It was 35 years ago that Martyn Ware left The Human League, what began as a creative non-band project soon evolving into Heaven 17.
Big times followed for both Sheffield outfits, and while Heaven 17’s ground-breaking debut LP Penthouse and Pavement went on to spend 14 weeks in the UK album charts over six months up to the Spring of 1982, the Philip Oakey-revamped Human League’s Dare topped the charts in the final week of October 1981, spending three further weeks there the following January.
That chart battle continued, spurred on by the No.1 success of the fourth Human League single from Dare, the mighty Don’t You Want Me. By 1983, Ware, fellow ex-League founder Ian Craig Marsh and vocalist Glenn Gregory were at the peak of their own commercial success on 1983’s The Luxury Gap, which spent 27 weeks in the main chart, reaching No.4. And these were the days when that meant a hell of a lot of shifted copies.
That second album included top-five singles Temptation and Come Live with Me, and then came another top-20 success with October 1984’s How Men Are, although this time the Yorkshire synth-pop outfit only managed five weeks on the main charts. And that’s as good a place to start as anywhere while chronicling the fortunes of a band that proved a major inspiration on so many future acts.
While much of the attention remains on those first two albums, this scribe – just turning 17 at the time – was rather fond of How Men Are, not least second single This is Mine and the album’s closer, non-charting follow-up … (And That’s No Lie). I even liked that naming convention. This was intelligent pop, with plenty of unexpected, quirky twists and turns.
It also reminds me of a solo trip to London to stay with my little sister, nursing in the capital then. We’d never seen eye to eye on music (although I later appreciated her early love of Abba), but among her singles I was surprised to find a copy of This is Mine. And that takes me to its very-’80s video, telling Martyn Ware as we commence our phone interview that I can still picture him sweating on the other end, like his character 31 years before – the inside man on a bank heist.
“Well, I’ve not changed much! Actually, I was pissed 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!”
Well, I guess it was the era for that, and arguably Lee Thompson from Madness and Robert Smith from The Cure had to contend with far worse in the name of quality promo videos. But back to that album …
“Actually, I think it’s a very under-rated album. We knew we were going to have to work incredibly hard to try and 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 really 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 and 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.
“That track was amazing though, This is Mine is up there with the best things we’ve done, with the Phenix Horns and all that … it was a good piece of work, and we knew it.”
It’s stood the test of time too. A lot of tracks from that era seem dated now by the production, but not that. Somehow they get away with it. Actually, I say this aloud to Martyn, and immediately worry that I’ve offended him. But he laughs and carries on.
“Get away? Thanks! Well, with Penthouse and Pavement, we were just finding out who we were, but there was an avowed intention from The Luxury Gap onwards to make things that would last a long time.
“We couldn’t possibly 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.”
While Penthouse and Pavement saw the band alternate between that new, funky direction and the band’s synth roots – something of a blueprint for the future of British electronica, arguably taking a John Foxx and Kraftwerk-inspired canvas and making it their own – second album The Luxury Gap was seen as their pop masterpiece, cracking lead single Let Me Go paving the way and the mighty Temptation – with its memorable duet between Glenn and Carol Kenyon – reaching No.2 in the UK in May 1983.
By September that year they were teen pop mag Smash Hits front cover stars, more big hits following with further fine cuts Come Live With Me and Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry, a political edge to the fore on a song tackling mass unemployment to a party beat.
Then came How Men Are, its first singles, Sunset Now and This Is Mine turning out be their last top-30 hits of the century other than a 1992 top-five success with a Temptation remix. Although they remained productive, the next albums, Pleasure One (1986) and Teddy Bear, Duke, and Pyscho (1988) arguably lacked direction.
By then Martyn was a successful producer for the likes of Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby, with Heaven 17 put on hold. Bigger Than America, released in 1996 showed signs of the muse returning, but it would be Before After in the following decade before the band re-found form, with Hands Up To Heaven a huge US dance smash.
By the late 2000s, they were down to two original members, Ian Craig Marsh having left. Yet for all that, demand for the band live had picked up dramatically, helped by a whole new generation of artists citing Heaven 17 as prime influences, not least La Roux.
So, fast forward a bit, and the band were on home ground last weekend, headlining a 10-plus bill of local bands at Sheffield’s 02 Academy. Is it always good to play the Steel City?
“Of course – we love our hometown. I’m always up there anyway, supporting my football team, Sheffield Wednesday.
“The guy who organised this night is a friend of mine, Frank Wilkes, the only Sheffield United fan I’m friends with! He used to run The Darnall Music Factory, a music academy for young people in a very run-down area.
