Back in the 80s it was fashionable for companies to give the impression of grandeur by advertising the big city names where they had offices, you know, Milan, New York, Paris etc.
Not many companies would be as keen to plug the fact that they also had offices in places like Sheffield and Edinburgh. But together with London, Sheffield and Edinburgh were the place names, which adorned the album covers of Heaven 17; the Sheffield synthpop group born from the collapse of the original Human League. The ‘Sheffield, Edinburgh, London’ thing was a bit of a joke but also indicative of the band’s critical views on eighties corporatism.
At the same time the term British Electric Foundation was also appearing on the covers of their albums. BEF was the production company of Heaven 17’s Martin Ware. BEF released studio collaborations with the likes of Sandie Shaw, Tina Turner and Green Gartside on LPs such as ‘Music of Quality and Distinction Vol 1’.
Despite Martin Ware’s productivity, BEF never stepped into the limelight and only ever did a handful of shows.
That is until now. Embarking on their first ever UK tour, BEF, alongside Heaven 17, were to star in a show of two halves. In the first half Heaven 17 were to perform a special electronic version of their debut classic, Penthouse and Pavement.
Whilst in the second half BEF were to perform a special set of covers. Ware would be joined by a selection of artists: Mari Wilson, Glen Matlock (Sex Pistols), Peter Hooton (The Farm), and of course Glenn Gregory.
Would these three elements, Heaven 17, BEF and guests, be a show of grandeur too?
The night starts off with Ware and Gregory standing in front of an eerie black set, lit by Hitchcock type stage lights and pulsing lasers. Actually, the set seems quite full considering the band consists of only two keyboard players and two backing singers.
They start off proceedings, unsurprisingly, since it is the opening track of the album, with a strong and freshly mixed rendition of ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing’ to a seated audience, most of whom look like they were in their teens or twenties when Penthouse and Pavement was released.
After a little coercion from the band the crowd get to their feet, and as the band move through the numbers, they grow in appreciation of the music.
Although Penthouse and Pavement was released in 1981, it wasn’t performed live by the band until 2010. During their first live rendition, at the Magna Centre in Rotherham, the funky rhythms were enhanced with live instruments. On this occasion the music is strictly synths. But the music sounds fresh, the lyrics are still relevant and the performance energetic.
The crowd warm to the personas of Ware and Gregory, who pounce on every opportunity to tell a story and share a joke. Gregory talks of family tales, explains how and where the album was written, and talks about sharing a studio with Human League. Human League worked in the studio during the day, and Heaven 17 at night, “very Sheffield.”
It could have all gone wrong. From the wailing synth sound that featured so prominently on 80’s concert film Stop Making Sense, to the hi-energy techno beats that continued on the ‘second side’ with such tracks at Let’s All Make a Bomb, this was electronic music from the 80’s. This could have sounded incredibly old.
But it worked. The sound was brought up to date and suited the surroundings, not only the lyrical landscape, but the city too. Hailing from the Steel City, the birth place of the electronic industrial sound, the Sheffield City Hall seemed a fitting place to air a live and updated electronic version of the album.
The set closed with the first song Ware wrote. Being Boiled, the Human League’s first single. This was the climax, the hook that left you desiring BEF and guests who were to come on the other side of the break.
After the interval the lights dimmed and Ware explained the history of BEF. One after the other, the guests, were warmly welcomed on stage by Ware. It starts with Hooton, and works its way through Wilson, Matlock and Gregory. Oddly, none of the tracks are BEF ones. Hooton does Altogether Now, Matlock does Pretty Vacant. It feels like a professional karaoke concert.
The electronic music seems overtly programmed as the guests perform strongly. Matlock is the standout figure, with his hi-energy. Marie Wilson’s voice is still exquisite, and Hooton as ever the activist, as he reminisces the bygone ‘Justice for the 96’ concerts.
With the appearance of Glenn Gregory the mood changes to how it was before the break. The chemistry between performers returned and the music regained its edge. Moving through Bowie’s Boys Keep Swinging, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and Temptation, it was as if a spark had been reignited.
It was the eerie rendition of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling that really surprised. Ware and Gregory sang together to sparse and haunting music. The track verges on being classic, but then Gregory gets down on one knee and Ware pats him on the head, the comedy in keeping with the karaoke feel of the second half, but incongruous with the greatness of what they could have achieved.
But with Temptation, Heaven 17’s big chart hit, they did achieve it. Sounding like a 12” remix straight from the vinyl days of the 80’s, the couple of backing singers were let loose, given the stage and the opportunity to sing solo. As the music hit hi-tempo, and the smoke rose up from the stage, Gregory came in and it was a job well done.
The night is rounded off by all the guests coming on stage to perform Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ in memory of Colin Vearncombe. Vearncombe, the man behind Black,was killed in a car accident earlier in the year. He had been lined up to play on the next BEF tour.
This certainly was a night of two halves. Heaven 17 offered everything you could have wanted; serious music, delivered with panache and style. BEF was friendly and fun.
If the three elements were to be place names, like the 80’s fashion, Heaven 17 was the big city, whereas BEF and guests were provincial towns.
Heaven 17 and BEF performed at Sheffield City Hall, on the 25th October 2016