"ALWAYS SOMETHING THERE TO REMIND ME"
by Lynn Hanna in New Musical Express 27.March 1982
B.E.F. - the two-man electric bright orchestra who have given life to the careers of Sandie Shaw, Gary Glitter and Tina Turner, and turned the pop of the past into a new future.
"Young folks walking with their heads in the sky / Cities aflame in the summertimeland oh, the beat goes on."
HAVE YOU been wondering why everything changes and yet seems to stay the same? Why with all the endless opportunities for a new, stimulating entertainment, the majority of rock music stays stuck in the same old structure?
Relying on the convenience of conservatism and succumbing to the retrenchment temptations of a recession, rock generally prefers to make its money through the tested traditional channels; through the same myths of redemption, the same stale transactions, the same bogus advertisements of pure, messiah motives. Amongst the treacherous rocky morass there are those who are subverting pop processes for more appropriate purposes, using pop's tinselled fabric and gracing it with a more humane countenance, imaginative care and honest understanding.
Groups like DAF, The Associates, ABC, Leisure Process, Depeche Mode in their ingenious way, PiL before they were overcome with indolence, Spandau Ballet minus the overtones of loveless elitism, are all grasping at possibilities and appreciating the opportunities inherent in a popular music mated with the changing form and technology of entertainment and communication.
Aligned to those responding to fresh needs with more flexibility and perception, there's no-one quite like B.E.F., Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware's structural strategy that spawned the pop project Heaven 17.
And B.E.F. have just produced their most ambitious undertaking so far - an LP of cover versions sung by Tina Turner, Sandie Shaw, Billy Mackenzie, Glenn Gregory, Bernie Nolan, Paul Jones, Gary Glitter and Paula Yates, with a cast of collaborators who include Hank Marvin, John McGeoch, John Wilson and the horn section of Beggar and Co.
In many ways in looks like the logical conciusion of post-modernist pop; a timely alternative to the theory that pop's purest essence is conceritrated in the moment, a reflection of the renewed interest in the nature of the song, a different search for quality in thought and execption. A feeling that the care you invest in the product you offer to an audience is an indication of your integrity and intentions.
"You're still such a part of me / So deep in the heart of me."
MARTYN: "When we were with The Human League, right from the inception we did cover versions and they tended to be the more popular things we did, although cover versions weren't fasionable at all at that time. Fortunately one of the few talents I have is being abie to listen to a tune and pick it up very quickly, the arrangements and everything. Following on from that, it seemed logical that we should make use of that, have fun in the process and very usefully gain a lot of experience in the production field."
Ian: "On top of that, although we might have liked to have done that earlier, within the confines of The Human League or any group, if you'd done your first album and suddenly come up with an LP of covers, people would think, oh, they've run out of ideas. Some people have done it, like Bowie and Ferry, but it's not generally accepted. One of the things with B.E.F. is that we could have things like Heaven 17 running at the same time and also do different versions of songs we like."
"it keeps on haunting melltiust keeps on reminding me. "
UNTANGLING THE allusions, the tributes and the coincidences in the deft and deliberate jumbling up of past and present on 'Music Of Quality And Distinction' could continue for a very long time. Besides the suprises inherent in creating such a collage of musical myths, there's a glinting wealth of incidentals and parallels: Sandie Shaw singing Cilla Black, Billy Mackenzie's interpretation of Bowie and Roy Orbison, pop gossip columnist and girl-around-town Paula Yates following in Nancy Sinatra's footsteps with a frothy, blonde version of 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', a blazing Tina Turner cover of The Temptations' soul standard 'Ball Of Confusion', a wonderful version of that quasi-C&W sob-story 'Wichita Lineman' done with delicate, eerie electronics which echo the song's own imagery and - a personal favourite - Heaven 17's Glenn Gregory singing Lou Reed's 'Perfect Day' in a version which sounds both smitten and reflective; a Ian quid lovers' spectrum captured at a pitch of cool fever.
'Music Of Quality And Distinction' has an overall tone that's poised on parody and oozing affection, with each song's emotional atmosphere scrupulously inspected.
