Saturday, November 27, 2010

Heaven 17 @ The HMV Institute, Friday 26th November 2010

Almost every band under the sun is doing this ‘let’s play one of our best albums in one night’ things now, but Heaven 17 have more reason than most to revisit their crowning glory. Why? Well, back when they originally released it (1981) they didn’t play live...partly it seemed to have been down to a refusal to do what was expected and partly down to the fact that the cutting edge technology of the day was less reliable than a cheque from the Irish government. Now most mobile phones would be up to the job so, thirty years late, here’s Penthouse and Pavement in all its vintage synth funk glory. Of course 1981 was a completely different time to the world we’re all living in today. There was a recession on, loads of political unrest, a vicious Tory government, religious extremism, rising unemployment, deeply unpopular wars and all we had to look forward to was a royal wedding. How times change eh? Hmmmm.

I’ve been a fan of the band for years (30 to be precise) and I’ve seen ‘em a few times before but this is the first gig I’ve been too since they’ve gone and got all trendy again (courtesy of bands like La Roux citing them as a major influence). So, amongst the 40 somethings was a smattering of trendy young thangs here too, most of whom probably weren’t born when the band went on a lengthy hiatus back in 1988.

Before the gig proper got going we were treated to some trendy arty visuals (this multi-media element continued throughout Heaven 17's set, with different visuals for each track)and a bit of DJ’ing from Mark Jones who, bearing in mind the target demographic kept his selection firmly placed in the 80’s. Step forward a bit of Blancmange, some early Soft Cell and a slice of Human League. Ahhhh they don’t make ‘em like that anymore. Suitably warmed up and basking in a nostalgic glow Heaven 17 kicked off their set (as per the album’s running order) with the rallying cry of ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing’. As fresh sounding today as it was back in 1981 the mix of funk and synth is still capable of getting more than a few asses moving...even if those asses are a pound or two heavier than they use to be. Having rejected fascism, groovy or otherwise, ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ took the funk up a notch and, once again, I was struck by just how fresh it all sounded. Bearing in mind I’ve been listening to this album, on and off for three decades, it’s as testament to just how ahead of their time they (and this album) were. Of course there’s another factor at play here as Glenn reminded us “We’ve waited 30 years to play this live”. “Sound’s like a new album to us” quipped Martyn. Yep, remarkably it does.

After running through Side One there was plenty of time for some bonus stuff (bear in mind the original album was an economical 38 minutes long), taking in ‘Ball Of Confusion’ (a BEF track originally sung by Tina Turner), Glenn’s take on the Campbell classic ‘Witchita Line Man’ and a cheeky acoustic version of the League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’ ...“Don’t tell Phil” warned Glenn...oh, bugger, let’s hope he doesn’t read this then. Hell hath no fury like Oakey on the rampage...remember what he did to his hair?

The Moroder-tastic ‘Geisha Boys and Temple Girls’ synth kicked off Side Two, the influence on La Roux screamingly obvious here. The relatively slow ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’ gave Glenn a moment to catch his breath before leading a mass He-La-Hu along to ‘At The Height of Fighting’. The last two tracks on the original album ‘Song With No Name’ and ‘We’re Going To Live For a Very Long Time’ (pure Human League) aren’t the strongest in my humble opinion but, of course, there was a lot more to come, including the Teutonic yuppie anthem ‘I’m Your Money, released at the same time but not included on the album for some reason.

“What shall we do now?” asked Glenn feigning confusion “We’ve run out of tracks”. There were one or two shout-outs for obscure H17/League numbers but they wheeled out one of the band’s best numbers (from ‘The Luxury Gap’, Penthouse’s follow up) ‘Crushed By The Wheels of Industry’, arguably as relevant today as it was back then. If ever a nation needed liberation then we’re living in it...whooo whooo! After the sophisticated sythnpop of ‘Let Me go’ I was flung back to the dim and distant past and memories of listening to the next track ‘Come Live With Me’ on 7 inch vinyl and marvelling at how BOTH the song’s characters (“I was 37, you were 17”) seemed reeeeeeeeeally old. Ha! The folly of youth. 37’s not old. Is it? Oh balls.

Entering the last segment of the show the band began safely enough with the big crowd pleaser, a slightly remixed ‘Temptation’ with Billie Godfrey doing a surprisingly good job of filling Carol Kenyon’s boots. Next up a relatively new song ‘I’m Gonna Make You Fall In Love With Me’ (from 2007’s album Before / After), a little more Europop than the Heaven 17 of old but still worthy of set inclusion, if only to show that this ain’t just a nostalgia fest. This was backed up by a moving rendition of The Associates’ classic (and I use that word wisely) ‘Party Fears Two’ that Glenn first performed at a tribute to the late, great Billy MacKenzie in 2007. Slowed down to a funereal pace it moved Glenn, and I daresay a fair few members of the audience, to tears. Powerful stuff. We still weren’t done though. There was just enough time for another cheeky League tribute, this time ‘Being Boiled’ was dusted off and, blow me, despite being the oldest number played tonight (ignoring the Line Man cover) it still sounded the most futuristic.

I was expecting tonight to be good, after all Penthouse and Pavement is widely acknowledged as a classic album, but what kept surprising me (as I’ve said at least a dozen times already...but us old folk do tend to repeat ourselves) is just how damn fresh it sounded. The joy that Glenn and Martyn got from playing these tracks – and they both looked like a dog with two that’s two dogs with four dicks...that’s a lot of dicks...was more than matched by the reaction of the near capacity crowd. “We’ll see you all next year for ‘The Luxury Gap’” Martyn joked as they band left the stage. You know what, on the strength of this show I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that’s just what they did. You’d find me in the same place, front row, beaming my face off again. After all the memory of this gig’s going to live for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time, for a very long time...

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