A musical partnership
Ken Howard and Alan Blaikley met and became friends at the age of eight at University College School in Hampstead, London - a friendship that remained strong until Alan’s death in 2022.
KH We were always collaborating on projects from school magazines to stories and cottoned on very early to the potential power of the media. We both came from musical backgrounds – my mother was a concert pianist, and Alan was a choirboy at St Mary’s-at-Finchley in London.
AB Ken’s father had a Dictaphone in his office on which we recorded our first tentative musical effort – a rumba-tinged number entitled The Yellow Dance. This was in 1954, before the advent of rock’n’roll.
KH Alan and I have known each other for so long that we have developed an intuitive empathy that allows us to short-cut the creative process. It helps that there are two of you – hence the number of songwriting partnerships – because you counterbalance each other’s changing moods.
AB It’s a bit like a rally in tennis, keeping ideas in play which individually one might have discarded as worthless, but which sometimes turn out to have real potential.
KH Once we actually settle down to work it can happen very fast –
AB - or not at all! The creative process requires a temporary suspension of one’s critical faculties. A bit like being in a trance, and the mood must not be broken…
KH …or like surfing a wave, you just go where it takes you; sometimes it’s a wipe-out, and sometimes it’s an exhilarating ride.
AB And then you dispassionately examine what you’ve got, and you can tell at once if it’s a winner.
Alan read Classics at Wadham College, Oxford, and Ken studied Social Anthropology at Edinburgh University. When they came down they met up again as trainee producers for BBC Television in London, Ken in the Drama and Alan in the Talks Departments. While there, in 1963 they began writing songs. After several rejections by Tin Pan Alley, in 1964, they stumbled across a group called the Sheratons performing at a pub in the Balls Pond Road, London.
KH One evening after work we went for a drink in a rather sleazy North London pub called the Mildmay Tavern. Unusually, there was band with a great singer and even more unusually a girl drummer. We went up to them afterwards and said we had several songs we’d like them to hear.
AB It emerged they were desperate for original material for an imminent audition with the pioneer independent record producer Joe Meek, so we quickly taught them the numbers, including Have I The Right? Next thing we heard was that Joe not only liked Have I The Right? but had insisted on recording it there and then in his tiny but already famous studio.
KH We met Joe shortly afterwards and, despite his reputation for having a ferocious temper fuelled by amphetamines, we always got on well with him. He told us that the song was “a certain Number One”, but for weeks after its release it was only selling in pathetically small numbers, 5 or 6 a day. Then suddenly when I phoned for the day’s figures there was great excitement – “It’s done 20,” we were told. That still didn’t seem very impressive. “No, they said,”20 thousand.”
AB This was no thanks to the BBC who wouldn’t play it until it entered the Top Twenty, but the result of Tony Blackburn at the pirate station Radio Caroline taking a shine to it. I shall never forget the thrill of walking down Old Compton Street when it reached Number One and hearing it blasting from every jukebox.
Many successes followed including 13 consecutive hits by Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich, a group from Salisbury, Wiltshire who had served their apprenticeship in the tough school of Hamburg alongside The Beatles.
AB I discovered Dave Dee and the Bostons at a Honeycombs’ gig in Swindon and I was struck by their fantastic combination of superb harmonies and choreographed, almost acrobatic, stagecraft. They employed a lot of humour and there was something of the British music hall tradition about them.
KH We changed their name to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, because they were their actual nicknames and because we wanted to stress their very distinct personalities in a climate which regarded bands as collectives. They also inspired us to write a series of short and very varied musical ‘dramas’ such as The Legend of Xanadu and Last Night in Soho.
Howard and Blaikley were becoming two of the most sought-after composers in Britain and were soon writing hits for Lulu, The Herd, Marmalade, Sasha Distel, and Engelbert Humperdinck among others.
They also began to explore new challenges in composition, writing anonymously the critically acclaimed ‘concept’ album, Ark 2, with a new band - Flaming Youth - which featured a young Phil Collins on drums and vocals.
KH We decided that we needed a pseudonym to distance ourselves from the pure pop of Dave Dee and The Honeycombs. Barlby Road is close to the BBC Television Centre in London and the name Steve Barlby had an authentic – almost transatlantic - ring to it.
AB We were working with Ian Matthews and Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention on the first Matthews Southern Comfort album and, as Steve Barlby, contributed half a dozen tracks. These received rave reviews and Barlby was welcomed as promising new arrival on the folk/rock scene. One of them, I’ve Lost You, was a song about good love imperceptibly turning bad; a couple who go through the motions but are finally only held together by the existence of their child.
Freddy Bienstock of Carlin Music had acquired some of Howard and Blaikley’s back catalogue. He was also the recording manager for Elvis Presley.
AB Freddy was a larger than life character with a mischievous sense of humour. One day he said “Have you guys got anything for Elvis?” Elvis had been an idol since our schooldays and we thought he was joking, but we certainly weren’t going to let the opportunity pass by. We raced into a small studio to cut some demos, including a new arrangement of I’ve Lost You.
KH We had never really envisaged I’ve Lost You as a folk/rock song, although Ian did a marvellous job on it. We had imagined it as a big ballad with drums and full orchestra…
AB We’ve always held that a good song is a good song and can be interpreted in many different ways. Petula Clark recorded a lovely slow soulful ballad version of Have I The Right?
KH We heard nothing for ages and began to fear that it had, after all, been one of Freddy’s passing fancies. Then the telegrams started to arrive…
AB …. firstly that Elvis liked the song and might include it on his next session in June 1970, then that he had recorded it, then that it was to be his next ’A’ side, on the new album, in his movie That’s The Way It Is. A completely dreamlike sequence of events – but it was actually happening!
Howard and Blaikley wrote a further song for Elvis in collaboration with Geoff Stephens, Heart of Rome, which appeared as a B-side to I’m Leavin’ as well as being featured on the album Love Letters From Elvis.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s Howard and Blaikley expanded their writing into new fields – a children's musical radio series, Timbertops, scores for two West End musicals, Mardi Gras which ran for 210 performances at the Prince of Wales Theatre, and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole which occupied Wyndham’s Theatre for almost a year and a half. Ken Tynan commissioned them to write a musical sketch for his erotic revue, Carte Blanche. They also contributed award-winning scores for the classic BBC drama series Miss Marple, and By The Sword Divided and, for Thames Television, The Flame Trees of Thika. A collaboration with the distinguished maverick psychiatrist R.D. Laing led to the album Life Before Death.
They continued to work together in new musical projects and their large and varied musical catalogue often appears in new guises, from commercials for Kellogg’s Special K, to a ‘dance sculpture’ by artists Gilbert and George, and as accompaniment to a particularly violent sequence in Quentin Tarantino’s movie Deathproof. In 2021 director Edgar Wright released his successful film drama Last Night in Soho with the original recording as the title theme.
Ken also became an eminent independent film maker, specialising in drama, music and documentary films which have won or been nominated for the most prestigious broadcasting awards. Until 2019 he was a director of Landseer Productions in London.
Alan, who had early developed a keen interest in psychology, particularly Jung’s Analytical Psychology, trained in the '70s as a psychotherapist at the Westminster Pastoral Foundation and ran a successful private practice for many years in addition to his musical work with Ken. He died on 4 July 2022 after a short illness and his funeral took place at Golders Green Crematorium on 18 July 2022.