When I look back at some of the pieces I have written for this mostly football magazine a couple of things seem to stand out. I love to rant about Harry Redknapp and there appears to be an 80’s slant to most of my offerings, music or footballers, it doesn’t seem to matter. So, with that in mind, and not wanting to break with some sort of tradition, I give you, Heaven 17.
I was first introduced to Heaven 17 by a friend at school who insisted on playing one of their songs over and over again until I “got it”. That song was on their first album, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’, a collection of electronic tunes and social/ political musings that although stayed in the charts for quite a while, never spawned a hit single. The album was very different to anything else I was listening to at the time and for that fact alone I loved it. Another mate loved it due to the fact that in his head he was the spitting image of their lead singer, Glenn Gregory. It took all sorts.
Another album followed, ‘The Luxury Gap’, which included their biggest hit, ‘Temptation’ and my personal favourite, ‘Crushed by the Wheels of Industry’ with its fantastic paving slab sample. They continued to have a few more hits and albums before, like a lot of bands from that time, they sort of slipped under my personal radar. I was still playing their records, usually when one of their songs came on the radio leading to a quick nostalgia rush, but that was it.
Or it was until one November evening at the end of last year when I, and some friends, found ourselves in a local theatre about to watch them live. I’ll be honest, the draw of the evening for me was seeing Blancmange again, and as good as they were – and they were very good – nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to see. Heaven 17 were absolutely fantastic. They chatted, they danced, they sang and they played, all beautifully. “That version of ‘Temptation’ was worth the entrance fee alone”, said one of my mates as we reluctantly shuffled out into the cold autumnal evening and despite the fact that I had spoken and shook hands with Neil Arthur of said Blancmange I had to agree with him. They were quite, quite superb.
With the news that they had recently released a brand new double A side 12″ single, their first in 14 years, I caught up with founder member Martyn Ware to discuss all things Heaven 17, a little bit of the Human League and his other love, Sheffield Wednesday.
How did you and Glenn first meet?
We met at an arts workshop that was created by the Labour council in Sheffield called Meatwhistle and it was an opportunity to meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds who were interested in being creative. I was introduced to this by an old friend called Paul Bower, who was responsible for sending our original demo of ‘Being Boiled’ to Fast Records. We were both trainee managers at the Co-op, and through Meatwhistle I met Glenn. We were kindred spirits from the off. I found out later that the Co-op job I had left 6 months previously, Glenn had taken. How weird was that?
Is it true that Glenn was supposed to be the original singer for the Human League?
Yes. It was bad timing really. Just before we were forming The Human League he had decided to go to London to seek his fame and fortune as a photographer/ musician. He was the natural choice as he was full of charisma but as he wasn’t around, and we couldn’t ask him to come back up to Sheffield as he had only just settled in, we asked my best mate from school, Philip Oakey, I heard he could sing a bit, he looked great and to be honest he always looked and acted like a rock star so that’s how we formed.
How do you get on with The Human League/ Philip Oakey now, considering you had quite a well publicised split ?
We see each other once or twice a year now, It’s always nice to see them. We live in London and he lives in Sheffield. He’s quite a private person, but it’s nice to see him when we do meet up.
Where did the name Heaven 17 come from?
From the film A Clockwork Orange. When Alex walks into the record store on the wall is a chart with ‘The Heaven Seventeen’ on it. It’s actually mentioned in the book as well, which was written in 1960 and, according to Anthony Burgess, about a time around 20 years in the future which was the time we formed Heaven 17. Kind of a poetic self fulfilling prophecy.
Did you want an unusual name?
I just loved that name. In the charts on that wall were names like ‘The Sparks’, ‘Johnny Zhivago’ and ‘Goggly Gogol’, all sorts of weird names, and that was my favourite film at the time – it probably still is actually – and I just really liked the name, not the Heaven Seventeen but Heaven and then the numbers, 17. To me it sounded like a really obvious pop group name, cheesy, but the content had a bit more edge to it. I quite liked that dichotomy.
What made you decide to use synths and not guitars?
I was always obsessed with electronic music from an early age. I was always fascinated with anything that sounded futuristic. My sisters are a lot older than me, and had a big record collection, and I was always keeping a look out for things like the Theremin in ‘Good Vibrations’ or ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’ and anything that sounded like the future. It might have been because we were used to hearing industrial sounds in Sheffield growing up.
Why did you make the decision not to tour in the 80’s?
