Heaven 17 – Play To Win: The Virgin Years (Edsel & Demon Group)

Heaven 17 – Play To Win: The Virgin Years (Edsel & Demon Group)


Have you heard it on the news? About this fascist groove thang? Evil men with racist views, spreading all across the land.”

Sound familiar? It could be only yesterday and yet this was 1981, have we learned nothing? I have to be honest – when this was first released, The Human League held far more appeal for me. Heaven 17 were a band for those senior to me, only 2-3 years, but that was enough. This band was sharp, political and this was a light that was yet to be ‘switched on’ in my psyche. Strange thing was both bands were born out of Sheffield, and had in fact been part of The Human League in their genesis, with the same hard hitting political views. I mean what was ‘Circus of Death‘, ‘Empire State Human‘ or ‘Being Boiled‘, from that band’s debut album, if not political? Although I’d yet to discover this, the far friendlier Dare was my only yardstick at the time.

This collection rounds up Heaven 17’s material while on the Virgin Label, and follows leaner re-releases of 13 years previous, although this time with the benefit of over 100 bonus tracks throughout the collection. Ware, Gregory and Marsh’s ground breaking 1981 debut was Penthouse And Pavement, which prior to its release had benefitted from a BBC Radio 1 ban in March of 1981 of the band’s debut single, ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang‘. A situation which would guarantee chart placing in later years as successors found, but in 1981 less so. It’s hard to believe now that this would be possible, but at the time the BBC was an extension of the nanny state and the BBC was the guardian of all that was good and proper, they were oft referred to as “Auntie Beeb”. This is a strange listen with the benefit of hindsight, and does reek of the spectre that was the ‘cold war’ at the time, or maybe it was authors such as George Orwell, that the band had soaked up during their education? Songs like ‘I’m Your Money‘ (not originally on the album, although it was the band’s second single in May of 1981) and then 3rd single ‘Play To Win‘ – sang of the band’s fanbase, perhaps soul boys and those reaping the ‘rewards’ in Thatcher’s early Britain – had to be one last laugh, considering Gregory’s left-leaning views.

This was originally a 9 track album, reaching no. 14 in the UK charts, spending 77 weeks in the top 100 and certified gold with 100,000 copies sold. This collection more than doubles the original content, containing 20 tracks featuring both A & B-sides, which to be honest tell a better story of the album, and gloriously feature the programming of synthesisers that will be familiar on the likes of ‘The Human League‘, where passages, obviously worked on in earlier projects, pop-up both here and on Dare.

The album that followed was one that achieved greater success, and yet to my mind didn’t possess the same cache as their debut. Perhaps this was assisted by a greater understanding within the establishment, namely avoiding tiresome product bans and allowing songs to be heard, the band becoming a force to be reckoned with. The Luxury Gap commenced with the politically charged ‘Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry‘, another of Gregory’s pied piper moments, although their music was doing more than politics could ever hope to play. This time although still playing a great part, synthesisers were giving way to brass and the soul boys were coming of age. I remember the moment the band took their place on Top Of The Pops, performing a lip-synced version of the no. 2 placed ‘Temptation‘, ably assisted by vocalist Carol Kenyon, making this the time that the 80’s, for me, were sent skyward. ‘Come Live With Me‘ was the track that followed, although not achieving the giddying heights of its predecessor, only reaching number 5, this was still a glorious moment of story telling by Gregory, in which the central character told his other half, “…All that kissing, there’s something missing, come live with me, kiss the boys goodbye.”, a coming of age in itself. This was a far more adventurous album, both lyrically and musically, with stories told by Gregory’s vocal, as well as musically by Ware & Marsh, with jazz passages heard on ‘Lady Ice and Mr Hex‘ and disco presented on the following number ‘We Live So Fast‘.

Again a 9 track album is made fuller, as a further 8 tracks vie for your attention. A 7” U.S. version of ‘Let Me Go‘ starts the bonus content, a pacier version of its original recording, followed by the 7” of the single that took many into their fold (including myself), that of ‘Temptation‘. Many of these bonus tracks are in fact just versions of the original and don’t really build an album that was any greater than before, more than just offer tunes for the completist – although I admit that this is probably where this collection as a whole pitches itself. One rather different element to this album’s bonus tracks, is that new versions of 2 tracks lifted from the band’s debut are included. These being ‘Let’s All Make A Bomb‘ and ‘Song With No Name‘, with a greater tempo than their originals and although out of place, will I am sure, as bonus numbers, be received gratefully.

How Men Are followed in 1984, an album that reached no. 12 in the UK and was certified silver, in terms of sales. The 2 singles that would be taken from the album, ‘Sunset Now’ and ‘This Is Mine’, would be the last original material to see chart success in the UK and reviewing this as an album, it’s easy to hear that the band were changing, perhaps unable to live up to the dizzying success they found in earlier years. Still very much the ‘soul boys’, the music was altering to match the times, although the lyrics were not quite as deep or perhaps relevant as was the case on earlier albums. ‘Reputation‘, a track in the closing stages of the album, was a story of celebrity of the time and rang of how excessive the 80’s had become. Here the album proper closed on a high point, with the 10 minute ‘And That’s No Lie‘, a song that had previously struggled just past the 6 minute mark. This rang of a Gregory, Marsh and Ware of old and was a shame that they had not followed on its path throughout the album.

