The mid-80s synth-pop master reflects on his typically upbeat transatlantic hit, written in the locker room of a basketball stadium
Acclaimed synth-pop pioneer Howard Jones burst on the contemporary music scene in 1983 with quintessentially English songwriting, pioneering layered keyboard arrangements and thought-provoking lyrics. His very first single New Song reached No 3 on the UK singles chart and his first two albums, Human’s Lib and Dream Into Action, followed suit bringing Howard a host of hits including What Is Love?, Pearl In The Shell, Like To Get To Know You Well, Hide And Seek (that was performed at Live Aid), Look Mama, No One Is To Blame and Things Can Only Get Better.
The first single from Dream Into Action in 1985, Things Can Only Get Better reached No 6 in the UK Singles Chart and No 5 in the United States on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Curiously, the song also crossed over to the R&B charts in America, peaking at No 54.
Howard has sold over eight million albums and continues to tour across the world every year, which led us to line up an interview back in early 2019. As part of that conversation, he recalled how this irrepressible synth-pop classic was crafted in the locker room of an American basketball stadium…
“I had this really weird Akai desk with a kind of cassette – a 12-track recording desk. It was quite an odd thing to have, but 12 tracks was kind of good for me. I’d have a drum machine, some keyboards and a mic, and I used to jot down ideas on that. Then, when I got back, I was able to develop them and they turned into what they did.
“I was on this massive 18-month world tour. A lot of the dates around America, touring on the bus, so I had a big band with me and I had to write this album. There was a sense of desperation! But being on tour was so exciting for everyone, we were playing huge venues and audiences, and there was a huge buzz around us, so the energy level was really high. So when I went to start work on Things Can Only Get Better, I was thinking about what audiences liked – they loved singing along to my music – so I wanted to write something based on what I was doing every night, which was getting the audience going. And I wanted to write a song that was really uplifting and give people a sense of hope about the future.
“So I kept working away at this song… ‘Things can only get better’ – if everything goes wrong – which could’ve applied to me quite easily. ‘Do you feel scared? I do’… Yeah, I did because I was terrified that my whole life had been ‘trying to get here’ and was I going to blow it now? All that came pouring into the song and I would record this and put it onto a cassette, and then go on the bus and play it to the band and see what they thought – were they getting excited by it? Then I’d go back and keep working on it. Normally you’d be at home or in the studio writing, but we were playing these basketball stadiums and I’d be in the mens’ locker-room with my rig and the terrible acoustics, and it was a bit grim! But it just had to be done. So there was the desperation and the excitement, and the audiences every night, so it was very much born out of those circumstances.
“It was between soundcheck and the show, was the time that I had – I had that window to work on it – so was definitely a sort of energy provided by that. [I thought], ‘I’ve got to get this done and I can’t think about it too much, it’s got to be done and I’ve got to capture that energy. And I think I really did that with that song. Also, it’s quite a funky track, so I wanted to include a bit of the live [element]… I was in America, I was listening to lots of radio there and I wanted to have a brass solo section, and all that stuff.
“I’ve always been very lyric-orientated. Because the music comes relatively easily for me, and lyrics are harder, but with this one I had the line ‘things can only get better’ – a really hopeful, positive line – and then I thought, for the chorus I was going to make it really simple so that anybody can sing along, they don’t have to remember the lyrics, because it’s just a ‘woa-woah’ chorus, which was a bit brave to do that, I suppose. It wasn’t because I couldn’t think of any other lyrics, I knew that audiences loved to just do a big chant when I play live, so that’s where that came from. And the lyrics were as much about my fears of the future… ‘And do you feel scared? I do / But I won’t stop and falter / And if we threw it all away / Things can only get better’. It’s a celebration of hope really, that song.
“I’m constantly going back and updating it, every year I’ll go, ‘I’ve got to move that bass drum…’ Honestly, you don’t want to throw away the essence of the song and make it so that nobody recognises it – I’d never do that – but there are always little refinements you can make, with the sensibilities that you have now, as opposed to then. You know, I just threw that bass line down, the sampled slap bass, and now I’d rather let that go! It has to be much more tight and the groove… So I work on those things and change the sound as well. The evolution of equipment now allows you to go in and just make things a little tighter and funkier. So yeah, I’m constantly updating them, all the hits are getting a makeover!
“Also, I’m an electronic musician and it’s a wonderful thing that we can do that maybe you can’t do with a regular band. A bass drum and snare [on an acoustic kit] sound like they do, but with electronic music you can be constantly updating the snare sound, adding things in, changing the keyboards so they sound a bit more like you’d use today. So I really want to use the fact that I threw all my cards into this electronic pot and I want to be able to make the most of that.”