Music-news recently had the pleasure of bumping into legendary producer and Gong bass player Mike Howlett. He has worked with some of the biggest names of the 80's including Tears for Fears, A Flock of Seagulls, The Alarm, Joan Armatrading and Martha & the Muffins. He also played a significant role in the formation of The Police. Here, Mike gives a fascinating insight into some of his life and works.

M-N: You fronted Strontium 90 in 1976 which is where Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland first met and played together. How did you all meet? What are your lasting memories of this time?

Mike: I met Sting when I accompanied my girlfriend at the time - Carol Wilson - to see Last Exit in Newcastle in 1976. She was Managing Director of Virgin Music and signed Sting's publishing and paid for him to come to London to try to get a record deal. Andy I knew from Gong days - he had played in Kevin Ayers band and came and jammed with us in the early 70's. I bumped into him in January 1977 when he had just returned from studying classical guitar in California for 2 years. I asked him to play on a demo of my songs I was doing for Virgin. Sting brought Stewart along to that session when my original drummer couldn't make it, and that's where they first met Andy and played together.

M-N: What artists that you've worked with have you been most impressed by?

Mike: This may sound like an odd thing to say, but pretty well every artist I've worked with has had what I call ‘issues'. This idea forms part of a doctoral thesis I'm working on at the moment, but put simply, my observation has been that talent comes with baggage. So to ask what has impressed me is not so easy. Probably the artist who seemed to cope best with her talent and fame and personal issues would be Joan Armatrading.

M-N: If you could have played bass in any band (any era) who would it be (with the exception of Gong, of course).

Mike: Parliament/Funkadelic! I always tried to push Gong into a funkier groove thing.

M-N: What, if any, current bands do you find especially inspiring?

Mike: This is hard - again, it's my view that a large part of what is good about rock and popular music is that each generation finds new ways to articulate their response to life and the world as they find it. This is usually disappointment, anger, rage and disillusionment - quite why we all seem to pop into life believing things should be any particular way is another mystery - it's where the myth of some ancient Eden comes from, that life was once perfect and is now crap. So each generation rises up, like waves on the shore, looks around and says of it's parents: ‘Wow, you guys really fucked up - we're going to sort this out and get it right!' Then they come crashing down on the rocky headland of reality... Oh dear, I've gone off on one! Sorry, what was the question? Oh yes - well, I don't hear any giants out there - you know, like Jimi Hendrix or Bob Dylan, or Coltrane or Miles - who really redefined the canvas. But maybe there are some out there, but who just don't speak for my generation?

M-N: How much artistic influence did you have on Echo Beach?

Mike: 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!

M-N: Was selling ice cream on Oxford Street a particular low or high point in your life?

Mike: It was a great time, looking back - I was 20 years old and had just landed in the UK - you know I was born in Fiji and lived in Singapore and Australia before I came here? London was the centre of the universe and I was just thrilled to be alive and here - I still am. And the ice-cream paid very well - I had landed with £10 to my name when I got here in 1970 and that ran out after 3 weeks. I was in Oxford St and I saw a hairy hippy selling ice-cream from a barrow opposite Selfridges. I asked him if there were any jobs going. He took me back to Shelton St in Covent Garden, which was just a back alley in those days, and introduced me to these Turkish-Cypriots who had a garage full of ice-cream barrows all plugged in to freeze up overnight. Next day I was out there with my own barrow. I did that for two summers. Apart from being nicked for obstruction - £10 fine in the morning and back out on the streets by midday it was very enjoyable - and you got to chat up all the cute tourists!

M-N: Do you keep in touch with any / many of the artists you've worked and played with over the years?

Mike: Probably the only one who has stayed as a personal friend over the years is Martha Ladley from Martha and The Muffins, but I see some of them from time to time. Joan Armatrading was friendly at Gus Dudgeon's memorial at Abbey Road, and I had a nice contact with the Gang of Four guys at the Barbican event in September, but I think we are all busy intent on our different creative paths and they don't always cross that much.

M-N: In your opinion did Gong achieve all its objectives as a band, or were some unfulfilled? i.e. world domination etc.

Mike: I was never really sure whether Gong was meant for world domination, though that was discussed occasionally - I always thought of it as more like a seminary (or is that semen-ary!) for training in the esoteric meaning of music... Mmm, deep! But it was (and still is) the real thing. And I have been influenced and informed by the core philosophies of Gong all my life, for which I am truly grateful. The core idea of the artist as an instrument on which larger creative forces play is, at least, a model which detaches the artist from delusions of greatness. And that hubris is the surest way to turn off the flow of creative juices. I also see music as performing its wider transformational role almost in spite of these flawed artists who execute it. So there, you asked about Gong and that's what you got!

M-N: Your production credits are infamously long and include: The Teardrop Explodes (When I Dream), Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (Enola Gay and Souvenir), Martha & The Muffins (Echo Beach), Tears For Fears, Gang of Four (band) (I Love a Man in a Uniform), Blancmange (band) (Living on the Ceiling), China Crisis, A Flock of Seagulls, The Thompson Twins, Berlin, Joan Armatrading and The Alarm. Which of these are most memorable?

Mike: I can't remember... Oh, yes - I still get royalties for most of them.

M-N: When you are recording a future hit do you know that you have ‘a hit' on your hands?

Mike: Looking back, as I have been doing lately as analysis for my thesis, I have been surprised to recall that I most definitely knew which were the tracks I believed would be the hits - certainly with Echo Beach, Enola Gay, Souvenir, I Ran, Wishing (If I had a Photograph...) and Wishful Thinking. What used to puzzle me was why some tracks I felt as strongly about were not hits - until I ran my own record label and understood how important the marketing and promotion were. If the record company lacks the will, the budget or the competence then a track can be lost - and there is also an element of luck and timing in the mix somewhere.

M-N: We hear there is to be a Gong reunion. Is this true and will you be a part of it?

Mike: Yes and yes! The plan is aiming at somewhere on the continent currently the Melkweg in Amsterdam is the first choice. You may not know, but there have been several events over the last couple of years organised entirely by fans, who were frustrated that there were no tours where they could meet up. These have been in Glastonbury, and have been very successful. There is also a feeling that, what with Pierre the drummer dying earlier this year - and he was the youngest! - there may not be too many years left for re-unions. So watch this space:

Many thanks to Mike Howlett for his time and excellent, in-depth answers. Music-News will keep a close eye on the Gong reunion, and wish Mike and the band the very best wishes.
Rob Barnett, Music News