Sunday, 12 July 2009

Heaven 17 Interview


They chose their name from ‘Clockwork Orange’.
They were two-thirds of the original Human League,
they supported Tony Benn for leadership of the Labour Party,
and produced Gary Glitter, Sandie Shaw and Tina Turner in their
own Sheffield studios. At the time of this interview Heaven 17
were promoting their first hit album – ‘Penthouse & Pavement’.
And they provide an interview well worth revisiting…

“Who you getten, bratty? What biggy, what only?”
These young devotchkas had their own like way of govoreeting.
“The Heaven 17, Luke Sterne? Goggly Gogol?”
And both giggled, rocking and hippy.
– ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess
(Heinemann 1962)

This gets crazy. There seems to be a slight air of flippancy intruding and that don’t quite slot with the corporate image. This could be the last generation on Earth, right? Stock Exchanges plummet, economists wear their ties like hangman’s nooses – even the vinyl weight of albums has been reduced from 160g to 120g since 1974! And here – a dreary rain-sick Leeds night in an abandoned Disco there’s Heaven 17 putting on a Monkees routine! Photographer Chris is taking pictures, Ian Marsh has come into possession of handcuffs which ‘business associate’ Bob Last enthuses and cajoles will make magnificent snapshots for family albums, and despite protests that the keys are not in attendance we get Heaven in bondage posing on the bar, delivering rap-sermons from the pulpit with Chris recording all for posterity.

Now it’s sound-check – they intend singing over tapes, but their formation in front of a triple-mike trident is slightly obstructed by the handcuffs, obliterating all potential choreographies. This gets crazier. A sudden storm of electro-pulse Funk storms in a deafening hail of out-of-balance discord, VU meters swing into RED, screaming. Heaven cringes, manacles inhibiting even hands-over-ears protection, but Glenn Gregory, his braces over his off-colour T-shirt over his bagged pants, gamely investigates the closest mike chanting “WE DON’T NEED THIS FASCIST GROOVE THANG, WE DON’T NEED THIS FASCIST GROOVE THANG”, while Marsh and Martyn Ware – almost enforcedly hand in hand – add a background chant of “TONY BENN, TONY BENN, TONY BENN!!!”

But perhaps with a first album (‘Penthouse and Pavement’) shoved massively into the chart propelled by a clutch of notices that had reviewers plundering their Thesauruses for yet more over-the-top words of praise, and a single (“Play to win”) seizing great fistfuls of Radio One airwaves, perhaps some flippancy is justified.

Earlier we are strung out round an alcove table for interrogation. Gregory, blonde, spontaneous, grinning. Marsh, face in angular planes, hair drawn back in a truncated pony-tail, alternately leaning across at me to emphasise the intensity the handcuffs belie, or slumping down head in hands either out of physical exhaustion, or boredom. Ware alone conforms to expectations in neat red tailored shirt, accountants tie, and sober upwardly mobile businessman’s suit. He’s slumped back in the mock leather, adding well-paced and carefully spaced comments when statements of policy or detail are required.

Sliding sideways into history I relate the brief career of the Leeds ‘Heaven 17’ (no relation), a group who time-capsuled one flexi disc free with the ‘Wool City Rocker no.12’ fanzine, after which they metamorphose into 1919.

“We didn’t know,” counters Martyn defensively. “Initially they claimed in the press that we ripped the name off them, but they probably ripped it off the same place we did, which was ‘Clockwork Orange’. It’s quite well known, just a coincidence.”

Are we supposed to read anything deep into the selection of name? “No, not at all. Just a good name. Sounds good, that’s all” asserts Glenn. “Could’ve been anything."

Pity. I suggest that some interesting analogies could be spun – something along the lines of a rhythmic opiate for the masses in the degenerate totalitarianism of the Eighties, a la the group in the Anthony Burgess novel. “Yes yes” howls Ian. “That’s it. ‘Rhythmic opiate’ yeah, I like that. You write that down."
Undaunted I throw up more Sci-Fi reference points. Human League recorded “Tom Baker” on the backside of “Sound of the Crowd”, and name-checked Buck Rogers on the League’s ‘Travelogue’ album. Science Fiction? “No, we’re trying to avoid that if at all possible.”
Martyn’s not so sure. “I don’t think ‘Clockwork Orange’ is SF. It’s a social commentary. It’s just the progress of society in 1961 and the way it was going. It’s just the most accurate interpretation of the future that’s ever been as far as I’m concerned. Just about everything he said has come about.”

