So what did HEAVEN 17 do on their first day of isolation?
Inspired by real life events happening right now, Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware have presented a video for a new song ‘Clouds Or Mountains?’. However, keen HEAVEN 17 fans may have noticed that it sounds familiar.
‘Clouds Or Mountains?’ was previewed alongside ‘Pray’, ‘Illumination’, ‘Unseen’ and ‘Captured’ as part of a work-in-progress sampler for the long awaited new HEAVEN 17 album ‘Not For Public Broadcast’, available only to subscribers of the now-discontinued Bowers & Wilkins ‘Society Of Sound’ in 2017.
Martyn Ware told The Electricity Club recently: “The origins of this song started about three years ago as an instrumental I’d done – I sent it to Glenn sometime later, and he felt inspired to put a ‘scratch’ vocal to it – we both loved the result, so Glenn created a video for it last week for fun – and this is the result”.
Clocking in at nearly six and a half minutes, Ware’s sparse electronic soundscape provides an eerie backdrop for Glenn Gregory’s impassioned baritone with a delivery that Martyn Ware says is “Very Scott Walker / David Bowie”, concurring with The Electricity Club’s assessment. And as the pace heightens, there are haunting echoes of ‘Boy Child’ by the man born Scott Engel and ‘Sunday’ from the former David Jones’ ‘Heathen’ album.
No stranger to the art of the crooner, Glenn Gregory had said previously to The Electricity Club in 2014: “The way I sing anyway, people always used to say I sounded a bit like a crooner, that baritone type thing… it’s good to have that sensibility. It’s pop, not rock. I was never into The Stones, I don’t really get them. I’d much rather listen to Scott Walker or Anthony Newley.”
In the meantime, a new boxed ‘Another Big Idea: 1996-2015’ has just been released with the lavish CD edition compiling HEAVEN 17’s two reunion albums to date ‘Bigger Than America’ and Before/After’ with an unreleased instrumental album ‘Space Age Space Music’ plus assorted remixes, re-recordings and live material.
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to HEAVEN 17
HEAVEN 17 presents the ‘Reproduction’ + ‘Travelogue’: 40th Anniversary Celebration at Sheffield City Hall (14th September) + London Roundhouse (15th September)
Meanwhile, the 2020 40th Anniversary Greatest Hits Tour includes:
Sheffield O2 Academy Sheffield (20th November), London O2 Shepherds Bush Empire (21st November), Bournemouth O2 Academy (27th November), Cardiff Tramshed (28th November), Bristol O2 Academy (4th December), Norwich Nick Rayns LCR UEA (5th December), Liverpool O2 Academy (11th December), Glasgow O2 Academy (12th December), Manchester Albert Hall (18th December), Birmingham O2 Institute (19th December)
It was obvious there was gap waiting to be filled for a quality web publication that featured the best in new and classic electronic pop without having to lower itself to using the dreaded “80s” label. The Electricity Club was it and became reality on 15th March 2010.
Electronic pop music didn’t start in that Thatcher decade and certainly didn’t end there either. So there was even an editorial diktat which banned The Electricity Club’s writers from using the lazy”80s” term as a reference. Tellingly, several PR representatives said that one of the site’s main appeals was that it avoided the whole nostalgia bent that had been presented by both virtual and physical media.
At the time, kooky female fronted keyboard based pop like LA ROUX, LITTLE BOOTS, LADYHAWKE, LADY GAGA and MARINA & THE DIAMONDS were among those touted as being the future at the time. But it proved to be something of a red herring, as those acts evolved back into what they actually were, conventional pop acts.
The Electricity Club preferred the sort of innovative synthpop as outlined in BBC4’s Synth Britannia documentary with the next generation of artists like MARSHEAUX, VILE ELECTRODES, VILLA NAH and MIRRORS more than fitting the bill and that ethos of featuring pop music using synthesizers stuck too.
Meanwhile, The Electricity Club’s portfolio expanded swiftly with key personalities such as Rusty Egan, Sarah Blackwood, Richard James Burgess, Warren Cann, Chris Payne, Thomas Dolby, John Foxx, Andy McCluskey, Neil Arthur, Alan Wilder, Mark Reeder, Gary Langan, Jori Hulkkonen, Howard Jones, Mira Aroyo, Sarah Nixey and Hannah Peel among those giving interviews to the site during its first two years.
The Electricity Club has always prided itself in asking the questions that have never usually been asked, but which fans want to know the answers to. And it was with this reputation for intelligent and well researched interviewing that in March 2011, the site was granted its biggest coup yet.
Speaking to Stephen Morris of the then-on hiatus NEW ORDER, the drummer cryptically hinted during the ensuing chat that Manchester’s finest would return by saying “I never say never really”; and that is exactly what happened in Autumn of that year and the band have been there since, as popular as ever and still making great music with the release of ‘Music Complete’ in 2015.
Monday 21st March 2011 was an interesting day that partied like it was 1981 when it saw the release of albums by DURAN DURAN, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and JOHN FOXX & THE MATHS. Also in 2011, Mute Records celebrated their influential legacy with a weekender also at London’s Roundhouse which culminated in ERASURE, YAZOO and THE ASSEMBLY performing in the same set.
Despite the ‘Brilliant’ return of ULTRAVOX, 2012 paled in comparison after such a fruitful year and several acts who were featured probably would not have gained as much coverage in more competitive periods. With pressure from outsiders as to what was hot and what was not, this was the only time The Electricity Club felt it was obliged to support a domestic scene.
But realising acts like HURTS and STRANGERS were actually just jumping on an apparent synth bandwagon and possessing more style than substance, The Electricity Club decided to change tact and only featured acts it felt truly passionate about, even if it meant upsetting the wider synth community. The reasoning being that just because a band uses a synthesizer doesn’t mean it is good.
During this time, MIRRORS sadly disbanded while VILLA NAH mutated into SIN COS TAN. But the year did see the launch of CHVRCHES who stood out from the crowd with their opening gambit ‘Lies’. With their Taylor Swift gone electro template, Lauren Mayberry and Co managed to engage an audience who didn’t know or care what a Moog Voyager was, to listen to synthpop!
2013 turned out to be one of the best years for electronic pop since its Synth Britannia heyday. What The Electricity Club achieved during this year would take up a whole article in itself… there were high profile interviews with Alison Moyet, Gary Numan and Karl Bartos while OMD released the album of the decade in ‘English Electric’. PET SHOP BOYS made up for their ‘Elysium’ misstep with ‘Electric’ while there was finally a third volume in BEF’s ‘Music Of Quality & Distinction’ covers series.
Although 2014 started tremendously with The Electricity Club being invited to meet Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür in Cologne, the year suffered next to quality of 2013.
The interviews continued, particularly with key figures from the Synth Britannia era including Midge Ure and the often forgotten man of the period Jo Callis who was a key member of THE HUMAN LEAGUE during their imperial phase.
But the year saw grandeurs of delusion at their highest, with one artist of a far too normal disposition in particular failing to realise that in order for a crowdfunding campaign to succeed, they needed to actually have quite a few fans in the first place!
Then, there was the similarly clueless Alt-Fest debacle which saw the organisers play Fantasy Festival with no cash to underwrite the infrastructure to enable it to actually happen!
Sadly today, there are still egotistic chancers organising events with zero budget and the money from ticket sales being fleeced to fund their holidays. But these artificial factors are rarely considered and so long as there are lower league artists desperate to play for nowt and a misguided enhancement in profile that is often on a platform that provides minimal exposure anyway, then the confidence tricks will continue.