Martyn:"The one thing that these people have got in common is that they've got character, real character, as opposed to just a few hits under their beits. I think Sandie Shaw is still a respected figure, even although it's so long ago that she. had her hits. She deliberately left the music scene for nine or ten years. We were lucky because she was just looking to relaunch her career. She's a fairly strange character, not what you'd expect. We were searching for ages for the right song for her to do.
"There's a bit of rivalry between her and Cilla Black, because their careers were more or less parallel with a similar number of chart entries. When we first suggested 'Anyone Who Had A Heart' she said, No, I can't do that, Cilla had a Number One with it. But she came in the following day and said she'd listened to a version that Dusty Springfield did and that she had to admit that it was a great song.
"We did track down Dusty Springfield as well, but by that time we just didn't have any more time to work on the LP.
"In Tina Turner's case I think it was fortuitous from our point of view because she's in the middle of negotiating a new record deal. She claimed afterwards that she really didn't want to do it but she probably accepted outside advice that it might just be good for her career in terms of updating her image. I know that she's really pleased with the result and her management want us to do some more stuff with her.
"Gary Glitter's a persunal hero. The old stuff he did is intrinsically more futurist than 95% of the futurist groups that are around at the moment. It's the first time that Gary Glitter and The Glitter Band have recorded together. Alt the instruments on Gary Glitter's singles were played by Mike Leander and The Glitter Band only existed to play on TOTP and live and on -their own singles. He's got more vitality than so many younger people, and the band have as well for that matter, and I think it shows on that track. Gary was doing his full stage show in the studio as he was recording it.
"Paula Yates suggested Nancy Sinatra. I can see the resemblance. Actually I think Paula's better looking but her dad's not as rich. We'd never heard her sing and I know exactly what the music press are going to say, that we only got her on the LP because of her various publicity connections. That did come into it, obviously. Also the point is she looks so good, you can just see her on TOTP. She'd do it so well. lt eame as a pleasant surprise to us to find out she could actually sing in tune. More or less.
"I just think Billy Mackenzie's brilliant. In many ways he's got a bester voice than people like Bowie. It's unique. Things like The Associates on TOTP come along only once every six months. I'm just really glad that no-one can say we're jumping on the bandwaggon. We approached him and recorded the track before any of this had happened, and before it looked likely to happen, for that matter.
"Bernie's the one of The Nolans who's got character, again. Bernie's the one with a bit more vivaciousness. And she's got a good voice, it's undeniable. On that track she sounds like a young Michael Jackson.
"Paul Jones did some pretty good films. He's an actor, not just pop singer. Pop singers I think we both regard as fairly boring characters. I can't think of anything more boring than listening to or reading interview with so-called pop-stars."
"Anyone who ever dreamed / Could look at me / And know I dream of you"
SITTING IN the cold, hired boardroom of a Kensington hotel, the two members of B.E.F. have a direct, articulate and unpretentious approach to an interview. Both have lived in London since last July and retain traces of Sheffield accents, an occasional evidence of a Northern sensibility.
Ian Craig Marsh has a ponytail, a pin-striped suit, delicate features, a serious expression and has just been told by his doctor that unless he eats regularly he'll be well on his way to his first stomach ulcer. Martyn Ware, a close friend of Phil Oakey for seven years, is still, it seems from the frequency with which he returns to the subject, smarting from the acrimony of The Human League split. He also has a nice line in deadpan humour, a habit of saying something funny with a disconcertingly straight face. there is almost a fantastic element in a project which realises so many personal ambitions and pieferences.
Martyn: "It's like a fantasy situation - a fantasy situation. This is starting to sound like pseuds corner!
"Reyond a certain stage we didn't have any quaims about asking anyone to be on this LP. We've always been into juxtaposing incongruous ideas, that was partly what The Human League was about, although I think that was perhaps a bit too incongruous in the early days. "We asked Bowie, but I don't think we got the chance to get through to him. We asked Scott Walker and he declined, but there again he hasn't done anything for about two years. We actually got as far as sending tracks to Paul McCartney. We're no great admirers of his, but obviously it would have been good from the commercial side, and it would have been intersting.
