Andy Coleman meets the founder of 80s band Heaven 17, who are rolling back the years in Birmingham.
The ‘80s electro band Heaven 17 will mark their 30th anniversary by performing all of their debut album, Penthouse And Pavement in the city this week – and they have invited some friends along to help them make the occasion even more memorable.
“In our travels we’ve come across an awful lot of graphic and visual digital artists,” explains band founder Martyn Ware.
“Some of them are old friends of ours, like Malcolm Garrett who designed our early Human League sleeves and Brian Duffy from the Modified Toy Orchestra who I think is an undiscovered gem.
“I thought ‘why don’t we ask all these people we’ve met, some of them young, some of them more experienced, to create some digital content for the show, as a kind of artwork?’. It will play in the background while we’re performing.
“We’ve also taken a lot of the instrumentals we did at the time, which were on the BEF (British Electric Foundation) albums, and we’ve done some visuals for those, which will play in advance of us coming on stage.
"It’s kind of a hybrid of art installation and rock gig. The idea is to immerse people in a sense of the excitement of the period. It’s not meant to be a nostalgia trip, it should be about the fascination of a particularly exciting period of music.”
To coincide with the anniversary, a re-mastered Penthouse And Pavement is being released, along with a bonus disc of rarities and unreleased material and a DVD documentary on the making of the record. A DVD of a live performance at Sheffield’s Magna Arena will also be on sale.
Heaven 17 was founded after Martyn and Ian Craig Marsh split from their previous band The Human League to form production company British Electric Foundation. With Heaven 17 as their first ‘‘project’’ they recruited singer Glenn Gregory as frontman.
‘‘We didn’t play live in those early days,’’ 54-year-old Martyn recalls. ‘‘With The Human League we did a lot of tours with people like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pere Ubu and Iggy Pop, but all that support costs money.
‘‘MTV started around the same time as Heaven 17 so we decided to spend the money that we would have spent on touring on making good videos. It was, if you like, the futuristic way of doing things at the time.
“It’s banal now but it worked for us because it meant we were successful in an awful lot of countries – we’d have had to be like U2 and spend 18 months on the road to service all the different territories. We were always more interested in spending our creative time in the studio, creating new works.
‘‘Not touring became a dogma after a while, really we should have performed live around about 1985 but by that time we’d decided not to bother, although we always did TV shows and PAs.
‘‘So this is the first time we’ve done Penthouse And Pavement live. For us, it’s a really weird time travel thing, it feels like a new album almost.’’
Only Martyn and Glenn remain from the original line-up, Ian having quit in 2006.
‘‘This is quite a story really,’’ Martyn claims. ‘‘He just stopped contacting us one day, not because we fell out or anything, he just stopped returning calls, texts and emails. After a few months we found out through a third party that he’d gone to study neuroscience at the University of East Sussex in Brighton. He’d got a new girlfriend and everything was fine.
‘‘I found out recently from our biographer, David Buckley, who’s writing a book about The Human League and Heaven 17, that he’s just done an interview with Ian and apparently he wasn’t well for a while and had to duck out of the university course, but he’s feeling a bit better now.’’
Martyn says he’s not closing the door on Ian rejoining the band, if he wants to, although it would not be in the near future, simply because of economic considerations.
‘‘The reason this live thing is happening now is because we used to have to split everything three ways and it wasn’t working, but now we can take a few more risks, with fewer mouths to feed, as it were. I think it would be difficult because it would jeopardise future productions but we’ll see how things go. He’s always our brother and we’ve got enormous respect for his contribution to everything.’’
One person that Martyn is keen to work with again is former Human League bandmate Phil Oakey, with whom he recorded the albums Reproduction and Travelogue before disagreements about the band’s musical direction led to the split.
‘‘I want to work with Phil again, we get on really well now. We’ve always mooted the idea of getting together to do the first two Human League albums live on one night. I’ve always loved the idea and I think we could do it. That was a multi-media show at the time so it would kinda come full circle.’’
There are also plans for a tour of Heaven 17’s second album, The Luxury Gap, which contained the hits Come Live With Me and Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry.
Admits Martyn: ‘‘I think Luxury Gap deserves a larger exposure, it was a bloody good album I have to say. We spent a lot of time and money making that album. It cost us £300,000 to make, that’s the equivalent of at least a million today.
‘‘It’s full of interesting textures and songs and we’d love to perform it live. The issue for us is economic and whether there’s a public demand for it. Part of the reason for this tour is to establish if there’s a demand.’’
* Heaven 17 play the HMV Institute, Digbeth tomorrow (Friday). Tickets: 08700 603777