Conversational continuity is disrupted by the sudden intrusion of a flashbulb sparking off a series of sympathetic explosions in the mirror-top table and the selection of glasses thereon. This induces an immediate discarding of jackets to enhance the photogenic qualities of the Heavenly trio. “This is rippling biceps time” I comment laconically. “From Anthony Burgess to Tony Benyon!”

Glenn poses various macho attitudes more like the sand-kicked than the sand-kicker of the time-honoured Charlie Atlas strips. The air of flippancy tips the scales into the ludicrous. “Tony Benn, yeah. The Tony Benn Beauty Boys”.
“No, Tony Benyon – the satiric Rock cartoonist” I protest limply through chock-a-chock tides of hysterical laughter.

“No. I prefer Tony Benn” deadpans Ian Craig-Marsh.
Can I quote you on that? “Definitely. Please do. We’re all big Tony Benn fans. I don’t wanna confuse the readers too much but we are Lefties."

The high intensity guffaws are a mite distracting, but this is worth chasing. B.E.F. (British Electrical Foundation), the Heaven 17 umbrella organisation, makes much play of its pastiche multinational corporation scenario. The Saatchi & Saatchi efficiency of its promotional campaign, leading to blanket saturation of the pop comics would seem to indicate a fair grasp of the business ethic. Vis, progressive targets are identified, and strategies are evolved accordingly in three steps to Heaven. (1) Establish brand identity. (2) Add tasty element of conflict/gossip to aid human interest angle (in the shape of acrimony with their ex-Human League colleagues), leading inevitably, inexorably to (3) sales mobilisation of product, chart positions, ‘Top of the Pops’, Richard Skinner Show sessions on Radio One, double platinum albums, etc, etc.

So how does such aggressively persistent capitalism square with support for Tony Benn? Martyn Ware embroiders around the edges of the accusation. “That’s the way we work. It always comes in bursts. But the promotion’s more down to the press office at Virgin, not us.”
But how much of all this corporate image spiel in a piss-take? “Quite a lot of it” says Ian without prevarication. “Very tongue in cheek."
“It’s real though. We are a Company.” Martyn hedges. “But at the same time – it’s a piss-take. At the same time it’s taking the piss out of the way people take Companies seriously. Because basically the only reason you set up a company – apart from really greedy people trying to make vast amounts of money out of the poor oppressed populace – is to make things easier for yourself. To enable you to make better business connections by having a bit of credibility behind you in the traditional sense of the word. Unfortunately you’ve got to work that way in a capitalist society if you want to subvert it.”

This reeks of unfamiliarity with basic dialectics. So I expound. Within Heaven 17 there are two distinct factions we can term – for sake of argument – Humans and non-Humans. First there is Ian Craig-Marsh and Martyn Ware, the grand old men of intellectual Disco, who served time in the Human League. They form B.E.F., they are the management. Then there is the non-Human League element. His is Glenn Gregory, the client, the employee. This situation with Heaven 17 is not unlike, say, Malcolm McLaren playing on stage with the Pistols. Or George Martin playing on stage with the Beatles. So what happens when the two interests conflict? “They don’t conflict. It’s one interest” claims Glenn.

But B.E.F. already has separate projects going. The limited edition all instrumental cassette ‘Music For Stowaways’ – the 10,000 ambient music tape with “Music To Kill Your Parents By”, “The Optimum Chant” and “The Old At Play” (Virgin VCV2888, 1981, cassette & LP) – was B.E.F., not Heaven 17. Then there’s ‘Music For Listening To’ with “Uptown Apocalypse”, “B.E.F Ident”, and “Rise Of The East” (Virgin BEF1, 1981). “But in the creative sense B.E.F. is just part of Heaven 17” persists Glenn.