"James Brown was going to do 'Ball Of Confusion.' We'd got it all arranged, he'd heard the track and liked it, he wanted to do it, but we just couldn't agree terms. We'd actually got the flight booked out to Atlanta to go and record it. We were really excited about it, then two days before it all fell through."
Ian: "In the end I think it all turned out for the best. Tina Turner's name was thrown in out of the blue by Martyn, a kind of ludicrous suggestion. In the end following it up paid off."
Martyn: "You just can't imagine the concept of watching an artist perform who is a legend, a legend! 'River Deep, Mountain High' must be in a vast number of people's all-time Top Ten tracks. She still looks good as well, even though she's knocking on fifty. "And it's amazing how many of these people respond to fresh ideas, because we're not traditional producers, 35-year-old guys with Ferrari's who just blatantly butter up anyone who comes in the studio. lf anything was wrong when someone was doing a track, we'd tell them and because we were honest, they appreciated it and consequently we got more out of them. "It was very much an equal relationship. lt was creative in the sense that we'd encourage them to come up with ideas, whereas most producers get an artist into the studio, tell,them what to do and if there's one take that's nearly right they'll probably accept it. "There's no individual track on any of the multi-tracks that isn't individually approved. That's why it took so long - a streak of perfectionism. It's only ourview of perfection, but as a production value I think that's worth aiming for, and I think so many producers just see production as a means of earning a lot of money. "You've got to preserve the musician's character. There would be no point in us employing all these people and spending a lot of money if we were going to submerge it under an array of electronic effects. Again, it's getting away from the bigotry of electronic music. lronicafly, even though we're called the British Electric Foundation, we're moving towards acoustically based instruments. "We weren't dictatorial and the musicians were genuinely interested in what we were doing because it is such a bizarre project. A lot of the session musicians went well beyond what the needed to do which is why I think a lot of the tracks have got that extra spark of vitality. Even though it's not in the traditional sense, the old rockist idea that you've got to have them all in the studio at the same time so they can bounce off each other, you can still have interplay but the basis is different.
"I don't think we fully realised how big a project it was when we undertook it. The fact that we've established contact with so many different musicians that we admire and enjoy working with ties in with the other projects. The next Heaven 17 LP will inevitably use people that we've had a chance to use on this LP.
"We're siowly accumulating a poof of musicians that will take the onus off us to have to do the donkey-work. In fact what makes this LP even more amazing from our point of view is that we've got no conventional musical knowledge whatsoever. lt must be an example that's encouraging to peopie who never learnt music. lf you can work with musicians who do work on that basis and still get the results out of them, I think there's nothing more to prove in that respect."
"People movin' out, people movin' in / Why / Because of the colour of their skin."
WE'RE ALSO getting involved with a lot of black musicians, which is another factor, the juxtaposition of black musicians with white vocalists. It's quite amusing that they called'Penthouse And Pavement'white'funk because john Wilson is black and people don't realise it because , there's never been any photographs of him. I find it quite . amusing when they say, all these white boys trying to play black music. in fact, it' s black peopie playing very good black music. lf they'd have known he was black they'd have said, yeah, weil, it ' s obvious. It's inverted and snobbish racialism."
"And l need you more than want you and l want you for all time.'
MARTYN: "WHETHER a song was written a year, 10 years or 50 years ago, a good song is a good song. I think the current so-called boom in pop music is because the new groups are beginning to realise that really it's the basic quality of the song that matters, as much as the image and promotion and the whole aura surrounding a group. "
'Music Of Quality And Distinction' will also be released as a set of five double A-sided singles and as a video of the album which B.E.F. hope to sell as a TV special or as a short to the cinema circuit.
"The integrated aspect is what we were aiming at. The video will have a continual theme and story line, not just a conventional tacky record biz theme. lt's just moving into new areas.
"Choosing the songs for the LP worked in two ways. Sometimes we thought, that's a great song, and tried to think who could do a good vocal for it; and sometimes we wanted to work with the people and it was a question of finding a song.
"In the last couple of years there's been a fetish for Motown. We did a version of 'River Deep, Mountain High' with the League, but it never got released, for obvious reasons. We did have this perverse thought that we'd suddenly spring this old backing track on Tina Turner and say, well, you wouldn't mind just knocking off a quick vocal on this, would you Tina?
