Songwriter Interviews

Martyn Ware of Heaven 17

by Dan MacIntosh

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In 1981, Martyn watched his former band, The Human League, score a transatlantic #1 hit with "Don't You Want Me," a song that also boiled over to MTV. The Human League's original lineup broke up in 1980, with Ware and Ian Craig Marsh forming Heaven 17 with Glenn Gregory. Co-founder Phil Oakey retained legal rights to the Human League name, and went on to become one of the most successful proponents of synth-pop music. Adding female vocalists Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall to the mix, he scored additional he-said, she-said hits with "Love Action" and "Human."

Heaven 17 (comprised of Marsh, Ware and Gregory, who had been the original choice to sing lead for The Human League) also made synth-pop, but instead of singing about love and romance, this trio often sang about more serious political matters (the name was drawn from Anthony Burgess' novel A Clockwork Orange). Although the video for the single "Let Me Go" was in heavy rotation on the then-new MTV and garnered airplay on Los Angeles' KROQ-FM and New York's WLIR, the group never had commercial success equal to The Human League.

In addition to forming Heaven 17, Ware was also one of the producers that helped revive the career of the soul-rock great, Tina Turner, even contributing to her comeback album, Private Dancer. Yet it's doubtful that even the average Turner fan is aware of this fact.

It's hardly surprising, then, that Ware's most recent project is the third album in his Music of Quality and Distinction series; a collection where Ware matches some of his favorite singers with many of his favorite songs. This album was recorded under the name B.E.F., which stands for British Electric Foundation. It's part band, part production company and was formed with Ware's Heaven 17 partner, Ian Crag Marsh. In addition to the albums, the act has also released multiple singles, and always manages to match important songs with equally important vocalists.
Dan MacIntosh (Songfacts): Let's start with your production work, and your work with Tina Turner. Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how you first connected with her, and then secondly, how was that experience?

Martyn Ware: When I split from The Human League, I decided to form a production company called British Electric Foundation. It was kind of a novel idea at the time. We – myself and Ian Marsh, from Human League as well – believed that what we did was like a template for the future, really, with electronic-pop, soul – whatever you choose to call it. So we did a kind of manifesto album with lots of famous singers. I picked my favorite songs and did them in our style. Rang up a lot of singers, and most of them said 'yes.'

We were just about to finish the album and had one track left, which was "Ball of Confusion," originally by The Temptations, and I was to fly over to Atlanta to record it with James Brown. And the day before I was due to fly out, James Brown's lawyers rang up and said, "James wants his royalty on all the tracks on the album." (laughter) And we said, "That's not gonna happen." Of course, I was gutted because I love James Brown. I was looking forward to it and I was kind of sad and I sat at Virgin, kind of depressed.

One of the bigwigs at Virgin walked in the office and said, "Oh, I'm going to L.A. tomorrow" – because we were trying to think of somebody else to do the song. It was our last track on the album. We had to get it finished. And he said, "What do you think about Tina Turner, 'cause she's a friend of mine?" And as luck would have it, I'd just seen her perform in London doing the "Proud Mary," cabaret styled show, and I was blown away. I thought she was amazing! And I couldn't believe she didn't have a record contract at that point. I thought, 'What's the downside to this? At least you get to meet her.' And I love her voice, anyway. "River Deep, Mountain High" is one of my all time favorite songs. So I said, 'Yeah, cool.' And the next thing I know, we went over to meet her in L.A. and we got on really well. And then she came over to London and recorded "Ball of Confusion," which was on the B.E.F. Music of Quality and Distinction, Volume 1 album. There was a classic moment where she and [her manager] Rodger Davis walked into the studio and she said, "Martyn, nice to meet you. Where is the band?" And I pointed at the Fairlight and I said, "It's there." Of course, this was the early days of that stuff. They were blown away, really.

