Heaven 17 invented ElectroPop.
Well obviously, not all on their own, but they are one of a small handful of bands that, in the early 80’s, propelled electronic music (in a Pop format) into the UK charts and from there, throughout the world. Sure, there were pioneering electronic musicians who came before, the likes of Wendy Carlos then Giorgio Moroder followed by Daniel Miller’s lot and Kraftwerk, but they were viewed as experimental or avant-garde. Gary Numan’s happy accident aside, it took Heaven 17, The Human League and OMD to capture the nation’s hearts, minds, ears and feet and forever put the synthesizer at the centre of British Pop music.
The day that Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh parted company with (the then art-house) The Human League, Martyn was on the phone to Glenn Gregory, frontman in-waiting, and the rest is SynthPop history. Now, three decades years later, the band are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the release of their seminal, influential and highly critically acclaimed début album ‘Penthouse And Pavement’. Having already performed (for the first time) the whole album and produced an accompanying documentary detailing their history and the making of the album, both broadcast by the BBC, the guys are gearing up to take their ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ show on the road and release a special edition of the album.
Heaven 17 are busy right now, with radio, TV and live appearances almost weekly, so we are lucky that Glenn Gregory, the face of Heaven 17, took some time to fill the readers of electronic rumors in on all things ‘Penthouse And Pavement’:
ER: As you are celebrating the 30th anniversary of ‘Penthouse And Pavement’, how do you feel about those songs now? Could you ever have conceived of how acclaimed and, indeed, influential that album would turn out to be three decades later?
GG: I think ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ is the definitive Heaven 17 Album even though The Luxury Gap had more ‘hits’ P&P is the soul of Heaven 17. It was such an exciting album to make, the whole process of writing and recording at the same time and in the same studio as The Human League added a magical dimension to both albums. There was a lot to prove from both bands and I’m pleased to say 30 years later it seems we all did it. We produced a new exciting record that has stood the test of time. I honestly believe it sounds as fresh and new as it did the day it was made.
ER: When you went into the studio to begin with did you have a vision for Heaven 17? Did Martyn have things he wanted to do that he couldn’t have done in The Human League? Or did the Heaven 17 ‘sound’ just evolve
GG: We knew we wanted to be different from The Human League, even the new The Human League knew they needed to sound different… but it wasn’t something that was forced, we just started to write. There was so much energy around us at that moment in time, the whole split thing had electrified everyone involved and ideas were just flooding out. ‘Fascist Groove Thang’ was completed in about ten days and the direction of the album was pretty much sealed after that track. Martyn had the idea to have a bass guitar solo in the middle of the song (heaven knows why he thought of that) it was inspired… it led us to finding John Wilson which in turn led us to the key that unlocked the door to the new direction that we would take to finish the rest of the album. It was a really exciting period and I think you can get feeling that from the tracks on ‘P&P’.
ER: The BBC’s ban on ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ seems odd as it is an anti-fascist anthem? Did they have a blanket ban on political songs at the time or did you feel singled out (or that they didn’t understand the meaning of the song)?
GG: It was a such a knock back for us to have the BBC refuse to play the track… the song meant a lot to us lyrically and to have had such success in the press and with fans we thought everyone had got the plot… but no, for a reason I still don’t really understand the BBC radio stations refused to play it… I believe there are still some BBC local stations that won’t play the track!
ER: Do you regret not touring with ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ first time around? What was the reasons for not really gigging these songs?
GG: I have no regrets . We didn’t play live for a few reasons… The League had toured for the previous 2 years and lost money. Martyn and Ian wanted to concentrate on B.E.F. and MTV had just started and we decided that that was a much more modern way of reaching an audience. Also we now have the added bonus of really enjoying playing live now and not feeling like it’s something we have to do… it’s new, exciting and we love it.
ER: How did the BBC television performance of ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ in Sheffield, and it’s sister documentary on the making of the album (amazing TV, by the way!) come about? Were you going to make the documentary anyway or did the BBC ask you to do it?
GG: It was our idea to make the documentary the BBC only became involved at the very end, they had heard that we were almost finished and asked if they could show both the doc and the gig. It worked out very well.
James Strong the director have done a lot of work together and had talked about telling the story of the beginning of Heaven 17 for some time and when we decided to play ‘P&P’ live for the very first time it was the perfect time to do it.
ER: We can’t really mention the documentary without speaking about Phil Oakey’s appearance and both his and Martyn’s acceptance that it was record label and Bob Last’s involvement that led to their split. Did you ask Phil to talk about this or did he just open up about it and had they both come to the same conclusions separately?
