Heaven 17

heaven-17The early eighties were the high watermark for electronic music. A new wave of electronic synthesisers appeared in the late seventies, opening up the floodgates for a generation of bored kids, just as guitar-driven punk rock had a few years earlier. Suddenly it was possible to produce pop music with no technical virtuosity – all you needed was a vivid imagination and an instruction manual. This was Martyn Ware’s winning formula; first in the Human League and then in Heaven 17 with Glenn Gregory and Ian Craig Marsh, he co-wrote and co-produced some of the most memorable hits of the decade.

Back in 2011, I got the chance to speak to Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory in London’s Primrose Hill. Both from Sheffield, the boys hadn’t lost their northern friendliness and remained resolutely down to earth. Charming, chatty and approachable, at times they still sounded like wide-eyed sixteen year olds in awe of the wonder of great music, seminal recording artists (many of whom they’ve now worked with) and the technology of music production in general…

DJP: It was one heck of a project, the original BEF Music of Quality and Distinction, an inclusive thing bringing together so many different artists but with a new sound…

MW: Yeah – we were so in love with technology at the time, there was a lot of things we used. We ordered so much kit in… It was about that time that Ian Craig Marsh bought the Fairlight. Forty grand he paid. Forty thousand quid!

DJP: I was going to say, it must have cost a bob or two!

MW: He just turned up and said, ‘I’ve bought a Fairlight’! It wasn’t very user friendly and the sound quality was appalling, but it looked great. Being the world’s first sampler was amazing, being able to see the 3D waveform was really cool…

GG: But it didn’t really work!

MW: I must admit when the Emulator E-mu ii synthesiser came out it, was a hundred times more useable, and ‘only’ cost £3,000. Ian was sick as a dog!

GG: Ian ended up using his Fairlight as a keyboard stand. Then he sold it; I think someone in New Order bought it.

DJP: But it was part of the birth of sampling. And the analogue synths of the day sounded so nice back then.

MW: Still do. Sadly I sold ‘em all throughout the course of the eighties. We got rid of all sorts, Jupiter 4s, Jupiter 8s, and bought horrible clanking digital synths in an effort to keep up with times. Then it got to 1992 and I met Vince Clarke for the first time. He was always a fan of the early Human League, and claims that Being Boiled got him into electronics, because before that he was a sort of ‘happy clapper’ Christian folk singer. And then one Christmas this stuff arrived, it was a bunch of boxes. And he’d found me an original boxed Roland System 100, and he’d bought it for me in an effort to get me to go back to make records like, back in the day.

GG: And, coming full circle, you have started using them again – and there’s a lot of that on the new BEF album.

MW: The oscillators just sound incredible; there are outcomes which you get from using it which you’ll never get from virtual synths. It was all in the drive for miniaturisation…

DJP: When the synth generation came, it was two fingers up to The Eagles, wasn’t it?

GG: That’s exactly what we were doing, wasn’t it? Even before the Human League, when punk had smashed open the door for us, we realised we don’t have to play guitar, we can do it with these synths…

MW: It wasn’t as important to have a traditional musical skill, as it was to have a good ear and a sense of what sounds were appropriate for different sources.

DJP: It was almost like the year zero for this type of music.

GG: Well we were writing demos, and I remember it was a lovely day, and Ian was sat on the window sill of his flat. And he said, ‘I’ve had an idea – I’m going to write a song about the Lord’s Prayer. He was going on about a chord structure that never seemed to stop building, like sexual tension. And both me and him went, “Are you all right?”

MW: But the man had got it right! We were writing a lot using this Akai keyboard, that had a stepping chord facility. There was something about the appeal of this sort of random way of writing, it was really about multiple choice. And actually the funny thing is we wrote the entire Luxury Gap album using this technique, and our publishers brought out the sheet music. And when you look at it, it was incredibly complex – some of those tracks are in the most bizarre keys, these weird inversions, seven flats, you know.

DJP: Really?

MW: Funnily enough making the first BEF album, Music of Quality and Distinction Vol. 1 was like a crash university study course in brilliant song structures; they were great songs but we didn’t quite understand why we liked them so much. When you start deconstructing songs like It’s Over, Anyone Who Had a Heart… you know Jimmy Webb, Bacharach and David, it was like a crash course in how to keep people interested in a song. And often what appeared to be incredibly complex were very simple chord sequences, because some of the greatest songwriters were not very good keyboard players, like Bacharach for example. So this dichotomy between what appeared to be very elegant, like a swan floating on the lake but underneath it was something different going on entirely, that really appealed to us…

DJP: What are your favourite Heaven 17 tracks – Temptation?

GG: Well, it’s one of those things that just works…

MW: We’ve played that song for what must be a couple of hundred of times, and everybody gets it, always. But for us, the song that we’re most proud of is Let Me Go. Indeed we still loved the original so we reused the string part and made Best Kept Secret.

DJP: Come Live with Me has a certain Bacharach quality…

MW: Part of the excitement of doing Luxury Gap live for the first time ever, is it has to sound right, it has to sound epic, it has to sound like the best thing we ever did. And that’s the reason we’re doing in three dimensional sound… it’s going to sound great.

