Heaven 17 frontman Glenn Gregory talks to Dave Woodhall.
Famous for never playing live during their eighties breakthrough years, Heaven 17 have discovered the joys of life on the road and are touring with Blancmange next month, playing the Copper Rooms in Coventry on 24th November.
“We were thinking of not touring this year, 2018 is the 35th anniversary of The Luxury Gap and we’re planning quite a big tour for that, but we thought it was a shame not to do anything so we decided to tour with Blancmange, who we worked with a few years ago and the bands get on really well. We decided to go for smaller, more club-style venues to keep it more intimate. We can do different versions of some of the songs more in keeping with where we’re playing.
“We’re still relevant, musically and lyrically. Something like Fascist Groove Thang could have been written yesterday, it says so much about the world now. We played a gig in New York two weeks ago, it was completely sold out and it felt like that time in 1981 when we did Studio 54 before it closed down, everyone was there and the audience was totally behind us.
“It doesn’t matter now, with Spotify and itunes and streaming, when music came out. You don’t have something physical like that old bit of cardboard you had when you bought a record. There was this old shop in Sheffield called Rare & Racey which sold second-hand records and books. I’d go in there and find all sorts of stuff, and it had that old sort of cardboard, damp smell so when you got something from there you knew it was old and that doesn’t happen now. That’s one positive that has come out of new technology. There’s no ‘old’ music.”
You famously didn’t tour back when the band were at their commercial peak. Did that help you to maintain some sort of mystique?
“It probably did. It definitely helped the band keep going now rather that if we’d been doing tours constantly since 1981. We only really started playing live in about 1998 and we’re getting good at it now. We played in LA recently, at a big festival at Long Beach and all the new bands, really great bands were playing and it felt weird how many bands came up to us and were really looking forward to hearing our set.”
This might be my rockist past, but for bands like the Clash and Thin Lizzy, being on the road helped the street gang image whereas Heaven 17 always seemed more like a collective than an orthodox band.
“You’re right. In a way it never felt like a band. It’s s a very close knit thing; I’ve known Martin (Ware) since I was 14 and he was sixteen or something like that but computer-based music went together with new ideas like not playing live and collaborating with other artists. It’s normal now but it wasn’t at the time. BEF was set up almost like a record label and Heaven 17 was just a project that became the bigger thing. It didn’t do us any harm doing it that way.”
Temptation was, to me anyway, the perfect pop song. Were you, and I’m sorry but I can’t use any other word, tempted to think to think ‘We can’t beat that, let’s quit while we’re ahead.’?
“Not in the sense of giving up completely, no. What we didn’t want to do was another one like that. We did give up on that idea because it was one of those songs and no matter where you play it, in a club or in front of 30,000 it always takes the roof off.
“I did Glastonbury some years ago with La Roux. She asked me to do Temptation with her and then Florence from and the Machine said she wanted to do it with me. I had to say that I was already doing it already. I wondered what I was doing there with something like forty thousand people watching La Roux and there I was walking on stage. She introduced me as a big influence, Temptation kicked in and this roar went up as though David Bowie or someone had come on stager. It went down an absolute storm.”
You said that a lot of your music still has relevance but there are some themes that haven’t exactly stood the test of time. A lot of people for example, wouldn’t know what the Wheels of Industry are, or were.
“In a way, yes. That song was about the way Sheffield was falling apart, with the steelworks and the coalfields under Thatcher and the Tories, i guess that one is slightly archaic. But sadly there are still plenty of Fascist Grooves. We’ve been asked a couple of times to re-release that one and change the words to include new events but it still does what it says anyway. Let’s All Make a Bomb as well, that’s completely relevant. It was written when we were worried about the world blowing up, now we have North Korea and Trump at it hammer and tongs. It’s come full circle.”
You talk about Sheffield and the situation there but it must have been odd to go from that and do Top of the Pops, with its superficial glitz and glam, if you like the ultimate Thatcherite scene.
“It was but we didn’t really pay much attention to that sort of thing. We didn’t hang out and go to the clubs with the rest of them. The first Top of the Pops we did, one of the presenters was being really abusive to the audience off-camera, ordering them around and I told him how rude he was being. Even at that point we were in it, but not within it.”
It must be a bit frustrating to have people only wanting to know about things that happened thirty-odd years ago. Have you got any new material to talk about?
“Yes. Martin and I have finally writing again. We’ve got five or six tracks finished for a new album. It takes along time because we both have other things we work on but it’s coming along.”
Finally, you play smaller venues but you also do those Rewind-style tours with some of your contemporaries. I have to ask this, are there any old enmities still brewing? Is there any ‘Oi, Kemp, you stole my eyeliner in 1985?’ scandal kicking off?”
“Sorry. All that water has flown way under the bridge. It was a bit of a battle and you wanted your record to sell more than the next person but it’s different now. You realise that you’re just happy to be doing it. There’s no pressure, you don’t have to wear your best clothes and put on make up every time you leave the house in case there’s a photographer waiting.
“I still get recognised walking through Sheffield town centre, people shouting ‘Temp-ta-tion’ but I don’t turn out to gigs and things much. I can be working in the studio, then go off and tour for a few weeks, then it’s back to the studio. I still enjoy working”
Heaven 17 anbd Blancmange play the Copper Rooms, Coventry on Friday 24th November. Tickets