One of the most important things punk accomplished was to broaden the emotional palette of contemporary pop music. You can legitimately point to punk as a watershed for a number of reasons, but before punk it would have been difficult to imagine pop music as a vehicle for high-minded conceptual art. This is not to say that punk was the first to treat rock as a soundstage for didactic aesthetic tendencies — certainly, you can point to groups like the Velvet Underground (especially during Warhol’s involvement with the group), the Stooges, and the MC5 as punk forerunners, and most conventional histories do just that. Punk was more than a sound, it was an ethos.
It’s important to remember that the formal purity of the American hardcore scene was a relatively late development in punk history: the Ramones wanted to be a top selling pop band, and the Sex Pistols had been created in a laboratory for just that purpose. Being popular did not preclude being smart — rather, being popular and smart was in a lot of ways the Holy Grail of early punk. It wasn’t enough to be intelligent or ideologically pure, it was also necessary to do something with that intelligence, to use the trappings of rock stardom and fame as a way to say something more than just the same old crap about sex and cars. Groups as widely varied as the Talking Heads, Blondie, the Cure, Wire, and Devo are all considered punk (or were punk in their earliest incarnations), which more than anything illustrates just how elastic a notion punk is, and how supple and malleable the texture of rock music had become in just a few short years.
It would be stretching the point to call Heaven 17 a punk band by any definition, but their music is inextricable from their politics. Sheffield was home to the scene that would spawn a number of memorable acts, primarily the Human League and Heaven 17, in addition to the likes of Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA. Heaven 17 was formed in 1981 by Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, founding members of the Human League. After releasing two dark and dehumanized albums of proto-synth-pop agit prop as the Human League, Marsh and Ware split with Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright. Oakey and Wright’s vision for the Human League as played out over the following decade could not have been more at odds with Marsh and Ware. Oakey and Wright retained the Human League name and recruited two dancers from local clubs to be singers — the reformatted group abandoned Marsh and Ware’s overt political leanings in favor of pristine pop hooks informed by only a covert twinge of class-conscious irony.
Left to their own devices, Marsh and Ware fully embraced the political potential of the pop form in the post-punk era. They recruited a new singer in the person of Glenn Gregory, who had been an early choice for the Human League’s first incarnation but was only now free to accept Marsh and Ware’s invitation. Rather than striving futilely against the corporate nature of popular music distribution, a series of compromises against which the Clash were contemporaneously fighting, they embraced the culture of arch capitalism as a perfect platform for their stridently socialist commentary. Their record company was a corporate acronym: the B.E.F., or British Electric Foundation. The sleeve of Heaven 17’s first LP, Penthouse and Pavement, was an imaginary brochure for B.E.F., complete with horrid graphics and supernaturally cheerful corporate drones extolling the moral virtue of capitalism.
Rather than comparing them to the Human League or similar synth-pop conglomerates, it seems far more appropriate to consider Heaven 17 as an unlikely companion to Gang of Four. While Gang of Four may have been hard and unrelenting in every way that Heaven 17 was mercurial and sly, they both used a particularly dance-oriented strategy to make essentially the same point: conservatism was a brutally corrupt ideology, capitalism was a blight, and class warfare was alive and well and living at 10 Downing Street. “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” is famous for having reached #45 on the UK singles chart, despite a total ban from public airplay. It’s hard not to see why this was enough to make the Powers That Be anxious: far from the visceral, combative stomp of militaristic punk, Heaven 17 couched their denouncements in the guise of good-time dance pop, with infectious synth melodies and well-heeled club rhythms. “Groove Thang” is even more subversive than that description implies: as a dance track, it’s almost impossible to dance to. Everything has been sped up and tweaked with just enough vigor to impart the proceedings with a manic desperation. All the ingredients of a happy dance pop track are present, but they’ve been twisted in the service of a public service announcement against the evils of militant corporatism:
Have you heard it on the news,
About this fascist groove thang?
Evil men with racist views,
Spreading all across the land.
The rest of the album delivers on the promise of this single. The title track presents perhaps the most effective melding of these disparate impulses, with an easy, lightly funky groove that casts a shrewd eye towards the far more forgiving pop of the Human League, with a biting look at the dehumanizing effects of a market economy that forces conformity for eight hours in exchange for economic survival:
Here comes the daylight, here comes my job,
Uptown in the penthouse, downtown with the mob,
Here comes the nighttime, here comes my room,
Goodbye to the pavement, hello to my soul.
Any system that forces spiritual compromise is a negative force. “Soul Warfare” presents the most unabashed picture of the stakes: Capitalism is a game for control of the soul, played by the ruling class at the expense of the unincorporated. “My strategy is clear, my soul is there for the taking,” the track intones, and not all the funky bass solos in the world can distract the listener from the overwhelming sense of spiritual desolation. “The Height of the Fighting” acts as both a satire of gung-ho militarism and a rallying cry for anti-capitalist insurgency. “We’re Going to Live for a Very Long Time” closes the album with a deceptively cheery portrait of the moral absolutism that follows fanatical religiosity. “Come and join the fun on the way to heaven, come and talk to God on the party line”, the chorus drones with sinister certainty, before fading out with the coda: “If you can’t be bothered then we don’t need you, we’re going to live for a very long time“, the last phrase of which repeats on an endless loop for the last minute of the song.
