In recent years, the incessant sampling of Gary Numan's material has reaped serious chart action and brought his music to a new audience. All power to the android's elbow because 'Are Friends Electric?' 'Cars' and 'We Are Glass' are classics, but after a first period of success Gazza, by his own admission, ceased pushing the envelope quite as consistently. (His recent return to form is well documented.)
Maybe those looking for alternative trailblazers of British electronica should arm themselves with flaming torches and seek out the caves in which the funky electronic paintings of Heaven 17 were daubed. After all, as far back as 1984, lead singer Glenn Gregory was anticipating our current dance club culture. "We were going to have Heaven 17 parties. Hire a big place, everyone puts down a fee and all the food and booze is free thereafter, and you have Dj spots, playing your favourite music and your own music."
Heaven 17 was a three-headed beast from Sheffield that comprised of Martin Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Glenn Gregory. As adolescents, they toiled in a variety of bands whose names and line-ups changed with the weather. Things got serious when Ware and Marsh acquired primitive synthesisers and began to explore the possibilities of electronic music., In 1978 they formed the Human League, who pioneered British electronica when Punk was still noisy and the New Wave three kettles away from building up a full head of steam. Phil Oakey once told me he was recruited as lead singer almost by default.
"If Glenn Gregory had not been in London doing a photography course they would have asked him - I found out afterwards. It was only because Glenn wasn't living in Sheffield that he wasn't the singer in the Human League!" Adrian Wright became the fourth corner of the square, taking care of visuals so effectively the League began to build a reputation based on the quality of his slide show! Musically, Ware and Marsh had no intention of making experimental slurping noises that appealed to a small cult audience and wanted to use primitive synthesisers and drum machines to record pop songs.
One obvious influence was the shimmering melodies of Kraftwerk, who shared a similar mission statement. "I remember Martyn walking in and playing 'Trans Europe Express'" recalls Oakey, "and a roomful of people's jaws hitting the ground. They could not believe the intensity, the purity, the directness of it - and the confidence, really." The League shared a similar intensity and, with Oakey crooning over clanking, throbbing melodies began to build a live following. Early recordings were startling and their first EP, 'The Dignity of Labour', remains seminal electronica. "That was mainly Martyn and Ian," recalled Oakey. "The basics were Ian sequencing on quite a difficult system - an old Roland System 100 with crude sequencing - and working damned hard to make it sound good. At that stage, Martyn and Ian were so strong in what they did. They didn't have any doubts about themselves."
The Human League also had no qualms about attacking cover versions that ranged from unfashionable Gary Glitter songs to the theme music from a Gordon's Gin advert. "Fortunately, one of the few talents I have," Martyn Ware told a journalist in 1982, "is being able to listen to a tune and pick it up very quickly, the arrangements and everything." The Human League was snapped up by Virgin Records, who worked hard to break them as a chart act, Two albums, 'Reproduction' (1979) and 'Travelogue' (1980), received favourable reviews, but single's like 'Being Boiled' and 'Empire State Human' never really troubled the upper reaches of the charts.
In 1980 the Human League divided into two cells. I think it was more personalities than anything;' recalls Oakey, who clashed with Ware, "and suddenly there was a big split." There was also the frustration associated with lack of commercial success and huge debt incurred by promotional touring. Ware and Marsh went one way and Oakey and Wright went the either keeping the name and slide projector.
Ware and Marsh were re-signed to Virgin on the strength of some demos which included a song called '(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang'. Vocals were provided by old friend Glenn Gregory and this trio became Heaven 17, named after a fictional band mentioned in Anthony Burgess's classic novel A Clockwork Orange. Heaven 17 was not intended to be a full-time group. Ware and Marsh had formed the British Electric Foundation as an umbrella under which they could produce a variety of musical projects. Heaven 17 was intended to be an outlet for material that blended together elements of electronic music, funk and soul.
'Fascist Groove Thang' was released as a single in March 1981 . It was a delicious electronic confection of rhythmic drive with a lyrical message that questioned the right-wing tendencies of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and America's "Reagan President elects, fascist God in motion " This corrosive political twist meant that daytime radio play was denied although the single did reach a respectable Number 45 in the charts. Higher, incidentally, than any previous Human League single.
A stunning funk-bass solo provided by a young black player called John Wilson remains memorable. "He came in and did the solo in the middle of 'Groove Thang' on the second or third take," recalled Martyn Ware. "We couldn't believe it, Up until that point we'd never worked with guitars in our lives. That 30-accond segment changed the course of Heaven 17 for all time, because that was when we started leaning more towards black music."
The first Heaven 17 album - 'Penthouse and Pavement' - was released in September 1981 and was a confident brash affair that deserved in Top 20 placing. Tracks like 'Play To Win' and 'Let's All Make A Bomb' were rhythmic. electronic and funky and an ideal showcase for Gregorys powerful and passionate vocal style. Cover art depicted Ware, Marsh and Gregory in business suits that were in keeping with their approach to their art. As Ware stated, 'If you work with a record company, you create music to make a living out of it and to satisfy your own artistic worth. The best and least hypocritical way of doing that is to act as a business."
