Two years after their last major tour which saw them revisiting their debut album Penthouse and Pavement Heaven 17 are back on the road showcasing its follow up, The Luxury Gap. Developing the sound they’d pioneered on their first release The Luxury Gap added an even more sophisticated soul sheen to the mix with impressive results. The band’s biggest selling album shifted over 300,000 copies in its first year of release and spawned the ruddy massive hit single Temptation. Of course they famously neglected to play that, or indeed any other of the tracks from the album live back in the day so, as with the Penthouse and Pavement tour, this is one of the first times that most of the audience will have heard them ‘au naturel’.
It’s kind of nice in a way knowing the majority of the set list before a gig starts and when you’ve been playing the album on and off for three decades (jeez, where does the time go eh?) hearing every track is pretty much like greeting an old friend. Kicking off with the marvellous Sheffield disco synth of Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry a suited and booted Gregory was in fine voice, clearly relishing the line “it’s time for a party, liberation for the nation”. Frankly it couldn’t be more appropriate for a country deep in the grip of recession could it eh? Crushed is a huge great sledgehammer of a track, clearly shaped by the band’s industrial hometown but benefitting from an upbeat soul ‘n’ funk feel at the same time. In fact if Chic came from Sheffield I reckon this is what they’d have sounded like. T’Freak anyone?
Listening to The Luxury Gap live it still sounds remarkably fresh. Perhaps, as with its predecessor, that’s partially down to the recent re-emergence of the 80’s synth sound by bands like Hot Chip but it’s also thanks to the sheer joyful exuberance of Gregory, Ware and female vocalist Billie Godfrey (she left it to the end of the show to reveal that she was actually born in Birmingham) who plays a huge role in these live gigs even ignoring her show stopping turn on Temptation. Yep, track 5 on the album is the one Heaven 17 song that pretty much everyone in the world knows and Billie vamped it up brilliantly this evening, playfully flirting with Gregory before casually sidling over to Marsh whilst belting it out like a woman possessed.
It’s always going to be hard to match Carol Kenyon’s original vocal and perhaps it’s silly to compare the two. They’re a world apart but in different ways equally impressive, with Godfrey’s better trained vocal making a fine substitute for Kenyon’s more naturally soulful version.
As a 13 year old the lyrics of Come Live With Me had a totally different meaning to the one they have now. “I was 37 you were 17” sang Glenn with a slightly wistful look in his eye. When he first sang this lyric he was in his mid 20s and 37 must’ve seemed an age away. I guess it still does but both he and the majority of tonight’s audience are now looking back at it as it rapidly fades into the distance. Any misty eyes, greying hair and wrinkles were quickly forgotten though thanks to a lounge-tastic Lady Ice and Mr Hex, a song that Glenn admitted that they thought they’d never play live but which works really well, again partially down to Godfrey’s embellishments. After a suitably frantic We Live So Fast, far more relevant today than it was back in ’83 (as anyone who spent hours trying to load Hungry Horace Goes Skiing on a ZX Spectrum will recognise) the run through The Luxury Gap ended with The Best Kept Secret. It’s not one of their best known tracks but its easy listening vocal harmonies and understated melody show the more sophisticated side of Heaven 17 that perhaps many people just aren’t aware of. That’s actually the overwhelming feeling from this live reboot of The Luxury Gap. It was and is a remarkably sophisticated sounding album boldly attempting to address everything from the downtrodden workers’ lot in life (Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry) through to love, life and loss (Let Me Go, Come Live With Me and The Best Kept Secret)...satisfying both mind and booty at the same time. The fact that it sprang from what was a city in serious decline (as were most post industrial cities at the time) makes it even more remarkable. Pretty much all the tracks have been buffed up a tiny bit, benefitting from better technology and giving the odd nod to more modern beats, but for anyone who grew up with this album superglued in their Sony Walkman tonight was simply Heaven (17).
But wait a minute. There’s more. A lot more in fact. After a brief break to wipe the sweat from their brows (Ware impressively remained in a full suit for the whole set like some kind of Alfred Synth-cock) the band cut loose with an eclectic mix of tracks kicking off with Ware and Gregory duetting on the Human League’s desolate cover version of The Righteous Brothers You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. For the first time this evening Ware came out from behind his keyboard and joined Glenn centre stage. Gregory revealed at the end that it’s only the second time he’s ever done that whilst Ware noted that he last played the song in Birmingham with Phil Oakey 32 years ago but he’s “got a new boyfriend now”. Okay, so Glenn and Ware aren’t really an item but the closeness and friendship between the two was especially evident on this song. Bless ‘em. Again that made a huge difference to the feel of the show. Even after 30 plus years together they’re still clearly mates who actually enjoy playing live as opposed to bands who maybe do it to top up their pension funds.
(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang and a new more upbeat (house-y style keyboard and vocals in places) version of Geisha Boys and Temple Girls lifted the tempo again then it was back to the early days with a rare outing for early Heaven 17 single I’m Your Money. It’s as basic as the band ever got and closer to the minimalistic synth of early League. As if to underline this point they played a couple of pre-pop League tracks too, Growing A Baby and Being Boiled with a funky as hell (and one of the show’s highlights) Penthouse and Pavement sandwiched between them.
As an encore Glenn reprised his version of Associates’ Party Fears Two, here re-imagined as a funereal lament, entirely suitable given the tragic suicide of the band’s lead singer Billy Mackenzie (who worked with H17 on Music Of Quality & Distinction Volume One) back in 1997, a loss that’s still clearly very raw to him.
Poignant stuff. You can’t finish a Heaven 17 show with a tear in your eye though can you eh? Time to roll out Temptation again, this time a “Birmingham nightclub version”, according to Glenn. Beginning with a bit of a Balearic beat and Godfrey reaching notes only audible to dogs with hearing aids the crowd whip themselves into the kind of frenzy that only the middle aged on a rare night out can muster. After a bit of a Love to Love You Baby mash up the song got back on the track and, for the next 5 minutes, the room was full of teenagers again. With a night as much fun as this one they can lead me into temptation any time they want...