“Whereas B.E.F. is the parent company of Heaven 17” adds Martyn. “The nearest parallel is the Chic organisation. Nile Rodgers and Bernie Rhodes go along and do production for other people, but they don’t just produce the records, they play on them. That’s what we’re doing basically. We’ve just completed an album for Hot Gossip where we played the whole of the backing tracks – bar one cut, and they just put the vocals on. But it’s going out as a Hot Gossip album.”

That’s my point. What happens, say in a couple of years time following regulation hit singles and albums when Heaven 17 want to tour and B.E.F. are preoccupied with newer production projects? “Then I do it. I get a band in” concedes Glenn. “I rehearse and I go out on the road and I’m Heaven 17, and they carry on being B.E.F.”

“But there’s no conflict of interest because B.E.F., being the parent company, decides how to promote the acts under their wing. So it’s not like Heaven 17 and B.E.F. are opposite sides of the coin, and if one becomes successful the other night get jealous. We are the same.”
“And I have to do exactly what these two boys tell me.” Glenn touches the brim of an imaginary flat cap. “And if they say ‘I’m sorry but we’ve got something else that’s more viable’ then I say ‘fair enough boys’”, his voice becomes as humble as a Hovis commercial, “and I… have to … step down.”

--- 0 ---
Then an idea hit me and made me near fall over with their anguish and
ecstasy of it, O my brothers, so I could not breathe for near ten seconds.
I recovered and made with my new-clean zoobies and said…
– ‘A Clockwork Orange’ by Anthony Burgess
(Heinemann 1962)

The slight air of flippancy might mislead you to believe I disrespect Heaven 17, which is far from being accurate. In fact both on the strength of B.E.F.’s product so far delivered, and on lineage, I have a lot of time for them. Clear through the 1976/’77 period when the rest of the U.K. was embroiled in a systematic rejection of all artistic and musical pretensions in favour of minimalist punk, Sheffield alone was laying the ground rules for all the movements that were to dominate to the end of the decade and beyond. Of course punk was a necessary and essential shedding of all that had become phoney and turgid in Rock, syringing the aural rubbish from the ears of a nation. But by stomping on the concept of goal and objective, be it strictly musical, or even crassly commercial – if the greatest notoriety a band could generate was mythologised self-destruction in the Sid Vicious or Iggy Pop mould – then it also removed the element of motivation. If stardom was immoral and proficiency suspect then all endeavour is rendered redundant.

The Sheffield answer was to leap obliquely into wild voyages of exploration to uncharted areas of electronic experiment, sidestepping both conventional musical standards and accepted modes of Rock celebrity. On one side of town was Cabaret Voltaire, on the other there was Future, a ‘more adventurous but less commercial’ version of Human League which cannibalised Marsh and Ware alongside vocalist Adi Newton and others also destined to form the excellent but much undervalued Clock DVA. Tapes exist of the now-legendary Future, and they may eventually emerge as a B.E.F. ‘minor’ work although contractual problems with ex-colleagues at the moment inhibit their release. The recent death of DVA’s bassist Jud Turner adds a degree of poignancy to the project.

The abrupt termination of Future led to Human League. Ware and Marsh knew Glenn Gregory at the time. “In fact we knew Glenn longer than we’d known Philip. I’d known Glenn for ages” said Martyn. They’d also played together in pre-Future bands according to Glenn. They now claim he’d have been the ideal Human League vocalist, which would have rewritten histories considerably. But Gregory was otherwise engaged. Exiled to London he was working with a band named 57 Men, playing the Marquee plus others clubs and pubs in the city area.
I suggest the cost-effective problems of keeping a 57-piece personnel on the road led to their eventual demise! “We had to economise down to just seventeen” quips Glenn.