GG: I tell you, The Luxury Gap, when it was at Air Studios which was in Oxford Circus, we had to order in extra air conditioning to keep the machines cool, because we’d got so many tape machines in the room. We were running three 24 track tape machines in sync, which took about 15 seconds to sync up, plus a couple of half inch machines, plus quarter inch machines with multiple loops going round the outside of the studio, choral loops which we mixed down to 128 tracks!

DJP: So if you dropped your fag on the floor, the whole of London would have gone up!

MW: It was technological insanity; we had towers of outboard gear, going up to the ceiling. We had every Dolby SR unit in London!

GG: We went mad on that album

MW: I think it cost £300,000 – like way over a million quid in today’s terms. We really were highly motivated. We had that work ethic, maybe it’s the Sheffield thing, but we weren’t lounging around with a bunch of prostitutes…

GG: Tragically.

DJP: Did you get the sense that it was a special time in music?

GG: Oh yeah. Greg Walsh, the co-producer/engineer on that album was pushing the envelope constantly…

MW: He was trained by Geoff Emerick, a famous engineer who worked with the Beatles at Abbey Road, and with Rod Temperton, who wrote some of Michael Jackson’s hits – all of those vocal harmonies he brought to us.

GG: We were doing 128 track backing vocals for Let Me Go. We really went for it on that album.

MW: When it was finally mastered, we we so proud of that album. Penthouse and Pavement was more like an experimental album, energy-fed, but with Luxury Gap, we were attempting to make a timeless album.

DJP: Arty eighties music journalists would have called it your ‘magnus opus’!

MW: Oh yeah, and a lot of credit has to go to Virgin Records, because there was literally no agreed budget for that album. When we started working on Temptation in the studio, and we thought it would be great to have a big orchestra, and we rang up the record company, the answer was ‘When do you want it?’, not ‘how much does it cost?’ It’s a different world to now…

DJP: It was just at the time when you could do that…

MW: Yeah, it was a particular window of opportunity that you could exploit – and we did!

GG: To be honest, there was an awful lot of ‘we’re gonna f***ing show everybody out there that we’re better than you – and can write better songs that are more melodic and more beautiful’. It’s not like that anymore, but at the time, yes.

I sense that for Glenn and Martyn, feelings run deep. They’re immensely proud of the Luxury Gap, and justifiably so, but the album itself wasn’t the beginning and the end of the Heaven 17 project. They were really trying to do something new, at the time, which was to bring soul music to electronics (or vice versa). Whereas the likes of Kraftwerk and Phil Oakey’s Human League (one of the biggest bands in the world, momentarily) were following a cleaner, colder and more clinical groove, Heaven 17 were working hard to fuse the warmth of soul with the clinical precision of electronics. That’s what defined their sound, I put it to them…

GG: Oh yeah – we were listening to a lot of black dance music and northern soul.

MW: It was a burgeoning time, I mean come on, the Michael Jackson albums, Quincy Jones, Earth Wind and Fire, I mean, it was an incredible time! Even a lot of Norman Whitfield productions, it all had an influence on us, as well as disco. Gorgio Moroder…

GG: And the important thing about the Heaven 17 take on that, we also were equally in love with Bowie and Roxy (Music), and lyrically I guess we were more on the Bowie side, and musically on the funk side, so it was a lovely hybrid.

DJP: Disco was this amazing hybrid as well, wasn’t it?

MW: I loved it… even to this day I recently heard some Hamilton Bohannon tracks, and Terry Callier, and that had an amazing influence on what we were trying to achieve. Some amazing players! The new generation of synthesisers and drum machines let you recreate that – but there were no rules! The micro coding in the bad of my mind was about timbre, it’s like simple melody and timbre, rather than the technical skill of playing anything.

DJP: That’s something I love about your albums, the timbre…

MW: Yeah – on Luxury Gap we were doing a lot of composing on the Roland MC4 and MC8, and it’s very mathematical – it was pure maths and it was beautiful. And you know the nature of Linn Drums is that they were super-accurate timing wise, much better than any modern computer-based system. I actually tested it on an oscilloscope at Vince Clarke’s studio once… the Micro Composer was bang on and the Logic on the Mac was up to 12 milliseconds late. If they’d have made those early Kraftwerk albums on Logic, it wouldn’t have the same solidity, sharpness, snappiness. That’s what you get from a Linn drum, why Penthouse and Pavement sounds pin-sharp.

DJP: It’s very difficult to hear that album sounding right – you’ve got have good hi-fi equipment, and then it suddenly snaps into focus, otherwise it just sounds mushy…

GG: A good CD player can really make a difference to that album.

DJP: That’s why I can’t wait to hear The Luxury Gap live – and BEF night.

MW: Yeah – he’s a super-talented lad. He thinks about music in a different way. You’re talking about timbre-based stuff, and he’s the don. He actually thinks about things in multi-stave format. He creates these amazing contrapuntal constructions, and it’s all in head – and that’s Mozartian! With us it’s like, chuck it to the wall and see if it sticks.

GG: When you work with him in the studio, you find he thinks about music in a completely different way – I really do think he’s a genius.

MW: I think he’s a great songwriter, really underestimated – I think when he goes he’ll be appreciated after his death – on the level of Jimmy Web or somebody like that. Nobody sounded like Scritti at his peak… and oh what a voice! That’s why I’ve always thought of him as a soul singer. When we did I Don’t Know Why I Love You but I Love You by Stevie Wonder with him for the second BEF album, I mixed his voice right up… a beautiful thing…

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