Glory Days

A great article about Jack Howard for his biography, Small Moments of Glory.

Author:  Jeff Jenkins, Rhythms.

Date: September/October 2020.

Original URL: N/A


Article Text

One of Australian music’s great quiet achievers has documented his remarkable life in music.

The great Lobby Loyde believed there were two kinds of people in the world: musical enthusiasts and the rest. “Jack Howard is certainly an enthusiast,” says Paulie Stewart, the Painters and Dockers leader, who has shared a stage with Howard many times.

Jack Howard has never been one to blow his own trumpet. Unless, of course, he’s on stage. (Fun fact: Howard is the only trumpet player in the ARIA Hall of Fame.)

A few years back, Howard asked if I could provide a quote for a press release. When I started writing, I couldn’t stop, so I decided to write the whole release instead. “Hack Howard is a true musician,” I started the missive. “While many of his contemporaries worry about record deals, budgets and the size of the gig, Jack simply focuses on one thing – making music.”

I ended the piece: “And whether it’s on stage playing for thousands of people, or at a small club, Jack Howard always delivers. He just loves to play.”

That, in a nutshell, is why I love Jack Howard. I’ve seen him play with famous acts – including Hunters & Collectors, Midnight Oil, Rodriguez, The Living End, Models, X and Harem Scarem. And I’ve seen him perform with bands I’ve never heard of. And he always plays with the same passion.

During Midnight Oil’s Great Circle World Tour in 2017, Howard found himself holed up in hotel rooms around the world, so he started writing a blog. “I recalled how much I used to write back in the day: half-baked detective stories, lyrics, poems, music newsletters, endless postcards and letters and journals.”

That love of writing has now become an autobiography – Small Moments of Glory.

The story starts in Oak Park, a nondescript Melbourne suburb that also gave the world Brian Mannix and the Uncanny X-Men. “The tall guy with the trumpet” grew up in a quiet and clean-living family – his Mum, Pat, and Dad, Bert, didn’t smoke, drink or swear. But they were music fans. Howard recalls being perched on his dad’s shoulders, waving at The Beatles as they drove from Essendon Airport to the city in 1964. He was five years old.

Howard started taking music seriously when he got his scholarship to Wesley College, a school where he is now a music teacher. In Year 12, the college band supported AC/DC at the school dance and Howard helped to smuggle a bottle of Johnnie Walker backstage for Bon.

Howard and his school mate Mark “Wal” Burchett (who later managed the Huxton Creepers and became a major Melbourne booking agent) became regulars at St Kilda’s Seaview Ballroom and the Oxford Scholar on Swanston Street. “I think at one point I’d seen Flowers about 40 times and Models 30 … Wal told me about one new band, Hunters & Collectors, who had seemingly sprung up out of nowhere and were blowing everyone away. He also mentioned that they occasionally used a brass section … the radar was humming.”

Howard approached the band’s singer, Mark Seymour, after a song at the Oxford. “Hey, fantastic gig,” he said hesitantly. “If you’re ever looking for a trumpet player …”

Howard says Seymour “nodded in a fairly surly and impatient manner, ‘Sure, sounds good,’ shrugged and continued on his way. Not much to go on, but a glimmer of light.”

Howard started playing with Hunters & Collectors in August 1981, becoming a mainstay of The Horns of Contempt (“originally, The Horns of Friendliness and Goodwill but, geez, what a naff name!”).

Soon after joining the band, they played with Simple Minds and Ian Dury, joining the Englishman for his encore. “I walked out on stage with a metal rubbish bin over my head and Jeremy [Smith, the H&C French horn player] playing it as loudly as he could. Those were the days.”

The band recorded the classic ‘Talking To A Stranger’ and signed to Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Records and Virgin in the UK. Later, they had international deals with I.R.S. and Atlantic.

Virgin released the band’s second album, The Fireman’s Curse, produced by German legend Conny Plank. “I thought that it was amazing – the greatest record ever made, destined to blow Australian audiences away when we got home,” Howard recalls. But he now reflects, “Whenever a band is in the bubble of recording, it’s easy to delude yourselves into thinking that you’re on to something super special.” The Fireman’s Curse was not a hit. In England, Howard reports, “we hilariously sold one cassette”.