Compared to the knotty, acidic sound of Penthouse and Pavement, 1983’s The Luxury Gap is positively a tonic. It’s a more assured sound, streamlined and focused, less conceptually ripe — if, on balance, less interesting. The album’s strongest track is, surprisingly, its most overt concession to straight-forward pop, “Temptation”. Perhaps the group’s biggest hit (if you discount “Fascist Groove Thang”), and undoubtedly the song by which they are best remembered, it’s still a pretty remarkable construction, with a slow, almost halting verse offset by a propulsive, celebratory chorus that recalls the best vintage Motown. The fact that Marsh and Ware had evolved into excellent pop craftsmen did not necessarily dull their charm, even if it is impossible to imagine that the change sat well with established fans.
Unfortunately, nothing else on the album compares with “Temptation”. There are interesting bits throughout. “Who’ll Stop the Rain” brings to mind nothing so much as Stop Making Sense-era Talking Heads, with smooth new wave instrumentation and sweet melodies masking slightly disturbing minor-key movements underneath. “Let Me Go” is something of a throwback to the first album’s agit-prop, but targeting credit card companies and conspicuous consumption (hence the album title) is somehow less convincing than unloading both rounds on Margaret Thatcher. They do well with a few unabashed love songs. The album concludes with “The Best Kept Secret”, a surprisingly retro nod to string-soaked ’50s and ’60s balladry. In light of their early material it’s an odd choice, but it’s executed with enough skill that it seems, all things considered, only slightly implausible.
1984’s How Men Are represents a much fuller, far less tentative picture of the group’s sound. The contradictions have to a large part been reconciled by the passage of time: the ungainly, slightly stilted dance pop of Penthouse and Pavement had blossomed, in time, into the premiere pop sound of the ’80s. Somehow the revolutionary sounds of 1977 had metastasized into the confident pop of 1984. Heaven 17 were no longer the grenade-throwing radicals that they had been, but they had never been punks to begin with. What had begun as a subversive and hostile satire of conventional pop had become, in the space of only three years, conventional pop.
If that sounds critical, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. The warring impulses of art and protest had been in many ways the defining element of punk’s early years, and it’s no surprise that a movement which began with radical ideals ended up downplaying those same principles in favor of elaborate and experimental formalism. Radical politics are nowhere near as expressive a medium as music itself. The urgency of Heaven 17’s early material was overwhelmed by a more considered sense of craft and formal ingenuity. Although the mentality was still slightly ascetic in comparison to peers such as Duran Duran or David Bowie in his Let’s Dance phase, How Men Are still achieves a remarkably sophisticated sound. The hooks are strong and the melodies sweet (at times, as on “Sunset Now”, almost too sweet). A track like “This Is Mine” stands as a extraordinary composition, blending the best Latin-inspired new wave rhythm with the commanding Earth, Wind and Fire horn section and delicate vocal harmonies.
If How Men Are lacks the fire of their debut, and suffers despite the excellent production from a similar sound that robs many of the stronger cuts of their impact, it does have one thing that neither of the previous albums possess: “And That’s No Lie”, a ten minute epic of sustained tension and mood. Stretched to nearly three times the length of their average track, Heaven 17’s sound reached a kind of potency that moots the pop accessibility of the previous eight tracks. It’s the best track on the album, perhaps the group’s single finest moment. It’s the kind of prog-influenced synth-pop that Genesis would experiment with a few years later on the underrated Invisible Touch, fully incorporating the soul and funk that informed their more conventional pop tracks into a sprawling and convincingly powerful template.
All three albums come with a satisfying selection of the requisite b-sides and dance remixes. Of historical interest, Penthouse and Pavement also includes three tracks recorded for the B.E.F.’s debut release, the cassette only Music for Stowaways. Among these is an instrumental version of “Fascist Groove Thang” entitled, simply, “Groove Thang”, as well as the 12″ versions of early singles “Are Everything” and “I’m Your Money”. With the exception of the B.E.F. material none of the ancillary tracks are necessarily essential, but the group’s fans will be satisfied.
So how does a group go from “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing” to “And that’s No Lie” in the space of just three years? In a lot of ways it would be easy to argue that Heaven 17 were victims of their own success. The potency of their early material was eventually superseded by a confident and almost understated application of craft. To put it bluntly, they grew up. The sound that they pioneered became in just a few short years the most popular sound in pop, so if they are unjustly forgotten today it is probably because they had the misfortune to be doing the right thing at the exact right time. In hindsight it always seems more heroic to go against the grain. But really, the story of Heaven 17 is really just a small example of a much larger narrative that continues to be seen in pop music to this day: a loss of intensity in exchange for confidence and maturity. Whether or not what they lost is more valuable than what they gained is a question for the ages.