Heaven 17

  • British Electric Foundation
  • Music for Listening To: (UK Virgin) 1981 
  • Music for Stowaways [tape] (UK Virgin) 1981 
  • Music of Quality and Distinction Volume One (UK Virgin) 1982 
  • Heaven 17
  • Penthouse and Pavement (UK B.E.F./Virgin) 1981 
  • Heaven 17 (Arista) 1982 
  • The Luxury Gap (Virgin/Arista) 1983 
  • How Men Are (Virgin/Arista) 1984 
  • Endless (UK Virgin) 1986 
  • Pleasure One (Virgin) 1986 
  • Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho (UK Virgin) 1988  (Virgin/Caroline) 1989 
  • Hot Gossip
  • Geisha Boys and Temple Girls (UK DinDisc / Virgin) 1981 

In search of more meaningful dance music, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh abandoned the about-to-be-enormous Human League in 1980 to form the more experimental (musically and structurally) British Electric Foundation. The core members — Marsh, Ware and singer Glenn Gregory — also work as Heaven 17, a “division” of B.E.F. Confused? While Heaven 17 is geared for dance funk’n’soul, the short-lived B.E.F. pursued conceptual one-offs with a variety of people, like the TV dance troupe Hot Gossip.

Music for Stowaways — released only on cassette — consists of moody instrumentals, ranging from funk-rock to icy Germanic synth-garde to electro-bop and sound experiments. Much of it was reissued on the seven-track Music for Listening To.

Music of Quality and Distinction, B.E.F.’s first venture into pop experimentation, brings in a number of interesting people (including Tina Turner, Gary Glitter, Sandie Shaw and Paul Jones) to perform cover versions of well-known and not-so-well-known oldies, from “These Boots Are Made for Walking” and “Wichita Lineman” to David Bowie’s “The Secret Life of Arabia” and Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day.” Older songs hold up better under this treatment than new ones but, overall, choices of singers and musicians are on the mark. Despite any social implications (or lack thereof), a good time.

After disproving all accusations of synthesizers as limited vehicles of expression, the B.E.F.ers got Heaven 17 (named for a band mentioned in A Clockwork Orange) under way with Penthouse and Pavement. Lyrically, the album ranges from silly to exciting; musically, it’s an almost flawless blend of funk and electronics, highlighted by the pressurized new-dance fever of “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang.”

The American Heaven 17 release deletes three tracks from Penthouse and Pavement and replaces them with the top-notch pop soul of “Let Me Go” and “Who Will Stop the Rain,” both from the UK edition of The Luxury Gap. (The American release of that album swapped them for two of the three tracks omitted from Heaven 17.) In all of its incarnations, The Luxury Gap contains “Crushed by the Wheels of Industry,” “Temptation” and “We Live So Fast,” all stellar examples of Heaven 17’s chartbound craftsmanship: catchy, toe-tapping dance-pop with horns, guitars and an orchestra providing musical depth behind Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware’s synthesizers. Glenn Gregory’s gruff vocals aren’t immediately mellifluous, but they suit the material and ambience perfectly.

With B.E.F. the Concept falling onto the scrapheap of progress, Heaven 17 made a third album, graced with another awful cover painting. How Men Are features an expanding cast of musicians and concomitant sprawl — “And That’s No Lie” runs over ten tedious minutes! The LP has a few lively cuts — “This Is Mine” and “Sunset Now” in particular — but is otherwise overblown, indulgent and excessive.

Endless is a poshly packaged, limited-edition, career-spanning retrospective issued originally on cassette but later offered on CD. Besides such essentials as “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang,” “Crushed by the Wheels of Industry,” “Let Me Go” and “We Live So Fast,” the collection includes a “Heaven 17 Megamix” medley and an alternate version of “Let’s All Make a Bomb” (from either the first or second album, depending on your national orientation). The tape has four additional selections, including “Play to Win” and a new recording of “Song with No Name.”

Pleasure One, recorded in various studios over a 17-month (hmmm…) span, uses scads of guest musicians and vocalists to flesh out an accessible collection of upbeat dance numbers held to almost reasonable song lengths. (Interestingly, at this juncture, the stylistic gap between Heaven 17 and the Human League has never been narrower.) “Contenders,” “Trouble” and “Free” are the strongest tracks.

Incapable of any further innovation, and with the novelty of soul-styled electronic dance music having long since worn off, Heaven 17 (like their former mates in Human League) reached the late ’80s lacking a strong identity: too many bands sound like this now. Despite the trio’s efforts to tart things up with incongruity (heavy rock guitar, Barry White mush, pseudo-jazz, wailing blues harp), Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho keeps returning to the chattering funky bounce and schmaltzy strings of every other H17 record. When Gregory isn’t crooning arch love songs, the lyrics moralize about television, self-reliance, personal freedom and war. Hey everybody, let’s party like it’s 1984!

[Steven Grant]

See also: Human League