Melody Maker 16 April 1983
IN every Heaven, a heartache? At the cold, blustery back end of March, the oddly assorted trio which comprises Heaven 17 were assembled inside the shell of an old church in Battersea. Their purpose was strictly secular - to make a videotape to promote their new single.
Still, a few vestiges of the spirit lingered, even though the church was now a studio littered with moveable props, lights, camera crew-and the paraphanalia of lunch. The single's called "Temptation", and the scene in progress as the Maker contingent arrived found the Heavenly trio squeezed together behind a lectern, lip-synching furiously. Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh seemed a little self-conscious, but vocalist Glenn Gregory (dressed in brimstone evoking black and grasping a dog-eared bible), grimaced and gesticulated as if it might really be possible to get the director and his team to renounce it all and be born again.
They called a halt and we retired to the dressing rooms. I tried to shake Ware's hand, but only succeeded in knocking his cheese and biscuits onto the floor. This seemed to set the tone for our interview, which was at best an uncomforable affair.
They wanted to get proceedings rolling at once, so we crowded together on the available chairs and a couple of crates. Marsh, to my right, crossed his legs and tugged at the wiry goatee beard attached to the end of his chin. He reminded me of a postgraduate history student.
Ware, to my left, looked slightly stern, seemed to be carrying a little more weight than I remembered, and in general wore the air of a man dreaming of escape at the earliest opportunity. Gregory, straight ahead, was easily the most cheerful, playing with his new Polariod camera and delivering a few welcome oneliners to lighten the gloom.
Are you pleased with your new LP "The Luxury Gap"? I asked, by way of breaking the ice. "Very pleased," grunted Martyn Ware, staring morbidly at my tape recorder. "No doubt the cynical bastards will hate it...
No need to be like that, a chap's only doing his job ... still, I felt I had to come clean. My own feelings about "The Luxury Gap" are that it doesn't represent any real step forward from its predecessor "Penthouse And Pavement". What's more, I find the production a bit colourless. This received the same sort of welcome as a Russian spy strolling down the Champs Elysees.
"I'm astonished," said Ware. "It doesn't sound like that to me. In fact if anything I thought it erred on the other side, on the over-flash side. I dunno, perhaps there's too much emphasis put on production nowadays. Just because Ian and myself are a production company everybody seems to want us to be Trevor Horn or something. But hopefully we just play to the strength of the songs - we think they're good songs."
Silence. Well, I asked, do you think that a lot of BE F's production ideas have been picked up and used in an everyday way by groups coming after you? You know, yer Blancmanges and Tears For Fears and so on?
Ian Craig Marsh chipped in, the very picture of disinterest. "I suppose they might have been picked up in a sort of half-' cock way. You see it coming through sometimes in interviews, people chatting about 'cutting down the numbers to a more manageable level' or 'getting involved in the business'. I'm not sure that they are, though - I think it's all front."
"That's only an organisational thing anyway," added Ware. "I think in terms of how the record sounds, which is how we prefer to be judged, I don't think so. I don't think anybody's ripped us off."
He paused. "I'd like to go back, to the album. Why do you think it's colourless or monochrome?"
"You've upset him now, Adam," chortled Glenn Gregory, quite unperturbed. "It's his baby."
I tried to explain. There's no denying the album sounds very clear, but to me it lacks weight and warmth. For example, the brass arrangement on "Key To The World" sounds good, but it sounds good in isolation from its surroundings.
"I think the sort of warmth you're talking about derives from the methods used by traditional groups, rehearsing for three or four weeks before they go into the studio," said Ware darkly. "They lay down a backing track more or less live and just embellish that. The way we work is ... we structure it a lot more in the studio. So you're probably right, it probably does sound strange to the average listener"
"Also it's been digitally mastered," interpolated Gregory with a knowing grin, "and that takes away all the hiss and so on. I must admit when I first heard it - I wasn't there for the mix of this album cos I was getting married - when I came back for the first time I was a little bit perturbed by the sound of it.
"As you say, it is so clean and pure in definition, but I think that's a good thing, it's a plus. Once you start getting into digital discs and compact discs you're gonna change the way you listen to things anyway. I think that may have something to do with it."
Mmm, maybe. But this coldness is something I've associated with the Heaven 17 sound in the past, I said, and this time around I thought you might have made an effort to move away from it.
"I'm not making excuses for it, I think it's good," said Ware, a touch hysterically, I thought. "That's the way we prefer it to sound. I honestly don't think the average listener will think it's monochrome. I must admit I'm a bit disturbed by this!"
Well, for whatever reason, the songs come across a bit like intellectual blueprints - there's a feeling that they're not addressed to an audience. It reminds me of Gang Of Four, when the ideas behind their songs became abstracted from the performance of them.
"The recording didn't lack ,spontaneity," Gregory pointed out. "Whenever we do something it's more or less direct to tape anyway. We mess around with sounds and things as we're going, but an idea goes straight onto tape so the spontaneity's there - in fact more so than normal groups."
"What can we say?" asked Ware rhetorically. "I don't think it's sterilising it. In fact I think it's helping, because the sort of disciplines you need for live work are entirely different from the disciplines you need in the studio. And the more continuously you work in the studio the better you begin to understand how things work. Whether or not the public like it isn't really in our control. You can only go so far in catering to public taste.
