Heaven 17 – How Live Is

Heaven 17 famously never used to play live. It just wasn’t what they did. But somehow, in 1997, well over a decade since anyone remembered hearing anything new from them, they decided to tour, supporting Erasure. Released a couple of years later, the budget live album that recorded the first date on that tour, in Glasgow, has appeared under about ten different names now, initially as Live at Last through their own website, and then as How Live Is for the first commercial release.

This set opened with (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, the 1993 remix performed live. Their debut single is, honestly, every bit as good, or as awful, as it ever was. The whole Penthouse and Pavement album is, for me, a bit like a joke that everyone else gets but you just can’t see why it’s funny. You probably just had to be there at the time – and the remix didn’t do this one too many favours for me either.

But what does strike you, even despite that, is just how good a vocalist Glenn Gregory is. He may have barely sung live at this stage, but he’s a natural, which is clearly going to pay dividends as this album continues. This is even clearer on Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, which follows, giving Gregory the chance to really shine.

We Blame Love was their latest single at the time, and while it never quite made it into the shops in the UK, it sold a few copies in Germany. The whole Bigger Than America album, from which this is taken, is a bit of a sad tale, really, as the songs are among Heaven 17‘s best for at least a decade, but it barely sold anything.

Time for another hit – they were just a support act on this date, after all. Come Live with Me seems very seedy indeed now, three and a half decades after its original release, and I imagine Heaven 17 have done some soul searching about its lyrics in recent years, but at its heart is what I think is intended, at least, to be a very sweet love song about an age gap that really doesn’t matter to either party. Even if it sounds as though it’s about a middle-aged man obsessing over a teenager.

New track Freak! is next, proving that they’re still capable of recording rubbish. You have to wonder what Erasure‘s audience were making of this at this point – I’m sure they loved hearing the eighties hits, but the applause at the end of this track seems a little surprising, given that I can’t imagine many would have known it, and fewer still would have liked it much. Maybe the visual performance made up for it at this point.

I should clarify my feelings about Heaven 17, as it’s probably coming across as though I hate them here. I really don’t – I think they have written a lot of great songs, and Gregory always delivers a good vocal. I just think they’ve tended towards repetitive, unmelodic chants a few too many times, and Freak! is another example of that for me.

What Heaven 17 do have is a decent collection of songs to fix this with, and so here comes the brilliant Let Me Go to the rescue. Such a good song, and barely messed around with here – they have added a few extra wizzes and bangs here and there, but nothing too major. It redeems the previous track at least, if not the last few albums as well.

Let’s All Make a Bomb, originally an album track on Penthouse and Pavement, has been given an overdue update. There’s actually another version on this release, hidden away among the enhanced video section, and that’s a better rendition, but this one isn’t bad. Proof that there was often little wrong with the actual songs in the early eighties – just a lot of overambitious production, perhaps? Even so, this does get a little overwrought during the chorus.

The nineties were not kind to Heaven 17, though, and while some of their 1992 remixes brought a degree of new life to the songs, the house version of Penthouse and Pavement didn’t even make the charts, so this lively performance is worthy but just seems very waily here. For fans, it must have been amazing to finally see them live, and they have certainly got better over time – I saw an exceptional performance of theirs about ten years ago in Manchester – but the performance on this CD sometimes just isn’t that good.

Every time you have that feeling, though, they rescue it with something, and this time it’s 1995’s comeback, the number 128 hit single Designing Heaven. Again, they go over the top with the vocals, and Gregory trills his Rs in “running” to almost comedic effect, but while this was never going to hit the top spot, it isn’t a bad track or a bad performance.

It would, of course, be pretty disappointing if they couldn’t get Temptation right, performed here in its jaunty 1992 Brothers in Rhythm remix form. The dance nature of the version means that much of the track is given over to backing singers telling us that they can’t see our hands, which is probably something that works better when you’re there in the room than listening on CD. But all in all, this is a great track, a competent remix, and a good performance.

