"THREE STEPS TO HEAVEN" - New Musical Express 18Aug1984 by R.D. Cook
With a new single in the pocket and an LP ready for September, Heaven 17 are ready to go up one more rung on the ladder. In this exclusive interview with Richard Cook, the executive directors of techno-pop talk about what happened to BEF, what they think of hip hop and 'Hysteria' . . . and why there are only five minutes to midnight. Photographs by Peter Anderson.
THEORIES AND CONCEPTS whirl around Heaven 17, as though they were the vacuum inside a tornado.
The pop group as self-sufficient, sophisticated business unit; pop music as a series of co-ordinates to be examined, codified, applied for maximum impact and highest feasible return. Sound that can be shaped to a tactician's gamepIan or a scientist's empirical curiosity. The investigation of smoothness, hygiene, discipline. The construction of an entire fictional culture, just to support a peculiarly distinctive approach to pop!
"Make us laff, Richard."
Instead of the proposed discourse, here is a lighter journey through the current interests and energies of Heaven 17. 18 months on from the colossal and lingering success of 'The Luxury Gap'. One month from now you can purchase 'How Men Are', its long-playing successor; for now there is just a 45 taste in 'Sunset Now'.
I've heard nearly all of it, once, and I can say it's loud, staggeringly confident, the most perfectly controlled state of somebody's art.
1 no longer know what passion and conviction are in pop music: those immutables have lost all body and meaning. Nor, in an age where Nik Kershaw's software has the same attraction for youth as did Ricky Nelson's greasetop yelp, can the fallible, 'human' quality of pop still be easily distinguished. Much the same dilemma struck Heaven 17, and they put their faith instead in process, in the new sounds and ideas and feelings that must come from new methods, structures and progressions.
Run this partnership alongside instinct and imagination and there's no telling what you might hear.
UNAVOID ABLY, Heaven 17 have changed as their surroundings have altered: the pinsharp young executives of 'Penthouse And Pavement' evolving into the worldly bachelor boys of 'The Luxury Gap'. Over a few iced glasses, I put to the three chaps that Hl 7's biggest change has been a stowing down. Could anybody "live so fast"?
Martyn Ware: "In those days we were obsessed with finding out what we were good at. Now we've found that out we can take more care over doing it. A lot more time. "
Has polish taken the place of impetus?
"Has polish taken ... nope. Don't think so. It's impetus captured on tape over a long period of time."
In the first H17 talk in these pages for a long time, there is catching up to do. Why did 'Luxury Gap' become the massive success 'P & P' only hinted at?
Martyn: "1 think it was things coming into alignment with us rather than vice versa. 'Penthouse And Pavement', if you listen to it now, sounds like a lot of what's coming out today. And throughout our career, even with Human League to some extent, it seems as if we were always 18 months or two years ahead of what else was happening. Which isn't the best position to be in, really, because then you're never in a position to reap the rewards. Nobody actually gives you any credit for it, except intuitively. Ian Craig Marsh: "And anyway, it did pretty well. You've got to remember that the old Human League sold fuck all. Compared to that, 'Penthouse And Pavement' was a vast success. "
Martyn: "1 think it must be very difficult to pIan a commercial album nowadays unless you're very cynical. We just went on to do what we wanted to do with very few restrictions on budget and time. "
Ware's point about time - the most plastic of pop concepts, in studio and real-world contexts - jolts the H17 oeuvre into sudden perspective. The sustained irony of 'P & P', with its inimitable dryness, its urban snowscape of politicks and leisure-slogans set to a thrillingly tense synthetic beat, was xeroxed by a thousand drudges into the common currency of Brit chart pop. All that adventure - that burst from the studio laboratory! - seems shrunken, an intelligent skeleton.
Martyn: "Exactly. Quite frankly, funk is the most obvious thing you could want to imitate nowadays. It never was revolutionary but there were very few white acts trying to play black music in an interesting way. Whereas now everybody wants black-sounding players in the group, from Duran Duran downwards."
Ian: "That summer of funk! ABC and everything."
DID THEY face the traditional third album dilemma? It seems the acquisition of that notorious bogeyman toy the Fairlight made it into an adventure again. It led to the development of ...
Martyn: "The recycling factor. Any songs that we put on the Fairlight from now on we can recycle in any shape or form we wish. Parts of a song, different tempos, octaves, instruments ... I remember Eno saying once that he'd do 16 tracks on a 24-track and then keep the 17th and throw away the rest! The way we work nowadays has very little to do with the old style of recording. "
Meaning what, precisely?
