Penthouse & Pavement 35th Anniversary Tour – Bury St. Edmunds Apex, 28/10/16
Three & a half decades later, Sheffield’s other great synth-pop band tour their deeply political debut, bringing some new friends along for the ride.
80s retrospective tours are ten a penny nowadays. It’s a thing though, isn’t it? Many bemoan the abundance of tours and festivals that dig up the one-hit wonders and teeny boppers from 30-odd years ago. Most end up on multi-act festival tours, paraded on and off stage like a plate of Kung Po chicken on a lazy-susan at the Mandarin Garden. Everyone’s happy to have a couple of nibbles before moving on to something slightly different, but pretty much the same. Maybe it’s because most of these acts only have a handful of singles that everyone remembers, or maybe its because they’re just short of a few bob and fancy slipping out a greatest hits CD that contains their three most famous singles and a bunch of remixes and album tracks to pad it out. Am I being too cynical or just painfully honest? I guess if your idea of a fab weekend is dressing up in day-glo ra-ra skirts, Ray-Bans and deely-boppers, then I’m probably crossing a line and coming across as a bit of a pompous arsehole. And that’s fine, because I actually lived through the 80s. My formative years and transition from boy to man took place in the 80s. That’s MY decade. So fuck you and your completely incorrect fashion sense. That decade was way deeper than Chesney Hawkes and T’Pau. That decade changed the way pop music was made, for better or for worse. Blow away the dusty layer of thinly talented, substance-free chart-ticklers and you uncover a vast, teeming ocean of some of the greatest music ever written. And some of those acts still walk this earth, still produce new, relevant music and still work a crowd without the need for tagging on half a dozen Stock, Aitken & Waterman factory-line rejects. Heaven 17 are one of those acts.
Reeling from the act of being effectively booted out of their own band, Martyn Ware & Ian Craig-Marsh formed not Heaven 17, but the British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.), an umbrella brand with a vision of becoming the Motown of the new decade. Their first project was ‘Music For Stowaways’, a cassette only collection of brooding, experimental synth instrumentals that weren’t too far a departure from the stuff they had been doing a year previously with The Human League. Shortly after, one of these tracks would form the basis of the first Heaven 17 single, ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’. Drafting in their original first choice for the lead singer in The Human League, photographer Glenn Gregory, they proceeded to record their debut long player. Having become disillusioned with touring with The Human League, Ware and Marsh decided that B.E.F. and Heaven 17 would be solely a studio act, and so, 35 years later, it is actually quite fitting that the remaining members of the band (Marsh left in 2006) take this politically inspired synth-pop masterpiece on the road to perform in its entirety. And to enhance a show that, if it had stuck to the original album tracklist, would only be 9 songs long, a dedicated B.E.F. segment of the show forms the second half of a 2 hour plus extravaganza.
I’ve seen Heaven 17 and B.E.F. on many occasions, most memorably over two nights at London’s Roundhouse in 2011 where they performed P+P’s follow up, 1983’s ‘The Luxury Gap’ on the first night, followed by a star-studded B.E.F. show on the second night featuring Green Gartside, Sandie Shaw, Boy George, David J Roch, Kim Wilde, Shingai Shoniwa, Midge Ure, Polly Scattergood and former Long Blondes singer Kate Jackson. Over the years, Heaven 17’s live band has contained a variety of musicians, but recently the band have pared it back to simply Martyn and Glenn, Berenice Scott (daughter of Robin) on keys and a couple of backing singers. Therefore, a lot of what you hear instrumentally is spun out from a MacBook, embellished by Mr Ware & Ms Scott. It is a sign of the times that this doesn’t seem to bother anyone anymore. When the likes of the mighty Sleaford Mods brazenly hit the space bar to start and stop their tracks on stage, and yet still get credited with being one of the most vibrant, relevant and important live acts of the decade thus far, I guess we have transcended a level of live music snobbery that was prevalent back when The Human League first took to a stage with a few primitive analog synths and a reel-to-reel tape machine and got called “cheaters”.
The lights dim on an early show start time of 7:30pm and the band take the stage as the B.E.F. ident rings out before immediately launching into ‘Fascist Groove Thang’, a song whose political relevancy is as strong today as it was 35 years previously. Gregory is a huge man, with a commanding stage presence. He strides the boards, flirting with the females, giving fans photo-pleasing poses and still has a powerful voice that is both strong and articulate. They rattle through what was Side A of the album, interspersing funny anecdotes in between songs and marvelling at how excitable a crowd from a provincial Suffolk market town can be. Bury St. Edmunds is hardly a hotbed of rampant socialism, but those gathered in the town’s recently built (and quite wonderful) Apex venue seem more than willing to chant and get on-board with the subtle politics.