The treats are all stacked up towards the end here, which is entirely appropriate for a support act. But it’s the final track that really packs a punch – for the first time, Heaven 17 cover The Human League‘s (i.e. their own) debut single Being Boiled, in its punchier album version form. Obviously nobody could ever replace Phil Oakey, but Glenn Gregory gives it his best, adding vocal power and punch to a brilliant track. It’s an exceptional way to close the concert, and in a way it’s a pity that there wasn’t more of this.

So How Live Is, or whatever you know the album as, is, appropriately for Heaven 17‘s career, a bit of a mixed bag. When they’re good, they’re very very good, but when they aren’t they’re pretty dreadful. I’d love to be able to recommend the recording of this first concert as a great introduction to the trio, but let’s just say they have made better setlist choices in more recent years. For all its failings, though, this isn’t a bad live album.

There are numerous versions of this album floating around with different titles – the latest appears to have returned to the original Live at Last, although it loses the video tracks, but it’s available here.

Pet Shop Boys – Disco 2

Twenty years ago this week, Pet Shop Boys released their second remix album Disco 2. The first in the series, released in 1986, was a mid-eighties style remix album, collecting together just six extended and slightly altered versions of singles and b-sides from debut album Please. Similarly, Disco 2 is very much of its era – the mixes are made very much with the dancefloor in mind, and everything is presented in one 45 minute continuous mix by Danny Rampling.

It’s also almost universally despised by fans, and I have to confess that in 1994 I wasn’t too sure either, I think because of the almost total absence of Neil Tennant‘s original vocals on some tracks. But is it really that bad? How does it stack up in 2014?

After a thirty second reprise of Rollo‘s remix of Absolutely Fabulous, things kick off in fine form with the brilliant Extended Nude Mix of I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing, remixed by the Beatmasters. It’s a bumped up, extended version of the single mix, and it’s a great way to start.

Another version of the same track follows, this time DJ Pierre‘s rather lousy Wild Pitch Mix. During this era Pet Shop Boys quite rightly experimented with some rather unexpected remixers and remixes, and in fairness this is probably one of the least bad of a very bad bunch, but it certainly doesn’t do the original song any favours.

Very smoothly and unnoticeably, it mixes into Go West, mixed in similarly unrecognisable fashion by Farley & Heller. It’s an enjoyable enough house mix, but ultimately just feels rather pointless, and then we’re on to one of the longest tracks, and also one of the most dire on the entire collection, the E Smoove 12″ mix of Liberation, which I’ve tackled previously on this blog.

Fortunately, from this point onwards, proceedings start to pick up. David Morales‘s Red Zone mix of So Hard, the oldest track on this collection dating from 1990, is a little too short, but is a very welcome inclusion. Rollo‘s dub of Can you forgive her? is neither the best example of a mix for the song nor the artist, but is still better than much of the first half of the album.

Junior Vasquez‘s Factory Dub of Yesterday, when I was mad, the first of three versions, is nothing special, and then somewhat unpredictably we’re onto one of the best tracks on the entire album, Rollo‘s Our Tribe Tongue-in-Cheek Mix of Absolutely Fabulous, pretty much in full this time. There’s really something rather anthemic about this as you see him flexing his pre-Faithless muscles to make a mix which is a lot better than the somewhat cheesy original.

A none too smooth transition takes us on to the next mix of Yesterday, when I was mad, this time by Coconut 1, which is probably the best of them, and fills in for a couple of minutes until the middle section of the slightly odd but very enjoyable Jam & Spoon mix of the same track.

The real surprise is the last track, the rather saucy Ambient Mix of We all feel better in the dark, mixed by Brothers in Rhythm, and originally hidden away on the limited edition second 12″ of Being boring in 1990. With its gentle guitar work and tentative use of the original vocal, it’s definitely one of the best tracks on here, and makes a great album closer.

