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.

Record Companies – Just Music

I first heard about Just Music thanks to Honeyroot, the short-lived but brilliant chillout spin-off from Heaven 17. Just Music turns out to have a small but impressive selection of ambient, leftfield, electronic, and off-beat artists to its name.

Apart from Honeyroot, their most famous acts include the now-legendary Jon Hopkins, Marconi Union, and Leo Abrahams. Hopkins, of course, has hit the higher reaches of the charts globally, although he seems to have also wandered onto bigger record labels in the process.

But small family record companies are really well worth celebrating. Just Music can be found here:
http://www.justmusic.co.uk/

Greatest Hits – Vol. 11

Time for another selection of reviews that you might have missed in the last year or two.

You can also see Vol. 10 here.

Heaven 17 – The Luxury Gap

“Work hard.” That’s what I think he’s saying, anyway.

Thirty-five years ago this week, Heaven 17‘s finest album The Luxury Gap first appeared in the shops. Having seen some initial fleeting visions of success a few years earlier with The Human League and previously with the frankly awful debut album Penthouse and Pavement (1981), Let Me Go had hinted at the new sound in late 1982, and then suddenly Temptation took the charts by storm, and history was made.

It opens with Crushed by the Wheels of Industry, an entertaining mix of steelwork-inspired sounds with soulful vocal delivery, daft lyrics, and a whole load of other things. It’s a representative way to open the album, and somehow manages to be both awful and brilliant at the same time. It’s a line that Heaven 17 have always trodden that line with care, and in this instance it works rather well. This was released as the fourth and final single in September 1983.

Who’ll Stop the Rain is next, with its punchy funk bass line. It isn’t really single material (although they were big enough at the time that the US saw a promo version), but it’s a good album track. It does pale into insignificance next to the brilliant Let Me Go, though.

If you need a reason to buy this album, Let Me Go should be it. For the first time, Heaven 17 had recorded a catchy, beautiful, brilliant song that really allowed Glenn Gregory to show off his full vocal prowess. It’s an odd electronic hit, sounding now more like something from 1987 than 1982, and perhaps it’s that out-of-time quality that makes it so special. It deserved to be an enormous hit, but never even scraped the top 40 in the UK. In the US, it’s pretty much their only hit single.

Nothing was ever really going to stand out after that, but Key to the World is a decent, if somewhat generic attempt. In general, this album is all good pop music, and this track closes Side A in an understated but upbeat way.

Side B opens with the number 2 hit and second single Temptation. Broken down into its constituent pieces, it’s an odd track with a very loud screechy female vocal, but somehow it’s also catchy, wonderfully delivered as a duet, and really rather brilliant. If you have any doubts about this song, picture yourself in early 1980s Thatcherite Britain just a matter of months after the end of the Falklands War, and it might make a lot more sense. Or maybe not.

Either way, the downbeat charm of third single Come Live with Me is welcome at this point. Definitely among the three exceptional tracks (alongside Let Me Go and Temptation), the lyrics are definitely a bit unnerving at the start (“I was 37, you were 17”) – it’s hard to imaging a statement like that making the top ten now. But then there’s that great lyric about “If half the things they say / Are quarter true of me,” which absolutely can’t be faulted, and if you disagree, you’re wrong.

Lady Ice and Mr. Hex is the one track on here that I really don’t understand. At best, I try to view it as a comment on early 1980s consumerism, but even that seems a bit stretched. Maybe they just thought the album needed a funky showtune at this point.

We Live So Fast is next, a brilliantly daft-speed track which would have probably been the best track on several of Heaven 17‘s less successful works. Here, it’s pedestrian, but that’s far from a bad thing. It’s far from perfect, but the standard on this album really is pretty high.

One thing that’s clever is only having nine tracks over a 37 minute duration, so it really grabs you by the throat and keeps you listening. We’re on to the final track already, the atmospheric The Best Kept Secret, which cleverly if unsubtly echoes Let Me Go to loop things back to the hit that got this album started. It’s a great closing piece for what really is a great album.

So all in all, The Luxury Gap may not be the best album ever recorded, unless perhaps you were there to hear it in context at the time, but it’s close. Even if you weren’t there or fully paying attention at the time, there’s plenty to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

You can still find the 2006 remastered version of The Luxury Gap at all major retailers.

Honeyroot – The Sun Will Come

A decade ago this week saw the release of the second of two Honeyroot albums, The Sun Will Come. Founded by Heaven 17‘s Glenn Gregory in the twilight of their career, the Honeyroot project saw him and Keith Lowndes working together on beautiful, relaxed pop music. The less accomplished Sound Echo Location had kickstarted the project in 2003, and with The Sun WIll Come, they truly managed to create something magnificent.

Confusingly, it opens with the triumphant instrumental Goodbye, before introducing the first of several fantastic guest vocalists for the quite brilliant Nobody Loves You (The Way I Do), a minor single release that appeared the same year as the album. With its enormous pads, chilled piano, and warping bass, as well as a very familiar lyrical message, it may be fair to say that nothing here is entirely new, but it is delivered in a quite exceptional manner.

