Sunday Times 3th August 2008
Human League, ABC and Heaven 17 are joining forces for a blast from the synth-pop past.
Martin Fry of ABC takes one look at the steel girders, rusty stairwells and derelict warehouses that can be seen from the roof of the building in east London where he’s having his photo taken, and his prehistory as a pioneer of rumbling proto-electronica comes flooding back. “It’s like Sheffield up here,” he laughs, remembering a time when Britain’s fifth city was synonymous with terms such as “bleak” and “industrial”.
Another rangy singer from an early-1980s South Yorkshire funk-pop crew, Glenn Gregory, arrives with his Heaven 17 colleague Martyn Ware, while a fourth man in a suit, also being photographed, stands a few yards away.
He is flanked by two women — one blonde, in a little black cocktail dress, the other brunette, with a hint of goth — and his head, which once sported the nation’s most famous haircut (notable for its asymmetric fringe), is now shaved. When Gregory catches sight of the trio, he wants to burst into song. “Every time I see Phil [Oakey] and the girls, I start singing Don’t You Want Me,” he says, humming the synthesized bass refrain to the Human League’s 1981 hit.
There was a time when the whole country, indeed much of the planet, was singing the songs of the Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC. Between 1981 and 1984, hits such as Don’t You Want Me, Love Action, Temptation, Come Live with Me, Poison Arrow, The Look of Love and All of My Heart provided the perfect soundtrack to love and dancing. They put Sheffield on the map; it became the thriving centre of melodic synth-pop and smart white funk.
Two decades ahead of Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party et al, these were records designed by musicians from the alternative sector, destined for high-street clubs. They helped effect the shift from dark, dolorous post-punk to the bright new pop world of Smash Hits and MTV. Little did those Smash Hits readers know that all three groups, before becoming exponents of escapist fantasies, were making an extreme electronic racket, using ideas gleaned from art-house movies and underground comics, and sounds that followed punk’s “noise annoys” dictum, but with synthesizers, not guitars.
Gregory was doing time with Musical Vomit (described by Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex as the first punk band); Oakey, Ware and fellow studio boffin Ian Craig Marsh were still all together in the Human League; while Fry joined the League acolytes Vice Versa. Ware had a motto, “Destroy all guitars”, to go with the League’s menacing synth mantras and dystopian world-view. They oozed future dread even as they proposed a way forward for rock’n’roll.
Suddenly, Sheffield’s seven hills were alive with the clatter and hum of this rudimentary computer pop. It was a quite different response to life in a northern town from the one you get these days from purveyors of trad indie rock such as Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys. “Well, we’re not professional northerners,” Ware says. “That’s a bit disrespectful to Arctic Monkeys, because they’re really good, but it’s a bit like being a professional cockney.” The League didn’t use local colloquialisms to sing about “riot vans” and “mardy bums”, not because they were removed from that milieu, but because, as Ware says: “It was too depressing to sing about.”
No less working-class than today’s guitar-toting poet ruffians, Ware got a job as a trainee manager with the Co-op, then as a computer operator. Gregory, part of the multimedia arts and theatre company Meatwhistle, would turn up with the other Human League members during Ware’s night shifts and throw parties while he operated his computer. “That,” he explains, “is where we got the idea of us as these technological beings.”
It is also where they got the notion that, musically speaking, the future would be synthesized — harsh, cold sounds, created on keyboards, reflecting a harsh, cold environment. “Sheffield has always been infused with industrial sounds,” Ware says. “I remember lying in bed with the windows open and hearing the steel forges going all night. That continual industrial soundscape must have bled into our psyche.”
Being in Sheffield as it experienced a catastrophic decline in the steel industry proved advantageous for the League. “There were lots of these small, grubby industrial units dotted all around the city,” Ware recalls. “You could get rehearsal space for a fiver a week.”
