Heaven CAN wait by Dave Rimmer in "Smash Hits" Feb/Mar 1982
Heaven 17, the dance division of the British Electric Foundation, sketch out their plans for Dave Rimmer
Maybe it's something to do with the '80s computerized approach to pop. Or maybe it's a reflection of the hard business sense many young bands have learnt since independent labels first provided alternatives to the standard recording contract. But these days your modern young musician wouldn't look out of place in the head office of Shell International. The corpo die image executive-style suits, fies and briefcases - is in!
In all this, Sheffield electronic funksters Heaven 17 have emerged as front-runners. Leaving the Human League in late 1980, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware made the practical move of forming, not a band, but a production company to act as an umbrella for all their projects: the British Electric Foundation, of which Heaven 17 is a "subsidiary".
|Then the cover of Heaven 17's debut album, "Penthouse and Pavement", (which won the coveted Smash Hits Best Dressed Record award for 1981) was designed like some publicity handout for a multinational corporation, Next to a BEF motto, there were pictures of the band in businesslike poses straight out of Dallas. |
"It was just there," says vocalist Glenn Gregory. "It was never a real attempt et an image; we just use it when necessary. But it's funny, in Sheffield recently I've noticed lots of kids wandering around with briefcases."
On the day I met them, Heaven 17 are in a confident mood. "Penthouse and Pavement" has just gone silver (meaning it's sold 60,000 copies), and they've just released a re-mixed, dance-enhanced version of "Height of the Fighting" featuring the massed horns of Beggar and Co.
Last year Heaven 17 seemed to be a band that promised all but never quite delivered, Though they could have papered their walls with all their favourable reviews and mentions-in-the-right-places, they were overshadowed by the enormous success of their old synth-ing partners, the Human League, with whom comparisons still seem inevitable. Would they like to duplicate the League's success?
And Glenn quotes a punk he saw on TV the other night who was asked if he wanted to be famous: "Anyone who says he doesn't must be either daft or a liar."
But do they plan what they're doing in that respect, I wonder? To become that successful you need to sell to a much broader audience. And though I can see my Mum whistling "Don't You Want Me" while she cleans the windows, I can't quite imagine her humming, say, "Fascist Groove Thang". Basically, it seems that BEF work on what they want to do without worrying about triffing matters like commercial potential.
Ian: "There's always a gap of about a year to a year and a half between having an idea and putting it into practice. We're always too busy catching up with ourselves."
Busy is right. Last year they seemed to be working almost constantly. Apart from three singles and that album, BEF also released a "Music for Stowaways" cassette, put together an album of pre-Human League material called "The Future Tapes" (it hasn't been released because they're arguing with Philip Oakey about who owns the rights), produced an album for Hot Gossip in two weeks flat after it was taken out of the hands of Landscape member and Spandau producer Richard Burgess and have been working on a long-heralded album of cover versions to be called "Music of Quality and Distinction". That last was supposed to be released last year too, but according to Ian became "a bit mere of a mammoth task than we'd imagined.".
The album is basically a collection of BEF's favourite tracks sung by a number of guest vocalists. Glenn is doing Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" and Glen Campbell's 'Wichita Lineman". Bernie NuIan is doing The Supremes "You Keep Me Hanging On". Billy MacKenzie of the Associates is handling Bowie's "Secret Life of Arabia" and Roy Orbison's "It's Over". They seem particularly pleased to be working with MacKenzie:
"If Billy doesn't become a big star," Martyn comments, "I will eat my hat, shoes, socks and overcoat. I`ll even eat my briefcase."
Apart from that they won't tell me any more. We know Gary Glitter and Sandie Shaw are doing things,but they won't reveal what. Later on, in Managing Director Simon Droper lets slip that they've been trying to contact Bobby Womack and Tina Turner before the band shut him up.
On top of all that studio work; Heaven 17 also did a succession of personal appearances at clubs in Britain, Germany and New York. They would erringe it with the club beforehand, turn up with backing tapes, and sing along to six or seven tracks.
"And I'm never," says Glenn, "going to sing 'Penthouse and Pavement' ever again. No matter how much anybody pays me." Reactions at first were "a bit tentative", but audiences soon got used to the idea and enjoyed it, At one Glasgow club where their performance was being videoed, the tape suddenly jammed. They just stood there gaping with no idea what to do. Then the DJ started playing Soft Cell's "Tainted Love", and they just started miming to that instead. Glenn reckons: "It helped everyone not take it too seriously."
For now, with the single released and work on "Quality and Distinction" proceeding slowly, Heaven 17 are concentrating on writing new material. For "Penthouse and Pavement" they did all their composing in the studio. Now they've each equipped themselves with TEAC 4-track porta-studios, Casio-Tone synthesizers and Or Rhythm drum machines.
These days equipment like that comes cheaply, the three items together costing about the same as 16 hours of studio time. And now they can do all their composing in the comfort of their own homes. That's probably a relief.
Ian comments: "The last few months have just seemed like a 9 to 5 job to me."
And when I ask how long they've been shut up in the studio, their brains are so fuddled with work they can hardly remember.
"Two months? Three months? I don't know, probably longer."
Well, keep up the good work boys, but take care of yourselves. Or maybe the executive life-style means ulcers as well as attache cases.