Mike Howlett found himself producing many of the key records of the new wave period, but on paper was an unlikely choice: as the bass player in Gong, from 1973-77, he was most closely associated with prog rock. In the wake of punk, the street-cred of long-haired prog refugees had been devalued to almost nothing. Like fellow Gong guitarist, Steve Hillage, however, Howlett had both the technical proficiency and understanding of the new wave to make chart stars of new romantic upstarts. He also had connections at street level: in 1977, he started Strontium 90, the band that spawned The Police. While Sting and company went on to conquer the world, Howlett turned his hand to production, making some of the biggest tracks of the day.
Today, Howlett has an academic life, while also making music with his psychedelic space-funk band, House of Thandoy. Below, we’ve set out some of the milestones of an impressive career.
10. Gong – Sold to the Highest Buddha
Howlett started as a bass player with a band in Australia, which relocated to the UK in 1970. It didn’t achieve the success it hoped for; so, in 1973, Howlett joined Gong, which had been started by an Australian exile, Daevid Allen. The story he tells is that an ex-girlfriend had examined the astrological signs of the band’s members and determined that a Taurus (and bass player) was needed, so he got the call to join the group. Gong’s hippy lineage might have taken a reputational knock during the punk years, but there is a direct line between it and a lot of modern dance music.
9. Fast Breeder & The Radio Actors – Digital Love
A one-off project with Steve Hillage and Sting, Fast Breeder & The Radio Actors featured Howlett on bass. It isn’t amazing pop, but as a document of a moment when paths crossed and people thought about the consequences of nuclear energy, it is essential listening.
8. Martha & The Muffins – Echo Beach
Canadian art school students, Martha & The Muffins, found themselves in England in 1979, recording an album with Howlett for Virgin’s Dindisc off-shoot. The result was an international hit, “Echo Beach,” which involved more sax then sex but still managed to get near the top of the charts. Asked by Music News about the influence he had over the sound of that recording, Howlett said:
I did what a good producer should do – I helped the artists to realise a vision, sometimes in spite of themselves. For example, we had to re-record that song because the first recording the drummer wasn’t technically competent enough. But what I did was not to replace him, because what he played was important in its own way, so I trained him up – really. Then when we came to re-record it, the sax player had got some stick from his jazzy friends for the beautiful, melodic solo he had played on the first recording attempt, and tried to play a freakish Alber Ayler-style of atonal squawk, instead! It took me a lot of patience and persistence over several weeks to get the solo that ended up on the record. So I would say I had quite a lot of artistic influence there!
There were two Marthas in Martha & The Muffins. Martha Ladly, the one on keyboards in this video, became Peter Saville’s girlfriend, designed record covers for New Order and performed with The Associates before eventually returning to Canada to become a professor. She also appeared as a backing singer in videos for Roxy Music’s “Avalon,” despite not having performed on the recording, and toured Japan with Robert Palmer – but we will say nothing about these matters. Howlett produced “Finlandia,” one of the two solo singles that she released, but it doesn’t live on Youtube, so we offer only this M&M track for illustration.
7. Blancmange – Feel Me
Although their first UK tour was supporting Nash the Slash, Blancmange were closely associated with early Depeche Mode: appearing on the seminal Some Bizarre album alongside them, sharing the bill at live shows, and even holidaying with Vince Clarke and his then-girlfriend, Deb. The duo of Neil Arthur and Stephen Luscombe successfully combined the electronics of the futurists and the surrealistic drama of Sparks in an eclectic blend, which had mass appeal. Howlett piloted their debut album, Happy Families, into the charts, but their star faded in the coming years. Blancmange recently returned to recording, issuing two albums in short order, but they are best remembered for songs like this.
6. Gang of Four – I Love a Man in a Uniform
Gang of Four mixed Marvin Gaye and Louis Althusser in varying amounts, but were mainly known for having inspired Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers and having had this single banned by the BBC during the Falklands War. Howlett ran the controls for their third studio album, making the sound more complex while placing gunshots into the rhythm track.
5. The Comsat Angels – Independence Day
Named for a Ballard story, The Comsat Angels made a dent in the post-punk world with “Independence Day,” but three albums in found themselves adrift. The Jive label (home to A Flock of Seagulls and, later, Britney Spears) took them on, bringing in Howlett to attempt a relaunch. The effort was spearheaded by a re-recording of “Independence Day,” but the moment for chart success had passed.
4. John Foxx – Twilight’s Last Gleaming
Although most of John Foxx’s Golden Section album was produced by Zeus B. Held with Gareth Jones, Howlett is credited with the role on the closing track, “Twilight’s Last Gleaming.” One of the best tracks on a generally excellent record, “Twilight’s Last Gleaming” features whistling sounds that aren’t a million miles from Goldfrapp’s “Utopia,” along with choral-style backing, over a chugging beat programmed by Howlett on an MC-4.
3. A Flock of Seagulls – Space Age Love Song
A Flock of Seagulls became known more for singer Mike Score’s excessively 80s haircut than their music, but they won a “Best Rock Instrumental Performance” Grammy for the Howlett-produced track, “DNA,” from their debut album. “Space Age Love Song” is as close as they got to sounding like the Steve Hillage-produced Simple Minds, and the melody is quoted in more recent material by Marsheaux.
2. Indochine – Punishment Park
Indochine are enormous stars in France, Belgium, Switzerland – and Sweden. Although lesser known to Anglophone audiences, their credentials as pop stars on the continent (including its northern fringes) are well-established. In 1990, Howlett was tapped to produce “Punishment Park,” a single that features the actress Juliette Binoche on supporting vocals.
1. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark – Messages
The version of “Messages” on Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s eponymous 1980 album was magnificent but not quite the stuff of jukebox glory. Dindisc hired Howlett to make a single of it, and his approach lifted the track from a slightly more contemplative song into a danceable number with eyes on Top of the Pops. Howlett took it out of the cathedral and pushed it out onto the dancefloor, scoring a Top 15 hit. The eye-catching Saville sleeve has become a design classic, as well.