Before you know it, the band reach the end of the album at which point Glenn tells the audience that each night, a member of the band picks a song to round off Act 1. Tonight, Berenice chooses the non-album single from the P+P era, ‘I’m Your Money’, to which Gregory panics as he claims to have forgotten the lyrics, but he recovers well and the first half of the show ends on a high note.
After the interval, and change of outfit, the band re-emerge, minus Gregory, as the B.E.F. portion of the show begins. B.E.F.’s three albums after their instrumental debut focused on creating new interpretations of (mostly) classic soul songs, featuring guest vocalists on each. The albums, entitled ‘Music of Quality & Distinction’, reached Volume 3 in 2013 and have a talent-heavy guest list such as Tina Turner, Billy Mackenzie, Paul Jones, Andy Bell, Sarah Jane Morris, Green Gartside, Boy George, Billy Preston, Chaka Khan, Lala Hathaway and many more, so anyone familiar with this form will know what to expect from this second half. First up is Peter Hooton, lead singer of The Farm, resplendent in quilted shirt, who promptly belts out a rendition of their greatest hit, ‘Altogether Now’. An obvious crowd pleaser, he follows this up with a splendid version of The Clash’s ‘Bank Robber’. Hooton departs to be replaced by Mari Wilson. Whilst fame eluded her after her biggest hit, 1982’s ‘Just What I Always Wanted’, which is her opening number this evening, Wilson is an accomplished performer and still has a superb set of pipes, which she demonstrates fully on her version of ‘Rescue Me’. Next up is a man for whom I have a lot of sympathy. Removed from the Sex Pistols to be replaced by the more ‘visually appealing’ and yet completely untalented Sid Vicious, Glen Matlock has every right to feel aggrieved, but I’m sure this is all behind him now as he walks onstage looking more like Johnny Cash than a founding member of the band that lit fires underneath the likes of Joy Division, Buzzcocks and, ironically, The Human League. He opens with a version of ‘Pretty Vacant’ that ought not to work, and almost doesn’t, but this anthem resonates with most of us in the audience of a certain age, and it seems to pass muster, despite the vocals actually being sung in tune for once. Matlock’s follow up is even more surprising as he delivers a rendition of Pharell Williams omnipresent chart-topper, ‘Happy’, albeit it with a darker, more brooding edge. It’s an odd choice but seems to work in only a way that a B.E.F. cover can.
One Glen is replaced by another as the Heaven 17 vocalist retakes the stage to perform a few more numbers. Starting with a cover that was once a staple on the original Human League set list, Glen and Martyn deliver their distinctly electronic version of ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, made cold, haunting and disturbing by discordant wails and synthetic sweeps. ‘Boys Keep Swinging’ is the obligatory Bowie number, a regular feature of Heaven 17 concerts in recent years and one that probably brought Gregory to the attention of Woody Woodmansley and Tony Visconti when looking for a singer for the Holy Holy ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ tour that sold out venues across the UK and US over the last couple of years. Finally, the eternal crowd-pleaser, ‘Temptation’, is rolled out in its more modern version that still raises the roof, despite me preferring the original by a long chalk. I guess it is testament to a great song when it can transcend its era so effortlessly as this and retain the very qualities that made it a floor-filler in 1983. With the crowd now firmly in the palm of his hand, Glenn goes off-piste and grabs Matlock’s guitar from the side of the stage and launches into an acoustic version of ‘Don’t You Want Me’, with tongue planted firmly in cheek as both he and Martyn have gentle pops at The Human League Mk.2 floppy haired front man’s expense. The curtain holds off for one more number, an ensemble performance of Black’s ‘Wonderful Life’ in honour of Colin Vearncombe who sadly passed away in January, before he could fulfil his commitment to B.E.F. this summer. The crowd applauds long and hard, sings along loudly and sends the band off into the night.
I suppose that the B.E.F. section is much like the one-hit wonder cheese-fests I moaned about earlier, wheeling out acts we all thought had been consigned to the proverbial trash can of fleeting pop stardom, but B.E.F. transcends that through a clever choice of artists and songs that constantly surprise and delight. As for the first half of the show, the songs stand up today as much as they did in 1981, maybe more so and that is pleasing as much as it is disturbing. Things have certainly come full circle, both musically and politically. Right now, Ware & Gregory are riding that wave and even producing new material that harks back to the socially aware efforts of Penthouse & Pavement. These songs are due on a new album next year.