It was a conscious decision on our part. We had toured extensively with the Human League, and it cost us a lot of money, not directly but through the record company and we were living on advances from them. It just seemed that we were getting further and further in debt so when we started Heaven 17 we decided to just make videos, it was near the start of MTV, so we could service every territory individually and spend good money on expensive videos. We didn’t tour live until 1995 but we did do TV shows and live television, stuff like that, but not proper live concerts.
What is the favourite song you have written?
Let Me Go. It’s the best song we have written. Both myself and Glenn agree. It’s something about the melodic structure of the song, the vocal harmonies, the melody, the funkiness of it, it’s also got a haunting chord to it. I honestly believe that the greatest songs that have the most emotional impact are the ones that sit on the edge between major to minor. Is it a happy song, is it a sad song, you are never quite sure. It gives it poignancy. You can take that song and play it on guitar, piano or A cappella and it still sounds fantastic and I don’t think you can say that about any of our other songs.
You are probably best known for the song ‘Temptation’. Does this annoy you considering your other output?
No. There have been several “Greatest Songs of the 80’s” compilations and we always seem to crop up in there with ‘Temptation’ which I find incredibly flattering. We always try to make a song timeless. Being able to use a big orchestra means you can’t quite pin it down when it was made and you could probably re-release that song with a few tweaks and it would be a hit.
Who were your musical influences growing up?
Too many to mention but definitely Bowie, Roxy Music, Georgio Moroder and then all the German experimental pop bands like Can, Amon Duul, a lot of prog rock. I loved King Crimson, ELP, all sorts of amazing stuff.
Who excites you today musically?
There’s quite a lot of exciting hip-hop I like and there’s a few bands that I’m quite fond of like ‘Everything Everything’. I also like Frank Ocean and D’Angelo’s new album.
Do you think that today we simply get drip-fed cheese pop necessitating us to go and find good music ourselves?
Yes, although I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I am completely anti Spotify but I use it all the time, it’s a great thing for research and I know that makes me a hypocrite. I like finding new music and music is just as good if not better these days. The trouble is, when we were growing up you only had a few channels of TV or radio and so everyone was listening or watching similar sort of things. Out of a class of 30 you knew that probably 23 of them saw Top of the Pops the night before for instance, but now everyone listens to their own stuff. It’s very hard to create a common purpose, like the Punk movement, as it’s hard to get a critical mass these days, which is what the whole of popular music was based on, right up until the early 90’s. You built up a head of steam, released a record and then were catapulted into the charts. That model doesn’t work any more. Britain has always been historically very good at creating new scenes quickly because it’s a densely populated small island where ideas spread quickly but that has been dissipated by the new technologies. 90% of the people that you and I love musically are struggling to make a living in the music industry now.
Your new double A side (Pray/ Illumination) is out now. Any plans on further singles/ records?
As soon as we can get into the studio together we will record another double A sided 12″ single on vinyl and we will continue with that process until we have done 5 of them, each with a free download, and then we will release it as an album. The covers will be in the same style visually but different colours. We might even release a box to put them in and that becomes the album. Then hopefully people will want the entire album.
Why a vinyl only release?
We like the feel of the artefact: It’s something tangible, people will buy it as something that they will treasure. We are trying to increase the perceived value of music, which, if you release it digitally, is the opposite. We actually discussed banning it from the radio. If people liked it then word would spread. We won’t sell as many records this way but it feels like we are doing the right thing. If we went down the digital route then people will share it without paying for it.
Is there a limited run?
Yes, it’s a limited edition. If it sells out then the only way people can buy it is if they buy the album which will be probably be released towards the end of the year.
How did the “Tour of Synthetic Delights” go and any plans to do the same again with Blancmange or similar?
We are doing a lot of touring this year, probably around 30 – 40 dates, spread out over weekends. It’s just not a concentrated tour. The detail are on the website. We would love to work with Blancmange again as they were a delight to work with. We had lots of fun and Neil is a really talented guy.
Who have been your favourite people to work with?
Firstly the Phenix Horns who are the Earth, Wind and Fire’s horn section. We used them on the ‘Luxury Gap’ and ‘How Men Are’ and they were just phenomenal, the best horn section I have, and will ever, work with. Secondly Tina Turner who was the ultimate professional: Her performance on Lets Stay Together was all first take. And then Terence Trent Darby who was just an incredibly talented guy at the peak of his powers.
Are you still in contact with Ian Craig Marsh and is he still never working again with Heaven 17?
Ian is doing his own thing, and that’s it. He’s not spoken to us for years. We still have the same phone numbers, e-mail etc etc but we’ve haven’t heard anything from him. We still care about him and we know he’s ok. He’s just doing what he does.