Before working on more Heaven 17 material,Ware and Marsh devoted time and energy to 'Music Of Quality And Distinction' an album of cover versions sung by their favourite artists. Associate member Billy Mackenzie crooned Bowie's 'Secret Life Of Arabia', Time Turner belted out 'Ball Of Confusion' and Glenn Gregory sung Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' and Glen Campbell's 'Wichtita Lineman'. Today, it is the norm for artists to employ a wide variety of guest vocalists, but in 1983 this idea was too far ahead of in time to make the album a commercial success.
Other BEF projects included the bizarre task of producing an album - in two weeks flat n for a group of TV dancers called Hot Gossip! However the skin of the musical banana was slowly being pared away to concentrate upon the commercial fruit of Heaven 17. Ware, Marsh and Gregory could not fail to notice that they retooled Human League, fronted by Oakey and two dancing schoolgirls. were scoring serious chart action.
In October 1982, 'Let Me Go' began the process of propelling Heaven 17 into the pop mainstream. It peaked at Number 41 but was a confident meshing of soul-fuelled electronics. The follow-up 'Temptation', was the motherlode and, dominated by a passionate call-and-response duet between Gregory and Carol Kenyon, climbed to Number 2 in the charts in April 1983. Heaven 17 even appeared on Top Of The Pops where, clutching a microphone stand, Gregory literally chased the beautiful Kenyon around the stage, unable to resist the 'Temptation' of her physical form !
Heaven 17 swiftly became part of the fabric of the music scene and. like fellow white funkers Duran Duran, ABC and Spandau Ballet, were regularly splashed across the pages of magazines like The Face and Smash Hits. This being the early eighties, they were subjected to the entire nine yards of pop marketing including obligatory promotional videos. The cake was iced when Heaven 17's second album, 'The Luxury Gap', went 5 in May 1983. Musically it was a leap forward from 'Penthouse' and showed a remarkable grasp of studio dynamics.
Heaven 17 had not only mastered more advanced synthesisers, drum machines and sequences but had developed an ability to use session musicians to get the required musical brush strokes down upon their magnetic canvas of the tape machine This we, their finest hour - on to be precise, forty minutes and pulsating album tracks like 'We Live So Fast' and 'Lady Ice And Mr Hex' were club favourites. The next single from the album was the ballad 'Come Live With Me'. which went Top 5 in June 1983.
There was a one-year pause for breath before the third album, 'How Men Are saw Top 20 chart action in October 1984 and two singles -'Sunset Now' and 'This Is Mine' - made the Top 30. Ware, Marsh and Gregory had moved with advancing technology and sharpened their distinctive sound by deploying early sampling technology. Heaven 17 then went into hibernation, returning to the fray with 'Pleasure On.' (1986) and 'Teddy Bear Duke And Psycho' (1988). neither of which did much business. A remixed 'Temptation' bit the Top 5 again in 1992 and. in 1999 received the ultimate cultural accolade of being used as soundtrack music to a TV advert to promote the products of Burger King!
Even during the alpine peaks of their success, Heaven 17 never played the touring game. The nearest they came to performing before a live audience was making personal appearances in nightclubs to promote 'Penthouse And Pavement' where they sang along to backing tracks. This is now an accepted part of musical promotion, although back in 1981 on one occasion the backing pipes broke down and Gregory was reduced to miming along to Soft Cell's 'Tainted Love!'
Unlike Milli Vanilli, this moment of farce was, not career-threatening. Indeed, Gregory really could sing - and finally got a chance to prove it when in 1997, Heaven 17 were reactivated and began playing live to promote an excellent album, 'Bigger Than America: This CD was recorded that year at the Glasgow SECC during a tour supporting Erasure and is a delightful and satisfying romp through many of Heaven 17's finest moments.
'Fascist Grove Thang' receives a contemporary dance retooling and, although missing that Wilson bass solo, really holds its own. Gregory's delight in belting out - in fine voice - classic songs like 'Temptation', 'Come Live With Me' and 'Let Me Go' to a receptive audience is obvious. He later commented on the live experience "Whatever the reason. I can honestly say I wish we hadn't waited so long because I absolutely loved it."
New material like 'We Blame Love' and 'Designing Heaven' is wonderful and, underpinned with contemporary dance rhythms, is an obvious return to previous form. It is quite fitting that the boys encore with an early Human League song, 'Being Boiled'. It was something Gregory had always wanted to sing outside the shower, and his voice is perfect to deliver this classic.
In recent years many artists have been rediscovering the work of Heaven 17, Indeed, there was an excellent album - Retox/Detox (1998) where remixes were let loose on much of their classic material. Of course, like chose old Gary Numan hits, the original work of Heaven 17 should be enjoyed as it was originally recorded. The chairmen of the board may have grown older, lost a few hairs and put on a few pounds, but the product they manufactured for the marketplace has not aged at all.