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.

History of the UK Charts – Between Singles and Albums

As we saw earlier in this series of posts, the modern definition of an album is relatively straightforward – there are a number of sneaky clauses, but the main decider is simply what the dealer price is. Singles are more complex, and have evolved over time. If you have a bit of spare time, you can try to digest the rules here, but here’s a high-level summary.

Permitted formats (using my own terminology to try to simplify it):

  • Single: digital or CD, with one track, and a maximum playing time of 15 minutes
  • Maxi: vinyl, digital, CD, or USB, with up to four songs (three tracks on a 7″ single), and a maximum playing time of 25 minutes
  • Remix: vinyl, digital, CD, or USB, with one song, and a maximum playing time of 40 minutes

This is probably less of a deal nowadays, but of these, you can have up to 3 physical formats, from:

  • Any combination of Single CD, 7″, or 12″ vinyl
  • Two Maxi or Remix CD, DVD, or USB formats
  • Plus up to 3 digital bundle formats, and any number of digital single-track versions of the lead song

This might seem confusing if you haven’t seen it before, but, apart from the odd tweak here or there, this is pretty much how the UK chart has worked since the late 1980s – the digital formats are a more recent addition, of course. But other than that, five formats were reduced to four in the early 1990s; and four became three in 1998. Singles were reduced to three tracks and twenty minutes for a while, but then sense prevailed, and it was decided to try to rip music fans off a little less by expanding the rules again.

But once you step past all those rules, there are, of course, a couple of gaps. Something that costs the same as a single, but runs past the 25-minute limit might be an EP, or a mini-album. Or if it’s a bit longer, maybe it’s a full album that just retails at a lower cost. There’s no hard and fast rule, but by original definition, an EP, or “Extended Play” release, would have normally been a 7″ single playing at 33 1⁄3 rpm, running at maybe 15 minutes in terms of total playing time.

So where do those releases fall? The answer has evolved over time – in the 1960s, EPs had their own chart, and since then, Budget Albums have been a thing – albeit a thing that nobody really talks about much.

The UK EP Chart

As the Single and Album charts came to be established as two separate things, it was inevitable that EPs would get their own place in history, but it was somewhat short-lived.

Melody Maker may have been second to launch an Album Chart in the UK, but they led the charge with the EP Chart, kicking it off in November 1959 with a Top 10, and running until May 1963. Record Retailer also published an EP chart from March 1960 to December 1967, which slowly worked its way up from a Top 10 to a Top 15, and finally a Top 20. Finally, Music Echo and Pop Weekly also published short-lived EP charts in around 1965-1966. And after the Record Retailer chart ended the following year, there has never since been an EP chart in the UK.

Of course, that’s fairly appropriate – EPs were hugely successful in the 1960s, often acting like cut-price albums, but they fell out of favour over time, to a point where the term is often used these days for something that is really just a single.

The UK Budget Album Chart

For a while after the disappearance of the EP charts, EPs were either incorporated into other charts, or were lost for good. Then, by the late 1960s, Budget Albums started to appear on the market, often as cover albums by anonymous artists, but they appear to have been initially excluded from the main charts.

In 1969, Record Retailer published the first Budget Album Chart, although confusingly, it appears to have actually been a Mid-Price Album Chart, due to the actual prices involved. Then, in early 1970, an actual Budget Album Chart appeared, as did a Mid-Price Album Chart. NME, meanwhile, allowed all lower-price albums on their album chart.

From August 1971 to January 1972, Budget Albums were allowed onto the now-official UK Album Chart, and there was a sudden but short-lived influx of low-cost albums on the chart, many of them anonymous cover albums, and some of them entering right at the top spot. After that, they were removed for good.

The Record Retailer Budget Album chart lasted until June 1975, when it was retired. It’s not clear to me whether Budget Album charts then disappeared altogether for a couple of decades, or was published somewhere all along – a lot of people seem not to care particularly. But from 1997, the Budget Album chart has become available again, albeit with a bit of searching.

