Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Martyn Ware, Heaven 17

In Does Rock 'N' Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz a grizzled artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them. This week: Heaven 17 mastermind and founding member of The Human League, Martyn Ware

1
Who performed a cover version of Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’ at the 2008 NME Awards?

“I know this! Beth Ditto and Jarvis Cocker.”

CORRECT. What did you think of it?

“I like Beth Ditto’s bit and I like Jarvis, but I didn’t particularly like his rendition of it. But it was an honour to have it covered – it helped nail it into legend.”

You performed the song with La Roux in 2009…

“Elly [Jackson, La Roux] quoted us as an influence in NME, so we rang them up when the BBC were having bands record versions of each other’s songs. We’ve been friends ever since. That first album is a fantastic piece of pop songwriting – the right measured amount of cuteness, irony and clever tricks underneath its apparent superficiality.”

What was that noughties ‘80s electro boom period like for you?

“When the ‘80s started becoming hip again, record companies started asking me: ‘Could you produce this song in the style of ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’?, etc. The stuff I was offered was boybands or The X Factor or people who thought you were a fucking Rubik’s Cube wearing a pink tutu in the ‘80s, which I said no to.”

What was this biggest production offer you’ve ever turned down?

“After Tina Turner’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’, which I produced, became the biggest selling 12-inch in America in 1983, I was offered a lot of older artists who wanted help renovating their reputation. I turned down producing a Rod Stewart album because it meant moving to America – and also because he’s a Tory. And I turned down Bette Midler because I thought she was finished. Both went on to win Grammys.”

2
Last year on her ‘Golden’ tour, Kylie Minogue mashed up her 2003 song ‘Slow’ with which The Human League track?

“‘Being Boiled’.”

CORRECT.

“I saw that. It’s alright, innit? I don’t ‘get’ Kylie. I like her, she seems like a very nice person – I just don’t like her squeaky nasal voice.”

In 2003, Richard X/Liberty X’s ‘Being Nobody’ mashed up ‘Being Boiled’ with Chaka Khan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody’. You worked with Chaka for your ‘British Electronic Foundation: Music of Quality and Distinction Volume Two’ compilation in 1991…

“Chaka’s a legend. She’s cleaned up now, but when I worked with her, she was a real mess. I wanted her to cover Donny Hathaway’s ‘Someday We’ll All Be Free’, and brought in a live band to get her back into the frame of mind of being in Rufus. She was lovely, but was so spaced, we had to do 14 takes to get enough material to cobble together one brilliant vocal. It took three days to comp the vocal – every take was different, with only 60 per cent genius in any one of them. But the end product was great.”

3
Heaven 17’s ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ was ranked Number 5 on NME’s Best Albums of 1981 list. Name any record that beat you.

“Did The Human League’s ‘Dare’ come out that year? That probably beat it…”

WRONG. The Human League’s Dare reached number six…You were only pipped by: ‘Nightclubbing’ by Grace Jones (Number 1), ‘Computer World’ by Kraftwerk (2), ‘Red’ by Black Uhuru (3) and ‘Wha’ppen?’ by the Beat.

“For me, Kraftwerk were untouchable. In fact, at one point I was going to do some DJ-ing with Wolfgang Flür.”

You were kicked out of the band you founded, The Human League, in 1980, and went on to form Heaven 17. Both bands recorded their albums at the same studio, taking the day and night shifts. How bitter was it?

“It was highly motivating because we didn’t think: ‘Fuck, we’ve missed the bus’, it was more like ‘We are actually better than they are – and we’ll prove it to people’. ‘Dare’ is a fantastic album, but I think it had a built-in obsolescence because it was such a strong flavour of that particular time. I always knew they’d find it hard to follow up. Whereas we were more nimble and kept changing in an intelligent way and we put out three great albums – I’m not sure it was the same for that version of The Human League. But there’s no competition now and we’ve done tours together.”

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4
Who released a cover of Heaven 17’s ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ in 2019?

LCD Soundsystem.”

CORRECT.

“I like those guys. Everything they do seems artistically authentic. I think their cover is quite good, but I’d have been happier if they’d strayed from the original more. It sounded like a clone-y copy, and they gave it too much respect. They should have fucked around with it more.”

5
The Human League were originally lined up to support Talking Heads on tour in 1979. Who replaced you?

“Was it OMD?”

WRONG. It was A Certain Ratio – when you planned a performance that didn’t involve you being onstage.

“Oh yeah! It’s a shame we weren’t allowed to do that. The concept was creating an art installation onstage with original music, and we’d be in the audience interacting with them and discussing what we were witnessing. It was a neat idea of a 30-minute support slot, but I think Talking Heads were worried that conceptually, they were going to get upstaged. In the adverts, we called it “cinema you could dance to”.

You were influenced by Andy Warhol. Ever meet him?

“No. But we were obsessed with the transgressive nature and ambivalent sexuality of the Lower East Side – though we didn’t get to New York until ’78. We liked the idea that everything you did was an art installation. The early Human League were conceptualists. We had a set of rules, and had our manifesto pinned to the wall. We’d host parties in our studio building in Sheffield, trying to be a puppetmaster like Andy Warhol, and we’d make 24-hour films of somebody sleeping. We were fantasists.”

6
You were briefly in the 1970s band Musical Vomit, and formed its pop offshoot Underpants. What is the name of Musical Vomit’s rock opera?