"I think if you said these sort of things to a 17-year-old kid who'd bought a Human LéaguE record they wouldn't know what you were talking about, because to them it sounds like a damn good pop record. I mean, there's so many interrelated factors, I don't think it's all that relevant that we work more or less exclusively in the studio."
IN case this all sounds too crushingly negative, let me add that there are some things I like about "The Luxury Gap". I just wish there were more. Best of the to is "Come Live With Me", which sports a damn fine melody and a cunningly floating arrangement, while "Key To The World" lists the horrors of credit card living with some nicely self-mocking detail: "Trying to fill the luxury gap has pushed me to the brink/To friends I am a legend, the man who had the beat/But to the credit agencies I'm Mr Obsolete - delete". But overall, it's not an album I can get excited about.
And that line about "Mr Obsolete" - could this be a little near the bone? Plainly the men from Heaven are a mite sensitive about their new record. After all, it's been a good 18 months since "Penthouse And, Pavement", and that "Music Of Quality And Distinction" album released under Marsh and Wares BEF persona was some let-down. It seemed to go off half-cocked,. Martyn.
"No, it wasn't half-cocked at all," said Ware emphatically. Oops. "On the contrary, it was meant as a fun thing and in fact it was interpreted as an intellectual thing."
But you didn't get all the people to perform on it who you wanted. "Well, we did want some fairly exceptional people," said Ware frostily. "Bowie and Scott Walker ... Scott Walker hasn't done anything for three years.
"It seems unfashionable to give credit for original thought nowadays. However imperfectly realised that album may be, at least it was an original idea and I think we got very little credit for that. In fact in a way it worked against us. I think people just thought we were trying to be smart-alecs, you know what I mean? And cash in on something. That wasn't the case at all.
"For instance Lynden Barber, I remember the review he did of 'Quality And Distriction'... if I'd had his phone number I'd have phoned him up and explained that it wasn't the case at all. He claimed that we were attempting to cash in and not doing it very well.
"We just thought it was an interesting idea, and it got blown out of proportion because of various factors that weren't necessarily what we wanted at all. If that album could have been put out with a K-Tel ambience, almost, that would have been nearer the mark. Just an interesting combination of ideas. It wasn't meant to be any sort of intellectual exercise."
Indeed, according to Martyn, the whole career of BEF/Heaven 17 has been dogged by over-serious commentators who have consistently portrayed them as brow-furrowing electrointellectuals, a kind of microchip Brains Trust, when all they-really wanted was to be a crew of musicians/producers working in their own preferred manner.
"For instance," said Ware, "when we did 'Fascist Groove Thing' we thought that was one of the funniest records ever made. We couldn't sing most of it cos we thought it was so funny. It was patently absurd that anybody could possibly take it seriously, even though at the heart of it the germ of the idea was there. It was just to outrage people basically, and it's just a ghost that's haunted us. From that point onwards, I think people have taken us too seriously. Which is nice in one sense, because at least hopefully they take the trouble to listen to the lyrics, and if they don't it's not really relevant anyway."
HEAVEN 17 seem pretty damn serious to me - certainly serious enough to admit freely that the current state of "pop" fills them with despair. Ware and Marsh apparently spend almost no time listening to the current chart operators, while Gregory sometimes douses himself in daytime radio but finds it pretty depressing.
-"I've just bought a jukebox with a lot of classic singles on it," said Martyn. "I listen to that a lot."
"Sometimes it's really sad," added Glenn. "Sometimes when I see things on 'Top Of The Pops' or the Saturday morning shows, I really do feel like packing it in. And when you get into Ian's oar, you can guarantee he's got one of three tapes playing - that's all he's got and he just plays them."
"For no particular reason - I'm not even enjoying it especially," said the detached Marsh.
"It's very unfashionable to be even slightly intellectual," said Ware. "When a group can release a record called 'Ooh To Be Ah', what level are we sinking to? I saw an interview with Bono from U2 and I agreed with what he was saying. I think there's a silent majority who actually are interested in how music progresses and how it improves over the years, as opposed to just going out and buying whatever's fashionable that week. And I just think it's not fashionable to talk about it or to express that view in public at the moment."
They liken the state of music at the moment to the rampant escapism of Hollywood in the Thirties. "At least we put ourselves in a position to be criticised by actually saying something about it," claimed Ware.
AS the video crew clattered noisily back into action after their lunch, I asked the threesome if, were they to decide to make a fulllength video tape of "The Luxury Gap", there would be some constant theme running through it?
"Oh yeah," said Ware. "It would probably be futuristically based on the state of Britain today, in much the same way that 'Clockwork Orange' was based on a projection of how life would be in 20 years time - it was written in 1962. That's just one idea. There are a good few socialist lyrics on the album.
" 'Who'll Stop The Rain' is fairly close to 'Big Brother' off Bowie's 'Diamond Dogs' - 'someone to save us, someone to follow', I think his lyrics are. It's just commenting on the fact that everybody in power claims to be the saviour but in fact nobody is."
You seem pretty disillusioned with the record business, I said as a parting shot. "No," said Martyn Ware, "not disillusioned - I never had any illusions about it in the first place. It's a good career. It's a damn sight better than computer operating, which is what we were doing before. It's still fun, it's just not as creatively interesting as a lot of other things."
Somewhere between penthouse perfection and the crushing wheels of the industry, Heaven 17 go about their business. They say they plan to be around for a long time. Will anybody be listening?