Closing this expanded edition, a further 7 tracks have been assembled with both A & B-sides included. A 7” version of ‘This Is Mine‘, an edited version of ‘And That’s No Lie‘, as well as versions of tracks ‘Counterforce‘ and ‘Counterforce II‘ taking starting position of those B-sides, with ‘Skin‘ and ‘Mine‘ (versions of ‘The Skin I’m In‘ and ‘This Is Mine‘. Closing this affair is another passion of the 80s with an almost ‘Stars on 45‘ feel – ‘The Heaven 17 Megamix‘, something 80s artists and DJs gave to the world and I am so sorry for our children.

1986 saw Pleasure One, an album that was lead by the lowly UK single placing of ‘Contenders‘, although as a single had made a greater impact on the US charts. This was an album that had certainly seen a reinvigorated Heaven 17, although at the time it would appear their audience was yet to catch up. ‘Trouble‘ had followed ‘Contenders‘ on the album, as well as by single releases and again saw a super-charged band, not quite making the impact it should have done. Heaven 17 had grown, while their audience had moved on and by 1986 terms, not in a good way either.

This new version again features a further addition of 8 bonus tracks and includes the band’s duet with American Soul Singer Jimmy RuffinThe Foolish Thing To Do‘. This was a single released prior to the album and never quite made it onto Pleasure One‘. A definite key change could be heard, this was a soulful number through-and-through and would perhaps have sat somewhat awkwardly along the content of this album. Here it not only gets its album debut, but is accompanied by its B-side ‘My Sensitivity (Gets In The Way)‘, along with a further 12” and instrumental version of the single. ‘Excerpts From – Diary Of A Contender‘, rounds off the album and is basically spoken word diary notes from around the time – an interesting recollection indeed.

Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho‘, wraps up the original material on this set and is the band’s final 1988 release for the Virgin stable. ‘Big Square People‘ kicks off this album, with a tune fitting of the time and screams of how astute Heaven 17 had become over their career. Still political in nature, vocally illustrating what the 80s had become from the high flying financial – yet industrial decline of the early decade, to the realisation of Warhol’s “famous for 15-minutes” quote – something that continues today (even if its origin is now being questioned). Musically, still a very entertaining listen, although the band seem to have lost their original fervour & creativity somewhat. This affair was more a music-by-numbers product from one of the decades most memorable bands; the albums were becoming less cohesive as the years passed them by. Another 5 bonus tracks have been added here – versions of A-sides and further B-side content once more.

A ‘Demonstration Disc: The Lost Demos 1980” is next up, a 22 track collection of songs and bonus content that, as the title suggests, are perhaps the most important element of this set, with early versions of the band’s most famous tunes. I was eager to hear the final number of this set, the original demo of ‘Temptation‘, so skipped to the end first – most unethical! How could this be? I thought, this was a set of lost demos from 1980, when the single didn’t find its release until 1983!? But sure enough this fits perfectly with its timeline and was obviously a rough cut of the band’s most popular tune, from a time when electronics were yet to become available for a tune that would be made so much better.

We have been given the opportunity to peek behind the curtains here. For someone familiar with Ware and Marsh’s earlier work on ‘Reproduction‘ & ‘Travelogue‘, here it is easy to see how these early workings link so effortlessly with their predecessor. For anyone who has sat down at a synthesiser and hit the keys to discover exactly what it could do will be familiar with what is going on here. We all have to start somewhere, even if the vast majority of us will go no further, it is great to hear these early drafts, which may even act as inspiration. You may not have heard the likes of ‘Music To Kill Your Parents By‘, ‘Uptown Apocalypse‘, ‘A Baby Called Billy‘, or any number of the ‘…Experiments‘ but if you do please remember that these were created 40 years ago! And in this writer’s mind, they are still very worthwhile today.

Heaven 17 have always been a band whose origins have been firmly situated in the nightclub behind banks of electronic wizardry, creating musical pieces that have not only stood the test of time, but have acted as an inspiration to many who have gone after them. Ok so this may’ve been more the home of Martin Ware and Ian Craig Marsh than it was of vocalist Glenn Gregory, but this is why the 4 remaining discs heavily feature the “Dance” element of their sound. “Special Fortified Dance Mixes‘ as it is put, 48 tracks, in what is nearly 4 and a quarter hours of content (and yes I calculated all of these). Both UK and US versions of many familiar tunes, anything from 4’30” to those of almost 9’, where BPM is ramped and to use the proverbial quote “everything but the kitchen sink” is thrown at these numbers. These 4 discs are a veritable mine, which the audio nerd might throw themselves into for several days and still come out the other side still craving more. Heaven 17 are definitely a force who have defined their place in musical history and this is the telling of that story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.