"'Perfect Day' the League did live. Glenn feally does it justice, I must admit. He sounds like Lou Reed after he'd dried out a bit. He's getting into the Bing Crosby image at the moment. He fancies himself as a crooner.
"Wichita Lineman' is the perfect song for this LP. The lyrics are excellent. The concept of this poor guy knocking about in a desert, hanging from one of those hammock things thinking about his lost love, together with the electronic imagery, it's almost kitsch. Alright it is kitsch, but it is a genuinely sad song. I personally hate C&W, I can't bear it, which just goes to show if you put it in a different context anything's feasible. That's what the LP's about really - taking the risk."
"We can't go on together / With suspicious minds."
MARTYN:"I'm convinced that there are going to be quite a few people who don't like the album. I think it's more likely to be in the music business, because they'll regard it as a smart-alec project and maybe at the back of their minds will be, why didn't we do it? Also there's the problem of treading on people's memories associated with the songs.
"Another basic idea behind the LP was to only cover versions we genuinely thought we could improve on. There were loads of songs that we couldn't even consider, because we knew we couldn't improve on them. People like the Jacksons who we admire greatly, they do what they do to perfection as far as I'm concerned."
Ian: "Also that particular Bowie track is one of the few he didn't quite do justice to. lt was hidden away on the second side of 'Heroes' among all the esoterica.
"I don't think it's a collection of old things at all. lt's balanced exactly half and half. And it's certainly outstripped anything we've ever done in terms of continuous effort."
Martyn: "All I can say is that if this is a whimsical project, it's the most totally outrageous folly that we've ever encountered. Because it took such a long time and such a lot of effort to do, that if we were doing it for superficial reasons we must be totally insane. Towards the end it was beginning to drive me crackers.
"We're quite happy to stand by it as a modern artefact. lt would have been nostalgic if we'd have said to all the artists, we want you to do your own tracks from the past. But this is more like a mad scientist experiment."
"Why don't you be a man about it and set me free ? You don't care a thing about me just using me."
"8.E.F. is about changing the attitude towards working in the industry." (Martyn Ware)
B:E.F. SEEMS to me the ideal way to go forward, I say. Your flexible set up and the Blway you realise your ideas is much more civilised than anything that's been done in the past. Yet you've paid a tribute to the pop tradition. I suppose it's how you use that tradition. You can't escape it, it's how you build on it.
Martyn. The basic idea of groups hasn't changed for twenty years. We've no intention of becoming a pop group again, because pop groups are the easiest thing for a record company to manipulate. Virgin would be quite happy if we went in tomorrow and said We want to turn B.E.F. into a POP group, we're not going to be this silly production company that causes so much trouble anymore.
"We're enjoying ourselves much more now than when we were part of a group. Not because of personality differences, but because we're allowed much more creative freedom. And I think people are beginning to realise. There's quite a few groups who are beginning to think in a similar direction.
"The main probiere is the record company, always. There's no real incentive for changing it from the record company's point of view. lt takes however long, three years of whatever we've spent in the record business to understand that you don't have to accept everything that the record company says. So many bands say, we've got total control, but really that devolves to the manager anyway, the band ever see the total control apart from making a few arbitrary policy decisions. We've got a really good working relationship with Virgin records at the moment. They understand that we've got the ideas and we just don't need their interference."
"Caught in a trap / I can't walk out."
FOLLOWING THE example of a disco tradition, Heaven 17's last live performances, like ABC's more recently were personal appearances in selected clubs round the country, either miming or singing to backing tapes (in the same way, incidentally that the B.E.F. method echos the practices of producers like Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, August Darnell and George Clinton).
Despite the fact that they charged no fee for a promotional exercise, over half the managers of the clubs unscrupulously advertised that they were playing live and charged extra on the door. In an attempt to overcome this per-version of their original intentions, B.E.F. are currently considering setting up and advertising a similar Heaven 17 show with five vocalists, still singing to pre-recorded tapes.
"That way you've got the human element and more money can be spent on the presentation rather than hotel bills for a lot of peopie you don't really need."
