Greetings, oh ye faithful followers of the Post-Punk Monk! I’m the … er … New Wave Knave, and I’ll be adding to the holy writ of … oh heck … hey gang, I’m chasinvictoria, as often seen in the comments section here, and while the Monk’s away on a well-deserved sabbatical, I’ll be filling in with some tales from my recent trip to the UK to see some of my (and your) favorite musical acts in a whirlwind trip I took last October, which included no less than two very special Heaven 17 gigs.
The first occurred on our second night in London, giving Mrs. Knave and I only one day of rest following our adventures in Iceland. We made our way to Camden Town to the legendary Jazz Cafe club, which featured a lovely bar and front room that functioned as a “quiet(er) area,” which lead directly into the modest stage and audience pit. Although it felt like a pretty small room by my standards, in fact the listed capacity was 420 and I would say they were under 100 people shy hitting that number, and yet I was never more than 10 meters away from the band, up against the back wall. As you can imagine, moving around was tricky — though as always, the locals of Camden are a friendly and boisterous lot and tolerated my jostling to occasionally get drinks or snap a photo.
Heaven 17 were playing a two-night stand at the Cafe, and 5-October was the first of the two shows. Because we had social engagements, we didn’t attend the second night’s show … which I later discovered to my chagrin was more than a little different from the first night! Yes, this is the same Jazz Cafe where the band recorded and offered a merch-and-site-only CD of their performance a year earlier, in 2015 … and those who are lucky enough to own that set will find that the playlist this time was not all that different, but just more of it.
The five-piece arrived on stage to thunderous applause, and announced that they would be begin with a brand new song from their new single. I had been completely unaware of this development, so I was very excited to be among the first crowd ever to hear “Unseen,” and the song was both a wonderful new entry in the H17 catalog and well-received by the audience.
Following this early triumph, they launched into an array of hits, starting off with a personal favorite, “Being Boiled“ from the Human League days. While Glenn Gregory and Phil Oakey are similar singers on some levels, and hearing Phil sing this song is always a thrill, Glenn and Martyn seem to take a special pleasure in wiping the floor with their faithful-but-kicking-it-up-a-notch versions. Glenn sang it as though it had always been written for him, one of his uncanny trademark abilities with a wide range of material. Martyn and Glenn took a moment to introduce “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thing,” lamenting that it was even more relevant now than when they wrote it (to cheers), and proceeded to do it absolutely faithfully to the recorded version. With only the most minor variations in phrasing (and the addition of Godfrey), most songs stayed pretty close to their original arrangements, and the sound level of the Cafe was clear and never excessive, a precious gift in these days of “bass fracking” and deaf soundboard operators who “crank it” to foundation-shaking volumes. The luxury of synth bands and their relative lack of corrupting midrange makes it possible to be quite loud without having to be piercingly painful in their volume. Not to mention that H17 is blessed, truly, with one of the most beautiful male voices for this kind of music ever heard.
Following “Fascist,” the band plowed through magnificent versions of “We Live So Fast,” “Crushed by the Wheels of Industry” (much abetted by Godfrey’s and Mosleh’s vocals), “Sunset Now,” and “Come Live With Me.” Gregory took a brief time to chat and make the crowd feel even more at home, before letting us know they were going to do a few “different” things tonight. Thus, they led off the next set with “Dive” (from Bigger Than America), followed by “Crow + a Baby,” again from Ware’s Human League years. The set capped off with Ware introducing (and leaving the keyboard to sing alongside Gregory) “the Human League version” of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling,” prompting a short exchange making a bit of fun (not especially mean-spirited, though) of Phil Oakey. The HL version is of course quite slow, minimalist, and stripped-down, which threatened to bring down the mood — but Ware and Gregory kept playing at being all “lovey-dovey” with each other as they duetted, which went over as very funny with the working-class crowd. It was clearly a meaningful song (and version) to Ware.
The remainder of the main set offered a nice variety of mostly early material, starting off with How Men Are’s “And That’s No Lie” before segueing into “Let’s All Make a Bomb,” “Pray” (their first song from the long-awaited new album), and then upping their game with “Play to Win,” “Penthouse & Pavement” and — as required by law! — “Temptation.” By this point the crowd had been going bananas with ecstasy for quite some time, but this ending number never fails to blow the absolute roof off both whatever venue they’re playing at as well as the entire funk/soul genre with its sonic and vocal perfection.
For the encore, Glenn and Berenice alone came out, with Glenn introducing his stunning rendition of “Party Fears Two” by mentioning his and Scott’s guesting with Holy Holy, and his friendship with Associates leader Billy McKenzie. If you’ve never heard Gregory’s outstanding cover the song, it is of course very different to McKenzie’s — but manages to be its own thing, chilling and reminiscent and a beautiful tribute all at the same time. While it is a very “quiet” song to do (particularly following “Temptation”), it was the first time in the evening you could have heard a pin drop in the room.
The finale, though, was a momentous occasion indeed: the debut of H17’s version of Visage’s “Fade to Grey,” in honor of course of their colleague Steve Strange, who had passed away in mid-February of the previous year. It was exactly what you’d expect: a very faithful cover with that special Heaven 17 touch. Gregory mentioned at the song’s end that we were the first people in the world to have heard it, and thus far it appears we are still a pretty exclusive club. I captured the second half of it on my iPhone (from whence all these pictures also came), but I feel it best not to make it available online. Let’s hope the forthcoming album will include it.
As you can see, it was a marvelous and fairly intimate gig with a fair amount of chatter between songs, lots of funny interplay between Ware and Gregory, and a sizable list of killer songs. The second night, which we did not attend, covered a bit of the same ground but was substantially different, including an almost entirely new first half that consisted of the “BEF theme” as an intro, followed by “Circus of Death” (again from the Human League), “Captured” from the new single, “Geisha Boys and Temple Girls,” “Contenders,” “Trouble” and “The Black Hit of Space” (!!!). They also did “Illumination,” “The Best Kept Secret,” “We’re Going to Live for a Very Long Time,” “I’m Your Money” (!!!!) and “Let Me Go” in the main set. All fine and dandy, but it was the second-night encore I would have given a kidney to be present for, as they did “Life on Mars?” and “Boys Keep Swinging” (!!!!!) in tribute to Bowie, and finished the night out with “Being Boiled.”
And yet … the best was yet to come! Next up: Heaven 17 and BEF — live in Birmingham!
Sounds great, I think Heaven 17 radiate a love of playing live, ironic considering how late they came to it, I defy anyone not to enjoy one of their gigs!
I think they had to wait for the technology to catch up to them to make it possible to play the way they wanted to, but boy have they been making up for it since that happened!
It’s obvious the blog is in good hands. A most enjoyable read, Chas. Probably too much to hope for more than the couple of stops we are being treated to in America.
I’m hoping this mini-tour is a “test run” for a future larger invasion. OMD have a new album coming out, maybe those two together could make a US (and Canada!) tour worthwhile … ?
chasinvictoria – H17 and OMD??!! Sign me up! Martyn Ware mooted a US tour with DEVO some years back which I would still strongly approve of, for what its worth.