2015 saw the local emergence of Rodney Cromwell and Gwenno, while the majestic Swedish duo KITE proved that they were the best synth act in Europe with the ‘VI’ EP and their impressive live show.
It was also the year when ERASURE front man Andy Bell gave his first interview to The Electricity Club to offer some revealing insights.
Making something of a comeback after a recorded absence of nearly eight years, Jean-Michel Jarre presented his ambitious two volume ‘Electronica’ project which saw collaborations with a varied pool of musicians including Pete Townsend, Lang Lang, John Carpenter, Vince Clarke, Hans Zimmer, Cyndi Lauper, Sebastien Tellier and Gary Numan.
VILLA NAH returned in 2016, as did YELLO with Fifi Rong as one of their guest vocalists while APOPTYGMA BERZERK went instrumental and entered the ‘Exit Popularity Contest’. Riding on the profile generated from their ‘A Broken Frame’ covers album, MARSHEAUX released their biggest-selling long player to date, a two city concept in ‘Ath.Lon’. This was also the year that The Electricity Club first became acquainted with the analogue synthesizer heaven of Johan Baeckström, a modern day Vince Clarke if ever there was one.
However DEPECHE MODE unleashed their most dire record yet in ‘Spirit’, a dreary exercise in faux activism bereft of tunes. Salt was rubbed into the wound when they merely plonked an underwhelming arena show into a stadium for their summer London show.
The trend was to continue later in 2019 as DEPECHE MODE just plonked 14 albums into a boxed set, while OMD offered an album of quality unreleased material in their ‘Souvenir’ package.
And with DEPECHE MODE’s sad descent into a third rate pseudo-rock combo during the last 15 years to appease that ghastly mainstream American institution called The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame with guitars and drums, Dave Gahan in particular with his ungrateful dismissal of the pioneering synth-based material with which he made his fortune with, now has what he has always coveted.
And don’t get The Electricity Club started on the 2019 Moog Innovation Award being given to Martin Gore, a real insult to true synth pioneers if ever there was one, including Daniel Miller, Vince Clarke and Alan Wilder, the three men who actually did the electronic donkey work on those imperial phase DEPECHE MODE albums! Gore may have been a very good songwriter during that time, but a synth innovator? Oh come on!?!
With regards Synth Britannia veterans, new albums in 2017 from Richard Barbieri and Steve Jansen saw a revived interest in JAPAN, the band with which they made their name.
Despite releasing their final album ‘Tin Drum’ in 1981, as a later conversation with one-time guitarist Rob Dean proved, cumulatively from related article views, JAPAN became the most popular act on The Electricity Club.
The return of SOFT CELL dominated 2018 with a lavish boxed set that was not just comprised of previously released long players, new songs, new books, a BBC documentary and a spectacular farewell show at London’s O2 Arena.
EMIKA was ‘Falling In Love With Sadness’ and Swedish songstress IONNALEE showcased one of the best value-for-money live presentations in town, with a show that surreal imagined Kate Bush at a rave!
But from China came STOLEN, one of the most exciting bands in years who were then later rewarded for their graft with a European tour opening for NEW ORDER.
2019 was the year when synthwave graduates Dana Jean Phoenix and Ollie Wride were coming into their own as live performers, while electronic disco maestro Giorgio Moroder embarked on a concert tour for the first time with his songs being the true stars of the show.
Gary Daly of CHINA CRISIS gave his first interview to The Electricity Club to tie in with his solo album ‘Gone From Here’, while a pub lunch with Mark White and Stephen Singleton mutated into an extensive chat about their days in ABC. Lloyd Cole adopted a more synthesized template on ‘Guessworks’ and Britpop went synth as GENEVA’s Andrew Montgomery formed US with Leo Josefsson of Swedish trio LOWE.
Partly because of this success, some of those who were less talented felt aggrieved despite feeling a narcisstic entitlement to be featured. A few deluded artists even went as far as to blame The Electricity Club publically for their lack of traction! NoW that’s what The Electricity Club calls deluded!
If an act is good enough, the fact that The Electricity Club hasn’t featured them should not matter, especially as other electronic and synth blogs are available. After taking its eye of the ball once before in 2012, The Electricity Club maintained a trust of its own gut instinct.
Meanwhile, its stance has been tested by those shouting loudest who instantaneously champion what they perceive as the next big thing like sheep, without really looking ahead at a wider picture. However, TRAVIS on VSTs is just not The Electricity Club’s thing frankly…
The Electricity Club’s participation in the annual ELECTRI_CITY_CONFERENCE in Düsseldorf for on-stage interviews with Rusty Egan, Chris Payne, Mark Reeder and Zeus B Held was another high profile engagement to be proud of. Then there were six TEC branded live events and five rounds of hosting ‘An Audience with Rusty Egan’ in one of the most unenviable but highly entertaining refereeing assignments in music 😉
Other highlights over the last ten years have included The Electricity Club’s 2015 career retrospective on German trio CAMOUFLAGE being edited and used as booklet notes for the Universal Music sanctioned compilation CD ‘The Singles’.
There was also ‘The Electricity Club’ 2CD released by Amour Records in 2019 which included TEC featured acts like MESH, SECTION 25, SIN COS TAN, KID KASIO, NIGHT CLUB, QUIETER THAN SPIDERS, ELECTRONIC CIRCUS, DAYBEHAVIOR, LIEBE, TWINS NATALIA, KID MOXIE, GIRL ONE & THE GREASE GUNS, ELEVEN: ELEVEN, AUTOMATIC WRITING, FOTONOVELA and QUEEN OF HEARTS among its 34 excellent tracks, including a bangin’ MARSHEAUX remix of Katy Perry!
As 2020 settles in, highly regarded artists within the electronic community continue to engage with The Electricity Club. Neil Arthur recently gave his seventh interview as BLANCMANGE and his tenth interview overall, taking into account his side projects FADER and NEAR FUTURE. Not far behind, Martyn Ware has also been a regular interviewee having spoken to the site on six occasions while Paul Humphreys has been interviewed no less than five times.
The Electricity Club is still pushing the envelope, continuing to reflect the interests of people who love the Synth Britannia era and have a desire to hear new music seeded from that ilk. With artists like ANI GLASS, IMI, KNIGHT$, NINA, MECHA MAIKO, GEISTE and PLASMIC among those on the cusp of a wider breakthrough, there is still more excellent music still to be created, discovered and savoured.
One inferior revivalist platform featuring far too much normal rubbish once complained that The Electricity Club “only feature bands that are popular…”; what they actually mean is “only feature bands that are really good”! 😉
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to everyone who has taken the time read any article on the site over the last ten years, it is greatly appreciated.
