With Heaven 17 back in the North West later this month, MALCOLM WYATT asked founder member Martyn Ware about the new wave synth-pop legends’ past, present and future
It was 35 years ago that Martyn Ware left The Human League and what began as a creative non-band project soon evolved into Heaven 17.
Success followed for both Sheffield outfits, and while the Phil Oakey-led Human League’s Dare and its fourth single Don’t You Want Me both topped the UK charts, Heaven 17’s ground-breaking Penthouse and Pavement also went top-20.
The chart battle continued, with Ware, fellow ex-League founder Ian Craig Marsh, and vocalist Glenn Gregory’s 1983’s bestselling album The Luxury Gap including top-five hits Temptation and Come Live with Me.
Then came 1984 LP How Men Are, which is as good a place to start as anywhere chronicling the fortunes of a band that proved an inspiration for many acts since.
I tell Martyn I picture him sweating on the other end of the phone as we speak, like his character in the video for This is Mine 31 years ago, the inside man on a bank heist.
We were happy to be pioneers, in Britain anyway...
“Well, I’ve not changed much! Actually, I was p****d off with that. Stephen Frears directed us, and we wanted a go at something that looked more like a proper film or at least a trailer.
“They ended up spraying me with sweat, making me look all dishevelled. I thought, ‘Thanks a lot’, that’s really going to do a bundle for my pulling power!”
The song itself is perhaps my favourite Heaven 17 single, and I’ve a soft spot for a few from that LP. Yet the attention seems to be on the first two albums, maybe rightly so.
“I think it’s an under-rated album. We knew we were going to have to work incredibly hard to top The Luxury Gap, and spent a lot of time and money on that album.
“To their eternal credit, Virgin basically gave us a blank cheque and said, ‘Just go for it!’ We recorded it in Air Studios and spent £300,000 on that album.
“That would equate to way over a million now. We just threw everything at it, and I thought it was a brave statement.
“The only reason it didn’t do as well as the record company hoped is because we were about to do This is Mine on Top of the Pops when Glenn ruptured his cartilage the evening before.
“He was in excruciating pain in hospital. But the producer said, essentially, if we didn’t do it, we’d never work in this town again. We never did get any more Top of the Pops appearances for the rest of that album.”
Many tracks from that era are dated by the production, but not that.
“With Penthouse and Pavement, we were finding out who we were, but there was an avowed intent from The Luxury Gap onwards to make things that would last.
“We couldn’t imagine people would still be listening to those tracks 30 years down the line though. We probably thought we’d be dead by now! That’s incredibly flattering.
“But they were designed to last rather than just appeal to the moment. We spotted that as a problem in the ’80s, people buying the latest drum machine or synth to imitate the sound of that particular moment. We avoided that.”
London-based Sheffield Wednesday fan Martyn – his Primrose Hill pad a quarter of a mile from Glenn’s own – is in the North West later this month, the band playing Manchester Academy 2 on Saturday, October 31, as part of the venue’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
But a hectic touring schedule was not on Heaven 17’s agenda in their first 15 years, as Martyn explained.
“We didn’t start touring at all until 1996, I was producing Erasure’s I Say I Say I Say album, and in the studio Vince Clarke said, ‘If we said you could support us on this big arena tour, would you consider doing it?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, why not!’ Next thing I know we’re playing the NEC to 17,000 people! We got the bug, and it’s kind of developed since.
“We’ve a new double live album out, from The Jazz Café, which you can get exclusively on our website.
“We’re making a stand against any kind of digital distribution. We want people to support local musicians – be it us or some other band. The money doesn’t get to anyone otherwise.”
That independent standpoint has always been part of their armoury, the band setting out a radical blueprint from the start.
And despite having plenty of money thrown their way by big record companies, they’ve learned how to get by without major backing.
“If someone offered us a huge amount of money we’d probably say we’d do it that way, but the truth of the matter is it’s not happening, particularly for legacy acts.
“There’s a lot more attention and money to be made out of touring than selling records. So Glenn and I sat down and decided on a radical move for the next album.
“We’ve only finished two tracks, but we’re releasing them as a double A-side single on limited vinyl. That way we can make enough money to justify carrying on until we have an album of material.
“Unfortunately, we’re so busy with other things, we haven’t had a chance to do any other tracks yet, as we want to go into the studio together – as we did back in the day.”
I take it you’ve had a busy festival season this summer?
“It’s been insane! But it’s not just Heaven 17. Glenn’s writing soundtracks and such, and I’m busy with my company, Illustrious, working on 3D soundscapes.
“We’ve done an enormous amount of things for festivals and events, and write for games and giant installations in Liverpool. You’ve got to make ends meet, go where the work is.”
Martin formed Illustrious in 2000 with Vince Clarke, and recently worked with Liverpool One on a project for the Cunard 175th anniversary event, composing a 3D soundscape.
“It proved a massive success and is up for an award.”
In fact, he’s a champion of surround sound, 3D, 5D… everything but 1D perhaps.
There was also an initiative with the National Trust, recording sounds along Britain’s coastline, that marriage of sound and technology part of Martyn’s story from The Human League days to the formation of the British Electric Foundation (BEF) production company and Heaven 17 onwards.
