Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Quality and Distinction: Heaven 17 and British Electric Foundation

The first release from Heaven 17 was a full-blown protest song, "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang", written in the gap between Reagan's election in November and his inauguration early in 1981. "Fascist Groove Thang" received a huge amount of press attention, and its catchy-as-hell electronic ersatz of disco-funk looked set to chart big. But the BBC grew nervous that lines like 'Reagan's President Elect/Fascist guard in motion' were slanderous and an unofficial Radio One ban effectively halted the single's rise just short of the Top 40.

Heaven 17 - (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang 1981

To differentiate themselves from The Human League and put distance between Heaven 17 and the overdone synthpop sound, the duo of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh developed for the debut album Penthouse and Pavement a pop-funk that merged state-of-the-art electronics with real bass and guitar. For "Fascist Groove Thang" they wanted a jazzy, sincopated bassline similar to the bass break in Chic's "I Want Your Love".

Chic - I Want Your Love 1978

Heaven 17's next single, the brilliant "I'm Your Money", was also something of a consciousness-raiser, transposing the language of business on to love and marriage ('I'm offering you the post of wife') à la Gang of Four's "Contract".

Heaven 17 - I'm Your Money 1981

Songs like "Play to Win" were also driven by an urge to throw off the shackles of Northern working-class inverted snobbery: Sheffield's traditional 'begrudgery', as Ware puts it, towards those who move to London to become big shots.

Heaven 17 - Play to Win 1981

The album's title track concerns the paradoxes of middle-class people trying to be 'street-credible' and the working classes wanting to rose to the top. 'That song is about social inequality, but also about the excitement of actually trying to make it. Not necessarily becoming rich, which is how it was interpreted - wrongly - by many people.

Heaven 17 - Penthouse and Pavement 1981

These ambiguities came to the fore with Penthouse's witty cover image - a painting, depicting the group as tie-wearing executives discussing business plans and negotiating deals, based on a corporate advertisement Marsh found in Newsweek. On the front, the logo of the production company BEF (British Electric Foundation) appeared above the slogan 'The New Partnership - That's opening doors all over the world', while the words 'Sheffield. Edinburgh. London' were placed directly under the Heaven 17 brand name. 
Posing as a multinational was simultaneously a send-up, wish fulfillment and an act of rock criticism. 'We were debunking the mythology of the musician as this wandering minstrel who gets ripped off by the record company and gets paid to take drugs all the time', says Ware. 'A reality check - Bob Dylan may think he's a rebel, but he's actually a multinational asset. Anybody who signs to a major label is part of a huge business machine. The idea was: "Let's get rid of all this hypocrisy of 'We're artists, we don't care about the money'. Let's strip the façade bare and have a look at what's underneath - handshakes, signing contracts, busy-ness'.

The next BEF's project, Music of Quality and Distinction, Volume One, consisted entirely of pop classics remade by BEF and most of the songs were collaborations with famous singers. It played some neat pop-critical games. Sandie Shaw covered "Anyone who Had a Heart", a tune generally associated with her sixties rival Cilla Black; Billy MacKenzie attempted to outdo his idol/prototype Bowie on a remake of "The Secret Life of Arabia" from 'Heroes'. But, apart from Tina Tuner's tour de force take on The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion", the new versions failed to surpass the originals.

BEF presents Billy MacKenzie - The Secret Life of Arabia 1982

BEF featuring Tina Turner - Ball of Confusion 1982

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