“He rang me out of the blue and told me about this event and explained how they’d pushed the boat out and hired this big capacity venue, so could we headline. And anything that encourages young talent is a good thing as far as we are concerned.”
From Joe Cocker and Paul Carrack to ABC, Heaven 17 and The Human League, and then from Pulp and Richard Hawley to Arctic Monkeys and Reverend and the Makers, Sheffield clearly remains a happening and creative place.
“It always has been, but it’s gone in and out of fashion. Arctic Monkeys gave it all an enormous shot in the arm, and I think there’s still a big desire and a huge thread of electronic music that runs through.
“There were also bands like Moloko and in the ’90s the Gatecrasher club thing, all with an appreciation of the legacy of bands like us, ABC … even back as far as Def Leppard and Joe Cocker. I’ve still got loads of friends from Sheffield, and hang out with Jon from Reverend and the Makers, another Wednesdayite. The same goes for Richard Hawley. There’s a good solid foundation, yet Sheffield’s not like somewhere like Manchester, where it’s more about showing out. Sheffield’s still bolshie, but a bit more under-stated.”
There’s a good example of that in another writewyattuk interviewee, Paul Carrack (linked here), someone who’s done so much yet plays it all down and comes over a decent, ordinary bloke.
“Another Wednesdayite, of course! He’s prodigiously talented, internationally famous, and what a voice! Yes, there’s something about the authenticity and how bands from Sheffield seem to last.”
That said, Martyn’s been based in London since 1981, with his Primrose Hill pad around a quarter of a mile from Glenn Gregory’s. I like that though. Ever since I first saw The Monkees and The Beatles on TV, I’ve always hoped bands live in conjoining houses.
“Well, we do live quite close!”
They do get around though, and the touring’s a major part of the Heaven 17 story these days, and later this month – after this Friday’s date at The Garage in North London (October 2nd) – they’re at Butlin’s in Bognor, Richmond Deer Park, Brighouse, Newcastle, Dusseldorf, then Manchester (that Academy 2 date on Saturday, October 31, part of the venue’s 25th anniversary celebrations). Quite a mix. That hasn’t always been the case for this outfit, who were exclusively a studio project at first.
“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. In fact, we’ve a new double live album out, from The Jazz Café, which you can get that exclusively on our website … and only there!”
Martyn adds this plug rather pointedly, and I can feel a rant coming on.
“We’re making a stand against any kind of digital distribution. We’ve had enough of that. There’s no point in doing it. 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 Heaven 17’s armoury, the band setting out something of a radical blueprint from the start. This is after all the band whose 1981 debut single was alternative dance favourite (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, bolting funky slap-bass and dancefloor piano to the driving musical philosophy of The Human League, the overtly-political lyrics enough to lead to a ban by the BBC, fearing a Ronald Reagan law suit, according to Ian Craig Marsh.
And despite having plenty of money thrown their way over the years by big record companies, they’ve learned how to get by without major backing.
“To be brutally honest, if someone offered us a huge amount of money tomorrow we’d probably say we’d do it that way, but the truth of the matter – not just for us, but almost everyone in the business – is it’s not happening, particularly for legacy acts at the moment.
“There’s a lot more attention and money to be made out of touring than selling records. So Glenn and I had a sit down and decided on a radical move for the next album. Actually, 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 that we haven’t had 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.”
Martyn formed Illustrious in 2000 with Vince Clarke, that work with the Liverpool One organisation involving a ‘half-hour sound experience’ marking Cunard’s 175th anniversary, composing what he classes as a ‘3D soundscape’.
“It proved a massive success and is also up for an award at an event I’m going to this week.”
It seems that Martyn’s a champion of surround sound, 3D, 5D … everything but 1D maybe.
There’s also an innovative initiative with the National Trust, recording sounds along parts of Britain’s coastline, that love 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, Heaven 17 and onwards.
BEF started less a record label and more a portfolio of future musical projects, of which Heaven 17 would be just one. Music For Stowaways and Music Of Quality and Distinction 1 followed, providing a template that was built upon by everyone from The Assembly and Electronic to the Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett-fronted Gorillaz. But going back to that first BEF release in 1980, Music for Stowaways – in honour of the first Sony Walkman – has Martyn still got his first personal stereo?
“I wish I had! I could probably sell it to the Science Museum!”
So you’re not a hoarder when it comes to electronic gear?
“Not at all. I’ve only got two of my old synths left. Everything else is virtual. I haven’t the space to store any of that. I’m really not a gear fetishist. I like new toys, but throughout our history we’ve generally either sold or got rid of our older gear to replace it with newer gear. If I kept everything I’d need another house!”