‘The Electricity Club’ is released by Amour Records / Minos EMI / Universal Music in collaboration with Undo Records as a 34 track 2CD set in a deluxe 6 panel digipak with track-by-track commentary and ‘O’ card; the compilation be purchased from the following retailers:
01 MAISON VAGUE Synthpop’s Alive
02 KID KASIO Full Moon Blue
03 ELECTRONIC CIRCUS Roundabout
04 DAYBEHAVIOR It’s A Game (Marsheaux remix)
05 MARNIE The Hunter
06 ELEVEN:ELEVEN Through The Veil
07 NIGHT CLUB Cruel Devotion
08 QUEEN OF HEARTS United
09 KATY PERRY Hot ‘N’ Cold (Marsheaux remix)
10 ERASURE Be The One (Paul Humphreys remix)
11 KID MOXIE The Bailor
12 KEEP SHELLY IN ATHENS Oostende
13 FOTONOVELA featuring JAMES NEW Our Sorrow (Original mix)
14 GIRL ONE & THE GREASE GUNS Jessica 6
15 AUTOMATIC WRITING Continuous
16 METROLAND Thalys (London Edit)
17 RODNEY CROMWELL Black Dog
01 SIN COS TAN Trust
02 POLLY SCATTERGOOD Other Too Endless (Vince Clarke remix)
03 TENEK What Do You Want? (Alternate TEC version)
04 ANALOG ANGEL We Won’t Walk Away
05 ARTHUR & MARTHA Autovia
06 MARSHEAUX Suffer The Children
07 SECTION 25 My Outrage
08 047 featuring LISA PEDERSEN Everything’s Fine
09 TAXX Is It Love?
10 LIEBE I Believe In You
11 QUIETER THAN SPIDERS Shanghai Metro
12 iEUROPEAN featuring WOLFGANG FLÜR Activity Of Sound
13 TWINS NATALIA Destiny
14 MESH Tuesday
15 MIRRORS Between Four Walls
16 OMD Time Burns (Fotonovela rework)
17 VILE ELECTRODES Deep Red
Please note this product is NOT on sale through The Electricity Club website and only via retailers
Text by Chi Ming Lai
Image Design by Volker Maass
16th March 2020
Celebrating the first two albums by THE HUMAN LEAGUE of which he was a founding member, electronic pop pioneer Martyn Ware will be joining HEAVEN 17 vocalist Glenn Gregory to perform ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’ at two special shows in September 2020.
The way it was in the past, a long long time ago, Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Philip Oakey released their first single ‘Being Boiled’ on Fast Product in June 1978.
The independent label’s impresario Bob Last subsequently became their manager.
A deal was signed with Virgin Records under the A&R directorship of Simon Draper, who had the vision and foresight to realise that THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s synthesizers only sound was the future of pop music; among the band’s early champions were David Bowie and Iggy Pop.
With Adrian Wright on board as a non-playing band member in the role of Director of Visuals, the live concert presentations of THE HUMAN LEAGUE were stark and dark, with Wright’s slides of ‘Star Trek’, ‘Captain Scarlet’ and ‘Hawaii Five-O’ amongst those accompanying the musical trio’s largely static on-stage persona.
The serious music press loved it and highlighted how Marsh performed inside a cage of clear Perspex as a symbol of his detachment and disaffection… it was in fact a gob shield to protect himself and his rig of synthesizers from spittle, a consequence of supporting punk bands like SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES!
However, a lack of commercial success at the time led to an engineered split by Bob Last and Virgin Records in 1980. Oakey and Wright, who kept THE HUMAN LEAGUE name, recruited two girls Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley to record the massive selling ‘Dare’ with Ian Burden and Jo Callis under the production supervision of Martin Rushent, while Ware and Marsh formed BRITISH ELECTRIC FOUNDATION and its pop subsidiary HEAVEN 17 featuring Glenn Gregory, who also found success with the gold certified ‘Penthouse & Pavement’.
Martyn Ware talked to The Electricity Club about his time in THE HUMAN LEAGUE and the making of those two seminal electronic pop albums…
This ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’ showcase has been mooted for some time now, so what has enabled it to finally become reality?
It’s been quite a long time in the planning. We tested the waters with our agent via various promoters and it took a while to convince them, which I found amazing.
They were bit nervous that it might be too confusing for the public, I just said “Put it on, it will sell out!”
It’s about how it’s sold to the public, we’re not pretending we were reforming THE HUMAN LEAGUE, all the publicity states this is HEAVEN 17’s interpretation of those two albums, we’re not trying to be a tribute act. As you well know, I was the major writer on most of those tracks. I always felt they deserved a wider audience, hence why we’ve played a lot of those songs live with HEAVEN 17 anyway.
The Virgin40 thing in 2013 was a stealth testing of the waters to see what the reaction would be, everybody seemed to love it so we decided to start the ball rolling. Eventually the HEAVEN 17 tour of last year tipped the balance that we knew what we were talking about.
It is an interesting concept. We’re spending quite a bit of money on the production, I wanted to make sure that was right and the venues were right. Who knows? We might even do a few more of them, if it is deemed to be successful.
Will there be slides to illustrate the songs like at THE HUMAN LEAGUE shows back in the day?
I love the notion of the using original equipment, but the problem of using Kodak 5 projectors is you can get hold of them, but they’re not very bright. That would mean things would have to be quite dark like it was in the first place, plus they’re quite unreliable. So what we’re doing is paying homage to the slides by predominantly keeping the same format and simulating the way the slides use to look and the way they used to change, like with timings and stuff.
So we have Malcolm Garrett in who is kind of taking the place of Adrian Wright. Like him, he’s bonkers and a collector and has a unique take on the visual world. He’s going to be on stage, controlling the slide show, triggering it live, it won’t all be pre-programmed. Because we are doing it via digital means, we have the option to do some other stuff, we’d like to leave a few things as surprises. There are some other visual artists who are involved; there may well be some moving image thing as part of the show.
But there won’t be any need for gob shields?
No! I think all the punks have grown up…
…they’re all lecturers now!
Yeah! A lot of people from my age group were proper punks back in the day! But we will be considering how the synth rigs will look, again we’d like to pay homage to way that it all worked. As well as playing both vinyl albums in order in their entirety, with the CD versions, there were various bonus tracks so some of those will be included in the extended encore.
When ‘Reproduction’ was released in Autumn 1979, THE HUMAN LEAGUE had something of a strange back catalogue comprising of ‘Being Boiled’, ‘The Dignity Of Labour’ and ‘I Don’t Depend On You’ as THE MEN?
Conceptually after we signed to Virgin Records, we wanted to stamp our authority because we were concerned about losing our independent status. So the first thing we did after ‘Being Boiled’ on Fast Product was ‘The Dignity Of Labour’, a completely instrumental 12 inch EP, to show our fans that we had not abandoned our principles.
The other side of the coin was that we were obsessed with disco music and we wanted to prove that with the right resources, we could create a disco song under a different name, so that it didn’t alter people’s perception of the band. I mean, we liked these side project things like Arnold Corns with Bowie. Also, our favourite bands like ROXY MUSIC did singles that were not part of an album, like ‘Pyjamarama’, that kind of artistic f**k you. That was the rationale behind ‘I Don’t Depend On You’, but ironically, looking back on it now, it’s pretty much the template for how HEAVEN 17 went.
As has been indicated by ‘The Golden Hour Of the Future’, there was a lot of material already written, but ‘Reproduction’ had completely new material apart from ‘Circus Of Death’?
We were performing live before we were signed, so ‘Reproduction’ was basically our live set. Virgin insisted we came down to London to record at The Townhouse which I wasn’t entirely sure was a good idea and it proved to be the case. I like the album but the production knocked the stuffing out of it.
Despite having a number of great songs, ‘Reproduction’ does sound a bit cloudy, what was your working relationship like with its producer Colin Thurston?
Colin Thurston was a lovely guy, we were just inexperienced. We were in awe of this amazing studio and the technology, he’d just done Bowie and Iggy Pop so he was a hot rising producer who went on to do DURAN DURAN… we just found him to be a bit white bread. Our live shows were quite punky… it sounds weird but we saw ourselves as synth-punk, we liked the raucousness and distortion of our sound.
But he rinsed that all out and made us sound like a f**king chamber orchestra! When the album was properly mastered in 2003, it sounded much much better. The opening track ‘Almost Medieval’ was meant to be a shock to the system, it was meant to sound punky, angular and aggressive but on the album, it was nicely produced but sounded a bit polite.
‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ benefitted from that approach to production but what we lost on ‘Reproduction’ was that hard edge, that dichotomy of the angry man punk thing and the softness, it sounded like defeat.
But ‘Almost Medieval’ does still sound quite blistering…
You should have heard it in the studio, it was unbelievable! We’d never worked on giant speakers before like they had in The Townhouse, so they were blasting all this stuff at us and we didn’t know how it would sound in the final mastered version, it didn’t really punch through on any format, which was sad.
What was your synth armoury at this point?
Not very much actually, it was Roland System 100, Korg 700s, Roland Jupiter 4. Ian had a Korg 770.
Those metallic System 100 sounds for the rhythmic backbone were quite unique; but had you considered acquiring a drum machine like the Roland CR78 Compurhythm?
I was never really interested in that because we knew the uniqueness of the hardware sequencers that were attached to the System 100. We could drive everything off the CV / Gate and the timing was super perfect, we could have whatever sound we wanted on the end of those triggers. So it was more interesting to design your own sounds from scratch rather than use a drum machine. My attitude changed about that when the Linn Drum came out in 1981.
Were you sticking to the “synthesizers and vocals only” rule?
Probably, we were very careful to keep the ingredients pure in the dishes we were creating.
Had there been a bone of contention with Virgin about your choice of rhythm template?
No, we never allowed any interference, one of our conditions in signing to Virgin was they let us get on with stuff. They were definitely discouraged from being privy to the creative process. They had the right to pass comment once the tracks were complete and to make their suggestions for alternations, but we saw ourselves as pioneers and we didn’t want any blanding out of that. We learnt from doing ‘Reproduction’ that we had to do that throughout the delivery chain or it can easily go tits up! So for ‘Travelogue’, we insisted on mixing and mastering our own stuff.
Despite its steadier pace, ‘The Path Of Least Resistance’ was quite aggressive, what had it been inspired by?
It was a rallying call to rebel against conformity. Both Phil and myself went to grammar school, the top state school in Sheffield, so we were surrounded by a lot of people who wanted to be professionals, lawyers and all that stuff… my parents were poor. So Phil and I being rebellious types were calling for ‘The Path Of Least Resistance’.
So was ‘Blind Youth’ a follow on from that theme?
Kind of… although there was a thread that we wanted to give people hope and optimism, because that’s how we felt.
But in the punk scene at that time, it was getting quite trendy in Manchester in particular for the miserable end of things to be proliferated. And that carried on for quite a long time.
I always felt that Sheffield had more in common with somewhere like Liverpool that Manchester. We used to play at The Factory and they were all too cool for school, it was all 40s raincoats and dark glasses with nobody applauding at the end of numbers.
So we were a bit wound up by that kind of stuff because we were battle hardened live performers by this time, we’d toured with SIOUXSIE & THE BANSHEES, PERE UBU and THE STRANGLERS! Our creds were up there! We knew what we were doing live. We wanted people to have a positive view on life, if there was a nascent anger in that, then that was to rattle people out of their comfort zones.
‘Empire State Human’ should have been a huge hit as songs like ‘Are Friends Electric?’ and ‘No1 Song In Heaven’ had charted quite high, any thoughts in hindsight as to why that might not have happened?
I just think everything we did at that time sounded alien and we wanted that, but we believed in our own ability to make that work and we liked it. We were encouraged by the record company and although it was still within our parameters, we honestly thought that we had made a hit.
So we basically wrote a nursery rhyme tune and made it quite fantastic in the literal sense of the word and Phil to his eternal credit, came up with words that were absolutely brilliant. The backing track is just great, but it was the classic right song at the wrong time!
‘Morale’ was very minimal and emotive, how did you come up with that icy arpeggio?
I’d literally just bought a Jupiter 4 and was obsessed with the arpeggiation feature, we were doing a lot of stuff with that. We’d had arpeggiation before with Jean-Michel Jarre and the more experimental set-ups with the Moog Modular in music, but there was something about the sounds on the Jupiter 4 that made all that work for me which were quite Japanese. It sounded more alien than the Moog stuff, which is kind of why we never got into American synthesizers. I always thought Roland and Korg stuff sounded more Science Fiction. It was also the first synth that I know of that had an arpeggiation feature that was really useful, plus it had memories so that you could store patches.
What inspired the stark arrangement for ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’?
In reality, we wanted to write film soundtracks but nobody wanted to employ us, so we decided to make them into songs instead. ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ has always been one of my favourite things with that atmospheric and moody production of Phil Spector. If you look at the lyrics, it’s more about the desolation you feel when someone who you love leaves your life. I was thinking, it could even stress it’s a bit like dying and is not necessarily about the break-up of a relationship, although that is what the lyrics are about.
It’s that empty feeling, so we thought let’s embody this in as minimalist a way we could whilst maintaining that beautiful ring modulated tick-tock rhythm that Ian Marsh designed, it was very inspiring to work with that. Of course, Phil sang it beautifully and I didn’t do too bad either.
In The Electricity Club’s opinion, ‘Reproduction’ perhaps loses momentum with the closing two tracks ‘Austerity / Girl One’ and ‘Zero As A Limit’, any thoughts on that?
I like ‘Austerity / Girl One’ and again, it’s more like that filmic thing. ‘Zero As A Limit’ was always the track we finished our live show with; we had this idea of doing a track that accelerated towards the end and that was the climax of our show. Again, going back to what we talked about earlier, the contrast between the edginess and the live feel with the glacial emptiness is missing because the mixing and mastered didn’t accommodate it. So the way we conceptualised it in the sequence, it felt a bit like a damp squib on the record.
Released in May 1980, ‘Travelogue’ made a big leap in dynamics, how had the sound expanded, was it down to acquiring more sophisticated equipment?
By this time, we got our own studio and eight track recording machine, so had a form of multitrack although there were only six tracks working to be honest.
We had our own mixing desk which was a live desk that was very good value compared to the very expensive Neves and such like. The trade-off was that the components they used weren’t so brilliant but we liked the grunginess of it.
So when you overloaded a channel, it would have a harmonic distortion which gave a certain grit to the synthesizers. We also had things like a harmonizer, spring reverb, tape delays and all that stuff, so we were on a fast track course in learning how to line up tape machines, master to the optimum level with the right compression in the mix, how to edit a track physically. It all came together on ‘Travelogue’ and enabled us to make a much more dynamic and complex sound. I was using the Jupiter 4 and still using the Korg.
‘The Black Hit Of Space’ was one hell of an opener, what with those out there Sci-Fi lyrics and harsh screeching frequencies from overdriving the desk…
…that’s exactly what it was. All that was a reaction to the cleanness of the previous album so we overcompensated. We were also experimenting with guitar pedals, there were no real pedals designed for keyboards at that time, so we were just breaking the rules really but nothing sounded as good as overloading the desk. So that thing that sounds like a fuzz guitar is actually a keyboard, you can’t get that through traditional or even digital methods nowadays, it wouldn’t sound like that.
We fell in love with the notion of distorted and overdriven stuff, which if you at the development of synth music through the 80s and 90s, ORBITAL and THE CHEMICAL BROTHERS must have heard what THE HUMAN LEAGUE were doing and loved that sound palette that we had on ‘The Black Hit Of Space’, but the tools were available to do it by then.
The lyrics to ‘Crow & A Baby’ were quite vicious, what were they actually referring to?
