Melody Maker 06Oct1984
Which men ? Why ? How ? When ? The new HEAVEN17 album has baffled critics and may even confuse their battalion of supporters. Lynden Barber corners them in Martyn Ware's flat and goes in, all guns blazing...
Heaven17, all three of them, are sitting in a row, their inquisitor directly opposite.
They do not seem especially excited or agitated or even suprised at this hail of accusations; don't respond with anything that much resembles annoyance or ire. Has the inquisitor been too cautious ? It is always more difficult to be rude to the gracious host than it is to be polite to the oaf.
Should have told them what he was thinking - that even Nik Kershaw's current single outstrips their current work by several kilometres; that had "Sunset Now" been produced by Spandau or Wham! he'd be hurling pots of boiling ink at the Garrard; that their new LP "How Men Are" is virtually unlistenable.
To think he'd settled for "immensely disappointing". The wimp!
But before we begin out tale, let us think back to a time before the dinosaurs returned, to a land where putrefying punks were dressing up in their fairy grandmother's clothes ... Neineteen eighty one was a time of retreat and retrenchment. The old dogs of the new wave had grown wrinkled and tired and were looking to the fountain of pop for rejuvenation.
Nineteen eighty one ? Ah yes, I remember it well. A period of endlessly bleached pseudofunk groups, swapped standards and doublethink available on the National Health. It was quite respectable to say you enjoyed Spandau Ballet - who were as painful then as ever - and not to music that didn't mean shit.
In the midst of this tawdry landscape, Heaven 17 held serious promise. Maybe they never truly mattered in the manner of a Joy Division, Television or Magazine, but it was clear the group stood for intelligence and adventure in pop music, were out there on the front line. "Penthouse And Pavement" was Melody Maker's Album Of The Year - in truth, the eight choice of all the staff rather than the first of a few, but nevertheless a bright record, its synthesised, funketised pop showing most of their competitors the door.
But that was then and this is now, and in the midst of this fast-decaying society, with ist urgent need for tenacity and speed, there is a seriuos question to ponder: waht does it mean to be Heaven 17 ?
I wondered this when I heard their latest single, "Sunset Now", a piece of forgettable fluff, and briefly thought fondly of "Temptation".
I was wondering more seriously when I heard "How Men Are" and one answer kept rebounding : that the place once occupied by Heaven 17 had been taken by groups like the Moodists, Working Week, the Sid Presley Experience, none especially visionary but all nursing fire in their bellies. That yesterday's brave new world hat fossilised into today's establishment.
And now we return to Martyn Ware's openplan flat in the civilising calm of West London side-street, the decor tasteful, the ambience hitech. The conversation so far has been innocuous, matter of fact, a necessary preliminary. The inquisitor shifts uncomfortably in a chair that seems designed to eat people. It's rather like being Clive James interviewing Roman Polanski - postponing the inevitable, tossing around this anecdote, that inquiry, those questions until finally the inescapable must be blurted out: "DO YOU STILL SHAG LITTLE GIRLS, BY THE WAY?"
"Immensely disappointed with it?" Martyn Ware looks mildly crestfallen, hardly surprised or offended when he is told the object of his labours is cold and contains not a single song worth singing. "But this is exactly what every single reviewer said about "The Luxury Gap". So are you going on to turn around and say you liked that ?"
Well, yes, actually, as least some of it.
"It would appear to be the case that most reviewers don't like albums when they first hear them. One would expect us to defend it, but ... you can't please everyone."
Glenn Gregory sounds distressingly reasonable about the matter. "It's a matter of taste, isn't it?"
"A point in its defence," proffers Ware. "It is disorientating when you first hear it, there's no consistency of sound to the album, deliberately. It's not like several songs put into the same context and then reproduced faithfully. The album's been finished for three months and a lot of people said they weren't sure about it when they first got it, but also a lot of people said they really like it a lot more now. So all I can suggest is, if you can be bothered, it might be worth persevering."
"But," says Gregory, "there's a lot of other records so maybe you should try and fine one you like!"