In the meantime Marsh and Ware, in their alignment with Philip Oakey and Adrian Wright pioneered the Sheffield ‘industrial music’ onto record with “Being Boiled”, a single on the Independent label Fast in 1978, and with the album ‘Reproduction’ for Virgin a year later. It’s currently trendy to dump on the Oakey/Wright axis in favour of the B.E.F. contingent, fuelled by acid press sniping across column inches. There’s more than a whiff of post-divorce bitterness in the air, as well as the bonus of feeding hungry journalists good copy (Ware concedes that “it doesn’t do us any harm” when I put this gossip slant to him!). It’s my guess that once the initial ripples have subsided the joint Human League work will again be recognised for the perceptive and innovative gems like the 1980 ‘Travelogue’ album, and the petty in-fighting will rightly be relegated to perspective. In retrospect that second album is riddled with, probably incidental, but tantalising suggestions of impending split – “WXTL” runs ‘The way it was in the past / a long time ago / before staff levels dropped’.

So staff levels dropped. In came Susan and Joanne.

57 Men also split, reforming as Hwang Chung, leaving options open for Glenn Gregory to pact with the burgeoning BEF empire.

Having worked the Indie scene, and sampled the artistic restrictions of being signed to a major, B.E.F. evolved the unique licensing deal with Virgin which gave them the freedom of D.I.Y., with the full potential for distribution and promotion of the establishment. “We can present Virgin with absolutely anything we want, they have no editorial control over us whatever” explains Martyn. “If they don’t like something that we do and they’re not prepared to put it out then they relinquish control of it, and within a month of us presenting it to them we can put it out on another record label. Anybody who is interested. So we’ve got the best of both worlds.”
Was this arrangement born out of prior disagreements with Virgin? I recall Mike Scott claiming some such incompatibility for his band, Another Pretty Face, quitting Virgin in high dudgeon after two fine, but non-hit singles.

Again Martyn assumes the diplomats chair. “Virgin were very open to the idea of a Production Company. They are very open minded, I admire them for that. People distrust them because… like, no-one slags off Polydor or Arista because they know that they’re just hard headed businessmen, and because of that they automatically assume, well, that’s their thing, leave them to it. But because Virgin are willing to try out some new ideas and are genuinely interested in new acts and new types of music they get a lot of stick for it because they don’t do it exactly how people think they should. And I think Virgin deserve a lot more credit for things than perhaps they’re given. And that’s not normal coming from a group, is it? Praise for a record company, but I think they deserve it.” He then carefully adds a rider. “But they’re not perfect by any means.”

What other projects are B.E.F. working on? I heard strange tales about a liaison with Gary Glitter? “He was gonna sing a song on a forthcoming album of cover versions called ‘Music of Quality, Music of Distinction’. We’ve already recorded a track with Sandie Shaw – an electronic version of “Be my Baby”, the old Ronettes number. The album will be coming out in March, and round about that time we’ll probably have completed writing the next Heaven 17 album. ‘Music For Listening To’ started out as an Irish EP, made up largely of stuff from ‘Music for Stowaways’ plus a track or two not previously issued, like “Baby Billy”. We never really get much chance to just sit around. It must cost a fortune for people to keep up with what we release. It’s almost not worth being a fan of ours!”

Does the Gary Glitter connection go back to Human League’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” on the “Holiday ‘80” EP? Flashback visuals regurgitate themselves unbidden of Oakey on ‘Top of the Pops’ mouthing to Glitter’s first hit. “That’s where it started” agrees Ian.

“The current Human League don’t know him” adds Martyn, neatly drawing up lines of demarcation. “I happen to know him quite well. I made a point of getting to know him. He’s a really nice bloke."

“He is. I was surprised when I met him when he came to Sheffield” concurs Glenn. “I wanted to adopt him as me Dad!”

“He’s just like Danny La Rue or something. He’s a real old ham, know what I mean? I bet if he’d been born fifty years earlier he would have been on Musica Hall and been a big star. He’s a Pro. Performer. He’s definitely one of the best live artists I’ve ever seen!”

