In June 1997 Melvin Welters spoke extensively to Glenn Gregory, the singer in Heaven 17 who collaborated with Martin Fry on ABC's new record Skyscraping. The interview was published in A to Z (issue 4) and saw Glenn in great form. Part of the interview is published below. Glenn Gregory on Heaven 17, Ugly, The Magic Skulls and ABC.
Melvin Welters: It took the three of you a long time to come up with 'Bigger than America' after 'Teddybear, Duke and Psycho'. Martyn and Ian were busy working with other people but we didn't hear much from you. How did you spend your time?
Glenn Gregory: So you want to know what I was doing between the last Heaven 17 record and this one. Well after 'Teddy Bear, Duke and Psycho', we decided to have a rest from Heaven 17ing, and as you know Martyn carried on producing other bands and singers, Ian also got involved in this (another BEF album) but I was never really keen on producing, I preferred to write, so I set about working with lots of different people basically learning how to write songs that were not Heaven 17 songs. Along the way, in fact while working with Claudia Brucken from Propaganda, I met John Uriel with whom I formed the band Ugly. There was a 14 month period where I was working back in Sheffield on a project that I thought had loads of potential but unfortunately fizzled out. Now that might not seem like 4 or 5 years, but add an absolute huge amount of fun and going out, and believe me it is.
Melvin Welters: The tendency with a lot of artists these days seems to be that it takes a long time to come up with a new album(ABC, Heaven 17, Prefab Sprout, A Certain Ratio and so on). It used to be an album every two years. Can you name a reason for this?
Glenn Gregory: The reason Heaven 17's new album took so long, is the fact that we were not working together as Heaven 17 for about 6 years, and in fact when we decided the time was right for us to work together again, the songs came thick and fast. It was a real pleasure to be working as a band again, it was fresh and we'd all learnt a lot in the intervening years and it was exiting to record the new album. I can recommend to any band out there if your ideas are getting a little stale, take eight years off, it works wonders. The other reason bands take longer to make records I guess, is the fact that you start doing other things, like having a life, falling in love, having babies, getting divorced, falling in love, having holidays, then you make another album using all these new and fresh experiences. It all makes perfect sense.
Melvin Welters: Your debut album in 1981 was very successful (comparable to ABC's 'Lexicon Of Love'). Every subsequent release was compared to that initial success, how do you feel about that?
Glenn Gregory: Fine, our first album was a success and I suppose you're right every other album will be compared to that, but although people remember Penthouse and Pavement as our most successful album, it was is in fact the songs from the second album, 'The Luxury Gap' that did the best chart wise and sales wise. So no matter if anyone says, yes but they will never better their first album, we already did! But to be honest, as I said 'Penthouse And Pavement' is my favourite Heaven 17 album,.............. so far anyway.
Melvin Welters: How did you get to duet with Martin Fry for the soundtrack of 'When Saturday Comes' and why did you rerecord the track for 'Skyscraping'?
Glenn Gregory: I've been friends with Martin Fry for years, and we had often talked about doing a song together. I was asked to do a track for the film 'When Saturday Comes' and the producers asked if I knew any other bands or singers from Sheffield (it was originally going to be a totally Sheffield soundtrack) that would be good for the film. Anyway I gave Martin a call and he immediately came up with the idea of doing something together. The film's producers liked the idea so that was it, we started work the next week. We wrote two songs together for the film, but only 'Seven Day Weekend' appears on the soundtrack. The other song is called, 'Carry Me Home', which is quite apt really as every time I go out drinking with Martin Fry, that's exactly what someone has to do. The reason that 'Seven Day Weekend' is on the ABC album is that the we felt the film was rubbish, but Martin still thought the track was good and deserved to be heard.
Melvin Welters: What's the difference between doing an album with Heaven and doing an album with ABC?
Glenn Gregory: What's the difference between doing an album with Heaven 17 and doing an album with ABC? That sounds like a joke that needs a punchline, answers on a postcard please. Actually not much difference really, same amount of drinking, same amount of fun, same amount of arguing, same amount of late nights, but a lot less singing. That's about it, working with friends is always good fun.
Melvin Welters: It seems difficult for both Heaven 17 and ABC to have chart success these days. What do you think the reason is for this, and do you care about it?
Glenn Gregory: The reason that we or ABC have not had the hits recently is to be honest not a surprise to me, at the moment everything is so very neatly compartmentalised and I'm afraid we just don't seem to fit in, but that's not to say a slot wont open up soon, then just you see it will be like we've never been away.
Melvin Welters: I heard when you started making music with Fry and Lowndes as the Magic Skulls you were making very long Techno instrumentals. The final result of the ABC album was very different. Why the change in style?
Glenn Gregory: I started working with Keith on a project with John McGeoch (of Magazine & Siouxsie and the Banshees Fame) we were writing and recording up in Sheffield for about a year. The songs were very good in a kind of U2 dance style, but for whatever reason the band (which never had a name) split up before ever playing live or releasing anything. Keith and I decided though that we would keep on working together as we made a very good writing team. We started writing songs for me to sing, we didn't know if it would be a band or maybe a Glenn Gregory solo project. It was during this period that Keith and I started to work with Martin. It was just for a bit of fun really, we were writing stuff that we wouldn't normally do (even though we liked it) so as quite often happens the end result was something very good and very interesting, and as Martin was involved with Deconstruction Records some of the tracks did actually come out on white label. There are about six other tracks recorded and in Martin's safe hands, you never know, one day they may see the light of day. It was after this initial writing period that we realised we all worked well together, and we decided to have a go at writing some tracks especially for Martin in a new ABC style. The original songs we had written as The Magic Skulls were not really suitable for an ABC album, but it didn't take us long to settle in to a new style, and I must say I think the songs we have written together are some of the best I have been involved with. Keith and I are still writing songs for me to sing and they are good, so I guess one day they will be released.