Disco 2 has a lot in its favour actually – despite having so few tracks, it’s a very varied collection, and it’s entirely contemporary for 1994. But ultimately a remix album is made for the fans, and that’s where this one falls down. Including so few original vocals was certainly a mistake. Perhaps the original idea, which would have included tracks from Relentless (reviewed here) would have worked better?

But how could it really have been improved? Well, by including some of the really great remixes, for one thing. Jam & Spoon‘s take on Young offender, which seems to now be uniformly accepted as one of PSB’s best remixes ever. The rare Voxigen Mix of I wouldn’t normally do this kind of thing by Coconut 1, which never saw a UK release, or there are plenty of others to choose from.

But ultimately, despite entering Pet Shop Boys folklore as their worst release to date, Disco 2 really isn’t that bad. Open your mind a little – this is a remix album after all – and put yourself in the mindset of 1994, and there’s plenty to enjoy.

You can find Disco 2 at all major retailers, such as at Amazon, where you can also read some entertaining alternative reviews.

Various Artists – Electrospective (The Remix Album)

There are times when I really enjoy writing these reviews, and others when I wonder why I put myself through this. There’s really only one rule – I have to listen to the entire album in order while I write the review. Earlier this year I reviewed the original Electrospective compilation in its full glory, and now it’s the turn of its companion remix album.

Inevitably a remix album is always going to be a hit or miss affair, with occasional forgotten gems and occasional dross mixed in alongside one another. And so this is – but at worst, this is a journey through the story of the remix, from the early 80s extended versions to the modern reinventions, with everything in between.

Electrospective (The Remix Album) begins its first disc firmly in the 1980s, full of handclaps and drum solos, with the original 12″ versions of Heaven 17‘s Penthouse and PavementTalking Loud and Clear by OMD, and Talk Talk‘s original US mix of It’s My Life. Of these, it is the third which truly shines – perhaps because it’s the best song of this bunch anyway, or perhaps because there really is something special about this mix.

The next bunch are less exciting – Malcolm McLaren‘s Madam Butterfly drags rather over its ten minute duration, and Vicious Pink‘s Cccan’t You See and Grace Jones‘s I’m Not Perfect (But I’m Perfect for You) do little to pick things up – this is left instead to Buffalo Stance by Neneh Cherry, although Kevin Saunderson‘s techno take on this has nothing on the original.

By thus stage we’re firmly in the late eighties, an age of big shoulder pads, big string pads, and orchestral hits. Derrick May‘s club mix of Good Life by Inner City is every bit as good as the original, as is François Kevorkian‘s reworking of Personal Jesus by Depeche Mode.

But for something that’s supposed to be a chronicle of “the remix” there are some odd omissions – where’s Shep Pettibone hiding? Where are all the DMC remixes? There’s a lot missing, but in a way this feels more effective as a companion album to Electrospective than a guide to what it means to be a remix.

François Kevorkian turns up again for the next track, the totally brilliant 1990 remix of Yazoo‘s Situation, after which disc one closes with a couple of disappointments – a thoroughly unexciting version of Soul II Soul‘s Back to Life and The Orb‘s rather misguided take on Crystal Clear by The Grid. Although it is very nice to see The Grid on a compilation like this.

By disc two, we are firmly into the mid 1990s. The first track is a brilliant remix which I hadn’t heard before of William Orbit‘s incredible Water from a Vine Leaf, and another surprise follows – the amusingly energetic Cappella Club Mix of Always by Erasure.

The rest of the 1990s are less well represented, with a good but somewhat unexciting Brothers in Rhythm take of Reach by Judy CheeksPaul van Dyk‘s reworking of Passion by Amen! UK, which starts off promisingly but in the long run doesn’t really go anywhere. Then there’s Deep Dish with a pretty poor version of Wrong by Everything But the Girl.

Finally, we work our way towards the end of the decade with unremarkable versions of Around the World by Daft Punk (remixed by Masters at Work), Telex‘s Moskow Diskow remixed by Carl Craig, and the slightly better Simple Minds‘s Love Song.