It’s a funny old chart – you can see one on UKChartsPlus’s sample edition here. In that particular week, it appears to be primarily made up of cut-price multi-artist compilations, discounted “greatest hits” collections by established artists. EPs make it on, occasionally, but it’s fairly rare – this only appears to have happened twice in 2010, for example.

Browsing through the hits, you see some interesting entries – for instance, The Human League had multiple hits with their cut-price best of The Best Of (#10 in 2000), Best Of (#7 in 2001), and The Best Of (A’s, B’s & Rarities) (#32 in 2005), but also studio album Dare peaked at #16 on a reissue in 2006. Depeche Mode had a number 1 with their Goodnight Lovers EP in 2002, and then had multiple hits with reissues in 2004. Plenty of other artists have never had a single hit on there.

If all this makes the Budget Album chart sound like some kind of purgatory, where badly behaved singles and albums are sent to live out the rest of their days – well, that’s because it is, pretty much.

Next time: midweek charts and artist charts.

This series of posts owes a lot to the following sources which weren’t directly credited above:

Record Companies – Virgin Records

All of the major labels are big enough that they have, at times at least, been able to boast an impressive range of artists, but few are as interesting as Virgin Records. Formed in 1972 by Richard Branson, Simon Draper, Nik Powell, and Tom Newman, they went on to become one of the most influential labels in the music business.

Famously, Mike Oldfield‘s Tubular Bells was the label’s first release, and in the early 1970s, they became well known for their prog rock releases, also becoming an early home to Tangerine Dream, but then in 1977, hit the mainstream by signing the Sex Pistols. Major releases from Culture Club, The Human League, Simple Minds, XTC, and others followed, making the label a household name throughout the 1980s.

That was essentially it – in 1992, Richard Branson sold Virgin to EMI, and while the list of signed artists continued to grow, including such huge names as The Future Sound of London, the Spice Girls, and Meat Loaf, its heyday as an influential brand really seems to have passed by this time.

You can read more about Virgin Records here:
https://www.virginrecords.com/

Pet Shop Boys – Yes etc

When they get things right, they get things very right, and when Pet Shop Boys released Yes, a decade ago this week, they were slap bang in the middle of one of those periods. Ironically, the fans were a little unsure of Yes, initially finding the overproduced and happy sound of Love etc a bit hard to handle, but the acceptance of Outstanding Contribution at the BRIT Awards just a few weeks before this album’s release proves to me that they were at the top of their game. And Yes, by the way, is brilliant.

What nobody could dispute was that This used to be the future is up there among their finer works – so good, in fact, that it’s tempting to wonder why it wasn’t included on disc 1 of Yes. Instead, it launches the second disc with some deep and dark electronic sounds. After a very lengthy introduction, Neil Tennant turns up with a brilliantly uplifting vocal, singing half of a verse before a strangely familiar voice turns up. Is that Chris Lowe? It is! Great to hear him taking part in a duet! Then Tennant delivers the chorus, and then another familiar voice – it’s Phil Oakey, of all people! It doesn’t need anything else – clearly this is going to be a great track.

I do understand, actually, why this wasn’t on Yes – it’s a slightly silly sidestep, which sees Tennant and Lowe collaborating with one of their heroes and really just having fun. The fact that it’s brilliant isn’t really the point – a lot of Pet Shop Boys‘ most cunningly hidden b-sides are among their best tracks (Always, I’m looking at you), and in a way that’s always been part of their charm. But I do wonder where this fits – maybe in a parallel universe Electronic didn’t drift off into the awful rock of Twisted Tenderness, and instead became the synth supergroup who released things like This Used to Be the Future. I can dream.