" Rehearsing a live act for weeks. Going into the studio. Putting it on tape the best you can. Tarting it up at the mixing stage arid putting it out. The way we always worked - and this is another precursor to what's happening now - is we always worked directly on to tape, inspirationally, at all points. We never rehearse anything. "
Ian: "Things are never done twice.
Martyn: "We don't let session musicians hear the tapes in advance or anything. It's ironic when people talk about this dehumanising lack of spontaneity makes me laff, 'cos there's nothing less spontaneous than rehearsing for three weeks."
Is the human touch not displaced with the substitution of an artificial spontaneity or chance System?
"No, that's another common misconception. The basic ten or 15 tracks go down as a skeleton and the rest is then fleshed out by traditional instrumentalists. Which we're not. Our non-musical knowledge has been a major help. "
Glenn Gregory: "There's been times with (coproducer) Greg Walsh that we've had to deprogramme him 'cos he's been getting too finicky. He's a trained musician. "
Martyn: "And it's the new ideas that come from people without conventional knowledge. if you don't know what rules you're breaking then you don't have any qualms about it, about saying you don't like something."
Ian: "That Ianguage isn't needed any more. Obviously it was needed to notate ideas. But now you don't have to learn what is a bizarre mathematical Ianguage to do that. Some things you can't write down anyway - how about a funky guitar rhythm?"
Martyn: "Ianguage defines how you think. A conventional musical Ianguage would define your thinking and attitude towards a tune. The method we use is a framework that's mathematically perfect, built around a Fairlight, and then made more human - if you insist - or more appealing to the human ear, by employing musicians who are more in empathy with us."
What this theorising adds up to is an attack on the constriction of supposedly loose techniques and beliefs. The idiomatic nature of rock is overturned. The precision of studio expertise is made a virtue on its own terms, instead of a convenient gloss on the old lie of rock 'feel', of man-made freshness.
It's a little reminiscent of the tactics if not the creative flux and totality of improvised music. H I 7 makes records - and they are records, conceived and designed in the claustrophobic black hole of the studio - which use the severest and most scrupulous methods to make a sound that vibrates after the manner of pop music.
It's almost like - absurd, but this nearly holds good - sound imitating music! And because they're interested in the possibilities of pop, rather than the straggly and indulgent area of mere electronic music, it competes with its contemporaries. It comes out-pop!
"Look at people like Michael Nyman and Philip Glass. It's ironic that they've been working towards a mathematical perfection for so long that technology has caught up and passed them. Glass' keyboard player is technically phenomenal, but as soon as Glass buys a Fairlight he's out of a job! Because there's deliberately no specific dynamics. So the coldness argument there is irrelevant."
What does this approach make impossible?
"Very little, because the Fairlight is so flexible. You can change so much that you can't do once you've put down a four piece guitar band. "
Ian: "At a late stage on one track we decided to re-record the whole thing, restructure everything and we did it in three hours. "
Glenn: "We got some brilliant accidents. Some guitar parts came f lying over the wrong part of one song, and it was perfect - inspirationally correct. So we used it. "
Martyn: "You gain more than you lose. We never know how a track's going to end up. "
Perhaps less tangible features of imperfection are lost. How about, say, a Meters rhythm?
"Yeah, that's probably the only major thing there'll be ways round it. But we're not competing with specifically human virtuosi, not with that area of the music business. Obviously that's beyond technology at the moment. But it is designed for the dynamics inherent in good pop music, where actual sensitivity- which you could only hear with three or four instruments going at most - isn't such a crucial value. How many pop records can you say that the sensitivity of the playing makes a difference in how it's received or appreciated ? Anyway, there are tracks on our LP where sensitivity is extreme between two or three analogue components. I've ceased to call them musicians now. "
WHAT CHOOSES the subject matter to go by this experimentation?
Martyn: "Very good question. Lyrics always come out last. Songs are conceived as instrumentals. But it's never random. "
Glenn: "It's hours and hours writing lyrics! Drives you fucking crackers."
Martyn: "I think we actually put an inordinate amount of effort into the lyrics. To the extent that you wouldn't be embarrassed to sit down and read them."
Glenn: "'Black Lace' are my favourites, I think." If Heaven 17 have tightened and narrowed their line of attention, trying perhaps to simply make the most interesting pop music they have in them, they have slackened the face they put on the world. The New Partnership looks a casual three-way affair these days.
Glenn Gregory is a larf, sometimes lapsing into interview-earnest patter but more at home in public bar humour. Ian Craig Marsh is quietly intense, forever streaked with a boff in-like integrity, sometimes a little distant. Maybe machines still fascinate him: he suddenly perks up when I mention computers.