Things improved for Hunters & Collectors when Michael Roberts become their manager in 1984. A Seymour quote about the Melbourne scene at the time is instructive: “it’s alive and well and provincial as hell. Every band hates the next band. The same as Melbourne’s always been – really sullen. But there’s all of these great things going on. I think the reason you get good bands coming out of Melbourne is that they don’t identify with a larger group. They have a sort of stand-off attitude. So you get all of these odd little idiosyncratic qualities in one band, totally different from another.”

As well as the Melbourne scene in the 80’s, Small Moments of Glory provides a rare insight into band politics and personalities. “And H&C, or some of them anyway, were a pack of emotional hardnuts prone to vicious jokes and putdowns,” Howard writes. “If someone spotted a weakness,m he’d be picking at that scab in a flash.

“I would have loved to have been able to discuss Foucault and Baudelaire and The Velvet Underground with the intellectuals in the band,” Howard adds. “But I was happier with Jesaulenko, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Bruce Springsteen.”

He is also brutally honest about the music. Of “Living Daylight”, the title track of their 1987 EP, he writes, “it was over-earnest and pretty character-less. We’d make a few more of these kind of tracks in the years to come. Songs that would fool you – they seemed to have all the necessary components for a big single but weren’t actually very interesting.”

The band – beloved as “the Hunnas” – became a legendary live act, but the shows, for Howard, are a haze of memories. “In a lot of ways, a gig is a gig is a gig. There’s not much to write about them. Another bar, another sticky carpet, another dingy backstage area. You rock or you don’t, but you’re inside it and in the moment (hopefully) and they tend to blur together.”

Howard eloquently captures the tedium of being in a band. “We wrote, we recorded, we released, we toured, then we did it all over again. A thing happened, then another thing happened. It was never that simple or orderly, of course, but that is the life cycle of a rock ‘n’ roll band.”

Paul Kelly has called the book “an insider’s account of what it’s really like to be in a band. Many moments of truth.” While Rob Hirst described it as “beautifully written, authentic, darkly humorous”.

Howard draw on his journal entries, which are often revealing. One example”:

Jan 3 1988: Perth Entertainment Centre (with Hoodoo Gurus) – really nervour on stage but it was very good to 7500 punters. Some nights, I wanted to leave this band altogether. I’m really not doing very much that is interesting. Playing loud. And then this quote: ‘In this country, encouragement is the absence of derision.’

In 1990, H&C toured the US and Europe with Midnight Oil. “And the difference between the Oils and us?” Howard wrote in his diary. “One hit single – ‘Beds Are Burning’. That’s all we need, but that’s the hardest, the luckiest and the most unpredictable element.”

R.E.M.’s manager told Howard he’d always doubted the validity of brass sections in rock ‘n’ roll until he heard Hunters & Collectors. And they got to pay on the Letterman show.

But the international hit proved elusive.

Howard looks back on the band as “a lot of alpha males grinding their egos and agendas together.” But they also become part of the Australian culture, playing at Grand Finals, re-forming to play with Bruce Springsteen, and being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005.

When Hunters & Collectors called it quits in 1998, Howard never looked back. He has released as many solo records as Mark Seymour, done a successful Burt Bacharach tribute show, played trucking tycoon Lindsay Fox in the Molly mini-series, and spearheaded the “Epic Brass” live show, celebrating the great horn hits of Australian music.

James Young, the owner of Melbourne’s Cherry Bar, calls Howard “The Trumpet of Oz”.

As well as the book, Howard has a new solo album, Dog Songs, which celebrates his long-running residency at St Kilda’s Dogs Bar. It includes a new recording of ‘City Lights’, the song that inspired the title of the book:

“Small moments of glory, etched like a turning point in the epic novel of my life.”

Howard’s solo road hasn’t been paved with gold. “I’ve had the conversation with Mark where we both assumed that the huge army of H&C fans would immediately be interested in our new music and we’d have an instant audience.

“How wrong we were!”

Towards the end of the book, Howard reflects on his life. “James Reyne once said to me, ‘At 40, you stop being the man you want to be and you become the man you are.’

“That stuck with me, but I don’t know. I still feel like I’m working towards a resolution.”

Who knows what the future holds for Jack Howard … beyond many more gigs.

You see, he just loves to play.

And he writes pretty damn well, too.

Small Moments of Glory is published by Brolga Publishing. Jack Howard & The Long Lost Brothers’ Dog Songs is out September 20.