Heaven 17 want to tempt you to Jack Up The Summer retro festival BIG INTERVIEW: ‘We try and keep it fresh – it’s not just a nostalgia exercise… ’
For some, the notoriety of having a song banned by Radio 1 was enough to catapult it to number one.
In early 1984, for example, it helped propel Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax to the top.
But when Auntie banned Heaven 17’s debut single (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang in 1981, the track stalled just outside the all-important top 40. The song, an ironic denunciation of fascism and racism, was apparently banned over concerns that it libelled then American president Ronald Reagan.
‘That was (Radio 1 DJ) Mike Read,’ recalls Heaven 17 co-founder Martyn Ware. Read has since gone on to be vocal Ukip supporter. ‘It makes perfect sense really, doesn’t it?’ he laughs.
‘We thought that was going to be a big hit, and in some instances, being banned by the BBC for sexual references and things like that actually lit the blue touch paper to huge success. But in our case because it was more political, it killed it stone dead.’
The song has, however, gone on to become one of the pioneering electronic act’s most popular numbers.
‘What makes me laugh is that several times a week we get people from all over the world saying we should rerelease this tune, but I kind of think it would look a bit cheesy if we did. We’ll just leave it in the vaults as an example, as a warning of where things could go and of where we are right now, and how we’ve ended up there in this country – and in America. And I don’t think it’s going to get any better in the near future unless we have a general election.’
It should make it interesting then when Heaven 17 appear at this year’s Jack Up The Summer festival on the Isle of Wight – and Read is the day’s compere…
But Martyn, along with his compatriot, singer Glenn Gregory, will be all about the music and having some fun. Heaven 17 will be appearing alongside Nick Heyward, Aswad, Doctor and The Medics and more on the ’80s-themed day. Sunday’s ’90s day will feature East 17, Republica and 911 among others.
And Martyn says they have no problem with the rise of the nostalgia festival circuit.
‘First of all, anyone who’s snotty about them, don’t do it – that’s the simple solution. We are the opposite, we are very proud of our legacy.
‘It gives me a great deal of pleasure in seeing an increasing number of people loving what we used to do. We try and keep it fresh by doing new arrangements, so it’s not just a simple nostalgia exercise, as anyone who comes to see us regularly will tell you, we constantly try and update things. But we acknowledge that people want to hear the original tunes, and why shouldn’t they?’
The band was created by Martyn and Ian Marsh when they left The Human League in 1980 – leaving vocalist Phil Oakey the name – and recruiting Glenn. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that they ever performed live.
‘Me and Ian performed for two and a bit years with The Human League, and we did lots of tours with Siouxsie and The Banshees and Iggy Pop and Pere Ubu and all sorts of different people. In those days you had to pay to get on to tours as a support – we did headline tours as well – but the point is we lost a lot of money. Well, it wasn’t our money, but it increased our debt to the record label.
‘We just decided when we started Heaven 17 that our strength was in the studio. We had seen the way a few of our contemporaries had developed into acts that were constantly touring and we didn’t want to go in that direction. An example is Simple Minds, and I suppose Depeche Mode, who turned into stadium acts, and everyone was making a lot of money, but in essence it would have made us quite unhappy to have had to do it.
‘That cycle of making an album and touring it and going straight back into the studio and doing that every two years was something we just weren’t interested in.
‘And it coincided with MTV being launched, so we thought if we’re going to get into debt with the record company we’d rather do it by making really good videos and service lots of markets simultaneously.’
It was their second album, the platinum-selling The Luxury Gap and it’s huge hit single Temptation, which made them bona fide stars. The single has become a radio and clubland staple – it also appeared in a key scene in the original Trainspotting film. And it provides the finale to the band's live set.
‘We do a pretty phenomenal version of it live, I have to say, and we’re pretty lucky, there’s myself and Glenn and the rest of the band is beautiful, prodigiously talented young women.
‘We make a big deal out of it when we play it, there’s a massive intro and everybody goes crazy. What’s not to like about it?
‘I really genuinely don’t understand people who don’t like performing their own music and people enjoying it, it doesn’t make any sense to me.’
While there has been a series of 12-inch single releases from the band, don’t hold your breath on a full new album any time soon.
‘Me and Glenn have separate successful businesses and we have bills to pay. He’s doing very well with TV and film music, and I’m doing very well with my company, Illustrious (co-founded with Vince Clarke of Erasure) doing immersive three-dimensional soundscapes for big installations.
‘Really we’re very busy doing those and we always vowed to ourselves that if we did a new album we wanted to be in the same room at the same time and doing it in the real fashion, not just emailing each other stuff and doing it half-arsed.
‘And to put it bluntly, pretty much all we’ve got left is our legacy now. We don’t want to spoil it by putting out something substandard. If we can’t devote time to it properly, we’d rather not bother.’
That’s not to say either Martyn or Glenn has turned their back on creating new music. The act was born from a wave of musicians who were using technology to push music in new directions, and Martyn has continued that ethos.
‘Historically one of my major inspirations was somebody like (Roxy Music founder and famed musical polymath) Brian Eno who always had a broad range of interests that went beyond the directly commercial – but he also had a love of pop music, and that seemed like an ideal way of approaching things. And Talking Heads too, they’re another one.
‘People categorise it as art-rock, which is patronising nonsense, frankly. We never went to art college, we never went to university.
‘I view it as a constantly re-skilling, and the reason we formed Illustrious in 2000 was because I could see which way the wind was going in the pop music industry, it was more and more boy bands and TV-based stuff.
‘I thought: I could make money out of that, but do I want to go to my grave creating a whole bunch of stuff just for money?
‘I wanted to get back to what excited me about making music in the first place, and that was looking towards the future, and I thought immersive sound was the future, so we got involved in that.
‘We’ve been doing some amazing work for the past 20 years.’
Jack Up The Summer retro festival takes place from August 9-11, at North Fairlee Farm on The Isle of Wight. Tickets for Friday’s Ultimate Ska Wars are £15, Saturday and Sunday combined tickets are £60, or £44 per day. Children 13-17 half price, 12 and under, free. Online fees apply. Go to jackupthesummer.co.uk.