Thinking of that first BEF release in 1980, Music for Stowaways – in honour of the first Sony Walkman – I asked if Martyn still has his first personal stereo.
“I wish! I could probably sell it to the Science Museum! I’ve only got two of my old synths left. Everything else is virtual. I haven’t the space.
“I’m not a gear fetishist. I like new toys, but throughout our history we’ve generally either sold or got rid of older gear to replace it with new.”
It’s not been a bad life for a band never intended as a band. But things might have been different if the unavailable Glenn had fronted The Human League – as planned – rather than Phil Oakey.
“I often wonder what would have happened. It’s a strange thought. Maybe things wouldn’t have turned out as well as they did though. We’d probably have gone down a similar route as the original Human League.”
There are lots of tales of wrangles between Oakey and Ware that led to that initial split. But all’s well now.
“Phil (Oakey) to his credit is quite a single-minded chap, as I suppose I am. But this manifesto of ‘only electronic instruments’ became quite restrictive after a while.
“We were happy to be pioneers, in Britain anyway, but with the benefit of hindsight, I can’t see a situation if we’d stayed together where we’d have moved away from that.
“Forming a new band meant all bets were off and we could do whatever we wanted, and at that time our social lives were very much oriented around house parties, dancing, clubbing.
“To incorporate funk and funk-synthesis was liberating and exciting. Looking back, the project we did as The Men (The Human League under a pseudonym) on I Don’t Depend on You was a template for Heaven 17.
“We shared a lot of fantastic, formative experiences, and myself and Phil were best mates. So when we did become friends again it was really weird actually.
“I can’t explain it really, but it was much more than just becoming friends again. It was a deeper thing.”
How would you define the competition between yourself and The Human League today? You share a few bills now.
“There was always a sense of competition, certainly in the early days. But when we had our own success, that became less relevant.
“I just saw the whole thing as a bit childish, to be honest. By that time we’d fallen out, and it was around 15 years before we started talking to each other again.”
How about fellow Heaven 17 and Human League founder Ian Craig Marsh, who quit in 2007 – are they in touch?
“I’ve not been contacted – either myself or Glenn – since the day he disappeared.
“There’s a biographer who’s been writing a book about us for the last five years, and he’s talked to Ian – tracking him down – so we keep tabs on how he’s getting on.
“But he’s never called, and we’ve the same contact details we’ve always had. It’s just one of those Syd Barrett things.”
From the start, Heaven 17 created a ‘whole package’ approach – covering performances, writing and design.
“It was written into our contract, and came from that punk ethos. I designed the cover of Being Boiled, and most of the early Heaven 17 covers were designed by us.
“We saw the whole thing as an integrated art project, although none of us went to art college or university. We went straight from school to work. Our families were poor, we needed to earn money.
“But we were fascinated by that world, and self-taught in all respects – for music, graphics, art, history, science fiction, everything.
“We had that desire to teach ourselves. That’s probably worth more ultimately than any amount of degrees.
“And it’s something myself and my wife try to imbue in our children.”
Those children have followed his lead, with university student Eleanor, 19, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and DJ, and A-level student Gabriel, 17, involved in mobile gaming writing and having composed ‘10 minutes of epic-scale, three-dimensional orchestral music’ for the Liverpool One project.
While ‘80s synth-pop might be seen as a soundtrack for the Margaret Thatcher era, Heaven 17 were one of the many acts that stood up against her, and remain of that persuasion in this new age of austerity.
“Politics has always been part of what we’ve done, and I’m an activist in all respects, as are all my family and friends. It’s an unjust world, run by greedy people, and needs to be counter-balanced by some form of protest.
“Every day you can vote with your actions. You might be a tiny influence, but a lot of people making a tiny influence make a big influence, hence the brilliance of Jeremy Corbyn, re-engaging those who feel disenfranchised, not least young people.”
Heaven 17’s live set-up tends to fluctuate, but is loosely a five-piece, with Martyn, Glenn and Berenice Scott (keyboards and programming) joined by two female backing vocalists.
“Billie Godfrey is our ‘dance captain’, but sometimes can’t make it as she lives in France.”
Talking of strong female vocalists, it was Martyn’s BEF operation that helped re-launch Tina Turner’s career back in the ‘80s. Do they keep in touch?
“She’s properly retired now. I saw her last show in London at the O2. She got ill after that and had to cancel some of the tour, but I hear on the grapevine that she’s very happy, having married her long-time partner.”
And next May there’s a big birthday for Martyn – his 60th. Will that change his game plan?
“I’ll keep going all the time I’ve got the energy to do it. For my 50th, I made a vow that I would do something creative every day, because that’s what made me happy.
“I’ve kept that vow and never missed a day, and I think for my 60th I’m going to continue that, for another decade at least.”
Heaven 17 play Manchester Academy 2 on Saturday, October 31 (7.30pm), with tickets £20 from the box office on 0161 832 1111 or via http://www.manchesteracademy.net/Artiste%20Pages/heaven17.html
For more from Heaven 17, head to their official website http://www.heaven17.com/
• Malcolm Wyatt is a Lancashire-based freelance writer, and his blog can be found at http://writewyattuk.com