hands’ featured an OMD styled bass synth sequence and drum machine. Possibly the best known song in the Edinburgh band’s short career, ‘All Join Hands’ was filled with melodic drama, thanks to some classical augmentation by THE CANNIZARRO STRINGS and a fine lead vocal from singer Norman Rodger. Having reformed in 2005, TV21 are about to release a new album ‘Forever 22’.
Available on the album ‘Snakes & Ladders – Almost Complete: 1980-82’ via Cherry Red Records
CHINA CRISIS Wishful Thinking (1983)
With his OMD success, Mike Howlett was drafted in by Virgin Records to produce what turned out to be CHINA CRISIS’ most synth based long player of their career. Utilising Emulator strings and a pizzicato sample derived from plucking an acoustic guitar string close to the bridge, ‘Wishful Thinking’ was a sweetly textured, melodic pop single that thoroughly deserved its Top 10 chart placing. One fan of the record was STEELY DAN’s Walter Becker who went on to produce the 1985 follow-up ‘Flaunt The Imperfection’.
Available on the album ‘Working With Fire & Steel – Possible Pop Songs Volume 2’ via Virgin Records
A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS Wishing (1983)
With a percussively clanky backbone and using just black keys for its infectious melody line, ‘Wishing’ was the big home hit that A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS has been waiting for, following their acceptance by the MTV audience across the Atlantic. Although much derided in the UK, it was in the US that A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS made a cultural impact, with send-ups of singer Mike Score’s outlandish hairdo appearing in ‘The Wedding Singer’ and ‘Friends’. Score himself later moved to America and lost his Scouse accent!
Available on the album ‘Listen’ via Cherry Pop
JOHN FOXX Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1983)
While Zeus B Held provided his rugged arty pop energy for the majority of ‘The Golden Section, a gentler hand was required for the more serene closer ‘Twilight’s Last Gleaming’. Bringing in Mike Howlett to fulfil the role, Howlett gave the tune an epic gothic aesthetic that recalled ‘Statues’ from OMD’s ‘Organisation’. The end result had more of a connection to its predecessor ‘The Garden’ thanks to the choir boy vocal of James Risborough and Foxx’s own forlorn whistling alongside the synthesized dramatics.
Available on the album ‘The Golden Section’ via Edsel Records
TIN TIN Hold It (1983)
After leaving DURAN DURAN prior to the band signing to EMI, Stephen Duffy formed TIN TIN, an electronic oriented project with members of FASHION and DEXY’S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS. Their first single ‘Kiss Me’ released in 1982 became a cult dancefloor hit and for its follow-up ‘Hold It’, Mike Howlett was drafted in on production duties. Less immediate than ‘Kiss Me’, ‘Hold It’ nevertheless gained club traction thanks to a remix by Francois Kevorkian. Duffy eventually went solo and it was a Fairlighted remake of ‘Kiss Me’ that got finally got him a hit.
Originally released a single on WEA Records, currently unavailable
BERLIN Now It’s My Turn (1984)
Although the two songs produced by Giorgio Moroder, ‘Dancing In Berlin’ and ‘No More Words’, grabbed most of the attention on BERLIN’s first full length album proper, the rest of ‘Love Life’ was produced by Mike Howlett. Having achieved Trans-Atlantic success with A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS, Howlett was a natural choice for the LA based band and their Eurocentric aspirations. Combining electronics with a dash of AOR, BERLIN often sounded like ULTRAVOX fronted by HEART. With a defiantly feisty vocal from Terri Nunn, ‘Now It’s My Turn’ was absorbingly anthemic.
Available on the album ‘Love Life’ via Geffen Records
Text by Chi Ming Lai
4th January 2016