Martyn Ware is the most profuse talker. His manner is cheerily aloof, squireish: if he were wearing a waistcoat he'd have his thumbs tucked into it. A missing front tooth gives his grin a leery quality.
They make a queer company. I remind them of their avowal, around the time of 'Music Of Quality And Distinction', not to become a pop group again.
"We were probably lying, " is Ware's airy response.
Glenn: "That was talking about BEF, though, about being trapped in the pop group structure. Four people bickering, or something. We don't bicker."
The British Electric Foundation, a limited company. But the project was at one time going to poke among a lot of schemes, try a lot of tacks not confined to cutting vinyl. How about the stigma of live appearance, once toyed with in the whistle-stop club visits to promote 'P & P'?
Glenn: "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. "
Martyn: " It'd cut down the crap, the signing autographs and screaming and everything. It's very hard to stand right in front of someone and scream at them. "
Glenn: "Then they talk to you for ten minutes and decide you're a complete wanker. After that we thought of events in town squares. Rallies!"
Ian: "Radio One Roadshow!"
And the streamlined fan club-cum-fellowship?
Martyn: "Yeah, I like the idea of that, for people to be a part of something. The only thing that worries me is it might be like a Masonic Lodge or something, Secret handshake!"
Glenn: "If we'd had time to do them, we'd've done 'em. It amazes me that groups have time to do all the things that they're supposed to."
How do they view 'MOQD' now, the project that nearly sank the Foundation?
Ian: "Well, commercially it was a disaster. But we got so many contacts out of it, and that's what made 'Luxury Gap' so successful. "
Glenn: "We let it out far too early. Everybody knew months in advance it was going to be Paul Jones singing 'Ghost In My House' or whatever and they formed an idea in advance of how it was going to sound."
Martyn: " Everybody thought it was a good idea, an interesting idea. And then we got criticised as being smart-alec. From our point of view it was fun experimentation in the pop field, not some sort of K-Tel album. And it has had an influence. There've been a lot more collaborations since then. "
One could detect a director's acrimony here, but Ware speaks with a shrug. No big deal. Could there ever be a volume two?
Glenn: "Bloody'ell. It was a really hard slog. We had no manager so we had to write all the letters. 'Dear Mr McCartney', y'know. "
Martyn: "Once we'd gone through all that crap we had no embarassments about dealing with anyone. It was like a crash course in the psychological side of production. Looking back, I think we were brave to do it. I think if we'd been able to give it up half-way through we would have done. "
Are there many requests for a BEF production now?
"Quite a few. It's nice to be in a position where Heaven 17 takes up nine months of the year and the other three are like a hobby. "
Glenn: "Yeah. Martin builds these little models of studios with matchsticks and I've got me disco. . ."
Martyn: "We get offered all sorts. And because we don't have the time, we've got an excuse to turn people down. The latest offers are Bette Midler - you wouldn't think of that if it weren't for the BEF album and by far the most stunning offer we've had to date, Aretha Franklin. Wouldn't have to do any more women singers after that.
"We have a good name in America at the moment. They're looking for Prince soundalikes. Anything white with a hint of black in it. "
HATE IT. it's really, really tedious. It'll be a useful medium for us because it's got to be, we haven't any choice. So we are in the process of creating the most unique video of all time. "
You knew we'd be talking about that. I flipped Marinetti around the curves of H17 videos and got no answering call ("Never'eard of'im"). Somehow the "WORK!" exhortations of 'Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry' and the briefcases and airports of 'We Live So Fast' don't measure up to the demeanour of these geezers.
Instead I play 20 Questions in trying to guess the content of this 'unique' video for 'Sunset Now'. There's nobody in it, no special locations, no f lash techniques, no animation ... I give up. But the question of H17's key to the world lingers. The store of business acumen, the gleaming techno-imagery, the promised side projects like Music For Stowaways'. . . was this all so much big talk?
Perhaps the disappointment of H17/BEF lies in their apparent satisfaction with being one more successful pop group, albeit an unusually intelligent one. Why have the implications of their first steps never been pursued, expanded?
"Because we were roundly criticised at every turn," retorts Ware. "When we started doing things that were really odd ... how do you measure the success of what you do? You could do it in terms of sales, which would be very cynical. 1 resent using the music papers as any benchmark of success but it still hurts a lot when you read criticism in the papers. That isn't paranoia. If you're going to be beaten over the head for doing something different then why put yourself through the grind of it all? You instead do one particular project to the fullest extent and know that it's going to be successful.