Phil just turned up with them one day and we loved them. Part of the thing we did with lyrics historically was not to explain everything and leave room for interpretation by the listeners. The way I read ‘Crow & A Baby’ although Phil never confirmed this to me, is I knew Phil had a difficult relationship with his father at the time, possibly always had, because he was always working… I don’t think I even met him and I was Phil’s best friend for four years! I think he felt a little bit angry about that and this song was a metaphorical journey through his anger, in a dark Burton-esque way, it’s quite gothic.
‘Life Kills’ was very observational; in those days, THE HUMAN LEAGUE did some quite out-of-the-box story telling…
It was fundamentally influenced by literature, films and TV as much as other people’s music. I’d go as far as to say we tried to avoid anything that sounded similar to us apart from KRAFTWERK. We wanted to tell stories and have a narrative, so you are what you eat, and what we were eating at that time was Science Fiction novels like JG Ballard, that sort of stuff was an influence.
‘Dreams Of Leaving’ was a magnificent example of prog synth…
We always loved prog rock, but it was a catch all term for a wide variety of imaginative songwriting. The one thing about punk was they tried to rip up everything, talk about the baby being thrown out with the bath water! I thought it was ridiculous, all these great musicians and narrative writers fell so far out of fashion. We were into disco and keeping the notion of musical conceptual art alive.
‘Dreams Of Leaving’ tells of the escape of activists from the Apartheid regime in South Africa, had it been based on a true story?
To be honest, you’d have to ask Phil about that.
My interpretation was that it was a powerful metaphor that was as much about leaving home and leaving the warmth of the family.
But I tell you why I love this song, the magic of the music is the alignment of sad, happy, fast, slow… it creates a sense of emotional response, there’s a blinding optimism at the end that is so uplifting.
Is that the sweeping polyphonic flute climax from the Jupiter 4?
Yes! One of the things influencing this was we were told right from the outset that you can’t make emotional music on a synthesizer, so we were determined to prove people wrong.
The ‘Holiday 80’ EP produced by John Leckie floats in as part of the ‘Travelogue’ story, had it been intended to record a bunch of material that was not on the album?
I wasn’t really aware of this at the time, but there was a tension emanating from the record company to Bob Last that we need a hit quick because they were in a hole on the project.
Bear in mind then that you would have to pay quite a lot of money to get on a support bill with a big act, so we were unrecouped.
While we were still darlings of the press and everybody thought we were influential, we weren’t actually having any hits in the singles chart even though the ‘Reproduction’ album had been doing alright.
So ‘Holiday 80’ was our “go for the jugular, we threw everything at it. We did an EP with some cover versions that people loved so they couldn’t argue there was nothing commercial on it even if they didn’t like our new songs… we wrote our best ever song in ‘Marianne’ etc.
We pushed the boat out on the packaging with a gatefold double single and Virgin even bribed somebody to get us on ‘Top Of the Pops’ with ‘Rock N Roll’, we were only like at No75 so it was unheard of! I think the plugger gave them exclusive rights to one of the bigger artists if they would give THE HUMAN LEAGUE a break, and fortunately ‘Top Of The Pops’ liked us so they put us on, but even that didn’t work!
Looking back on it, that’s when the record company and Bob Last started their scheming behind the scenes to split the group up…
THE HUMAN LEAGUE were on the same May 1980 episode that OMD were on with ‘Messages’; you did ‘Rock N Roll’ but ‘Holiday 80’ went down the charts while OMD got into the Top20…
I have to tell you, I LOATHED that song! I thought it was banal and the sounds were horrible, the synthesizers sounded cheap, the rhythm track sounded like it was preset and I honestly didn’t like the way Andy McCluskey sang, but what do I know? It was probably jealousy!
I can see why it was successful now because it was very catchy! But it was like a kick in the teeth for us, as was Gary Numan! Secretly, we knew they were both better at stooping low enough to appeal to the mass market, we were being a bit snobby to be honest! We wanted to be successful on our own terms, so we weren’t willing to do what was necessary in reality, looking back on it now.
In hindsight, do you think it would have been different if you’d had done ‘Being Boiled’ or ‘Marianne’?
It’s a very good question, I have no idea! I know that we wanted to do ‘Marianne’, but Virgin insisted we did ‘Rock N Roll’. It was probably the first time that we disagreed!
What had been the thinking behind re-recording ‘Being Boiled’?
That was my idea because the original concept was to do an epic PARLIAMENT / FUNKADELIC soundtrack and chuck the kitchen sink at it, and that’s what the ‘Holiday 80’ version was, and I still prefer this second version personally.
Was it pressure from Virgin to put it on ‘Travelogue’ as it’s the only track on ‘Travelogue’ not co-produced by Richard Manwaring?
Yes, but we were happy for it to be included.
You were having fun with other cover versions too like ‘Gordon’s Gin’ and these days, a lot of people think you wrote ‘Only After Dark’?
We were big fans of Mick Ronson solo. We liked the potential for vocal arrangements, and in a way, this was like a prototype model for future HEAVEN 17 stuff. By this point, we were getting to better vocal arrangements, ‘Marianne’ was like three part counterpoint and multiple harmonies, we were just learning stuff and using this new knowledge. ‘Only After Dark’ is a very simple song at its heart, and we wanted to pull focus on vocals over a minimal arrangement.
Had ‘Only After Dark’ been pencilled in as a single in its own right or was it always just a free bonus for the reissue of ‘Empire State Human’?
No, it wasn’t, the free bonus was another attempt to have a hit which kind of half worked but didn’t. We were proud of all these things by the way, I never equated sales to success, it was a record company thing.
‘WXJL Tonight’ is very Neil Diamond and the line “automatic stations came” all but predicted the Spotify playlist??
I don’t know about that but we were always avid readers of ‘New Scientist’, ‘Newsweek’ and ‘Time’, to find out what was happening in society. We read an article about automatic playlist capabilities and a bit like in ‘Black Mirror’ thought “What happens if together with Artificial Intelligence, that future radio stations become sentient?”, so a bit like Hal 9000 in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ begging the astronaut not to switch it off.
You’ve mentioned that you will remain faithful to the spirit of the originals with the show… how is the programming coming along to reproduce the sounds and sequence the backing tracks?
We haven’t started anything yet? Are you joking? It’s miles away! In reality, we won’t get into it until after Christmas. We’re dabbling with a few arrangements now but the point is, we’re starting from the idea that we’re going to us the original synths where possible.
So we will have to buy or rent or borrow a Jupiter 4. I’ll be using the System 100 together with the Korg 700s. But we will be making some changes, like some of the arrangements a little bit because the girls are going to be singing, although they won’t be on stage all of the time. You’ll know when it’s meant to sound authentic.
So this showcase will be Sheffield City Hall and London Roundhouse only?
It’s definitely not to be missed! Because I literally have no idea how many of these shows we are going to do. We’d like to do some more UK dates plus if anyone in Germany, Sweden, the US or anywhere who has the means would like to book us as there is a significant set design, please get in touch with me.
The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to Martyn Ware
HEAVEN 17 presents the ‘Reproduction’ + ‘Travelogue’: 40th Anniversary Celebration at Sheffield City Hall on Saturday 4th September + London Roundhouse on Sunday 5th September 2021
HEAVEN 17 started as a pop subsidiary of BRITISH ELECTRIC FOUNDATION, a production company signed to Virgin Records formed after Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left THE HUMAN LEAGUE in 1980.
With Glenn Gregory as lead singer, the trio eventually became almost as successful as their former sparring partners Philip Oakey and Adrian Wright who had recruited Ian Burden, Jo Callis, Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall to score a chart topper in ‘Don’t You Want Me’ on both sides of the Atlantic.