Which isn’t a bad idea, actually – the rest of Yes etc is made up of broad dub versions of album tracks, starting appropriately with the Magical Dub of More than a dream. This is one of the best tracks on the main album, although you don’t really get a lot of that here. In a way the trouble with dub mixes is that you really need to know the original pretty well already. So this is great, but it is a little lacking in context if you listen to it on its own.

Strangely, that isn’t true of The Stars and the Sun Dub of Pandemonium, which is immediately brilliant. It pretty much only includes that one lyric (“the stars and the sun”) and yet somehow reflects the original track more than adequately – it’s less experimental, which you somewhat expect of a dub version, but entirely brilliant.

As with the originals, these are, for the most part, excellent versions – apparently Pet Shop Boys were channelling The Human League‘s interesting Love and Dancing remix album here, but I think they go beyond it slightly – while that one has more big hits on it, that’s also its downfall somewhat, coming across at times like more of an extended medley than a remix album.

Next here comes the Left of Love Dub of The way it used to be, which falls somewhere between the preceding two in terms of how easily accessible the track is. If you know how great the original song is, though, it’s easy to love this dub. Which is the point really – you wouldn’t own this remix if you didn’t own the album already, so that’s fine.

I think I’m unusual in not entirely loving All Over the World – somehow it never quite works for me – the classical and electronic elements seem shoehorned together, and the vocal doesn’t quite fit either. The poorly named This is a Dub version is faithful in this regard, anyway – it’s fine, but doesn’t quite work as a remix for me.

When a dub version works well, it reminds you why you love the original track, without giving you too many clues. Vulnerable is my favourite track on Yes, and the Public Eye Dub does exactly this for me – it’s representative of the original without being the original. It still contains all the lovelier instrumental elements, such as the guitar twirls and huge synth backing, but it pulls them apart, extends them, and is just generally great.

The promo singles from this album include a number of dub versions of Love etc, which is more likely than not where the idea for the Yes etc bonus disc came from in the first place. The Beautiful Dub is probably the best of these, retaining the huge bouncy synths of the original, with just surges of vocal every few beats. It’s got everything – there’s even a retro eighties breakdown in the middle. Beautiful is an appropriate name.

So Yes etc is entirely unnecessary – it’s nowhere near as interesting as even the worse of the Disco albums, but if you appreciate the original versions, it’s also entirely great. Don’t you wish everybody would package their albums with a bonus disc of dub versions? No, me neither, but you can’t deny that it’s an interesting idea.

I thought you might struggle to find this now, since it’s a limited edition and there’s a much newer version of Yes that doesn’t include it, but it seems Yes etc may still be available, if you poke around.

The Human League – Reproduction

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of The Human League‘s groundbreaking debut album Reproduction. It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this release, and yet at the time of its release, it was largely overlooked – it didn’t even hit the charts until its 1981 reissue, and history has not been especially kind to it either.

It opens with Almost Medieval, with a typically daft early Phil Oakey vocal which casts modern-day imagery against things from the olden days. It’s true, as he says, that there wasn’t a speed limit for stagecoaches, but it’s also true that they didn’t turn up until the thirteenth century, which makes them very late medieval. This is, though, early Human League at their best – beautifully played electronics with brilliantly daft vocals.

As the much later compilation The Golden Hour of the Future proved, The Human League had been actively making music for several years already by the time this album appeared, and sadly there’s little evidence of that era here. The polished version of Circus of Death that appears here is as close as we get, and it captures much of the experimental mood of those days. This was originally the b-side to Being Boiled, which sadly didn’t make it onto Reproduction, instead being remixed for the following year’s Travelogue.

The Path of Least Resistance follows, with some lovely experimental production – half of the sounds are hidden way over in the left channel at the beginning, but somehow it doesn’t grate too much. It lacks the catchy hooks that the first two tracks had, though, and so doesn’t quite inspire to the same degree.

Then comes Blind Youth, bringing in heavy glam styling, which might not have been particularly surprising in 1979, but in 2019 it seems to come out of nowhere. There’s something brilliantly unpolished about it – this is almost punk, just without the spitting and swearing.

