Just Seventeen

"It's not as much fun as it used to be, no. That's sad, but it's the way it goes. There's plenty of people having as little fun as me and getting no money for it, so I'm not complaining."

The man not complaining is Martyn Ware, who along with fellow musician Ian Craig-Marsh and vocalist Glen Gregory comprise Heaven 17, a band whose past has been more chequered than most. They scored big right after the split from the original Human League with a slice of politically-sound dancefloor dynamite, Fascist Groove Thing, and followed it up with a string of well-crafted, moderately successful electronics-based singles (Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry, Temptation), albums which went gold world-wide (Penthouse and Pavement, The Luxury Gap) and innovative collaborations, one of which at least played a part in relaunching the host artist's career - Tina Turner, say thank you to the boys.

Then it went expensively wrong. Tell it like it was, Martyn:

"How Men Are cost us about two hundred grand to make. It recouped just over half of that. We still owe Virgin about 80 grand."

For a man who owes £80,000,_ Martyn looks well enough. Kitted out in standard record biz drag (designer leather jacket with lots of flaps, designer stubble, designer worn jeans) he crushes a cigarette butt to death in a video library case someone has left lying around Virgin's interview room, lights up again, and smiles, revealing a snaggle tooth which definitely isn't there by design.

"Actually, £80,000 isn't that much to a record company anyway, and it's not recouperable from us personally, so even if the whole thing folded tomorrow, we wouldn't lose our houses or anything."

But how...?

"Well, The Luxury Gap had been a big success, by our standards - it sold about three million world-wide. And the temptation is to think, 'cos that cost X amount of money, the way to make the next one even better is to spend just a little bit more money, spend a little while longer in a better studio. We wanted to do it, and because of our success, Virgin were willing to give us the scope. So we spent three months in Air studios where it cost about £1,300 a day."

He shakes his head in disbelief.

"It wasn't that we'd become , conceited or anything, just hooked into this mode of working where it became impossible to think how much money we were spending. It became absurd. We spent 10 grand just on hire fees for outboard gear..."

As I recall, that was the album where you had 96 channels for mixdown, and an Osborne computer just to keep track of the instrument names, wasn't it?


Martyn sounds like he is in pain at the memory of it. You created a monster, didn't you?

"It really was. After a while, you lose sight of what you're doing, especially when you work on slave reels all the time. You just forget what it sounded like in the first place. When you come to mixing, you realise you've never actually heard everything together before, and maybe you've recorded too much, which was often the case. Aside from anything else, it just becomes a mammoth intellectual feat to cope with all that information."

How Men Are also marked the effective end of Martyn's love affair with the Fairlight, which had been used extensively on the album.

"You buy a piece of hardware as expensive as that, and you feel obliged to use it, but to be honest it's almost totally useless. I know people are going 'Series III blah blah blah' but so fucking what? Why don't you just get someone to play the part you want? It sounds better."

Coming from one of the pioneers of electronic pop in this country, that statement is almost heresy, isn't it?

"Listen-we've been that experiment, on three albums, and I'm telling you it's not all it's cracked up to be. The whole concept of programming something is boring, there's nothing spontaneous about it at all. The same with drum machines. They started about the same ti me we

started, almost 10 years ago-God! I feel like Status Quo- and back then,. they were exciting. It meant you didn't have to mess around with wally drummers who couldn't keep time, for one thing. Don't get me wrong-I've got an SP12 now, great machine when you haven't got the time to get a drummer in. But if you're doing the best you can for a track, I don't see how you can do better than a drummer with taste."

Martyn has not entirely forsaken sampling either, but today finds the Emulator II his machine of choice:

"It has superior sound quality, it's definitely a lot more user-friendly, and a damn sight cheaper, too."

Such is his aversion to the ultrasophistication of Fairlight-style programming that he even returned his copy of the Sound Designer software package for the Ell:

"It turned it into a sort of quasiFairlight, but I don't think I've ever heard a usable sound that someone's 'designed' which they couldn't have got an easier way."

The easier way in his case took the form of the CD ROM - a collection of over 1500 sounds garnered from the top Ell users libraries in the States, and transferred to a single CD, not as sounds, but as raw data. He admits to having 'barely scratched the surface' of the sounds he now possesses on this remarkable disc, entitled, in typical Californian style, 'Universe Of Sound Vol I', but already he's found it invaluable.

"For, er, commercials. Jingles. Stuff like that."

Martyn sounds embarrassed at the admission that he prostitutes his talents to such ends.

"It's, er, very lucrative. Ridiculously so, i n fact. £25,000 for a week's work. And it's so easy. The clients don't want anything too original-as long as it sounds like everything else, they're happy."

So far, this new subsidiary of the British Electric Foundation's mission has surfaced as jingles for Capital Radio's yuppie station CFM and on one TV ad, providing the music for Kellog's 'Start' breakfast cereal.

"You know, the one with Steve Cramm and the huge bowl of cereal in the desert. It was directed by Steve Baron, who did Billy Jean, and some of our videos. He lives over the road from me, and just said one morning, would I fancy doing some music for him..."

The only trouble with this new direction in fact, is that Martyn finds he isn't mercenary enough.

"We did two songs for a beer company, to tie in with the world cup. They rejected them. Too-classy-I think they said. One of them, Somebody, is on the new album. It's a good way of writing new material, I suppose."