THE HUMAN LEAGUE had a huge selling hit album as well in ‘Dare’, for which Ware and Marsh received a small royalty as part of the original divorce settlement. Whereas at the time, THE HUMAN LEAGUE had a purer synthesizer vision, Ware had been keen to incorporate his love of soul and disco into proceedings.
“We wanted a little distance between what THE HUMAN LEAGUE had been and probably were still going to be, and what HEAVEN 17 were about to become..” remembered Glenn Gregory, “The balance in any group is obviously changed when anyone leaves or joins… things were naturally heading in a different direction just by the very fact that the dynamic of the group had changed, I suppose the real turning point was when we had written ‘Fascist Groove Thang’ (only about ten days after THE HUMAN LEAGUE had split) and Martyn had suggested we put a bass guitar solo in the middle breakdown…”
Featuring young Sheffield bassist John Wilson who also turned out to be a master on rhythm guitar and powered by Simmons SDS-V drums, ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ was a salvo of urgent electronic funk that won the support of the serious music press, but got a ban from the BBC due to its Ronald Reagan baiting lyrics and warnings about the resurgence of extreme right wing ideology. It only fired the trio up even more!
The resultant ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ album was released in Autumn 1981. It was a landmark achievement, cleverly combining electronics with pop hooks and funky disco sounds while adding witty social and political commentary. It fell into two halves, the ‘Penthouse’ side being more electronic avant pop like an extension of THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Travelogue’ while the other ‘Pavement’ side was aided and abetted by a game changing piece of digital technology; “The Linn Drum became within a day, the new direction” recalled Martyn Ware, “that and discovering John Wilson were the two things that defined ‘Penthouse & Pavement’.”
In a mood of buoyant optimism, ‘Play To Win’ celebrated aspiration, while the title song with its blistering burst of guitar synth by Wilson wittily captured the greed of yuppie culture during the Thatcher era. But on the other side of the coin, ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’ and ‘Height Of The Fighting’ reflected The Cold War and the horrifying spectre of Mutually Assured Destruction. The album fittingly ended with ‘We’re Going To Live For A Very Long Time’, a humourous ode to the dangers of religious fundamentalism that had a connected end groove on its original vinyl to ensure it went on for infinity…
With electronic music technology becoming more sophisticated while affordable and user friendly, Ware upped the ante with its production values; “We’d moved on by then to programming using the Roland MC4 Microcomposer so there was a lot of numeric programming on that album.” he said, “That drove my System 100 and Ian’s System 100M. The original demos are really just the programmed parts which then got layered over with real instruments.”
Securing the talents of notable session musicians such as Ray Russell, Simon Phillips and Nick Plytas as well as retaining John Wilson, ‘The Luxury Gap’ had a glossy sheen which combined synthesizer programming and digital drum computers with orchestrations, brass, jazz piano, rhythm guitar and guitar synths.
The first single ‘Let Me Go’ with one of the first uses of the Roland TB303 Bass Line sequencer was a striking slice of art funk, offset by deep delayed thrusts of Jupiter 8 but again failed to be a Top40 hit.
Interestingly, its recording had concocted a few conundrums in the studio. “When we finished ‘Let Me Go’” remembered Gregory, “we realised we’d lost the original beauty of the demo so we did it again…so basically, ‘The Best Kept Secret’ is ‘Let Me Go’ but redone with an orchestra. So we got two songs out of it.”
More obviously pop oriented than its predecessor ‘The Luxury Gap’ hosted two international hits. ‘Temptation’ was euphoric soul fusion of epic proportions utilising strings and the voice of Carol Kenyon. “Martyn had the idea for the Motown backbeat but it’s still very electronic really… there was this part that built and we decided to try an orchestra.” Gregory explained, “So we were in the studio with this massive orchestra and it was like ‘oh my god’, it was amazing because it was so different. It was a complete game changer.”
Meanwhile ‘Come Live With Me’ was a heartfelt cinematic ballad with no instrumental break which was delivered so sincerely, that it veiled its origins as an inter-band joke. “I was at that time I wrote it, seeing a young girl and I was getting a few jibes” recollected the HEAVEN 17 front man, “The words were making us laugh! It was all messing around! That’s where it all came from and we were quite surprised we’d written quite a beautiful song by the end of it because we were laughing like mad.”
‘Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry’, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ and ‘Key To The World’ pointedly explored the themes of ‘The Luxury Gap’ and maintained HEAVEN 17’s socio-political consciousness despite their entry into the mainstream. But there were other highlights; ‘Lady Ice & Mr Hex’ provided a weird fusion of jazz piano, polyrhythmics, Linn Drum and acid squelches while the frantic energy of ‘We Live So Fast’ presented what it said on the tin.
Success brought money and this was reflected in Autumn 1984 with the Fairlighted jamboree of third album ‘How Men Are’.
“The operational reasons for moving to the Fairlight were that Ian had bought one without asking anyone and with his own money… £40,000!” affirmed HEAVEN 17’s musical director of their newly accquired workstation, “I was going ‘Are you sure about this Ian?’, it seemed a little extreme but he was keen”.
The results were mixed and the many options provided by the computer from Sydney, Australia led to the start of HEAVEN 17’s artistic confusion. But without doubt, ‘Five Minutes To Midnight’ was an outstanding opener. Referencing The Doomsday Clock and following on from ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb’ to highlight the absurdity of Mutually Assured Destruction, it used and abused the Fairlight, throwing in ‘Protect and Survive’ styled civil defence announcements, deathly whoops and a doomy orchestral crescendo bringing a frightening finality to proceedings…
“I’m a big fan of ‘How Men Are’ looking back on it” said Ware, “I think it’s an underrated album and that was when we were probably in our most daring and creative phase.” That daring creativity manifested itself on the sub-ten minute closer ‘And That’s No Lie’, an ambitious adventure in sound that threw in everything from abstract sonic experiments, jazz piano, Fairlight samples, gospel voices and an orchestra, plus some excellent live bass and guitar work from John Wilson and Ray Russell respectively.
Although there were hits in ‘Sunset Now’ and ‘This Is Mine’, these singles highlighted that with the exception of ‘Flamedown’, the ‘How Men Are’ album material was not ultimately as strong as it had been on ‘The Luxury Gap’. One case in point was ‘The Skin I’m In’, an insipid ballad in the vein of SPANDAU BALLET’s ‘True’ although it was partly saved by a plucky acoustic guitar solo created using a Roland System 100!
But the world was changing. Synthpop was falling out of fashion and while potentially there was still success to be had across the Atlantic with the advent of MTV, thanks to the unexpected success of SIMPLE MINDS, British acts were under pressure make themselves more palatable to American audiences.
“So consequently when it came to making ‘Pleasure One’, we’d lost our confidence a bit because it felt like we were slipping.” Ware recalled, “So we started employing more session players and moving towards a more traditional rock sound. And that wasn’t a deliberate decision. We lost confidence not in our songwriting but in the sound that we had, so it like really lost a bit of identity… We wanted to move on but there wasn’t anywhere to move on to from a sound point of view.”
But to be fair, a good number of acts from the school of Synth Britannia like THE HUMAN LEAGUE, OMD, ULTRAVOX and BLANCMANGE were having something of an existential crisis and even those who had tasted major success in the US like DURAN DURAN were falling apart.