Like the punks in London and elsewhere, they were being resourceful, finding
ways out of the poverty trap — but there the similarities end. “We were never really punk,” says Susan Ann Sulley, who, along with Joanne Catherall, joined the League after Ware and Craig Marsh left to form Heaven 17. “Punk was too aggressive.” It was also, for Ware, deeply old-fashioned, with its guitars, bass, drums and predictable chord structures. Yet punk’s DIY ethos did appeal to Sheffield’s synth-futurists. “We were what punk set out to be,” Sulley says. “It was a load of people who didn’t have much musical talent getting together and DIY-ing it all the way through. We didn’t go to music school or art school; we just said, ‘We believe in this. We can do this.’ ” According to Oakey, the League’s lack of musical prowess was a blessing. “We didn’t play any instruments,” he says, “so we constructed our records using synthesizers and computers. We were the first programmed group.”
They were programmed to destruct: in late 1980, they split in two after it was decided that no single act could accommodate Ware and Oakey’s warring egos, so Ware and Craig Marsh pursued an electronic-funk direction with Heaven 17, while Oakey recruited his director of visuals, Adrian Wright, and the girls, and created the synth-pop Abba. As for Fry, he left behind the burbling synths of Vice Versa to form ABC, casting himself as a sort of post-punk, post-disco Sinatra, employing the producer Trevor Horn to realise his impossibly grand schemes for a new-romantic pop. While Heaven 17, with their parent company, British Electric Foundation, reimagined the pop group as corporation, presenting themselves as ponytailed businessmen on the sleeve of their debut album, Penthouse and Pavement, and the Human League were being subversively glamorous on the cover of their third LP, Dare, ABC offered an ironic take on luxury with their lavish first album, The Lexicon of Love.
“It was a different age,” says Fry of ABC’s slick, sophisticated dance sound, which aspired to the polish and grandeur of Michael Jackson’s recordings with Quincy Jones. Compared to today’s gritty guitar bands and their musical vérité, ABC were “much more aspirational. There was a lot to escape from in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was grim”.
It was Sheffield’s grimness that made ABC, the League and Heaven 17 so desperate to escape, via their rich fantasy pop, both their home town and the rock tradition. “We were influenced by krautrock, Giorgio Moroder’s sequenced dance music, disco, glam — anything but rock,” Oakey says. “We saw it as our mission to get away from that.”
Ware has similar thoughts. “Our thrusting futurism was all about our desperation to get out of Sheffield,” he says. “We were providing an optimistic example for our peers, saying, ‘You can get out of this mire.’ And that fitted with our anti-hippie idea. It was part of our mission to destroy rock’n’roll.”
ABC, too, were about escapism and extravagant ambition, but their aesthetic was misconstrued as materialist indulgence, especially after they made their commercial breakthrough at the dawn of the yuppie era. Really, though, it was about self-reinvention: lopsided haircuts, gold lamé suits, ponytails and all. “It was big choruses, big hair, big shoulder pads, big everything,” Fry says. “But that’s because our generation lacked self-esteem. We thought we were invisible. That’s why it was so peacock and loud. But it was all home-made — it was all from jumble sales.”
Now, 30 years on, a new generation of synth renegades is forming in Sheffield, distressed by the luddite conventions of Arctic Monkeys and their ilk, and inspired by the futurist spirit of the early League. Bands such as Pygmy Globetrotters, Darlings of the Splitscreen, Hiem and Kings Have Long Arms are using junk-shop keyboards and cheap laptops to offer a digital update of budget analogue pop. “There’s a great DIY vibe up here in Sheffield,” says Ian Turley, of Pygmy Globetrotters. “We’re not about having hits; we’re about not having much money, it’s raining most of the time, someone’s got a studio, so let’s have a party.”
It’s a party, Turley says, with a capital A-R-T. “It’s not geared towards filling a dancefloor, it’s about making electronic music that we like in our bedrooms.” And it wouldn’t have been possible without synth-pop’s crucial three, who tour together this winter in a bid to reaffirm their electro-terrorist roots. “Heaven 17, ABC and the Human League are the founders,” he says. “People say punk was the big change, but to people in Sheffield, they are the pioneers. They’re as important to us as the Sex Pistols.”