"Then there's the intransigence of record companies. We did this album with Nick Plytas, a full BEF project, which I'd almost forgotten about. And they just wouldn't put it out."
Ian: "We were going to do one with John Wilson too. And the Future tapes. "
Hasn't the Foundation acquired greater corporate muscle?
" No, it's diminished. The more successful Heaven 17 became , the harder it became to get things done. Because there was more dependence on Heaven 17. "
Martyn: " I agree with you, really - I like all the little side projects. But any company regards those as a distraction from the main course, and to some extent they're right. But we are stockpiling things. "
The major event of 'How Men Are' may prove to be its opening, 'Five Minutes To Midnight'. This is a nuclear foreboding of such vividness it sounds actually frightening. Pragmatic as ever, they have elected to donate all British royalties for the track to CND.
Ian: " It seemed apt to put some money CND's way. Since we are doing so well. Other bands do it. The Thompson Twins did it, didn't they?"
Martyn: "What is socialism if it's not put into practice? We've sent money to the miners but I think a lot of people have done. You just don't get to hear about it. Charity isn't supposed to get acres and acres of press."
Glenn: "We had this enormous banner outside Al R studios 'Heaven 17 say no Cruise is good news'. There it was on Oxford Circus for a whole Saturday, until Peter Robinson's heavy mob took it down."
Martyn: " I don't see why having money should change your views. You'd have to have a pretty weak character to start believing this Masonic and Rotarian stuff about lazy bastards on t' dole pinehing all your money. That's just the government's attitude of turning brother against brother."
What part does pop music play in this particular game?
"Very little. I didn't think it was anything before but I'm a bit more optimistic now. I think people like to see public figures standing up and saying something which they might believe but are too scared to express themselves. Be nice to think that I 00 kids will go into school saying, I don't mind supporting the Labour Party because Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 does and I've gorrim on my wall. Possibly very naive attitude."
Glenn: "Subversive, if you ask me. Dangerous."
WHAT DO they think of 'Hysteria'?
D0 THEY still have much interest in dance music?
Martyn: "It's made it easy for a lot of old faggots to become successful again. Easiest thing in the world to tart your music up with hip hop beat. Look at Yes, for instance. Next it'll be Stone The Crows with hip hop! Bit like the new R&B. Lame duck rock. Did you see Grandmaster Flash last time? Hilarious. It was basically job chanting. Jimmy Purseystuff."
Are people tired of going out?
Glenn: " I don't know. We haven't been out for so long we don't know who's going out."
Martyn: "Honest to God, I'aven't been to a club in six months. The days of Rusty opening a club every week are gone."
Glenn: " No, he says he's going to be a pop star again! He's going to sing 'Wandering Star'!"
Martyn'- "Good idea."
There seems no reason why 'How Men Are' shouldn't emulate the success of 'Luxury Gap'. It sounds like a complex, built-up record compared with 'Gap's radiant, sheer slipways: maybe nothing is as brilliantly hummable as 'Let Me Go', one of the most masterful and memorable essays on pop form I can recall hearing. But a deeper intricacy and multi-faceted power is what Ware claims they are now seeking.
"I don't think it sounds like anything else that's around now. Compared with what else is coming out it's completely unconventional. Why do you buy an LP? To listen to it just for two weeks? I think that's a stupid attitude. We're interested in longevity, not obsolescence. Our records sell consistently over a long period of time, instead of peaking early like most do."
Is this work done with an intelligent, adult audience in mind? Isn't the combined process/attitude/product of Heaven17 somehow 'older' than the adolescence peddled by Jones or Fish?
"It may well be, but Teenagers like to be treated as adults. A lot may be taken in by the guff about pop idols but a lot have got a lot more upstairs. It never impairs our appeal with younger people. We never patronise anyone."
But you might tempt them in other ways. Some have seerl 'P & P' as an escapist business, 'Luxury Gap' as a fool's cashcard wonderworld.
"Anyone who listens to it with any sembIance of intelligence can't honestly think we're advocating that sort of lifestyle. Is irony not a word in their dictionary?"
ISN'T 'Two Tribes' the real version of 'Fascist Groove Thang'?
Martyn: "Yeah. Well, 'Two Tribes' is different. But I'm glad somebody else is spotting that. "
Ian: "The difference is that Virgin didn't work hard enough to get it into the Top 40 and the BBC didn't actually get to ban it. "
Martyn: " I don't like it that much. I like the sound of it. And I think Paul Morley's an admirable man. " Frankly, I think he nicked a lot of ideas from us."
Well. You know how men are.
Tippfehler (c) by scanner or H17page ;-)