--- 0 ---
“Reached for a record /
the one with the ultra-modern label /
it had a futuristic cover”
“The Black Hit of Space” –
Human League (‘Travelogue’)

An element of calm momentarily descends. Perhaps now’s the time to conversationally test out the level of send-up suspected in initial encounters. We’ve been supplied with drinks, defence mechanisms that inevitably come into play in interview situations have been suspended with the pleasing flow of good alcohol. Heaven 17 ordered Bloody Mary, Lager, and a Vodka and tonic. They express surprise at my choice of a pint of bitter, so I explain that it’s to emphasise my proletarian roots, and use that to slyly resurrect the spectre of the Tony Benn chant. So where does the Marxism come in, apart from the obvious ‘Fascist Groove’ thing?

“Tony Benn’s not a Marxist” states Ian firmly.

“He’s a true Socialist, that’s all.”

“Actually” confides Ian, leaning across at me, “fifty percent of the royalties on the next single – “Penthouse and Pavement”, will be donated to Tony Benn’s campaign to become Leader of the Labour Party. We back him to the hilt. We’ve approached him and he’s keen!”

“He’s the only man in Britain who is gonna actually change anything.”

No hint of humour now, there’s real anger as Ian pokes emphasis on the air. “I’m outraged by the press he’s been getting. It seems really ridiculous even in things like the ‘Daily Mirror’ where they’re slagging off his new book, comparing him to Oswald Mosley, which is completely ludicrous! They are really scared of him for some reason. And the stupid thing in the ‘London Evening Standard’ – they had an opinion poll that was so biased, the questions they were asking, like ‘who is the most honest between him and Denis Healey?’, ‘who is the most sincere?, ‘who has got the right answers for Britain’s problems?’ Ridiculous questions. ‘Who is the most down to earth?’ What the fucking hell does that mean – the most down to earth?”

“Who wears the biggest shoes?” contributes Glenn.

“Who has the best dress sense?” from Ian.

“Which of these two men has red as their favourite colour?” from Martyn.

Back to reality. “We all come from pretty strong working class backgrounds” says Ian “My Dad’s a bricklayer and my Mum used to work at Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts Factory. My Grandfather got burned clear down his right side when he was splashed with molten steel at a steel works!”

“My Father worked all his life, and has just been made redundant” protests Glenn.
Urged on by my claim that ‘you can’t get better Street Credibility than that’ – like some absurd Monty Python sketch – Martyn goes one better. “My Dad worked fifty years in an Engineering firm and he retired and all he got for fifty years in a buffing shop was a gold watch. THAT’S WHY I’M BACKING TONY BENN!”

“…And we all love our Mums and Dads” comes Glenn, like the perfect punch line to the perfect joke.

How do I follow that? “So when you reach sixty-five you’re expecting a gold watch from B.E.F.?” I ask Glenn.

“I’m hoping for a little bit more than that. A digital one. A plastic digital one. One of those that play tunes”. A seconds thought. “Yes, that’s what I want.”

A sly leer from Ian. “Easily pleased the Working Classes!!!”


When released, in 1982, ‘Music of Quality, Music of Distinction’ (Virgin V2219), featured Gary Glitter doing Elvis’ “Suspicious Minds”, Sandie Shaw doing the Bacarach-David hit “Anyone Who Had A Heart”, Tina Turner covering the Temptations “Ball Of Confusion”, and Glenn Gregory singing Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” (long before the BBC got around to recording their own multi-artist hit version of the song). Incidentally, B.E.F.’s rediscovery of Sandie Shaw came some time before Morrissey’s more celebrated collaboration with her in 1984, while B.E.F.’s association with Tina Turner – then at the lowest point of her post-Ike career, was the first step of her rehabilitation to chart fame with the B.E.F.-produced “Let’s Stay Together” (no.6 in November 1983)…

And, pretty much as predicted in this interview, after their period of big Heaven 17 hits, Ian Marsh & Martyn Ware retreated into production work, while – when a re-mixed “Temptation” re-charted up to no.4 in February 1992 (it reached no.2 first-time round in April 1983) Glenn Gregory fronted a revised Heaven 17 line-up for promotion-work, with vocalist Carol Kenyon.
Meanwhile, the feuding elements of the original Human League were reconciled sufficiently to joke together and reminisce about their history in a BBC-TV documentary about the ‘Sheffield Sound’. Tony Benn did not become leader of the Labour Party, and did not save Britain…


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