Melvin Welters: In the last edition of A to Z Martin Fry compared production to photography. How do you experience production?
Glenn Gregory: I have always preferred the writing and recording phase of song production to the mixing stage. I think there are so many different ways to go with a song up to that final point, that when it's time to stop recording and start putting the track down I get freaked out. Maybe it needs more of this or less of that, it's such a malleable thing, you really have to have a strong idea of what you want to get the result you desire, and I must admit working with Heaven 17 I can relax a bit on the final stage but with ABC it was all hands on deck, full concentration required. I think it was really the first time I'd ever actually produced (Co produced) a record, and you know what, it's not that scary after all, but it's a lot easier taking pictures.
Melvin Welters: Tell us a little more about your Ugly period and where did the bands name come from?
Glenn Gregory: The band Ugly consisted of Myself, John Uriel and Ian Wright (not the Arsenal footballer). We had one record released on the Nutbush label, which was called, 'Boom The Future', the video for which was directed by Andrew McPherson, the famous fashion photographer (his first ever). There are about another seven songs recorded, three to completion. They were produced by Gareth Jones (He's produced two of Erasures albums as well as many others). The unfortunate timing of our first release meant that it came out on the same week as the Brothers in Rhythm remix of 'Temptation', as you know that went to number 2 in the charts, so poor old Ugly didn't get a look in. And that unfortunately was the end of Ugly...... for now at least. I wanted to call the band Ugly because I really liked the look of the word written down, it's very strong and emotive. We were going to call the album 'Beautiful'. So it would have read, Ugly Beautiful. Which as you know is the name of the Baby Bird album. Strange EH !
Melvin Welters: You have done a few live shows with Heaven 17. What kind of experience was that for you and how was playing with Erasure?
Glenn Gregory: Heaven 17 have just played a number of gigs and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it. We started off with a few low key gigs in clubs around Britain (these were our first ever) ending with a show at Heaven in London, which was packed to the rafters and more fun than should be legal, then we had a day off before playing at Birmingham NEC in front of ten thousand people. Can you imagine it only my fourth ever gig and there are ten thousand people watching....... whoow just a bit on the nervous side, but it went very well, as did the rest of them. I'm sure it won't be long before we play again.
Melvin Welters: Both the new ABC album and the Heaven 17 album return to authentic sounds, containing elements from the early 80s/late 70s. Is this just the current trend and will there be a return to contemporary sounds in the future?
Glenn Gregory: The reason that the new Heaven 17 album, 'Bigger Than America' uses such sounds is a deliberate move on our part to explore a way of writing we felt we had left unfinished. As you know our first album, 'Penthouse And Pavement', had two distinct sides, the Pavement side featured heavily electronic sounds, while on the Penthouse side we used more real instruments, and some other musicians. From that point on we followed the latter of the two paths, leaning more and more as we went along on other players, bigger orchestra's etc. to create our sound. When we came back to work together again, the first thing we all wanted to say was that we wanted the new Heaven 17 album to be the purest yet, just the three of us, and as purely electronic as we could make it. This entailed us re-buying a lot of old analogue stuff we used years ago and re-learning to programme them. Even though the instruments we used were old, the sounds they make are totally contemporary, as it is within these early electronic instruments that the beginning of dance music has it's roots. So even though the new album was written using old instruments (we did use modern sequencers) I believe it's sound is totally contemporary. But that was a one off return to innocence, and the next Heaven 17 record I'm sure will use all the technology it can muster to make it a huge hit. The ABC album, well there's a different story. We actually went further back to look for inspiration there. We listened to very early Roxy Music, early David Bowie, and quite a lot of Brian Eno we took influences from. We got really excited about music we used to love, then just wrote the songs. Most of them were written on guitar (played by the multi talented Keith Lowndes) then programmed up at Martins house, and recorded for real at Bunk Junk and Genius, a studio in London. I think the sound of the album is pretty timeless, and I think the songs are very good....... and I'll fight anybody that disagrees!
Melvin Welters: ABC will tour again in June. Will you accompany them on this tour or make a guest appearance.
Glenn Gregory: Well I will certainly go and see them! Now that I've had the practice of singing and performing live who knows what inspiration might become me. If I did jump on stage it would probably be in Sheffield (our Home turf) and I'm sure Martin would love it?
Melvin Welters: What's the future with Heaven 17 and will you work with ABC in the future again?
Glenn Gregory: Heaven 17's immediate future will consist of us writing a new album, playing a few more live dates (it took us over ten years to start now you can't stop us) and after that who knows. As long as it keeps being fun and interesting we'll be there. Yes I hope to be writing with Keith and Martin again soon to start work on further ABC songs........ A lot of work, but a lot of fun.