Thursday, April 7, 2016

Martyn Ware, the mad synth genius, had an ax to grind with Phil Oakey (you know, the asymmetrically-haired singer of The Human League) and left the band after Travelogue to form Heaven 17 with Ian Craig Marsh.  A lot of soft option H17 fans from back in the day had massive synth-crushes on Marsh. Ian looked like the bastard son of Sebastian from Brideshead Revisited and that insane chick from your squad who was hospitalized for drinking something toxic called "angel's trumpet tea" (every girl I ever went out with). He was slight, wore a dapper suit, and always had a demurely psychotic smirk on his face. His general demeanor suggested something slick but utterly nuts at the same time. (He was the guy we all wanted to be.)

Marsh was kicked out of school in the midst of his "A Levels" for being an "undesirable subversive element," whatever that meant. He'd been part of an outfit called Meatwhistle in the early 1970s, and was then in a shambolic punk band called Musical Vomit, which was characterized by Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex as being one of the first punk bands evah. 

Anyway, Heaven 17. H17 came from out of the business alliance (don’t know what else to call it) known as the British Electric Foundation (stylized as BEF). The collective was a record label, a marketing agency and a band rolled into one, with the band, after releasing one cassette-only recording called Music for Stowaways and an abbreviated vinyl version called Music for Listening To, taking on the Heaven 17 moniker based on the record shop scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange in which Heaven Seventeen are No. 4 with "Inside." (Music for Stowaways was inspired by the appearance of the first Sony Walkman, marketed in the UK as the Sony Stowaway, cool, eh?).

The first Heaven 17 album, Penthouse and Pavement was an underrated, new wave/electronic masterpiece, like fine art. "It felt like a race to get the thing done really," said Ware. "There was no mediation involved. It literally was a lot of ideas coming out simultaneously but also with an intensity which meant that you could realise them very quickly. So it wasn’t just like a million ideas and actually three quarters of them were shit when you looked at them on the day – they were all pretty good I have to say. It was like opening a giant tap for a hose and it was just blasting out." Heaven 17's first single, "(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang," took the electronic template, the driving musical philosophy of The Human League, and modified it with a funky slap-bass and treated dance-floor piano. The song incidentally mentions the words "fascist," "Hitler," and "racist," and was quickly banned from the BBC. "One of the reasons the BBC said it couldn't be played was they thought Ronald Reagan could sue them over it," said Marsh about the song's most controversial couplet, "Reagan's president elect/ Fascist god in motion."

Penthouse and Pavement is a musically schizophrenic LP all funked out on Side 1, with the the all-synth Side 2 providing a taste of how a third Human League album with Ware and Marsh may have sounded. A defining feature of Heaven 17 was its total artistic control.  Whereas the sound and the success of the Human League's Dare was a collaboration between the band, Adrian Wright and Martin Rushent, with last words belonging to Virgin Records (and A&M in the States), Heaven 17 were instead performers, writers and designers creating not just their own music but every aspect of the music's presentation and packaging. "It was written into our contract that we had complete control over the content of what we presented.  Each stage of production was integral to the band's ethos, from cover artwork to their own sartorial elegance in video and on photo shoots." Martyn Ware said. No-one else was operating like that at the time, with the BEF opening the doors of perception for upstart labels like Factory and Mute.

Heaven 17's  next album, The Luxury Gap, was their pop masterpiece, the moment when everything just clicked into place to devastating effect.  The band's favorite-ever song, "Let Me Go" (AM8) nearly broke them into the UK Top 40 and became a dance hall fave on both sides of the Atlantic. And that is where I'll stop. I know you're singing it - you've stopped reading. So carry on. Here, I'll remind you of the lyrics: "Once we were years ahead/ But now those thoughts are dead/ Let me go. All hopeless fantasies/ Are making fools of me/ Let me go. I walk along/ And yet I never say 'Good-bye/ Let me go. A change of heart, a change of mind/ And Heaven fell like night/ Let me go..."