Released in Autumn 1986, the conventionally band driven ‘Pleasure One’ which also saw the return of Carol Kenyon was given a lukewarm reception. Highlights included the groovy call for world unity ‘Contenders’ and the LEVEL 42 aping ‘Trouble’, while ‘If I Were You’ brought in an unexpected influence from THE BEATLES. But overall, HEAVEN 17 had lost momentum.
Ware’s success as a producer for acts like Tina Turner and Terence Trent D’Arby was perhaps placing his artistic focus elsewhere, but when Glenn Gregory appeared on the album cover of 1988’s ‘Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho’ wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots, the writing was on the wall.
“‘Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho’ was the nail in the coffin; we’d completely lost our way by then as far as I was concerned! We were retreading some ideas and some of the things we were doing were not working. I think we all knew it had run its course at that point” lamented Ware, “But ironically, it wasn’t that we’d run out of musical ideas, it was just that vehicle because at that time, I was doing Terence Trent D’Arby album which showed myself, Glenn and Ian that we’d still got creative ideas but we’d lost focus on what HEAVEN 17 should be at that point.”
‘Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho’ were the affectionate nicknames given by Terence Trent D’Arby respectively to Ware, Gregory and Marsh, but the album possessed none of the enthusiasm or spirit of the former GI who Ware had been working with on ‘Introducing The Hardline According To…’. ‘The Ballad Of Go Go Brown’ was the cue for some fans to exit, although ‘Train Of Love In Motion’ was a better single. Meanwhile ‘Big Square People’ was as good as some of blue eyed soul of the times.
But with mainstream audiences finding younger acts such as WET WET WET, HUE & CRY and JOHNNY HATES JAZZ more to their liking, HEAVEN 17 effectively went on hiatus between 1989 to 1995, although a dance enhanced Brothers In Rhythm remix of ‘Temptation’ became a surprise UK Top5 hit in 1992.
Then in 1996, the trio reunited to re-explore their electronic roots with a new album ‘Bigger Than America’ and in 1997 toured as the opening act for ERASURE whose 1993 album ‘I Say I Say I Say’ had been produced by Ware.
Although there has only been one further album ‘Before / After’ in 2005 and the departure of Ian Craig Marsh not long after, HEAVEN 17 have been regulars on the live circuit since 2008, often showcasing ‘Penthouse & Pavement’ and ‘The Luxury Gap’ in full where their political commentary still remains sadly relevant in the modern world.
‘Play To Win – The Virgin Years’ captures the glorious imperial phase of HEAVEN 17 and the developmental pace of music technology through these five albums. Featuring a 36 booklet with new interviews and archive photos, the CD version is particularly desirable with its plethora of extended mixes, radio edits, instrumentals and non-album tracks such as the standalone single ‘I’m Your Money’ and its B-side ‘Are Everything’ plus the brilliant and very different demo version of ‘Temptation’ which took its lead from SOFT CELL’s cover of ‘Tainted Love’.
Gregory, Ware and Marsh’s ultimate legacy is being able to use music to deliver socio-political statements with good tunes and a sense of humour while also applying a juxtaposition of programmed technology with live musicians to provide a unique sound for the times.
“Some things will always be relevant” summarised Gregory, “We wrote about subjects that touched our lives and our souls, things that mattered not just to us as individuals but also to us as a part of a political or social system. We never preached and always (I hope) ranted with wit and humour”.
As the band once stated during their 1996 return: “TRUST US – WE’RE ENTERTAINERS”.
HEAVEN 17 will be opening for SQUEEZE on their 2019 tour, dates include:
Scunthorpe Baths Hall (17th October), Sheffield City Hall (18th October), Gateshead Sage (19th October), Glasgow Royal Concert Hall (21st October), Leicester De Montfort Hall (22nd October), Birmingham Symphony Hall (23rd October), Oxford New Theatre (25th October), Brighton Centre (26th October), Southend Cliffs Pavilion (27th October), London Royal Albert Hall (29th October), Bath Forum(30th October), Hull City Hall (1st November), Liverpool Philharmonic Hall (2nd November), Manchester Salford Quays The Lowry (3rd November), Northampton Derngate (5th November), Guildford G Live (6th November), Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (9th November), Bournemouth Pavilion (11th November), Cambridge Corn Exchange (12th November), Cardiff St David’s Hall (13th November), Llandudno Venue Cymru (15th November), Harrogate Convention Centre (16th November), Reading Hexagon (17th November), Folkestone Leas Cliff Hall (19th November), Ipswich Regent (20th November)
Ambient electronic music is a much misunderstood genre.
One is not talking about JEAN-MICHEL JARRE or VANGELIS who are far too comparatively lively to be truly considered ambient. And it is not ‘chill out’ that’s being talked about either, which seems to lump in any form of dance music that is under 112 beats per minute.
Modern ambient probably came to prominence with BRIAN ENO. While lying in a hospital room after a car accident in 1975, a friend visited him and put on a LP of harp music. However the volume had been set at an extremely low level and one of the stereo channels had failed. Unable to move to adjust this, Eno had a new way of listening to music forced onto him.
In recalling this story for the sleeve notes of his ‘Discreet Music’ album, Eno said the music now became “part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of rain were parts of the ambience.”
Eno may not have been the inventor of ambient, but he was almost certainly was its midwife. With its lengthy gradual processes and unpredictable changes, ambient can be listened to and yet ignored. Going against the Western tradition of music where vocals, melody and rhythm are essential components, ambient music is designed to accommodate many levels of listening without enforcing one in particular.
One of the other beauties of ambient music is that the pieces are often so progressive that it becomes quite difficult to remember individual sections.
Therefore on repeated plays, the music can still sound fresh and rewarding. It was an approach that fascinated many and while they may not have released whole works, artists such as DAVID BOWIE, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, OMD, BLANCMANGE and RADIOHEAD recorded ambient pieces for album tracks or B-sides.
Comments about ambient music being “boring” are missing the point, because at points of the day where the state of near sleep looms, music with no vocals, no rhythms and not too much energetic melody is perfect.
Restricted to one album per moniker or collaborative partnership, here are the twenty long players presented in chronological and then alphabetical order which form The Electricity Club’s Electronic Legacy of Ambient. Acting as a straightforward introduction to the genre, it refers to many artists whose comparatively mainstream works may already be familiar.
KLAUS SCHULZE Timewind (1974)
A one-time member of TANGERINE DREAM and ASH RA TEMPLE, ‘Timewind’ was Schulze’s first solo album to use a sequencer, evolving as a longer variation on his former band’s ‘Phaedra’. Referencing 19th century composer Richard Wagner, Schulze transposed and manipulated the sequences in real time, providing shimmering and kaleidoscopic washes of electronic sound using equipment such as the EMS Synthi A, ARP 2600, ARP Odyssey, Elka string machine and Farfisa organ.
‘Phaedra’ was the breakthrough record for TANGERINE DREAM which saw them using sequencers for the first time. Featuring the classic line-up of Edgar Froese, Peter Baumann and Chris Franke, the hypnotic noodles of EMS VCS3s and Moogs dominated proceedings while Mellotrons sounding like orchestras trapped inside a transistor radio. Organic lines and flute added to trancey impressionism to produce a fine meditative electronic soundtrack.
The late Dieter Moebius and Hans-Joachim Roedelius were CLUSTER. Having released their first long player together in 1969, their fourth album ‘Sowiesoso’ was CLUSTER’s first fully realised exploration into ambient electronics. With gentle melodic phrasing and unimposing rhythmical patterns, the title track was a wonderfully hypnotic adventure that welcomed the listener into the soothing world of the longer player’s remaining aural delights.
