Beating The Human League, Pulp and, erm, Def Leppard to the title of Sheffield’s greatest ever band isn’t to be sniffed at. But, then, Heaven 17 have always been a band with their senses heightened just enough to keep them one step ahead of the pack. But what pack do they run with… pop, electronic, post-industrial? The truth is much simpler: they play folk music. And they’re bringing it all back home this month, with a Liverpool stop on the way. By Alan O’Hare
Who said folk music has to be made on guitars? Those of a puritanical nature may only come to the boil at the smell of wood, but definition is futile when it comes to the handing down of tunes and atmosphere. That’s what folk music is, surely, a combination of tunes and atmosphere that bring about an invisible republic made up of directions, reactions and creations.
Heaven 17 make folk music. Coming out of Sheffield in the late seventies and early eighties, their mix of pop and politics caught the spirit of the times and big hits followed. There’s not many reading this who won’t have bent a knee to ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’, ‘Temptation’ or ‘Come Live With Me’. Synth genius, songwriter and founder member Martyn Ware – him who left Phil Oakey and The Human League behind – is still enthralled with the pop and possibilities of electronic music: “It’s a wide open field for exploration,” he tells us. “The prominence of the synth in pop goes way back. For me, it all started with Roxy Music and Brian Eno – that’s when we decided to be truly futurist with no guitars.”
See? That’s an edict Ewan MacColl would be proud of. “You’re absolutely right about the folk music thing, it’s even in the collection of things… only, with us, it was keyboards and not songs,” laughs Ware (pictured above, left). “I’d seek them out! It was all about finding a treasure and something that had value. There was entry level synths available in the seventies, but we even started building our own.” When you start exploring and begin to ignore the labels the record companies, shops and lately streaming sites have placed on every available space music breathes in, it’s not that big of a jump to compare, say, ‘… Fascist Groove Thang’ with ‘Matty Groves’. Honest.
Heaven 17’s debut album, 1981’s ‘Penthouse And Pavement’, was a collection of melodic pop songs housed in the time and place it was made in: Sheffield, under Margaret Thatcher. It’s a record they’ve turned to before on the all-encompassing modern musical merry-go-round of nostalgia and they’re doing so again for the 35th anniversary of its release. The tour hits Liverpool this month, so we had a gab with Ware…
What do you remember thinking about that first record?
The same things that I think of now – but for a different set of reasons. 80,000 jobs had gone in Sheffield in a few short years leading up to Heaven 17 forming… yet I was still entranced by the moon landings and the year 2000!
The industrial geography of where you come from must have played a part in the music you made…
Yes, but out of it came great creativity. There was punk, electronic… you name it. The sound of the city was a constant racket and that noise reverberated around the place, as we’re built on seven hills, just like Rome.
You are what you eat, so to speak, hey?
The industrial and post-industrial architecture I love… it wasn’t just that Sheffield was a big steel place, the little shops of the city centre all contributed to that noise and confusion, too. I was scared of the factories.
Then along came the music…
My older sisters had great records and though I didn’t always like what they played, I got it. Then it was Eno and his ambient music – it wasn’t the tonal quality that enticed me, it was the concept. That influenced me massively.
You’re touring with the British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.) this time, too. What can you tell us about that?
The B.E.F. was a production company I set up in 1980, with the idea for it being a mini Motown. When Heaven 17 got popular, it took away from that… but it was a ‘calling card’ for my production work (Tina Turner etc.) and collaborations. On this tour, we’ll be joined by Glen Matlock, Peter Hooton and Mari Wilson to present a very special set featuring brand new arrangements of songs familiar and unexpected from the B.E.F. back catalogue… and some surprises.
Two sets for the price of one, then?
Yes! The ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ songs will be new arrangements, too, and not just exact copies of the record… we’ll be playing all electronic versions.
That sounds great… and, of course, the messages are still relevant. Have you still got that political fire?
I’ve recently gotten into trouble with the Labour Party for ‘unspecified social media comments’…
Heaven 17 ‘Penthouse And Pavement 35th Anniversary Tour’
With British Electric Foundation
Thursday 20 October, O2 Academy, Hotham Street, Liverpool
Pic courtesy Sonic PR