“(Laughs) Oh! Was it I Was A Teenage Necrophiliac?

WRONG. It’s Vomit: Lost In Space.

“They only performed it once in a small theatre just before I became involved. The main two people in Musical Vomit were Ian Craig Marsh – who went on to form The Human League and Heaven 17 with me – and Mark Civico, who wanted to be Alice Cooper, so it was hiding chicken soup in your mouth and vomiting from the gods, fake blood, and false arms that would get cut off – but not even slightly realistic! They were so terrible they got bottled off at the Bath Arts festival. Glenn [Gregory, Heaven 17 singer] was playing a one-string bass.”

7
Heaven 17 took their name from a fictional band in Antony Burgess’ novel A Clockwork Orange. But what is the name of their single in the book?

“Outside.”

WRONG. So close – they’re at number four in the charts with the song ‘Inside’.

“I’m getting it mixed up with the Bowie album! I’ve always thought we should write a song called ‘Inside’. Seeing as Heaven 17’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, we should complete the circle.”

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8
Heaven 17 appeared in an advert for Sheffield-based broadband provider Plusnet in 2010. According to the commercial, what three things come to mind when you think of Yorkshire?

“Whippets? Flat caps? I’m opposed to the whole Yorkshireman cliché, but they offered us a lot of cash we and needed the money!”

WRONG. It’s Yorkshire puddings, super-quality broadband and Heaven 17.

“Ah! We found out later the advert was originally offered to The Human League, but they turned it down! I can see why because it was cheesy, but we decided to go the whole hog and make it as self-deprecating and as obviously ironic as possible.”

What’s been the most memorable offer you’ve turned down?

“We were offered $1m to form a live band and do a Coors Beer sponsored tour of California in 1984 – that was the most foolish! We turned it down because we didn’t want to perform live. We thought we were fucking Steely Dan and we’d just do albums!”

Talking of America, Heaven 17 did end up later playing legendary New York nightspot  Studio 54…

“That was mental.  We looked like gangsters in sharp suits and hats. We came onstage to giant glitter canons, lasers, confetti, dancers. It was like a strange fever dream – you looked out from the stage and saw people shagging in the audience and piles of cocaine on the tables.”

9
You worked with Tina Turner on the British Electric Foundation track ‘Ball Of Confusion’ in 1982. Which artist was she a replacement for?

James Brown.”

CORRECT.

“He asked for £3,000 and wanted us to record it in his Atlanta studio. We booked the flights but 24 hours before [but it didn’t work out]. Ken Berry [then President of Virgin Records] suggested Tina Turner. It was classic fate – her name would never have cropped up if it weren’t for James backing out, I wouldn’t have done ‘Let’s Stay Together’ for her, and my production career wouldn’t have happened in the same way.”

The British Electric Foundation albums boasted an eclectic range of artists – among them Tina Turner, Paula Yates Chaka Khan and a Nolan sister. Did anyone else you tried to work with fall through like James Brown?

Kate Bush said no. She was really sweet and lovely and apologetic, but she wasn’t in the right headspace to do it. David Bowie turned me down twice – we got very close in the second occasion in 1992. We did an amazing couple of tracks with John Lydon. One is an electro version of one of his favourite reggae songs where he’s changed the lyrics to ‘No-one shall escape the punishment of John!’. In 2002, we released a new boxset and I asked John – who I was mates with until he turned into a right-wing bastard – if I could release it, but he said no.”

You became friends even though he slagged The Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’ in an NME review in ’78…

“He called us ‘trendy hippies!’ (Laughs). We did [Channel 4 pop show] The Tube together, and had a fantastic night out which entered into legend when John rang up the local Metro Radio station. They were having a competition for impersonating different rock stars and [Public Image Ltd’s]  ‘This Is Not a Love Song’ was out at the time.  I said: ‘Go on, John – ring up and pretend to be John Lydon’. And he did! The DJ at the other end was like: ‘That’s really good, isn’t it?’, before cutting him off.”

Has he changed?

“I don’t know, but I don’t like him coming out with all this utterly destructive anti-left bullshit. He probably didn’t get enough attention when he was a kid. He just has to be controversial. It doesn’t matter what he says, it’s just as long as you notice him – that’s all that’s required. It’s sad.”

10
Heaven 17’s cover of Madonna’s ‘Holiday’ appears on a 1999 ‘Virgin Voices’ tribute album. Can you name any two other artists on it?

“No – but let me have a go. Was ABC on it? OMD? Howard Jones? ”

WRONG. Among many others, you could have have had: Loleatta Holloway (covering ‘Like a Prayer’), Dead or Alive (‘Why’s It So Hard’), Berlin (‘Live to Tell’) Boy George, Amanda Ghost, and James Hardway (‘Bad Girl’) and the aural hate crime of  Gene Loves Jezebel covering ‘Frozen’.

“What a bizarre selection of artists – did they just pick them out of a hat? We got paid £10,000 to do a Madonna cover and relinquished all rights, so it must have been sold on. Our version of ‘Holiday’ is pretty funky – like a weird hyperactive Chic track. We did an ultra-electronic cover of ‘With or Without You‘ for the same company for a U2 tribute album – which I’m proud of.”

The verdict: 4/10 

“Not bad. Although I’m writing my autobiography, so I should have probably had the answer to any question you had!”

Heaven 17 are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a Greatest Hits live tour.  

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