Turns out, Howard Jones was wrong: there is someone to blame, and his name is Billy Ocean.
At the very least, we can sort of blame Billy Ocean for the fact that Howard Jones never had a number one hit: “No One is to Blame,” Howard’s highest charting hit in the U.S., peaked at #4 during the week of July 5, 1986– the same week that Billy’s “There’ll Be Sad Songs (To Make You Cry)” reigned at #1. (For the record: that week, Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years” was #2 and El DeBarge’s “Who’s Johnny?” was #3. Man, what an anemic top three that was…)
“No One is to Blame” By Howard Jones
History, though, has been much kinder to Howard’s song than to Billy’s– much kinder, in fact, than to many 80s songs. Despite being more than thirty years old, “No One Is to Blame” still gets radio play and has emerged as one of the most enduring songs of the Great 80s.
And to think the song almost didn’t happen– at least, not the version we’ve all come to love.
The single that we still hear on the radio– the one with the Phil Collins drumming– is actually a remake of an earlier version of the song from Howard’s second album, Dream Into Action. The journey of “No One Is to Blame”— from overlooked also-ran to decade-defining masterpiece– can teach us a few things, about creativity, inspiration, and the craft of writing. Here are eight lessons aspiring artists can learn from “No One Is to Blame”:
Inspiration can come anywhere, anytime– and in the case of “No One Is to Blame,” Howard Jones found himself inspired by an off-the-cuff remark made by an anonymous record promoter.
In an interview with Dan MacIntosh of songfacts.com, Jones explains the origin of “No One Is to Blame.” He said, after the success of his first album Human’s Lib, he found himself doing the rock-star thing: performing, traveling across America, and doing interviews with disc jockeys and record company promoters. “I was in San Francisco,” he recounts, “and I was doing a promotion with the local record company guy, and we were crossing the street to go to the radio station, and he said to me, ‘Howard, what do you think of all the amazing women here in San Francisco?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, they’re great, they’re fantastic.’ And he said, ‘Well, you can look at the menu, but you don’t have to eat’…”
“And so that was it,” Jones continues, “a good spark for a huge idea coming for a song.” The lesson for artists: always be alert and ready to seize upon that “spark” of inspiration.
Tell It Slant
In one of her most famous poems, Emily Dickinson advised, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” To me, she was saying that some truths are so elusive or paradoxical or harsh, you can’t talk about them directly. You have to talk about them indirectly, through stories or metaphors.
That’s what Howard Jones is doing in “No One is to Blame.” The song seems to be about a relationship that can’t get off the ground. And it’s not because the two people don’t care for each other– the chorus makes it clear that they do– but they just can’t make it happen, due to forces beyond their control.
Now, that’s a real phenomenon, but like most matters of the heart, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (“If you like each other, just make it work!”) So Howard tells it slant, by filling the song with images of frustration– the fastest runner who can’t win the race, for example, or the mountain climber who can’t reach the summit. Each line in the song is like a mini-parable about unfulfilled desires– and the the fact that the lyrics don’t offer reason why all this desires remain unfulfilled only intensifies this overall sense of frustration.
Make Every Word Count
Every word in this song contributes to this overarching theme of frustration due to unfulfilled desires. Consider: twice in the song Jones uses the word “just”– “You can look at the menu, but you just can’t eat” and “it’s the last piece to solve the puzzle, but you just can’t make it fit.” That simple word “just” highlights that there’s no good reason for these two people not to be together; they “just” can’t make it happen.
Revisit Old Material
Artists often return to familiar haunts. For example, novelist Orson Scott Card developed his 1977 short story “Ender’s Game” into his best-selling 1985 novel of the same name; John Knowles did the same thing, when he turned his short story “Phineas” into the classic novel A Separate Peace. The Beach Boys’ 1965 hit “Help Me Rhonda” originally began as “Help Me Ronda,” but they modified the arrangement (and the spelling of the girl’s name) when they released the song as a single.
Howard Jones did something similar with “No One is to Blame,” a song he had originally recorded for his second album Dream into Action. That album boasted several hit singles (including “Things Can Only Get Better” and “Life in One Day”)– but “No One Is to Blame” was not among them.
In an interview for Toronto radio station boom 97.3., during a segment called “Behind the Vinyl,” Jones said he always thought the song “had potential to be a big radio song.” So he decided to re-record it. But not everyone saw the same potential that Howard did.
In the same “Behind the Vinyl” interview, Howard tells this story: “I took the song to the head of the record company at Electro. I played it to him in his office. And I said, ’I really think this could do really well…in Canada and the States.’ He said to me, ‘Oh man well, you know, that’s a B-side.’ And I said, ‘No I honestly, really do believe this could.’ It was one of those moments where you have to kind of stand up for what you really thought and believed about your work.” A great lesson for writers everywhere. (The literary world is filled with these kinds of stories. Hey, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was rejected by twelve different publishers before one finally signed her. )
For his remake, Howard decided to have someone new look at the song, someone with fresh eyes. So he approached someone who knew a thing or two about hit singles: Phil Collins.
Howard had met Phil previously, when they were both taking part in the benefit concerts for the Prince’s Trust, a youth charity organization in the UK. Howard asked Phil for his help, and naturally, Phil agreed–because he liked the song and because he pretty much helped out EVERYONE in the 80s.
In a 2013 conversation with the online music magazine Innerviews, Howard explains how he and Phil “spent two days at The Farm, Genesis’ studio, working on the track.” (According to Howard, Phil squeezed in the collaboration over a weekend, while he was working on the Genesis album Invisible Touch. The song “Invisible Touch” and “No One is to Blame” were actually in the Top Ten at the same time, with “Invisible Touch” eventually reaching #1 on July 19th, 1986.)
Phil produced the new version of “No One Is to Blame,” as well as providing drums and backing vocals. The all-female group named Afrodiziak also sang back up.
If you listen to both versions consecutively, you’ll see that many aspects of the song– the lyrics, vocals, and piano– remain the same. The biggest difference: Phil’s drum work. The original version opens with the piano; the re-recording opens with the “tick-tockity” drumming that carries throughout the song. Also, for the re-recording, the drumming is more subtle– which seems sort of strange to say, since this is Phil “In the Air Tonight” Collins we’re talking about! But in the original, when the drumming kicks in, it’s louder, more aggressive. In the re-recording, the drumming is less noticeable, to keep the focus on the vocals.
The lesson for artists: when revising your work, you can keep the stuff that works, but don’t resist adding different dimensions.
Don’t Get Rid of the Old Stuff
The new version of “No One Is to Blame” was released in the U.S. on the EP Action Replay as well as on the CD version of his 1986 album One to One. But it’s not as if the original version just disappeared… and Howard knows that’s a good thing.
In his interview with songfacts.com, Howard says that he only plays the original version of “No One Is to Blame” in concert– because he feels that’s the version fans want to hear. “I’ll tell you what, the fans all like the original version best… I think it’s because it’s less slick and it’s got more emotion in it.”
And that may be one of the most important lessons for artists: don’t throw your ideas away. Store them away somewhere. Maybe you can use them later. Because if you let a really good idea slip away… well, you have no one to blame but yourself.