Exactly. "Sunset Now" slips all too comfortably into the softer zones of chartland without providing any sense that there is an alternative, that when Heaven 17 have become subservient to the market, tamed, uninspired. So ... do they think they are providing an alternative to the pap?
"Definitely," says Ware. "I think the songs, as a matter of fact, are much stronger. I think "The Luxury Gap" and, to a larger extent, "Penthouse And Pavement", are much more singalong and simplistic than the songs on this one."
"If anything, this is a good deal more subtle and multi-layered."
But wasn't the fact they were singalong and simple part of the older songs' success? Is not simplicity often a virtue in song-writing? Even "Temptation", a complex song, appealed because it didn't strike people that way.
"It had a very simple structure, but a complex arrangement. On the album the songs were not dissimilar to "Temptation" in the way they were constructed and the methods used. Unless for some mysterious reason we've suddenly lost our grip at how to write songs, I don't understand why they shouldn't appeal to anyone who liked "Temptation". I don't think we have lost our grip, I think we're getting better at it."
At this point you, reader, may be thinking what I'm thinking. That in their haste to dismiss the directness of their earlier work in favour of songs that are now "multi-layered" they are allowing their vision to be clouded by cleverness. I think what most annoys me about their current work is that it is so brashly smartarse. "And That's No Lie", the final track on the album, is symptomatic of the problem (it's Ware's favourite track). Divided into at least four sections, apparently for the sake of it, the track brings into mind those distant days of the early Seventies when structure reigned over substance, pretence over offence.
And that title! ("How Men Are" indeeed). So portentous, so pretentious.
"Oh yeah, I'd go along with that, it's about time to get a bit of pretention back in," shoots back Marsh (is he serious?).
"Less workaday ethic, less love songs," adds Ware (are they delirious?).
"I want to have a bit of pretention," says Marsh (these statements are surely deleterious!). "you can get shot down for it, but fuck it."
You sond facetious, but do you mean that?
"Yeah, Oh Yeah, definitely. I think you can play around with being too simplistic and patronising sometimes. You should just do what you feel. We do it to please ourselves, essentially, and hope that people are going to like our ideas."
It is this point that it's difficult to know quite what to say. Only two weeks ago Level 42's Mark King had owned up to accusations of showing quite cheerfully; now Heaven 17 are reacting in much the same way. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned defensiveness? Such brazen honesty rather throws the interviewer, expecting, as one usually does, the evasive waffle, the inscrutable shrug.
Imagine others reacting in such a manner:
QUESTION: Why are you such a bunch of stinking, untalented, witless BASTARDS?
ANSWER: Well, we're glad you've noticed that we're stinking, untalented witless bastards, because quite frankly we're fed up with getting mealy-mouthed reviews. It's surprising how few people have realised how utterly worthless out music actually is.
QUESTION; "!!!!" (Interviewer lying stunned on carpet.)
Now that we know Heaven 17 are pretentious we know where we stand. Time to turn up the grill. Colin Irwin thought their LP must be a concept album around the theme of nuclear war, I had suspected much the same from the song titles - "Five Minutes To Midnight", "The Fuse", "Sunset Now", "Flamedown", "Shame Is On The Rocks". The lyric sheet will not elucidate; the words are confused, obscure. Apparently only "Five Minutes" is on the nuclear subject. But who would have known ? What does "No more wasting time / Synchronise / Tell them this is mine" mean, please ?
Or "a 30-day-boy in a 20-day-city"!
"It's someone who's out of time, out of place, someone who shouldn't be around at that time," explains Marsh.
"A "thirty day boy" is in fact a young homosexual boy", says Ware. We all know that people get away with garbage in the world of pop, wrap themselves in the most pretentious conceits simply because they feel they won't be challenged. This lyric conveyed precisely nothing to me. I have no patience for it, feel it not worth expending energy by poring over it. Easier to ask: What are Heaven 17 trying to say?
"We're trying to be entertaining an oblique," answers Ware.
Essentially you're not trying to say anything ?
"Well what does any group try to say? What are Frankie Goes To Hollywood trying to say?"
I think it's fairly clear what they're trying to say. There's a fairly clear message in "Two Tribes", isn't there?