Before this review turns any more into an extended track listing, we should reflect a little on what we’ve heard. Where the original collection brought together thirty years of electronic hits, this one consists of thirty years of remixed electronic hits. And if that’s the goal, it’s pretty successful. It’s not comprehensive, and neither is it particularly amazing, but it is fun to listen to, and many of the tracks which were chosen are rare and unusual, which is all very worthwhile.

The last few tracks take us firmly into the 21st century, and the inclusion of one of The Human League‘s 2003 remixes (The Sound of the Crowd) is a pleasant surprise, even if the version itself is nothing special. On the other hand, Ewan Pearson‘s Strippedmachine version of Goldfrapp‘s Strict Machine is something incredibly special, and is a very welcome inclusion.

The closing tracks come in the form of Tom Neville‘s rather dull version of Kelis‘s Milkshake and the rather more entertaining Pass Out by Tinie Tempah – apparently he’s never been to Scunthorpe.

Ultimately, Electrospective (The Remix Collection) does what it says on the tin – it’s a fun journey through some selected remixes from the last three decades. Which is more than enough to make it an entirely worthwhile listen.

You can find Electrospective (The Remix Album) at Amazon here.

Heaven 17 – Naked As Advertised

Five years ago this week, Heaven 17 came back to perform another tour. Never having really toured in their heyday, they came to the idea of playing live relatively late, but have in recent years taken to it with gusto.

In 2008, in the process of reworking old tunes for their latest tour, they decided to revisit some of their tracks – and some by other artists – for a mini-album-come-compilation with the odd title Naked As Advertised – Versions ’08. It’s far from perfect – some of the tracks are worse than the originals, but others are better, and thanks to this it’s definitely worth hearing.

The first track is a sadly rather cheesy take on The Human League‘s brilliant debut single Being BoiledGlenn Gregory is, as always, an excellent vocalist, and delivers it perfectly, but the backing suffers from Martyn Ware‘s sometimes perfect, sometimes totally misjudged touch. The backing vocals are also rather over-the-top.

Next up comes a brilliant take of Geisha Boys and Temple Girls. As with much of their debut album Penthouse and Pavement, this was poorly realised in its original form, but this time around it’s close to perfect. Gregory’s vocal is stronger and more confident, and the backing vocals are better judged, but more importantly the synth sounds hit the tones on the nose.

The new take of Temptation featuring Billie Godfrey is typically flamboyant and strong too, but inevitably it doesn’t even come close to Brothers in Rhythm‘s charged 1992 versions, let alone the original.

A new version of Penthouse and Pavement follows, again better than the original, proving that it was a good song in the first place, but lacking the sheer “shock power” of Geisha Boys and Temple Girls. This is followed by a powerful piano cover version of Party Fears Two, and another cover, Don’t Fall, comes next, and turns out to be very strong indeed, perhaps one of the best tracks on this album.

The dance versions of (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang which have been popping up over the last couple of decades are largely awful, and this one is no exception. You can just about see that there might be a decent song hidden in there somewhere, but the dreadful synth riff and corny sound effects really don’t help you hear it.

The new version of We Live So Fast is a little better, and is perhaps even on a par with the original from The Luxury Gap (1983). The new backing doesn’t really help it much, but neither does it entirely hinder matters.

The final track is another Human League original, Empire State Human, and as one of the finest tracks from Reproduction and Travelogue you might think this an opportunity to bring out some of its better points. Unfortunately they didn’t take the opportunity – instead they manage to ruin it by creating a silly and pointless spoken word version.

So Naked As Advertised is every bit as much of a mixed bag as its rather daft title and cheap artwork might suggest. In a couple of cases the new versions are better than the originals; in a couple they’re worse. But all in all it’s good to know that Heaven 17 are still capable of putting together a decent album – and fortunately, the tour which followed was considerably better than this little compilation might have suggested.

Naked As Advertised is still available through stores such as Amazon