The adorable instrumental Heavy Drops comes next, also the other side of the double a-side with the preceding track. There’s a gentle, soft arpeggio running through most of the track, with a soft melody line, that sounds absolutely fantastic. The vocal samples I’m less sure about, but it would be hard to spoil anything this good.

I got to know this album on a five-day train journey across Canada in 2008, and one of the most evocative tracks is the adorable single Where I Belong, almost an electro-country track with its slide guitar and melancholic vocal. Imagine the rhythmic chugging percolated by the occasional train horn as the miles go past, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of why this song means so much to me.

As with the version of Love Will Tear Us Apart on the first album, the cover of A Change is Gonna Come here is very brave. It’s a song with a lot of meaning for a lot of people, and it would be very easy to dilute or disrespect that, but I think this pulls it off, as a soft and beautiful piano piece.

Drifter is a sweet gospel-piano pop song, and then People Say is a glorious, simple pop track. By the middle of this album, its form is holding up well, although Every Single Day is probably the one moment on here that I think doesn’t stand up quite as well as the rest.

Then comes Waves, a beautiful pop song, with more rippling pads and acoustic-inspired sounds, as well as an enormous grumbly bass sound. Freeway is another great instrumental.

But the best has definitely been saved till the end – my favourite track on here is the adorable, lullaby-like The Stars, full of cascading arpeggios and huge reverb. If there’s a better album closing track then I would very much like to know what it is. Indeed, The Sun WIll Come surely must be one of the best albums of its era. If only anybody had heard it – their only foray into the charts was a minor scrape at the bottom end of the singles with Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Unfortunately the Honeyroot project was not destined to last much longer. A one-off single It’s All Good followed in 2008, and then Heaven 17 started doing stuff again, and its time was through. Which is a very great shame – I do like Heaven 17 a lot, but I’m not convinced they ever created anything quite as beautiful as The Sun Will Come.

You can still find The Sun Will Come at their own Bandcamp page for just a fiver.

Heaven 17 – Bigger Than America

Poor Heaven 17. By 1996, nearly two decades into their careers, they really hadn’t produced anything new of note under that name in over a decade. After their fame subsided with the reasonable How Men Are album (1984), just two studio albums and a couple of compilations had followed, and so Bigger Than America was truly a comeback.

But Dive is brilliant. It starts with some subtle analogue warbles, and builds into something that’s every bit as good as Let Me Go. The line that mixes “hear” with “here” could easily be tacky and awful, but somehow it works perfectly here. What a great opening track!

First single Designing Heaven follows. Unsurprisingly when you hear it, it wasn’t an enormous hit, but it’s reasonably good, and probably deserved a place somewhere in the Top 40. If you’re ever bored, track down the single to hear the laughably bad German version Den Himmel Designen.

Second (and final) single We Blame Love comes next, actually perhaps a better choice of single than the first, but it didn’t get any attention outside of Germany, where all your favourite eighties acts went to die.

Another Big Idea is next, and is largely fantastic. It might have been a while since Heaven 17 were this good, but they definitely had the right idea. In fact, the first reminder that they had been lost in the wilderness for over a decade at this point is on track 5, the pointless Freak! It contains the lyric “You’re an X and I’m a Y / Just take a look into the sky”. Which is pretty much all you need to know.

Changes are definitely afoot at this point in the album. You might have been wondering what exactly the title was about, but it isn’t until the title track that you really get a clue. Bigger Than America seems to be an attempt to poke fun at the USA, but a fair proportion of the lyrics don’t really make sense unfortunately. The chorus is good, though (despite rhyming “car” with “Ameri-car”), and the analogue squawks are fully in attendance.

From here onwards, my memory was suggesting the tracks would all start to merge into one, but that isn’t really true. Unreal Everything is a nice track, if somewhat forgettable – the only thing you’ll really remember here is the pleasant theremin (or portamento?) line that makes it sound like something out of a 1950s science fiction film. The Big Dipper takes some more cracks at the USA, this time hitting harder and arguably hitting the target more accurately.

Do I Believe? is really brilliant – fueled primarily by enormous analogue noises, but there’s a great song in there as well. Resurrection Man is a bit misguided, but towards the end things become pleasantly mellow, with the sweet and gentle Maybe Forever and then the uplifting An Electronic Prayer. The electronic howl that closes the album is an exemplary way to finish matters.

So this was Heaven 17‘s contribution to the 1990s. It was good, but was largely irrelevant and went ignored by most people. What it does seem to have done is spurred them to start playing live for the first time in their career, and so, a decade or so later, they finally came to be seen as the legends they are. As long as they stick to playing tracks from their better albums, anyway.

The CD version of Bigger Than America has long since fallen out of print, but you can still find digital downloads and second hand copies in most places.