But all this, Martyn points out, is "a sideline-a very lucrative one, but just a sideline."

Following the disappointment of How Men Are, though, the main line of Heaven 17's future was fast disappearing up its own sideline, perhaps for good. A CD-and-Cassette-only release of remixed, segued material ("Georgio Moroder-style") drawn from previous Heaven 17 endeavours didn't initially receive the push Martyn expected from Virgin's promotions department. He said so, in no uncertain terms, in an interview which appeared two months later just as the record was breaking. Relations between band and label were not helped.

Martyn understandably chooses to draw a veil over the details of the difficult period in the band's history, admitting only that they have now reached an 'amicable separation' from their manager and are once again back handling their own negotiations with Virgin and the rest of the world.

"We managed ourselves for the first two-and-a-half years anyway, so we know what we've let ourselves in for. We're probably more efficient than the average management company office. The most important part of management for an act like us, since we don't gig, is record company liaison. Having a manager means you can offload the boring stuff, but it also means there's another link in the chain of communication between you and the label. I think, especially in a company as big as Virgin now is-130 acts if you count subsidiaries- it's important you let people know you exist as a human being, saying hello, communicating face to face. To that extent, staying on a smaller label with a smaller rosta is a better idea. Here, you're not only fighting public taste, circumstance, fate, you're fighting to be noticed even within the company, that's the first hurdle."

Through tough negotiation with Virgin and some good timing, Heaven 17 have managed not only to bring the new album, Pleasure 1, in at under half the budget for How Men Are, but have got themselves their own studio into the bargain.

"We've just said to them, 'look, let us do this, and we'll be able to record all the backing tracks and work out the arrangements on our own gear, which'II save us about £30,000 in studio time straight off.' Which is just what we did."

Like Tom Robinson and Kate Bush before them, the band went for a package deal from Don Larking Audio sales- Soundtracs CM4400 computer compatible 32 input desk with automation option, matching Soundcraft 24-track machine, Tannoy monitoring and a passle of outboard; REV 7, SRV 2000, SPX90 and Drawmer gates and compressor/limiters. Don Larking handled the whole thing, including installation.

"It worked out really well for us, but it's not something I'd suggest to a young band. If you don't know how to use the gear properly, you're better off without it."

The basic chord structures and drum patterns for Pleasure were put down on a Fostex Portastudio- "great sound - I wished we could have transferred it direct somehow" - using a Linndrum, the Emu II and the Fairlight. Moving onto the 24-track with the same instruments, all installed in Ian's living room, the band put down 13 backing tracks-and began looking for live musicians.

On one of Martyn's increasingly frequent freelance production assignments for American artist Don Hartman, he'd met, and been enormously impressed by, drummer Preston Hayman, whose session credits included Kate Bush.

"One of the new generation of drummers. Preston actually prefers to play to a click track. He hasn't got any of that bias against machines-'Hey, I'm better than them'-he just is better than them."

When Martyn explained that he wanted Pleasure 1 to recapture the feel of Bowie's Young Americans, Hayman knew just who to call. And it wasn't Carlos Alomar.

"His name's Tim Cansfield, he plays sometimes with Gonzales at Ronnie Scotts, in a lot of Soca bands-he's an absolutely brilliant rhythm guitarist, he deserves immense credit for lifting the feel of the album. (This is true.) In fact, I kind of wish I hadn't mentioned him - now everyone'll want to work with him."

Hayman also suggested Phil Spalding on bass, latterly of GTR and prior to that with Toyah, whilst Martyn brought in Steve Nieve to help him and Ian with some of the keyboard parts.

The band booked four days at London's Red Bus studios ('It's cheap and good') to record the live parts, with the help of engineer Brian Tench. They were finished in three.

"I thought, 'God Almighty, we spent two years programming an album, and they've brought this one to life in three days. 'Most of the takes were so good, there wasn't even any question of listening back to them off tape. Everyone worked together so well, I think because I was prepared to trust them, just sit back and say: 'Well, what do you want to play here?' Session musicians aren't used to trust."

In a shrewd piece of scheduling, Martyn flew top American brass section The Phoenix Horns over in time to appear both on the Pleasure 1 album and on three (as yet-unreleased) tracks he was producing for Tina Turner. It was a rush job.

"I got them to play just one chorus, one verse and one solo per song, and then hired a 24-second Publison sampler for the mix down, spinning their parts in wherever I wanted off that."

Vocals were completed in two weeks. Carole Kenyon, of Temptation fame, supplied female vox, and kept up the whirlwind professionalism which was coming to characterise the work on the album.

Five tracks in two and a half hours -including overdubs. Brilliantly."

With the exception of the Publison even mixdown was kept as fast and as low budget as possible.

"We didn't hire anything else at all. Just bought a Roland SRV reverb, a couple of REV 7s, and some Drawmer gates. I deliberately wanted to keep it simple."

Amore different working method from that used on How Men Are would be difficult to imagine, yet so successful was it that the band ended up with more tracks than they could handle on one album, so a second, called logically enough, Pleasure 2, will be released shortly after the first.

"Virtually nothing for two years - and then two albums in less than six months."

He laughs. Looks like Martyn might be starting to have fun again.