WITH albums called Penthouse and Pavement and The Luxury Gap, Heaven 17 may seem intrinsic to the decedent ’80s, but dig a little deeper, and they had something serious to say about the decade of excess. GLENN GREGORY reminds CATRIONA REEVES of the message behind the music.
CATRIONA REEVES: Heaven 17 had a rather suave image, but the band actually came out of the Sheffield electro-pop scene, which as depicted in the 2010 BBC Two documentary Heaven 17: The Story of Penthouse and Pavement, all looked a bit gritty. Were you a band on a mission to escape that?
GLENN GREGORY: Not at all: Sheffield has been really good to us. Back in the ’70s, Sheffield was in economic decline, with the steelworks and cutlery industry collapsing, so it was quite a depressed place. There were no music venues, so we used to travel to Manchester, Leeds and even Liverpool to see bands.
We were all living in the closed-down cutlery factories because they were so cheap. The Human League [originally featuring future Heaven 17 members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh] had their first studio in the one of the factories, and we also used them to start putting on our own little club nights. In a way, because the city was on its knees and falling apart, out of the ashes came a new verve and excitement.
Sheffield is quite a left wing city - it’s sometimes called the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire - so there was a political slant to what was going on as well, especially when Thatcher stuck the knife in to the steelworks.
Lyrically, The Human League were guided by Phil [Oakey], who liked things a bit strange and sci-fi, a little bit odd. So when I joined up with Martyn and Craig to form Heaven 17, we knew that we wanted to do things differently - to say something political, but not in a preachy way; we wanted to make something you could dance to.
CR: Do you think that your fans realised that was what you were doing? Did they listen to the lyrics, or did they just look at the slick album covers and take them as face value?
GG: It was probably a 50-50 split: some people understood the irony of our message, but then City boys came into being, and they thought it was all about them.
CR: Basically, you unintentionally invented Yuppies, didn’t you.
GG: Nooooo! Please not!
CR: You and Martyn Ware continue to record as Heaven 17, and also as British Electric Foundation [BEF]. Do you still aim create the original electro-pop synth sound on your records?
GG: Some sounds we love and are comfortable with, and we’ve still got some of the old synths, including the one that Being Boiled [The Human League’s first single] was written on - they still work, and we still use them. But there are some excellent new synths available now, and computer programs which can recreate the sounds of the classic old synths, which are amazing. They sound just like they did in Martyn’s studio all those years ago.
We’re currently writing new BEF material, and working on it with lots of different artists, including Green Gartside from Scritti Politti, Sandi Shaw and Boy George. We’re very privileged, and proud of everything we do.
CR: You’ve never actually disbanded - although Ian Craig Marsh has now left - but there was definitely a resurgence in interest around the time of Penthouse and Pavement’s 30th anniversary in 2010. Have you been discovered by a new generation?
GG: Definitely - It’s not all 40-somethings at our gigs now. La Roux’s support of us around the same time helped bring us to the attention of younger fans. We did a BBC session with them, and then I sang Temptation on stage with them at Glastonbury.
Waiting backstage, I wasn’t sure if the crowd would know who I was, but when Elly [Jackson, La Roux’s singer] brought me on, the whole place erupted - it was great. I came off stage and Florence Welch from Florence + the Machine gave me a big hug - she wanted me to come out on stage again and sing with her!
I never mind singing Temptation - it’s one of those songs that always raises the roof, no matter where we play it. We really enjoy revisiting our old songs - when we started reworking Penthouse and Pavement in the studio in preparation for performing it live in its entirety for the 30th anniversary tour, we were surprised how contemporary and fresh it sounded.
CR: You’re playing the Rewind festival this weekend - do you enjoy meeting up with other acts from the ’80s?
GG: In the old days we were almost rivals, fighting for the number one spot or slots on Top of the Pops or The Tube; but these days it’s like a big school trip; we’re all there to make people happy. I always go out the front to watch some of the other acts. I love watching ABC. Martin Fry is a star performer, and part of the Sheffield crew like me.
We’ve done Rewind a couple of times, and it’s one of the best festivals of its type. The venue’s fantastic - I was stunned the first time I saw it, although I think it’s grown massively since then. My mum and dad came to the first Rewind, and they want to come again. It’s such good fun.
CR: You were good friends with the late Billy Mackenzie from The Associates, and you often perform his song Party Fears Two in your set. Is that an important song for you to perform.
GG: It certainly is. When I sing it, I have fantastic memories and pictures of Billy in my head. It gets me quite emotional. I have a whippet called Bill, who is named after Billy, because he bred them, and gave me my first puppy. He loved dogs even more than he loved his music.
Rather confusingly, our female singer is also called Billie [Godfrey] - no, she’s not named after the whippet!
* Heaven 17 play Rewind, The 80s Festival on Saturday, August 17 at Temple Island Meadows, Henley-on-Thames. For information, visit www.rewindfestival.com
- First published on www.newburytoday.co.uk