The Word Before Last defies interpretation on every level. It’s nice to have a track that’s a little gentler than its predecessors, but I’ve no idea what it’s meant to be about. Anyway, the dystopian, oddly futuristic feel of the album continues.

Side A closes with the entirely brilliant Empire State Human, which was actually the only single from this album, although it didn’t actually hit the chart until the following year, when it was reissued and repackaged with Only After Dark from the second album. That’s a real shame, because this is a brilliant track, and makes a great single too, but the charts in 1979 were probably too busy with other things.

If Side A was a little odd, Side B is totally bizarre, showing us the weirder side of The Human League‘s early experimentation, much of which consisted of obscure or unusual cover versions. It opens with the sweetly soft, rippling Morale…, which builds into a very long, beautifully electronic cover version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. It’s nice to hear the whole band pitching in on vocals at this point, anyway.

Once that’s done with, we get a lengthy medley of two tracks that nobody had heard yet anyway – Austerity and Girl One. Honestly, this is a bit of a mess – they had much better material in their vaults at this point, so it’s difficult to understand why they persevered with this pair.

But the album is already pretty much over at this point – all that remains is Zero as a Limit, still sonically interesting, but much less challenging as a listen than some of its predecessors, although the ever-evolving tempo is a little difficult to handle at times. It was hardly going to win many fans, though – it’s gentle and a pleasant album closer, but nothing particularly special.

So The Human League‘s debut is an interesting oddity – occasionally great, occasionally not so great, but always interesting to listen to. And it’s one of just a handful of artefacts of that brilliant era in the group’s early history – the time when three Yorkshiremen were messing around with synthesisers that sounded like motorbikes. Essential listening.

This album has been reissued a few times, but the 2003 remaster is probably the best mastered, and also coincidentally the most widely available.

Stowaway Awards 2019

So now we finally find out who the winners of the all-important 2019 Stowaways are!

Best Single

Already announced just before the new year, the winner of the Best Single award this year goes to Ladytron, for The Animals.

Best Album

  • Dubstar “One”
  • Front Line Assembly “WarMech”
  • The Future Sound of London “My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Equinoxe Infinity”
  • The Radiophonic Workshop “Possum”

The winner is: The Future Sound of London

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • The Beloved “Reissue Series”
  • The Human League “Secrets”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Planet Jarre”
  • Soft Cell “Keychains & Snowstorms – The Singles”
  • Yazoo “Four Pieces”

The winner is: The Human League

Best Artist

  • The Future Sound of London
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Ladytron
  • The Presets
  • The Radiophonic Workshop

The winner is: The Radiophonic Workshop

Best Live Act

  • Erasure
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  • Sparks

The winner is: Sparks

Outstanding Contribution

  • David Bowie
  • Everything But The Girl
  • The Future Sound of London
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield

The winner is: David Bowie

Stowaway Awards 2019 – Nominations

Who will win in the all-important Stowaway Awards this year? Here are the nominations:

Best Album

  • Dubstar “One”
  • Front Line Assembly “WarMech”
  • The Future Sound of London “My Kingdom (Re-Imagined)”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Equinoxe Infinity”
  • The Radiophonic Workshop “Possum”

Best Reissue / Compilation

  • The Beloved “Reissue Series”
  • The Human League “Secrets”
  • Jean-Michel Jarre “Planet Jarre”
  • Soft Cell “Keychains & Snowstorms – The Singles”
  • Yazoo “Four Pieces”

Best Artist

  • The Future Sound of London
  • Jean-Michel Jarre
  • Ladytron
  • The Presets
  • The Radiophonic Workshop

Best Live Act

  • Erasure
  • Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
  • Sparks

Outstanding Contribution

  • David Bowie
  • Everything But The Girl
  • The Future Sound of London
  • Hot Chip
  • Leftfield