Undercover agent Carole Linfield reopens the file on HEAVEN 17
A TALL, solitary figure stands in the gloom of the railway station. Passengers shuffle past, their destination unknown... yesterdays' newspaper blows around his feet. A cigarette falls to the floor. He tugs his raincoat closer round his body as he lifts the phone... his mission is nearly complete...
ESPIONAGE: DIPLOMACY: intrigue. All surround the mysterious figures of Heaven 17. The black and white images of the video flicker and fade. We must remember ourtask.
Crammed into the unglamorous Virgin offices, pumped with endless cups of tea (rather than truth drugs) I get the chance to interrogate the elusive trio - the patient, surprisingly open Marlyn Ware; quieter, thoughtful Ian Craig-Marsh and affable palomino Glenn Gregory.
Our chat is not full of board (bored) room clichfis or business games - instead it's about Bad News comedy programmes and Brookside (the sadly and suddenly departed Gavin Taylor is a flarmate of lan's), while Martyn passes round his snaps, taken during the making of their video forthe new single "remptation', where Glenn is posed ass fiery, aggressive preacher. (Their last video, for the emotive, excellent 'Let Me Go', won an award for its atmospheric, emotive handling of the immensity of solitude.)
But Heaven 17 now have a more serious and arduous task to perform. After a sizeable absence they have to re-convince allies of their determination and substance, while meeting the underground resistance head on.
It certainly doesn't help that the album has finally emerged some 18 months since the debut 'Penthouse And Pavement' hit the streets. The long (luxury) gap was only partially filled by the relatively unsuccessful BEF album 'Music Of Quality And Distinction' yet, as Martyn explains, it took up a lot of their valuable time. That and last minute marketing problems meant this new outing has been a long time a cominr.
Despite the awesome task of matching the elegance of 'Penthouse' and the long time we had to starve for more, it's an album worth the wait - 'The Luxury Gap' is a luxury -- a blended, insistent album that washes torrentially over you. The rather untimely released 'Let Me Go' provided a perfect showcase: much more to the bone, yet with hidden elements you only discover on consequent listens... the unveiling of a spy thriller. . . intricate weavings of melody and style.
"There is a continuity, both thematically and stylistically, between this album and the first," says Martyn. "it features the same musicians, like John Wilson, and much of the same techniques, only more sophisticated."
And accusations (already abundant from the release of 'Temptation' culled from the album) that their content, compared to, say, the evocative and inflaming 'Fascist Groove Thang' is now watery and weak, and that their outlook is limited and stale, are all unfounded too: lurking in the overwhelmingly dramatic 'Best Kept Secret', for example, is the astute opinion that we're all mushrooms likept in the dark and fed bullshit). The seemingly innocent strains part to reveal a more complex plot.
Martyn: "Even though it's got this ET-type soundtrack backing, the lyrics are more connected with politics than anything emotive. It has obtuse references to Reagan in there - kind of, what's going on, Maggie? It's a less obvious version of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' album of the '60s."
Glenn admits that, despite group enthusiasm and optimism of the band over the album, he was put off by the lukewarm success of the excellent 'Let Me Go".
"I thought it was the best song off the album for a single and it should have done more..It would have, if Virgin had been more on the ball."
Ian: "They were so convinced it would be a hit by itself they didn't work on it!
"it doesn't worry us though, cos we know it'll happen eventually. We're not going to kill ourselves to create the perfect single. Commercial success would be nice, but we're not obsessed with it. These people write, 'boardroom smiles congealing round the edges they must think we're really upset that we're not famous pop stars and that's what we're aiming for, and that we don't enjoy what we do."
ANOTHER SUBVERSIVE element lurks: originally tongue-in-cheek jibes have been taken seriously - the pinstriped image is a classic example,
Martyn: "Originally it was a pastiche of all the record companies setting themselves up, and showing the hypocrisy of the way records are sold to the public. Yet we were criticised - if it had been done with the correct .amount of hypocrisy it would've been OK."
And likewise the'Music Of Quality And Distinction' LP. Though I must admit I found it disappointing after the vigorous 'Penthouse', it was an exercise I could see the amusing side of - unlikely vocalists singing doubly unlikely covers. Yet the state of the business, flooded by oh, so banal and serious covers, and the po-faced Heaven 17 image, dogged them from the start.
"Ever since the early days of the Human League we were interested in doing cover versions, and it developed in a different way when we thought of having different vocalists on each song," muses Ian.
"There were a lot of people who genuinely liked the songs on the album, which we'd trampled all over," admitted Martyn. "Looking back on it, the best way to have marketed it would have been in a K-Tel manner. Instead it was sold - not deliberately - as some highly intellectual exercise."
It was originally billed as the first of a few - are there going to be more?
"I doubt it!" recoils Martyn.
"We just didn't realise how much work was involved," explains Ian. "Not so much in the studio, but in getting everyone together and getting them released from their record companies, getting copyrights etc."
"it was a farcel" chuckled Glenn, grimacing.
"There is a lot of interest there for us to do another," adds Martyn, "But the benefits for us are far outweighed by the general cynicism. We'd be setting ourselves up as a target."
Ah-ha. Do I sense a touch of paranoia? Heaven 17 are of course not newcomers to criticism, but do I detect a heavy hint of cynicism towards the press?
"Who could blame us!" snorts Martyn, with a hint of derision. "But we realise there's no commercial benefit in writing a balanced article, you've got to be either very positive or very negative.