GG: It was something that kind of evolved as the film was being made… Martyn talked about the split and voiced his opinions and when Phil agreed to chat to us we just had to ask him the question (it wasn’t staged) Phil gave the same answer… so then we just had to contact Bob Last and get him in the film, which we did (without telling him the reason) and eventually he did finally admit that he did pretty much engineer the split of the band. It was the first time in 30 years this question had been asked and indeed answered.
ER: From your point of view, had Martyn never parted company with The Human League, what would Glenn Gregory be doing now?
GG: Don’t know really. I suppose I might still be taking pictures. Or running a small café in Cornwall on a surfing beach, or accepting my 3rd Oscar for best actor… or a….. blah blah blah
ER: You were recoding in the same studio as The Human League, I’ve heard you both heard snippets of the other’s work, were you trying to hide your ‘trade secrets’ from Phil and the gang at the time?
GG: It was fun really, Martyn and Phil were not really speaking but it didn’t stop a bit of industrial espionage from both parties… we did get to hear what they were doing and I’m sure they were getting a sneaky listen to how we were getting on.
ER: Speaking of studios, what’s in Heaven 17’s studio these days? Are you using many soft synths or is it still all about the big analog synths?
GG: I’m all soft synths but Martyn is both. He has lots of the original synths and still uses them. I don’t have the space and I like my studio to be sparse.
ER: Do you prefer the raw, hands on nature of analogy synths and tape based recording or the convenience and quality of a modern digital studio?
GG: We have always been at the forefront of recording techniques we have always been modernists… that wont change.
ER: ElectroPop has made something of a resurgence in recent years, is there any of the new crop of electronic Pop artists you rate?
GG: La Roux, MGMT, The Faint, Chromeo and electrono
ER: Earlier in the year you performed with La Roux at Maida Vale for BBC 6 Music. How did that come about? Did you pick them or did they pick you?
GG: It was put together by the BBC 6 team really and didn’t they do well…
ER: It was awesome!
GG: It was a great success I loved performing with Elly and Ben Langmaid is a really great guy and a great producer. She is a star and she’s the real deal, I along with my 7 year old boy am a fan.
ER: It seemed fun, both you and Elly were grinning the whole way through and she did really well on ‘Temptation’, which must be hard. Were you pleased with the end result?
GG: She did really well with Temptation… it’s not easy. She pulled out all the stops for the performance it was an honour to sing with her.
ER: Going back a couple of years, you and Martyn released ‘Naked As Advertised (Versions ’08)’, what made you want to rework those older songs? Was it unhappiness with the older recordings or just an experiment?
GG: We just wanted to put down some of the versions of tracks that we had been playing live. It was never a case of wanting to improve on old tracks we just thought it would be a nice idea to let people hear how we had changed some tracks for our live work… it was going to be the first in a kind of oddities and rarities edition… we may do more.
ER: What can we expect from the special edition anniversary edition of Penthouse And Pavement?
GG: Lots of good stuff…
ER: Is there and current artists you’d like to see remixing your songs?
GG: Not really
ER: And beyond that, is there a new studio album in the pipeline?
GG: We are starting to have a tinker and talk about it …. But do people really want a new album?
ER: Are Heaven 17 more of cereal or full English breakfast kinda’ guys? Would you answer change the morning after a show?
GG: Well on the German tour a couple of months ago I only made it down to breakfast once… but I think the rest of the band ate well. A slice of toast and a cup of tea will do for me ta.
ER: Cheers Glenn! Many thanks for speaking with us!
♫ Heaven 17 – Play To Win
The ‘30th anniversary ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ tour’ takes in the following cities:
22nd Nov – Edinburgh @ Edinburgh Picture House
23rd Nov – Glasgow @ Glasgow ABC
25th Nov – Manchester @ Manchester Ritz
26th Nov – Birmingham @ Birmingham Institute
28th Nov – London @ London Forum
29th Nov – Oxford – Oxford Academy
30th Nov – Brighton @ Brighton Corn Exchange
01st Dec – Bristol @ Bristol Academy
Tickets available from www.seetickets.com (Ticket Hotline: 08700 603 777), check www.heaven17.com for more details and keep an eye out for news of the special 30th anniversary reissue of ‘Penthouse And Pavement’, full of extras!
Heaven 17 @ Beatport
Heaven 17 @ Juno
Heaven 17 @ 7Digital
Heaven 17 @ Amazon