For a band that famously didn’t play gigs back in the day Heaven 17 (now just Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware) have certainly made up for it recently, in fact this is probably their third Birmingham gig in as many years. With a new album currently in production (their first in 12 years) it probably won’t be too long before they’re back again either. I’m not complaining, after all they were responsible for one of the early 80s biggest and best hits courtesy of Temptation plus a dozen or so other bone fide synth and soul classics. Whereas previous tours have tended to focus on a particular album this one’s an unashamed trawl through pretty much everything that Martyn Ware’s done which, of course, opens up some of his previous bands material (the early incarnation of The Human League) too. It’s the first time they’ve played the Town Hall, a venue I’ve grown to love again after a few dodgy experiences (mainly due to the audiences to be fair to the old place) and I was pondering whether it would be a seated or non seated gig. It was seated. This was perhaps an odd choice given the nature of the music (not sure if the band decides this or not, I’m guessing they do) and after a few tracks a fair number of people stood up anyway. Still, seating arrangements aside there was a decent turnout by the time the band came onstage (no support act so it was a very early start...a missed opportunity really, local bands Racing or Greg Bird and Flamingo Flame would've been great supports).
The Town Hall’s a magnificent space which is both its strength and occasionally Achilles heel. Being an electronic band Heaven 17 perhaps lacks the oomph and range of instruments that would best suit such a huge awe inspiring room and for the first few numbers in particular the sound was a touch ‘tinny’, especially up in ‘the gods’. Whoever was doing the sound clearly got on top of things as best they could however and by the time the workers’ revolt anthem Crushed By The Wheels of Industry rolled along things were noticeably better. It has to be said that Glenn and Martyn perhaps aren’t helping themselves though. The addition of guitar and drums for instance would really fatten up the overall sound, especially when they’re playing bigger venues like this one. Just a thought chaps. Play To Win saw most of the crowd of 40...50...60-somethings leap to their feet (as best they/we could...dodgy hips and all) and many remained upright for the rest of the set. Speaking of which it was a pretty diverse selection with everything from Dive (off the band’s last album Bigger Than America) to The Black Hit Of Space (from The Human League’s second album Travelogue...a mere 34 years ago) getting an airing. The latter still sounds incredibly futuristic, like Dr Who (the proper Dr Who...Tom Baker...not one of these modern imposters) in an indie disco on some far away planet, and Glenn does a decent job of replicating Phil Oakey’s suitably otherworldly and ominous delivery. Returning to Heaven 17’s back catalogue the homage to ‘mutually assured destruction’ (a cold war tactic that basically meant if one side launched a missile strike at you then you’d bomb them off the face of the earth too...kaboom...goodbye planet earth) Let's All Make A Bomb makes a mockery of anyone who says that music from the 80s was insubstantial fluff (step forward Danny Baker on a recent TV show), clearly they ain’t listening to lyrics like this. Next up Come Live With Me remains one of my favourite Heaven 17 songs, partially because when it first came out I was 12 or 13 and the thought of being 17 (the age of one of the characters in the song) let alone 37 (the age of the other) was terribly exciting.
Now that both ages are but a distant memory it works the other way, taking on more of a poignant feel (even if the theme of the song is basically an older man nobbing a young girl...ahem...hmmmm...not used the word nobbing since I was 12 either). It was all the more poignant looking down on the sea of bald heads bobbing gently to the music. Lordy, when did we all get so old? As if to ram home that very point the next track plunged even further back in time courtesy of a cover of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling with Martyn stepping out from behind his theramin and keyboard to belt out the song with Glenn (The Rightsynth Brothers anyone?). “He’s my Valentine” quipped Glenn giving Martyn a cheeky peck as the song ended. Awwwwwww bless ‘em.
We Live So Fast (surely a template for techno?) rattled along at a fair old pace before the sparse monotone of I’m Your Money (one of Heaven 17’s earliest songs and a strangely prescient track given the later 80s ‘loadsamoney’ culture) and a perfectly serviceable glam and synth cover of Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging.
Ever wanted to know Glenn’s and Martyn’s favourite Heaven 17 song? Have a guess. Nope. Guess again. Nope...wrong! It’s actually Let Me Go. An oddly low key choice in many ways but again another fine example of how sophisticated 80s pop could be, both lyrically and musically. If you’ve ever experienced a break up or divorce I can imagine it’s pretty devastating. Still tonight’s for the loved up so the crowd happily claps along to arguably one of the band’s bleakest tracks. Temptation ends the main set and it’s now such an iconic tune that it struggles to avoid going a bit karaoke in places. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again (and no offence to the two female vocalists tonight who were excellent) but this song really needs Carol Kenyon’s voice. There’s something unique about her vocal on the original that I always miss whenever I hear it live. Also, and I could be in the minority here, I could do without all the remixing and fiddling about on this song. Why mess with perfection? Resist the...er...temptation next time, that’s what I say.
After the traditional off again and on again nonsense the endlessly effervescent Glenn bounds back out with a “Let’s keep in the party mood...c’mon!” and launches into Penthouse and Pavement. Again this is another number that would benefit hugely from more live instruments. Where’s the funky guitarist that was so crucial on the original?
Okay, so it costs more to have one but it would be soooooo worth it. There’s a club called Only After Dark in Brum that’s devoted to all things 80s and its named after an old Human League cover of a Mick Ronson track. Clearly a number of Only After Dark-ers are here tonight and this rarely played number (I think the band’s only ever played it a handful of times) get’s a huge whoop of appreciation.
Things ended where they began with the first song Martyn and Phil Oakey ever wrote together, Being Boiled (“Listen to the voice of Buddha, Saying stop your sericulture”...you don’t get that kind of lyric from One Direction eh?). It’s yet another one of those songs that sounds like it’s been beamed back from the future...albeit it via Sheffield. The past never sounded so futuristic.
That was that. It was all over remarkably quickly...and early. Given the cost of the tickets (£22) and the fact that the band’s got such a huge back catalogue a set lasting 1hour and 10 minutes seems a little tight. No one seemed particularly bothered by that though, besides we could all get home to our Horlicks before 10pm. ‘Going forward’ (as wanky politicians and failing Chief Executives always say) I’d like to see Heaven 17 play more club gigs. If they’re going to stick with the modest two keyboard set up this really suits smaller venues better and, with a new album in the pipeline, it might be nice to try to connect with a younger audience too. After all most of their existing fans ain’t 17 anymore...