Any thoughts on the Mike Read/ UKIP Jamaican song considering he banned ‘(We don’t need this) Fascist Groove Thang’ on political grounds?
They did ask recently if we would do an interview on Radio Berkshire, where Mike Reed is now a DJ, but we politely refused. Did you know he is now the Arts and Culture spokesman for UKIP? God help us all.
Are you working on anything else besides Heaven 17?
We’re working on an enormous 3D soundscape which will be taking place for seven weeks at Liverpool One shopping destination in the centre of Liverpool. It will be called The Crossing and it will be an invisible, conceptual crossing between Liverpool and New York and back in 30 minutes. It spans 175 years as it’s the anniversary of Cunard’s liner voyages.
Among many, many, many other things in the pipeline, exciting times…
Why Wednesday and not a Blade?
My father was a Wednesdayite, my entire family as well. My grandfather was around when Sheffield Wednesday were founded in 1867 so our family line goes back to the beginning of the club itself. This is not some fashion/ glory hunting thing, it’s an integrated part of my heritage.
What do you think Stuart Gray has done to turn things around in the last 12 months?
He’s a very good coach and I think players respect people who are willing to get their hands dirty and walk the walk as opposed to talking the talk. This is what most managers do, they are more like media puppets these days, and we had that exact type of manager before in Dave Jones. He would constantly make excuses, blaming the players and such like, old school in the worst possible sense. Stuart Gray is one of the new breed of managers who are thoroughly professional in their coaching application, a proper tracksuit coach, which creates a bond, especially with a small squad. That will probably all change now as we have been taken over by a Thai consortium, which is great, but the problem is you have to keep everyone happy with a bigger squad which is a different kind of challenge. Watch this space to see if Stuart will be able to cope with that particular challenge. He’s very good at working with limited resources and smaller squads.
What are Sheffield Wednesdays play off chances?
None! I’m looking at the other end of the table and we are dropping like a stone. We have no chance of going up. The other thing is when you bring in a lot of new players, particularly foreign players, they have to get used to the style of play, they are probably not match fit, and the close knit nature of the existing squad is dissipated. The remainder of this season is basically stumbling to the line, hopefully with enough points so I can relax. The Championship is an incredible league, it looks like Blackpool and Wigan are going down, but there’s always some team that drops like a stone. It’s happened to Wednesday a couple of times. The last time we were managed by Ron Atkinson all we had to do was win one of the last 10 games and we would have been fine. We lost every one.
What do you think of the atmosphere in modern grounds these days?
The atmosphere in these grounds is appalling. I prefer away games these days. It’s just more fun as you are in contact with real passionate supporters, you have a laugh going into run down pubs and there’s a little bit of an edge still associated with the experience. There’s no edge associated with going to the Etihad or the Emirates any more. They want to make it into a family leisure activity. There are lots of proper grounds, like Derby and Millwall, where you get passion from the fans. Crystal Palace is amazing, I hate that ground, but the fans are amazing, they never stop. I’ve had so many people say to me at Wednesday away games that if they could give up their season ticket at Hillsborough and buy an away season ticket instead they would definitely do it. The atmosphere for away games is so much better than home games and if you could be guaranteed a ticket you could pick and choose the games. Every real football fan I know prefers an away game to a home one. If they had any sense they should encourage clubs to create more space for away fans as they create the atmosphere. We sold six thousand away seats at Derby last year and for some reason they only gave us 2500 this year. Do the owners of these clubs want a bland neutral atmosphere?
Who are your favourite players past and present?
From the players I’ve seen in my lifetime then it has to be Chris Waddle, David Hurst and Paolo Di Canio. Paolo was the most talented player I have ever seen play for Sheffield Wednesday, even above Chris Waddle. What a talented player, he was just amazing. I dream of having a player like him playing for Wednesday again. Out of the current crop then it has to be Keiren Westwood, our goalkeeper. I have no idea how we got to sign him, he’s definitely Premiership standard and should be playing there. Likewise Tom Lees, thank you Leeds for letting him come to us for free. He’s been our best player all season and hardly put a foot wrong. Glenn Loovens, our captain, has been fantastic as well.
If you could just pluck one player from the Premiership and put him in the Wednesday team who would it be?
Harry Kane. I think he’s just phenomenal. I just hope he doesn’t get injured as I think he will do the business with England. He seems pretty grounded as well and would walk into any Premiership team, including Chelsea.
Check out tour dates and all things Heaven 17 here
Martin sound company can be found here