ASH RA TEMPLE’s Manuel Göttsching was looking to visit synthesized climes and explored more progressive voxless territory armed with an Eko Rhythm Computer, ARP Odyssey and what was to become his signature keyboard sound, a Farfisa Synthorchestra. An exponent of the more transient solo guitar style of PINK FLOYD’s David Gilmour, this template was particularly evident on New Age Of Earth’, a beautiful treasure trove of an album.
One-time member of GONG, solo artist and an in-house producer at Virgin Records, Steve Hillage had a love of German experimental music and ventured into ambient with long standing partner Miquette Giraudy. Recorded for the Rainbow Dome at the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit at Olympia, these two lengthy Moog and ARP assisted tracks each had a beautifully spacey quality to induce total relaxation with a colourful sound spectrum.
HAROLD BUDD & BRIAN ENO The Plateaux Of Mirror (1980)
Mostly piano-oriented, its backdrop of shimmering synthesizer and tape loops of voices was conceived in a sound-world that Eno had created via his various instrument treatments. With Budd improvising live, Eno would occasionally add something but his producer tact was to step back if nothing extra was needed. ‘The Plateaux Of Mirror’ was a lovely work with resonating ivories of the acoustic and electric variety. A second collaboration came with ‘The Pearl’ in 1984.
BRIAN ENO Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks (1983)
Recorded as a soundtrack to a documentary film about the Apollo Missions to the moon, one of the inspirations was to react against the uptempo, manner of space travel presented by most TV programmes and news reels of the day with its fast cuts and speeded up images. Eno wanted to convey the feelings of space travel and weightlessness. Although based around Eno’s Yamaha DX7, the album was quite varied instrumentally, featuring his brother Roger and Daniel Lanois.
The debut album from the younger Eno, ‘Voices’ captured a sustained mood of dreamy soundscapes and aural clusters with its beautiful piano template strongly reminiscent of Harold Budd’s work with brother Brian, who was also involved on this record via various electronic treatments although it was actually Daniel Lanois who produced.
By 1986, the former JAPAN front man wanted to get away from singing as reflected by the ‘Gone To Earth’ bonus album of instrumentals. Sylvian found a willing conspirator in CAN’s Holger Czukay who had developed several unconventional compositional techniques using devices such as short wave radios and Dictaphones. Through a series of improvisations, the duo came up with two companion long players that conveyed a sinister yet tranquil quality drifting along in complex spirals.
Unlike the comparatively optimistic air of his work with Eno, Harold Budd’s solo journeys often conveyed a more melancholic density, probably best represented by the haunting immersive atmospheres of ‘The White Arcades’. An elegiac combination of shimmering synthesizers and sporadic piano provided an austere depth that was both ghostly and otherworldly, it was partly inspired by his admiration of COCTEAU TWINS whom he collaborated with on the 1986 4AD album ‘The Moon & The Melodies’.
STEVE JANSEN & RICHARD BARBIERI Other Worlds In A Small Room (1996)
With ‘Other Worlds In A Small Room’, Steve Jansen and Richard Barbieri created an atmospheric collection of electronic instrumentals that they considered “Ambient in the traditional sense”. Alongside the three new pieces, there was an appendix of four suitably complimentary tracks from their 1984 album ‘Worlds In A Small Room’ had originally been commissioned by JVC to accompany a documentary about the Space Shuttle Challenger and its various missions.
VINCENT CLARKE & MARTYN WARE Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle (2000)
‘Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle’ was composed by Vince Clarke and Martyn Ware as part of an Illustrious art installation at The Roundhouse in a circular, white clothed room where the colours referred to in the titles of the six lengthy pieces were “programmed to cross fade imperceptibly to create an infinite variation of hue”. Using binaural 3D mixing techniques, the sleeve notes recommended it was best heard using headphones while stating “This album is intended to promote profound relaxation”.
Trance enthusiasts who loved Ferry Corsten’s blinding remix of Samuel Barber’s ‘Adagio For Strings’ will have been shocked if they had bought its virtually beatless parent long player. Orbit’s concept of adapting classical works was that he wanted to make a chill-out album that had some good tunes. In that respect, a collection featuring lovely electronic versions of Beethoven’s ‘Triple Concerto’ and John Cage’s ‘In A Landscape’ could not really miss.
Alva Noto is a German experimental artist based in Berlin and ‘Vrioon’ was his first collaborative adventure with YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA trailblazer Ryuichi Sakamoto. A beautiful union of piano, synth shimmers and subtle glitch electronics proved to be an unexpectedly soothing and meditative experience that was gloriously minimal over six starkly constructed mood pieces.
Originally released as part of the 2CD version of ‘Hotel’ in 2005, Moby couldn’t find his copy and decided on an expanded re-release. Inspired by the nature of hotels, where humans spend often significant portions of their lives but have all traces of their tenancy removed for the next guests, the ambient companion progressively got quieter and quieter. The emotive ‘Homeward Angel’ and the solemn presence of ‘The Come Down’ were worth the purchase price alone.
ROBIN GUTHRIE & HAROLD BUDD After the Night Falls / Before The Day Breaks (2007)
Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd first collaborated on ‘The Moon & The Melodies’ album along with the other COCTEAU TWINS. ‘After the Night Falls’ and ‘Before the Day Breaks’ were beautiful experiments in duality but it would be unfair to separate these Siamese twins. Serene, relaxing, abstract and distant, Guthrie ‘s textural guitar and Budd’s signature piano were swathed in drifting synths and treatments that complimented each album’s self-explanatory titles.
JOHN FOXX & HAROLD BUDD Nighthawks / Translucence / Drift Music (2003 – 2011)
A sumptuous trilogy featuring two artists who had both worked with Brian Eno. ‘Nighthawks’ was John Foxx and Harold Budd’s most recent collaboration with the late minimalist composer Ruben Garcia and a soothing tranquil nocturnal work with tinkling ivories melting into the subtle layered soundscape with its Edward Hopper inspired title. Meanwhile, the earlier ‘Translucence’ from 2003 was a close relative and classic Budd, partnered with the more subdued overtures of ‘Drift Music’.
‘London Overgrown’ was John Foxx’s first wholly solo ambient release since the ‘Cathedral Oceans’ trilogy. With the visual narrative of a derelict London where vines and shrubbery are allowed to grow unhindered throughout the city, the conceptual opus was a glorious ethereal synthesizer soundtrack, smothered in a haze of aural sculptures and blurred soundscapes. With ‘The Beautiful Ghost’, as with William Orbit’s take on ‘Opus 132’ from ‘Pieces In A Modern Style’, this was Beethoven reimagined for the 23rd Century.
“I like the effects of calm and dissonance and subtle change” said Steve Jansen to The Electricity Club. Not a remix album as such, the more ambient and orchestral elements of ‘Tender Extinction’ were segued and reinterpreted with new sections to create a suite of instrumentals presented as one beautiful hour long structured ambient record. A gentle blend of electronic and acoustic instrumentation including piano and woodwinds, ‘The Extinct Suite’ exuded a wonderful quality equal to Eno or Budd.
B-MOVIE guitarist and pop tunesmith Paul Statham began his experimental music account with ‘Ephemeral’ and ‘Installation Music 1’. ‘Asylum’ was a more ambitious proposition and featured in an audio visual installation created with painter Jonathan McCree in South London’s Asylum Chapel. The eight compositions together exuded a cinematic, ethereal quality with some darker auras and an eerie sound worthy of the ambient pioneers Statham was influenced by, especially on the gorgeous closer ‘Ascend’.