'Designing Heaven' reviewed by The LEXICON Issue 2 from David Richards
Heaven 17 "Bigger Than America" (Eye of the Storm- UK) - 1989's Teddy Bear, Duke and Psycho was about as disappointing an album as could be imagined from Heaven 17. Most fans, as the years wore on, began to realize it was probably also the bands swan song, which made it doubly disappointing.
But the gods of good fortune (and Commerce) have now favored us with a brand new collection from the "godfathers of pop". Bigger Than America marks the first all new collection from the band since 1989 (they've had three best of collections meanwhile). It was, as they say, well worth the wait.
Try to get by the first single, "Designing Heaven". Maybe one day it will be considered a classic like "Let Me Go" or "Penthouse and Pavement", but it's doubtful. The song lacks energy or a good melody, seemingly constructed with out a real master plan. Add that to the opening track "Dive" which has even less energy and direction. With these two opening tracks out of the way the album suddenly opens up, like Dorothy landing in Oz. The band seems invigorated by going back to the old analogue synths (a fact proudly noted in the liner notes). Gregory's voice has never been better and stronger, he uses it to push the songs to even greater melodic heights and often duets with himself to form great harmonies. The band has wisely added to that a liberal, but not overbearing, use of back up singers, which has filled out the songs rather than drowned out Gregory.
The music also is far more powerful than past efforts. Albums like Pleasure One and Teddy Bear seemed overly loud and overly full of tons of instrumentation, yet curiously flat. Now that the band has scaled back the sound seems, ironically, fuller, richer. They actually seem to get a "warmer" sound out of the old synths. Stand out tracks include the should-a-been first single "Freak", "Another Big Idea" and the title track.
This is easily their best work since Penthouse and Pavement or How Men Are. No US Domestic release has been announced.
There is also a German CD single for "Designing Heaven" with mixes by Altern-8 and Georgio Moroder. Non of the remixes set the song on fire, but seem serviceable enough for clubs. No b-sides or unreleased songs. From the UK there was released a 2 cd set for the single. All together 9 tracks, they do not contain the "Pei" mix from the German single, but do have 5 mixes not on the German single, including a version auf Deutsch ("Den Hemmel Designen") and several remixes by Giorgio Moroder.
DESIGNING HEAVEN 17
A TALK WITH MARTIN WARE
From the wreckage of the presumed DOA Human League, Martin Ware and Ian Marsh crawled out to form B.E.F. Then they ran into a singer by the name of Glen Gregory. Ideas were hatched, plans drawn up and Keyboard Manufactures' Accountants made giddy with expectation. Heaven 17 was born.
In the 15 or so years since a lot has happened to these three intrepid travelers. They've hit the UK top 5 twice, with the same song, ten years apart. They rescued careers thought long over and started ones a new.
Back in 1981 Penthouse and Pavement introduced the band to the world. Earlier that year B.E.F. and Glen Gregory had teamed up on B.E.F.âs compilation of standards call Music of Quality and Distinction, but this was the real coming out. The album was embraced by the public and critics alike. Two years later "Temptation" (with help from Karol Kenyon) hit the top 5 in the UK. A 1993 re-issue would help the single to become the 42nd biggest single of the rock era in the UK. Over here in the US "Let Me Go" was their career high, hitting #87 on the Hot 100. The bands popularity started slipping after that, ironically just as they were hitting a creative high with the remarkable ãconceptä album How Men Are. Several years later Pleasure One would spin off their last US it, a top ten Dance hit "Contenders". The un-even, but not all together bad (check out "Responsibility") Teddybear, Duke and Psycho would follow in 1988. And then, Boom (not the future), silence.
Not that individual members were quiet, Ian Marsh would go on to start his own record company. Ware would produce (with BEF) Tina Turner's comeback single "Let's Stay Together", Terrance Trent D'Arby's debut, as well as Scritti Pollitti and Erasure. Glen Gregory would duet with Claudia Brucken of ACT and release a single as Ugly.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the band got back together and released the brand new collection Bigger Than America.
Martin Ware recently agreed to submit to a barrage of questions from Lexicon about the new album, Heaven 17 in general and lots of other stuff.
