Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Heaven 17: Inside Outsiders Playing To Win


Over the past couple of nights BBC2 have screened a couple of retrospectives on the originators of 1980s British electro-pop: Heaven 17. When I was aged about seventeen, I started collecting their singles on vinyl. I felt their music had a sound and a concept like nobody else. In the heyday of New Romanticism here were three twentysomething lads from Sheffield dressed like young business executives forging a strangely alienated dance sound. The cover of the 'Penthouse and Pavement' album looked like they'd just sealed a property deal in Milton Keynes. I’d not frequented a club or seen many concerts back then. Indeed the idea of seeing Heaven 17 play live was unthinkable. Yet I was drawn to the cryptic edge they bought to pop - there was just that elusive and undefinable "something" about them.

Twenty five years later the media are celebrating the early achievements of a band that spawned the likes of La Roux, yet Heaven 17 still sound unlike anybody else. Musically they mixed high BPM machine music with a punk ethos, funky slap bass, and yuppie aesthetic to create note perfect pop. As a listener, though, you got the impression that the music was articulating an impulse that was both from a different world and frustrated with our own.

Looking back there was an awful lot going on behind the fa├žade of the British Electric Foundation (their own attempt at a Kraftwerklike institutution). For one thing, despite the ironies, Heaven 17 actually had quite traditional racial and gender relations compared to some of their counterparts; lead singer Glen Gregory’s Germanic tones and Aryan aesthetic brushed knowingly against the syrupy wails of their black female backing singers. Temptation still sounds as genuinely sultry as anything from the decade. They also subverted both pop and society from the inside, showing how you could be both in the game and challenge it. What was really interesting about their music, to me, both then and now, was its adult themes – things like labour relations, class inequalities, nuclear protest and the sex trade.

Unlike the badly behaved adolescents of rock music, Heaven 17 and their fans took the world seriously. We were looking in on adulthood and the capitalist society it enabled with a mature sense of disappointment: were we really being prepared for such a joyless workplace - whether on the factory floor or in an office selling insurance? Was getting on in a YTS scheme and doing some suffocating 9-5 job the height of what life could offer?

After their heyday their music lost its social commentary and therefore its edge. Many of us fans started listening to other things. Yet, three decades on, their lone voice still seems unique in pop. Glen Gregory has lost his hair and now looks like a sharp, good humoured night club owner. Martyn Ware has finally fulfilled his dream of impersonating Ralf Hutter. The music has not changed, though, and it still speaks directly of empty pleasures, alienation, automation and loss - an adult music for 1980s dance adolescents who were wary of the norm in both society and the generic popular culture it held dear.