'The Daily Star and rhe Sun know that," adds Ian. "And they're the biggest bastards out... "
Glenn "And at the moment the scene is so unhealthy that if you don't conform you come in for a lot of criticism."
Martyn lvehemently): "I wish people would at least back off a bit and realise that we're trying to do something a bit different, and there are f ew enough groups around now doing that."
Of course they've been rather, er, indiscreet too - their first major press concentrated on them bitching about the Human League...
"Yeah!" they laugh, but has it haunted them[
"Right from the first interview we've gone the wrong way," laughs Glenn. "We had this really in-depth interview, then went out and got really drunk and slagged Phil off and that was all that got printed!"
"if there's anything we can do to make things difficult for ourselves we will," smiles Martyn. "We've got a deliberate death wish - it's part of our perversity...
A perversity for which Heaven 17 are persecuted: for blending funk and modernism with what are basically punk ideals - a cardinal sin. They're lumpec, in with "synth wimp rock" bands; labelled and dismissed as club heroes.
Martyn: "People think we're down the Palace every night swigging cocktails, 'cos that's the idea they have of every band in London whose doing anything vaguely modern. It's just not true -for us,"'
And, of course, you commit the ultimate sin of using SYNTHESISERS!
Martyn: "We actually decided to avoid using synth cliches on the album because it was getting so ubiquitous, and used an orchestra instead to see what it was like with instruments for a change."
And what was it like?
"Bloody terrible!" says Glenn. "Union problems! Every time we were just getting on with something they'd f uck off for a tea break! If you're not used to working like that it's a bit hard."
And of course should (fingers doubly crossed) 'Temptation' reach the higher realms of the charts and warrant an appearance on TOTP, you could bring the BBC band out of mothballs...
"Yeah!" they enthuse, giggling at the prospect.
CHART SUCCESS has been forthcoming already in, of all places, America, where 'Let Me Go' is still (quite deservedly) number four in the dance charts.
"The Americans seemed really aware of what we're about," says Ian incredulously. "The reviews were really astute which bemuses us completely, cos we always think of America as the most stupid market in the world."
Martyn: "I think our sound is very acceptable to their market, and we do have an appreciation of American black music. Although we don't sound black we have a great understanding for it and a genuine appreciation of it, and have done for some time. But it's something we seem to have happened across in our music in the last few months and decided it was a good idea."
Was it a deliberate use of that influence?
Glenn: "You can only do what you feel is right at the time, unless you are very cynical and say, right, this is fashionable, we'll go back to using all synths and get two girl singers..."
"And that isn't meant to be derogatory to the Human League," adds Glenn hastily. "Just all the sub-Human Leagues that followed."
"We're not formularised, you see," says Martyn. "We don't fit into any particular category and that's why people feel uneasy, and can't.quite latch onto what we're about. But because we're quite perverse, that's probably what we're after!"
But what about all those copyists: Heaven 17 have their imitators and pretenders.
"It's not really relevant", says Martyn. "We listen to things and think yeah, we'll steal that. It's the history of rock 'n' roll. David Bowie never really made an original record in his Nfe and he's our greatest idol."
Workhorses that they are, the trio are already champing at the bit to get back into the studio.
"We're going to launch straight into the next album partly cos of the long gap with this one", admits Ian. "We don't want that to happen again ..."
Perhaps realising that out of sight, with this particular industry especially, is out of mind ...
Meanwhile, they wait anxiously for the reactions to the album, and sales for the singles. Sadly they realise that in today's commercial climate, single success could make all the difference: the calibre of your 45 and its power across the tinny tranny and TV are what counts THESE (sad) days.
"It's all going the wrong way..." says Martyn with the air of a man watching his matchbox collection go up in smoke. "The Smash Hits syndrome has affected everyone."
"It's not really a disadvantage, not from a personal or promotional point of view", says Glenn. "But we're still searching for an alternative. We haven't found it yet."
Martyn; "As soon as we start playing live that's it, it's a lifestyle. Whatever stand we make against traditional rock lifestyle woud go down the plughole."
Could that alternative lie in visuals - your,videos particularly?
"Well, we plan to do a video LP eventually. It will be done very thematically, with the same actors throughout. It will have the thetne of industrial espionage, like a John le Carre novel ..."
Which is where we came in.
HEAVEN 17, as they said, make things tough for themselves. Producing the ultimate in a debut album will mean any follow-up will have its detractors, any form of change or similarity criticised.
But the plot is definitely unfolding: new characters introduced, old ones expounded upon or written out. Temptingly, the politic and personality of Heaven 17 still remains half-covered, waiting for the sleuth to reveal the underlying mysteries.
Martyn Ware, packing photos into his briefcase and, I imagine, looking to see what's next on the schedule, gets the last word.
"The only strength we sie that we've got which the public is likely to accept easily is our quest for quality. If they don't think this is a quality album we're on the wrong track, there's no doubt about it.
"We think it's a very good realisation of what we want to do and if the record buying public don't, we're wrong and we won't need anyone to tell us. If that happens, we'll have to have a rethink. We'll have to out where it is and what it is. But I don't think it will.
"But come what may, we're not going to prostitute ourselves for the current state of the charts. I wouldn't like to think we'd become an average pop group."
The trio are far too clever to think it's as simple as that. They are exploring new territories all the time - musical and non-musical. Running down new avenues. Embarking on new adventures.
Like all good spy stories, they lurk with a sting in their tails. And a subtle twist in the plot.