All the same, it’s not been a bad life for an act that was never intended as a band. But would things have worked out differently if the then-unavailable Glenn had fronted The Human League – as was 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 out there of internal wrangles between Oakey and Ware that led to that initial split, my favourite – mentioned on Wikipedia – involving Oakey being ‘observed chasing Ware up a Sheffield street, throwing bottles of milk from people’s doorsteps at him’. But all’s well now, apparently.
“Phil 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 very 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 ever 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 and clubbing. To be able to incorporate funk and funk-synthesis into a new band was liberating and very exciting. Looking back, the project we did as The Men (The Human League under a pseudonym) on I Don’t Depend on You was pretty much a template for Heaven 17.”
How would you define the sense of competition between yourself and The Human League today as opposed to in the early days? You do seem to share a few bills now. And had Phil’s success driven you on?
“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.”
And it’s all okay again now?
“Yeah, 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. It was like … I don’t know. I can’t explain it really, but it was much more than just becoming friends again. It was a deeper thing.”
I ask the same about Martyn and Glenn’s fellow Heaven 17 founder member, Ian Craig Marsh (also a founder member of The Human League), who ‘disappeared’ in 2006, resurfacing a year later to announce he’d quit. Word from the band suggested ‘he left to take a degree course in psychology’. Are they in touch again now?
Martyn, who like Ian worked with computers before forming the band that became The Human League, chooses his words carefully, finally adding: “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 as 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. With the way band promotion has gone in recent years – with less money and support from the major record companies – that independent approach and control of your output must have helped.
“Yes, 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 and we needed to earn some 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.”
His children seem to be following his lead, Martyn telling me university student Eleanor, 19, is a multi-instrumentalist, singer and DJ, while A-level student Gabriel, 17, is involved in mobile gaming writing and composed ‘10 minutes of epic-scale, three-dimensional orchestral music’ for the Liverpool One project.
“They’re in the middle of their respective studies, and very good students too. I’m very proud of them.”
Getting back to that arty aspect, you mentioned that you didn’t go to art school. That seems to jar with my own pre-conception, which is probably built upon the sentiments of one of my favourite-ever singles, The Undertones’ My Perfect Cousin, and a certain line about your first band …
At this point, Martyn cuts me off with his own warbling version of the Damian O’Neill and Michael Bradley-penned, Feargal Sharkey-delivered line:
“His mother bought him a synthesiser, got The Human League in to advise her, Now he’s making lots of noise, playing around with the art school boys!”
Exactly. And while we’re on the subject of popular misconceptions, ’80s synth-pop might rather unfairly and lazily be seen in some circles as a soundtrack for the Thatcher era, Yet Heaven 17 were one of the many acts that stood against her in those turbulent times of inequality. What’s more, that standpoint is arguably as relevant today in this new era of austerity, amid fat-cat bonuses and big business interests served by those in charge.
“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. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing if we just stand by? Something I try to teach my children is that you don’t just think, ‘I’m a musician, and that’s all my responsibilities, I’ll just get my head down and earn enough money’.
“Every day you can vote with your actions. You might be a tiny influence, but a lot of people making that tiny influence make a big influence … hence the brilliance of Jeremy Corbyn. Only yesterday he announced the idea of people’s assemblies – a fantastic concept! That re-engages people who feel disenfranchised, not least young people.”
At this point Martyn tells me about a recent Ware family visit to the Amalfi coast of Italy and archaeological site links to Greek civilisation, not least the origins of the symposium. Our discussion then drifts towards current left-wing Brazilian government initiatives with super-fast broadband and wifi – reaching out to the favelas – before we return to the subject of the UK’s new Leader of the Opposition.
“We’ve got to get back to those principles. That’s what Jeremy Corbyn stands for, and I’m all for it … me and Brian Eno! Well, not just us of course. Loads of musicians support this new movement for a new kind of democracy.”
Much as I’m enjoying his detour, I need to finish now, so get us back on track, asking him about the current live set-up for Heaven 17, other than himself and Glenn.
“It changes on a regular basis, but the default setting is with Berenice Scott on keyboards and programming, and two female backing vocalists, from a pool of four. Billie Godfrey is our ‘dance captain’, in charge of it all, but sometimes she can’t make it, as she lives in France, so Rachel Mosleh, Kelly Barnes and Hailey Williams are with us too. But it’s always five people.”
Talking of strong female vocalists, Martyn’s BEF operation 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.”
Finally, 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 this web link.
For other dates and all the latest from Heaven 17, head to their official website or seek them out via Facebook or the Martyn and Glenn Twitter links.
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