"Well we're communicating on the way things are rather than dictating any more. We make it deliberately ... "oblique" implies we don't know on earth what we're doing, but we take a lot of trouble over the lyrics, and I should say a good deal more trouble than 99 per cent of groups do. I think therefore you get out of them what you put into them. Which is all the same in al - to be pretentious for a second - art. I mean to go to the theatre you've got to make the effort to buy a ticket and sit down in a seat and commit yourself to sitting in front of something that somebody else has written. We've written an LP that lyrically, hopefully people actually have to make an effort to listen rather than just passively put on in the background."
Is a pop LP really an analogue of a play by Berthold Brecht or Tennessee Williams?
"No, I wouldn't think so. Brecht's far too pretentious."
I plucked the names out of the air.
"No, of course it's not."
The conversation drifts on like this, but since we humble minions must make space for the nine-page Dave Edmunds in Texas spread or whatever our superiors have planned this week, it must necessarily be curtailed.
It is time to play a game. Hands up who remembers "production companies"? Ha! Who remembers the E-Type Jag, the half-crown, the Coronation mug?
Way back in the dim past, before the dinosaurs returned and etc etc, there were production companies. Public Image talked about theirs but never actually did anything; Heaven17 had the British Electric Foundation. Or rather Heaven 17 was a side project of BEF. It gets kind of confusing.
"Production companies" were going to save the world; enable groups to crawl inside major record companies and fleece them, give musicians freedom to do exactly what they wanted.
Following the failure - both commercial and critical - of BEF's last major project "Music OF Quality And Distinction", that "organisation" is now down to just Martyn Ware. Marsh pulled out because he found it too demanding on his time. Not to mention the fact that the theory of the "production company" has not worked out in practice. BEF now refers to Ware's production of other artists, with the aid of engineer Greg Walsh: "Let's Stay Together" and "1984" for Tina Turner, and an unreleased album by Nick Plytas that Virgin have refused to release. People who have approached BEF for production in the past include Rod Stewart (!), Bette Middler, Carmel and Tears For Fears. Ware tells me Aretha Franklin could have been in the pipeline but fell through.
As for the series of albums originally scheduled under the BEF banner, Virgin have put paid to those plans. In retrospect - and some of us suspected this at the time - it was hopelessly naive to think that the majors would suddenly allow the cards of power to be dealt in their subordinates' favour.
"I'm sure they were never happy with the way it was set up initially, it gave us far too much scope," says Marsh. "As Heaven 17 became more successful they brought more pressure to bear to make sure that we didn't stray too far afield."
Comments Gregory: "There's lots of ideas we've had but haven't taken up on, like re- mixing this album and the last album, doing a completely avant-garde mix, because now we're using the Fairlight we can completely
change the structure and instrumentation of all the songs. They probably wouldn't take that to heart either, they wouldn't like it or wouldn't put it out."
So did the idea of BEF achieve anything?
"It made everyone else view us in a different way, which is good," says Ware. "In a subtle way, it also made us view ourselves differently, in as much as we didn't want to be a traditional
group. Now we don't need artificial props to hold together any sort of brotherhood that we felt for each other, or whatever. If we wanted to do separate projects we still have the framework to go on and do it."
Wasn't the idea of the production company and all the hoo-hah surrounding it in retrospect just a load of bull?
"Of course it was, yeah," admits Ware, Gregory steaming in to try and cover what sounds dangerously close to a frank admission. "BEF was one that wasn't quite as much bull as some of the others."
What it boiled down to, they say, is that BEF were expected to act as badly paid AM men; any money they received from Virgin had to be paid back.
"So we've run down that side of the company," says Ware, "and carried on using the one useful part of the original contract which was left, which enables me to work with and produce anyone 1 wish. Under normal record contracts the record company has the final say, surprisingly."
So this is Heaven 17 and this is what they mean. I haven't, of course, been "fair"'to them because, after all, how can you be fair and say anything that isn't worthlessly soporific? They needed a decent kick in the rump and it has thus been delivered. It might not make any difference, but there again ... what is life without hope? Incidentally, I forget to mention that the 12-inch mix if "Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry" was magnificent. Perhaps this should be recorded.
In the interests of fairness ...