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  • Jack Starr

Heaven 17 @ Network – Sheffield Icons Return Home to Celebrate 40 Years of The Luxury Gap

Sheffield has birthed hundreds of iconic music acts, but few have reached the legendary status of Heaven 17. Formed in 1980 by former Human League founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh following a dramatic split, the group helped to define pop music in the ‘80s with their slick synth production and R&B-soul influence.

Heaven 17 are an oddity, however, in that during their heyday, they never performed live shows. ‘We thought it was a bit old-fashioned, a bit rock-n-roll – we wanted to do things the new way, with MTV and making videos’, frontman Glenn Gregory explained onstage. ‘Well, here we are, 40 years later… Yeah, we’ll admit we were wrong!’

Originally set to play the Sheffield O2 Academy, the gig had to be moved to the Network nightclub due to the original venue’s enforced closure and was split into two nights. Gregory and Ware appeared nonetheless overjoyed to be playing in their hometown in a more intimate space: ‘This is much better, I reckon!’ Gregory said. ‘We’re about 100 yards from where Penny’s nightclub was, where we always were during the Penthouse and Pavement days.’

Heaven 17, now a duo of Gregory and Ware (Marsh retired in 2007), are touring to celebrate 40 years of their platinum-selling second album, 1983’s The Luxury Gap. Opening with the heavy synths and chants of ‘Crushed by the Wheels of Industry’, it was clear that after all these years, their passion and energy hasn’t stalled a bit.

Gregory in particular was as boisterous as ever, dressed in a sparkling bomber jacket and throwing his Heaven 17 hat into the audience (along with a Heaven 17 branded tea-towel) and even threatening to take it all off, much to the audience’s amusement. ‘We’re gonna keep going until we’re dead’, he exclaimed, ‘just like Tommy Cooper. It could happen tonight!’

The setlist mostly consisted of classic tracks from the original album, with a few other big hits thrown in, including ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ and ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing’. One lucky super-fan by the name of ‘Sumo’ even got a song played just for him: the 1981 single ‘I’m Your Money’. According to Gregory, Sumo has been to more Heaven 17 gigs than the band themselves have – ‘we were doing a gig in Canada supporting Erasure, and we couldn’t make it – but he still turned up!’

The duo are joined onstage by backing singers Kelly Barnes and Rachel Meadows, and keyboardist Flo Sabeva. The songs of The Luxury Gap were never designed to be played live, and the group have clearly put a lot of effort into the live arrangement without just relying on live backing tracks. Using the backup singers and synth arrangements, they recreate the old classics while still keeping it organic.

Along with their own classic songs, they even had time for a few covers. They played covers of Gloria Jones’ ‘Tainted Love’ (in the style of Soft Cell’s 1981 hit), and one of their favourite tracks, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’. Glenn Gregory even got out an acoustic guitar to play his rendition of ‘The Power of Love’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood, before – unexpectedly – launching into a cover of ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by their rival group The Human League. The duo joked about the rivalry onstage, reminiscing about the recording processes of Heaven 17’s Penthouse and Pavement and The Human League’s Dare, which were both recorded in the same studio on West Bar in Sheffield city centre in 1981, with Ware, Gregory and Marsh recording during the graveyard shift of 10pm-10am before their former bandmates Philip Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright would come in during the day.

Though the breakup has always been a bitter point of contention between two legendary Sheffield acts, there is clearly still some mutual respect, with Oakey also playing Heaven 17 tracks in his DJ sets. It still didn’t prevent Gregory making a light-hearted dig at Oakey for recruiting two young girls into his group, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley – ‘They were still at school!’ he laughed.

One of the clear highlights of the setlist was their biggest hit and signature song, ‘Temptation’, which was cleverly arranged in a style similar to the 1992 remix by Brothers in Rhythm, which was a number one dance-chart hit. The backup singers really brought this one to life, brilliantly emulating the original backing vocals by Carol Kenyon. Another track that really lit up the audience was ‘Come Live with Me’, a synth ballad that got almost everyone singing along.

The final track was also a real treat. ‘Being Boiled’, the debut single of The Human League (while Ware and Marsh were still members), is one of the greatest electronic songs ever recorded – when it was first released in 1978, David Bowie lauded it as ‘the future of music’, and Vince Clarke said it inspired him to form Depeche Mode. The band recreated it now, using the very same Korg 700 monophonic keyboard that Martyn Ware composed it on 45 years ago. He claims he bought the synthesiser with his first ever pay check from his computer engineering job, deciding on learning the keyboard instead of driving lessons. To this day, apparently, he still can’t drive – it seems he was too busy making music history, because ‘Being Boiled’ is as fierce, gloomy and futuristic today as it was back then.

Heaven 17 were always a band that wore their heart on their sleeve with their out-and-proud progressive views, staunchly tearing into the Thatcher government and standing up against corruption and injustice in their lyrics. All this time later, they haven’t given up on that – in fact, their resolve seems stronger than ever.

The main act was supported by Rusty Egan, an influential DJ closely associated with the New Romantic movement of the early ‘80s. He put together a great retro electronic set, combining mainstream synthpop hits from The Human League and New Order with more avant-garde mix-ups from the likes of Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle.

You can follow Heaven 17 on Instagram here. Founder Martyn Ware has released an autobiography, ‘Electronically Yours: Vol 1’, available from Little Brown Books. His podcast, ‘Electronically Yours’, featuring guests from across the world of music, is also available for streaming on Spotify here.


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