The crux of the rock and roll stasis has always been live performances that more often than not degenerate into a token gesture of communication; a restrictive practice that's expensive, squalid and distancing for the audience; the rigid, dehumanising ritual of a system that only serves to perpetuate the status quo.
Martyn: "I think it's immoral. Kids today, should be more discerning. They should just not turn up for concerts. What is there unique in a rock performance nowadays? There's nothing startlingly original that can be done anymore. I think the only avenue really open is probably the theatrical side of thingg and even that becomes rockist.
"We'd much rather demystify the whole thing and daa public appearance where you can actually stand and talk to people, dance with them, drink with them."
"AH the rainbows in the sky / Start to weep and say goodbye / You wont be seeing rainbows anymore."
IAN: "WE don't think it's healthy for people to hold up fairly ordinary people as some kind of demi-god. Obviously if you present yourself in a slightly mutated form of a live act, then peopie will stand there and expect to see a live act. The ideal from our point of view is if people can groove to it and perhaps occasionally glance up at the live act to see what's happening.
"At one time we were racking our brains to see if would use radio mikes and scatter ourselves round the club at various locations and never actually get up on stage, just be amongst the audience."
"You're going to reap just what you sow."
"WE HAVEN'T established a fan club even though we keep getting letters, and we wouldn't unless we've got something worthwhile to offer. When we've got the time and the finance we're pIanning to have a much more innovative way of letting peopie know what's happening, as opposed to some patronising newsletter every three months for your five quid a year.
"What we're thinking of is some scheme whereby the initial membership would be relatively high to become some associate member of B.E.F. and that would be a lifetime membership. From then onwards you'd get guaranteed half-price entry to any live performances which are under the B.E.F. banner, reduced price records. lt would work like a discount scheme. lt would be mutually beneficial.
"In the same sense that they'd have inside information on what was happening, hopefully we'd be able to disseminate more useful information. Perhaps video magazines on all subjects, not neccessarily just music. What is there to discuss about music?"
"You keep lying when you oughta be trufhin."
"That's one of the biggest myths ever, that pop music changes the world. lt doesn't change it all. lts just a confection." (Martyn Ware)
IAN: "I THINK if people like The Clash really believed in breaking down the system, they ought to pack in what they're doing now. There's loads of kids coming along to their concerts who sing along to their fab lyrics and throw away all their energy on a concert. They're just keeping things under control for the system, just helping it by providing an outlet for kids to go bananas too. They think they've achieved something just by singing along with a few songs, when really they're just as depressed when they come out as when they walked into the hall. They've wasted their energy."
Martyn: "B.E.F. is affecting the system in a subtle way. Sometimes I think it's too subtle really, but there again, as soon as you start screaming it from the rooftops people immediately back off.
"We prefer to work on the basis that if people appreciate what we do, then they have some understanding of what we're doing and you don't need to preach to the converted. We do need to enlarge our audience and one way of doing that would be to write a really successful commercial pop single, which wouldn't be a bad thing. Whether we achieve what we're aiming for is reflected in sales, that's the only acid test as far as we're concerned.
"It's not as though we're cynical businessmen just counting the money, but we're not interested in esoteric projects that provide some mythical fulfillment for our own egos. We're in it to please as many people as possible. And to earn a decent living. Apart form anything else, if we do make a lot of money, I wouldn't mind pumping some into CND personally. They are an example of an organisation who are actually doing something useful in this world, as opposed to us."
SOME STRAY thoughts on the personals worth of the pop-song:
"Secret life, evergreen."
"You made me forget myself / I thought I was someone else / Someone good."
"But there is another dimension in which she - can find motive and cause for action, although she might not find a blue-print for Utopia. She could begin not by changing the world, but by re-assessing herself." (Germaine Greer)
"Are you ready boots, start walkin'..."
(Quotes from: 'Ball Of Confusion', 'The Secret Life Of Arabia', 'There's A Ghost In My House', 'These Boots Are Made For Walking', 'Suspicious Minds', 'You Keep Me Hanging On', 'Wichita Lineman', 'Anyone Who Had A Heart', 'Perfect Day', 'lt's Over.')