Lexicon: About the new album, Any plans for a US release? Can you explain a little about it and how it came about?
Martin Ware: No plans for the US. We [the band] have always remained close friends and we were offered a good deal of money to get back together by Eye of the Storm [the record label that released the new album]. We jumped at the opportunity. It is a purely analogue album. It was recorded mainly using early monophonic instruments.
You guys have kept pretty busy over the past 8 years since "Teddybear". Is this what kept Heaven 17 on hold? Or had you broken up?
Ware: We just stopped working and went our separate ways for a while. We never officially split up.
How did the re-issued singles of a couple o years ago come about? Were you surprised how big they were in the UK? (all three hit the top 40)
Ware: Virgin were doing a new romantic (We were never that!) compilation and asked us if we were interested in "Temptation" being remixed. We said yes and the rest did surprise us.
Virgin and Arista seemed to lose interest in you guys after you didn't sell millions of records here in the US. Do you perceive Heaven 17 as having a fan base here?
Ware: We were always more influential than big sellers. That's life, I'm afraid, when you're trying to stick to your creative principles.
Let's talk about B.E.F. for a second. I noticed that in Tina Turner's autobiography you guys are glossed over after "Let's Stay Together" brought her back. What is your relationship with Ms. Turner today?
Ware: I haven't seen her for about 5 years. She's much more into MOR rock now, not my bag.
"Music of Quality and Distinction II" (which Turner guests on) is a great collection, yet it seems to be impossible to find. Why was it never released in the US with all those great R&B singers?
Ware: I couldn't believe when it didn't get a release in the USA either. It's out on a budget label in the UK now.
Will "Music For Listening To" and "Music for Stowaways" ever be released on CD?
Ware: Be nice wouldn't it?
You've done lots of outside production outside of Heaven 17 (and even B.E.F.). What's been your favorite, most interesting?
Ware: Scritti Pollitti (Green contributed a track to MQDII), Terrance Trent D'Arby and an album by Tashan on Chaos Records I produced - I love that.
One for Glen - You've been working with Martin Fry of ABC. How is that going, is Mark White involved?
Gregory: No more Mark White. There is a new album co-written by Fry and myself.
What about your rumored solo album?
Tell us about UGLY?
Gregory: John Uriel and I were on Rhythm King / Nutbush - One single and then dropped. (Was electronic pop).
Martin, you were in Sheffield when Vice/Versa - ABC was around, is this the connection between Fry and Gregory?
Ware: We've always been acquaintances.
Phil Oakey (Human League) in an interview with "Record Collector" seemed dismissive of ABC and the Sheffield "scene" in general.
Ware: Phil has a degree in dismissiveness.
To touch on Human League for a second, do you know what happened to the planned collection of rarities called "The Future" that was supposed to come out last spring? Did you guys have a hand in assembling it?
Ware: As far as I know it was never intended to be released, but I have a copy.
With all the success they had, do you ever regret leaving Human League?
Do you guys still keep in touch with members of the Human League, have a bowling night or something?
Ware: Ian still sees Phil.
Who (or what) do you guys listen to today?
Ware: All sorts. Glenn likes Britpop, I hate it but like Hiphop and experimental pop of any description.
Have you been energized by Techno, Jungle, Ambient etc? There is a track on the "Go Go Brown" single called "Slow All Over" that sounds ambient, were you listening to Eno and the like at the time?
Ware: Yes to Eno. Techno is, I find, a bit contrived and even boring generally.
Did you ever hear T42's version of "Let Me Go"? What about sampling, I've heard "Penthouse and Pavement" pop up in rap songs.
Ware: We never heard it (T42). But if anyone samples us I regard it as a compliment.
Both the new Heaven 17 album and the last Human League album rely on an earlier sound. Is it easier or harder to go back to this "primitive" sound?
Ware: It's just a matter of using a limited sonic palette.
Are Politics back for the band?
Ware: Absolutely, left wing activists.
What does the future hold for Heaven 17, BEF and you?
Ware: We will continue to slough our lonely furrow and avoid being sucked into the mediocre mainstream.