As Heaven 17 announced a very special UK tour starting in Liverpool, Getintothis’ Del Pike gets the lowdown from front-man Glenn Gregory.
As Heaven 17’s seminal Penthouse and Pavement celebrates its 35th year, Glenn Gregory and Martin Ware are bringing the first night of their anniversary tour to Liverpool, performing the album in its entirety. Heaven 17, named after a fictional band in Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, was originally made up of ex Human League founders Martin Ware and Ian Craig Marsh with the former photographer, Glenn Gregory on vocals. Ware and Marsh originally wanted Gregory to front The Human League but as he was unavailable, Phil Oakey stepped in. The rest is history.
As part of the Sheffield scene of the 80s that also included Cabaret Voltaire and ABC, Heaven 17 had a rocky start, failing to break the top 40 until their 1983 mega hit Temptation. Their releases were interrupted with Martin Ware’s side project, B.E.F (British Electric Foundation), a covers act that included cameos from stars as diverse as Tina Turner, Billy MacKenzie, Talking Heads and Sandie Shaw. The upcoming shows will include the first ever UK tour by B.E.F, joined by Mari Wilson, Ex Sex Pistol Glenn Matlock and Liverpool’s own Peter Hooton.
Their 1982 debut album Penthouse and Pavement born from the early days of the Thatcher/Reagan era is a militant Left wing manifesto of British life. The lead single, (We don’t need this) Fascist Groove Thing is a powerful attack on Reagan (Fascist God in Motion) and is a great place to start a musical career. Stalling at 45 in the UK charts, the single gained some publicity following a ban by Radio One’s Mike Read, a staunch Thatcherite who would also ban Frankie’s Relax in 1984.
Play to Win also failed to ignite the charts reaching 46 but did give the band their first Top of the Pops appearance. A grim snapshot of corporate living in the 80s and the hoops you had to jump through to survive in the working world (‘Stepping on the Wheels of Chance – Play to Win’).
Despite the dark nature of the album, upbeat tracks like Geisha Boys and Temple Girls laid out a template for Pet Shop Boys, and there are some sharp dance tracks to be found in the likes of Song With No Name and the B.E.F version of Groove Thang that can be found on certain releases of the album. Closing track We’re Going to Live For a Very Long Time clearly fails to betray the band’s Human League roots.
It’s difficult to understand how Heaven 17 struggled so hard to make an initial impact, this is a great album that was tragically overshadowed by The Human League’s hugely successful Dare album. Perhaps the subject matter was too much to take.
As Glenn Gregory prepares his vocal chords for the tour we pinned him down and asked him if opening in Liverpool was a conscious decision. “Absolutely a conscious decision, it’s always such a boost to the ego as its always a fantastic night. We’ve always had faith in Liverpool.”
We talk about the album and how it has endured and Glenn particularly enthuses about Play to Win, “There’s a demo on one of the Virgin re-issues with no vocals and it sounds like Prince, it’s so fucking funky, its amazing.”
“Penthouse and Pavement is a very dark album really” continues Glenn, “I’ve been talking to a lighting designer we’re using and I said I want to bring some of that in and have that close darkness. But then B.E.F is much more kind of Wa-Heyyy! and Partytime for Liverpool.”
Glenn’s involvement In the past with B.E.F has been somewhat on the side lines as other vocalists have been brought in, we discuss his role in the new B.E.F show. “I’ve always tended to leave it to Martin (Ian Craig Marsh left in 2007 after a mysterious disappearance the previous year), he asks me to help and get more involved but he’s Mr B.E.F really.
“It’s fantastic though and it’s going to be one big night, we’re going to make the two shows very different.” Glenn assures us that they will be playing some of their bigger hits from the more commercially successful The Luxury Gap album from 1983, that included Let Me Go, Crushed By The Wheels of Industry, Come Live With Me and of course Temptation. “We couldn’t do a gig without doing Temptation, everyone would be leaving upset otherwise”
On a trip down memory lane we talk about The Tube, Channel 4’s Friday night music show in the 80s, hosted by Jools Holland and Paula Yates. Heaven 17 appeared on the first show in 1982, along with The Jam’s final live TV performance. In a later edition the show’s producers commissioned a specially made film for the band’s epic …(And That’s No Lie), complete with a gospel choir.
“Wasn’t The Tube brilliant?” sighs Glenn, “They contacted us and said they wanted to make this film, when they suggested …(And That’s No Lie) we were like, Really? They got us down to London and a diorama of Regents Park and it was a full epic day, you don’t get TV shows like that anymore.” The Tube was taken off air in 1987 following a furore when Jools Holland piped up with “Be there or be Ungroovy Fuckers” during a live trailer. Classic telly.
Heaven 17’s role as almost regulars on The Tube adds to their status as icons of the 80s, despite continuing to perform and release music ever since. We ask Glenn how he feels about Rewind festivals and 80s nostalgia tours. “Well, it’s a decade that won’t go away isn’t it? It’s lasted thirty years and the reason is, the songs are really good. The songs you hear are hit after hit after hit – there’s nothing wrong with that in context.”
Before we leave Glenn to his business we ask him about his plans for the future, regarding new material. “I’m recording with Bernice Scott our keyboard player, and Martin and I are recording together, we’re about half way through the album and it sounds really good.” Glenn happily assures us that he is still enjoying performing and he’s gone.
Heaven 17 will be performing Penthouse and Pavement in its entirety at Liverpool O2 Academy on October 20.
October 20: Liverpool O2 Academy
October 21: Birmingham Town Hall
October 23: Glasgow O2
October 24: Gateshead Sage
October 25: Sheffield City Hall
October 26: Manchester O2 Ritz
October 28: Bury St Edmunds Apex
October 29: Basingstoke Anvil
October 30: London Shepherd’s Bush Empire