BACK TO THE FUTURE – Synth pioneers Heaven 17 Perform 1981 Classic Penthouse And Pavement

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For a little over an hour on Sunday a packed O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire was taken back in time to 1981 – when Dallas was TV gold and leather ties, wedge haircuts and ultra-thin ponytails were all the rage.

Margaret Thatcher was in power, there were riots on the streets of Brixton and Toxteth and a Sheffield synth band was releasing its debut album after two members broke ranks and split from the Human League.

The band they founded was Heaven 17 and the album was Penthouse and Pavement, which celebrated its 35th anniversary this year.

Emerging to a snatch of dialogue from Stanley Kubrick‘s nightmarish sci-fi A Clockwork Orange, original members Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware – augmented by backing singers and a second synth – launched straight into the album’s first track and first single Fascist Groove Thang.

The years then fell away as the band played the whole album in order, with Ware and Gregory clearly revelling in the atmosphere and refusing to take themselves too seriously.

It was a night for nostalgia, but at the same time it was striking how well the songs had held up over the years – tracks like Play To Win, Let’s All Make A Bomb and The Height of the Fighting retaining the bite and fire that made H17 such an interesting proposition all those years ago.

There was much between song banter and more than a few sly digs at the expense of old sparring partner Phil Oakey.

Gregory revealed that despite the animosity in the wake of Ware and H17 co-founder Ian Craig Marsh‘s departure from Human League, the two bands continued to share a studio.

H17 worked on Penthouse and Pavement on the night shift from 10pm-10am, while HL took over on days completing tracks for the Dare album.

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Despite all this, Gregory wasn’t too grand to tackle Oakey’s oeuvre, as the band followed the climax to their rendition of Penthouse and Pavement with a towering version of Being Boiled.

He would also return later to perform a knockabout cover of HL’s massive hit Don’t You Want Me Baby on acoustic guitar.

“You’ll wait a long time to hear Phil Oakey cover a Heaven 17 song,” quipped Ware dryly.

After a short interval the band transformed into Heaven 17’s production imprint British Electric Foundation for a series of eclectic guest performances by The Farm‘s Peter Hooten, soul diva Mari Wilson and Sex Pistols’ bassist Glen Matlock.

Inevitably some of the momentum of the first half was lost and the crowd became a little restless, but it was still great to hear Neasden’s finest Wilson tackle the Fontella Bass classic Rescue Me along with her own hit Just What I’ve Always Wanted.

Matlock lent a Joe Brown-ish rockabilly twang to the Pistols’ Pretty Vacant, before tossing in a surprise cover of Pharrell Williams’ Happy, while Hooten contributed All Together Now and a passable cover of Bankrobber by The Clash.

Gregory returned for a fantastic fully electronic version of Wichita Lineman made famous by Glen Campbell and a fun version of M‘s Pop Muzik as a homage to second synth player Berenice Scott‘s father Robin.

The whole company returned for a cover of Wonderful Life in tribute to Black‘ s Colin Vearncombe, who died earlier this year.

A titanic version of Temptation then sent the assembled throng home happy in the knowledge that they’d been right to risk cold, traffic and dodgy knees for this charming jaunt down memory lane.

 

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About the author

Full time journalist, music lover (obvs) and truly terrible guitarist. You can find Matt on twitter @matcatch

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