Heaven 17 never quite seem to have got the hang of the fact that the eighties finished a quarter of a century ago. Perhaps it’s because that’s when they had the bulk of their musical career, or perhaps they had such an impact at the time that their sound and the sound of the eighties are intrinsically linked. Either way, it would be remiss to review the third B.E.F. side-project without mentioning that particular decade.
The third volume of Music of Quality and Distinction opens with Ever Time I See You, I Go Wild! (Original Version), with a vocal by Kim Wilde from off of the 1980s. It’s actually a great opener – it’s a good song, and her vocal is particularly fantastic. But there’s something extremely 80s about it, and that’s a vein which never seems to die out on this album.
The theme this time is supposed to be “dark,” although it’s rather disputable – a handful of songs are downtempo renderings of pop originals, but that alone doesn’t make them particularly dark in tone. Some have big orchestration or guitar work – but still aren’t very dark. In fact, Just Walk in My Shoes with Sandie Shaw is positively cheery. I think it’s fair to say that the concept is a little flawed.
There are no fewer than sixteen tracks, spanning seventy minutes of music, and so inevitably it has its ups and downs. Highlights include Sarah Jane Morris‘s soulful delivery of Don’t Want to Know, Glenn Gregory‘s version of It Was a Very Good Year (again, not entirely “dark” though) and Shingai Shoniwa‘s version of God Only Knows, even if it seems to have become a Christmas song for some reason.
Other tracks are rather less explicable – Andy Bell‘s version of Breathing is typically theatrical, but the song is completely bonkers, as is Boy George‘s version of I Wanna Be Your Dog. On the whole, though, there aren’t any particular low points until Polly Scattergood and Maxim‘s dreary renditions of The Look of Love and The Day Before You Came respectively, both towards the end.
But neither is there anything entirely mindblowing here – the best track of the whole collection is Heaven 17‘s own version of Party Fears Two, originally released on their Naked as Advertised collection five years earlier. Of the three work-in-progress mixes from the tail end of Music from Stowaways to Dark a couple of years ago, Smalltown Boy received some minor tweaks and ended up as one of the highlights of this release; Co-Pilot to Pilot got slightly shorter and became an uninteresting album closer; and Trade Winds didn’t even make it onto the final album.
The three volumes of Music of Quality and Distinction, released respectively in 1982, 1991, and 2013, offer an intriguing snapshot of the music of the period. On volume 1, Tina Turner, Paula Yates, and even Gary Glitter were wailing their way through the classics to an enormous B.E.F. backing track. Ten years later, the backing was still huge but now no longer quite as contemporary, while Chaka Khan and Terence Trent d’Arby turned up to deliver the vocals (volumes 1 and 2 can be found reviewed here).
Somehow, though, despite a parliament of exceptional vocalists and some very competent production, volume 3 seems a bit of a disappointment. It’s a good enough listen, but there just doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for it to exist – for the most part, it’s not actually very “dark” (an unkind reviewer might even describe it as “dismal.”) It was clearly never going to chart, or launch anybody’s career, so it actually feels a little irrelevant too. If you can forget all of that, it’s by no means a bad album – just a slightly unfathomable one.
The third volume of Music of Quality and Distinction can be found at all major retailers.