That's how I met her and then, of course, when it came to picking producers for Private Dancer, they approached me because they liked what we did. They said, "Would you be interested in writing a song for Private Dancer?" And I said, "Well, we don't really write for other people." We felt a bit self-conscious because we thought that what we did was our particular thing. It wasn't just an arrogance thing; it was, like, 'God, how would we start writing a song for Tina Turner?' Seriously. She was a legend in our eyes. I said, "Well, I don't really feel confident with that, but I really would like to do a cover version, or a couple of cover versions, so we ended up drawing up a shortlist.

She was staying in London at the time, and the one track I really wanted to do with her was "Let's Stay Together" because I thought she had turned her back a little bit on her soul roots - she clearly wanted to be a rock singer. I said, "Look, as far as I'm concerned Tina, you are still one of the greatest soul singers in the world." And I said, "What were your influences when you were growing up?" And she said, "Otis Redding, Sam Cooke." And I said, "How would you feel about "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green?" And she jumped at the idea. And I also suggested something more contemporary because I knew she really liked David Bowie. I said, "Why don't we do "1984"?" because this is in 1982. I thought, 'Very contemporary,' right? It's coming up. It's a topical subject. It puts her right flat back in the middle and looking very, very cool and modern. And I love the song anyway from Diamond Dogs, so that's how we did it. "Let's Stay Together" became the biggest selling 12 inch record in America when it was released.

Songfacts: Let's go back to Heaven 17. I think the reason why I encountered that group was because we had just gotten MTV in our house and I saw your videos. There weren't that many videos at the time on MTV, so they showed a lot of your videos. I don't know if you ever made that much of an impact over here in America.

Martyn: Well, the thing was, when we did The Human League for about two years, we did a lot of touring in Europe. We never did anything in America, except for one PA, which we did at Studio 54, which is kind of legendary. We'd never had any intention for touring with Heaven 17 because we lost quite a bit of money touring - un-recouped stuff. It was the start of MTV, and we figured that with the money that we would have spent on tour support, why don't we – in a very modern way - service all the world's markets simultaneously with spending that money on making good videos?

It worked, in terms of making us internationally popular. But America at that time was still wrapped up with the idea of touring bands. Because we didn't tour, we had a negative impact on the record company and the system in general taking us seriously. 'Who are these weird English dudes who refuse to tour? Who the hell do they think they are? So it generally had a negative effect on sales. Having said that, the hipsters liked us in New York and L.A. and San Francisco - on the coasts, really. But because we never really toured, we never 'broke' in America, in that sense.

Songfacts: My favorite song of Heaven 17 is "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang." Do you recall the experience of writing that song and what factors kind of influenced you to put that one together?

Martyn: Okay. This is quite a unique situation if you imagine that there has just been a big, acrimonious split between Ian and I and Phil from the original Human League. We were in a kind of arms race to see who could get the first single out, and we were both recording in the same studio. We were doing night shifts; they were doing day shifts. I was amazingly motivated, of course, because I was just so angry with the whole thing, so we were really going to do a thing that was going to cause a stir here.

We had a set of rules with the original Human League where everything had to be totally electronically generated. We didn't really get involved in real world issues or politics or any kind of love songs. It restricted what we did, in an interesting way. So it was like a big release - we could do whatever we wanted with Heaven 17. Suddenly, the chains were off.

We were all committed socialists. Still are. That's a dirty word now, but I still believe in it. Our fathers were trade unionists. That was a very important part of our life in Sheffield. Sheffield is a very left wing city, anyway. It was really weird because we were also going to parties where what we were listening to all the time was American dance music. I mean, black dance music. I hesitate to use the term R&B because it means something entirely different now. Back in the day, bands like Cameo, Parliament/Funkadelic were really gods to us. That was like psychedelic black music in America, as well.

We wanted to do something that was funky because we loved the funk, so we started off with that as an idea: let's do this really fast. Nobody's really got anything out there that's, like, 160 BPM. We used the Burroughs cut up method for making lyrics, as an inspirational start anyway. There was a magazine called Record Mirror in the UK that had a dance chart, or a disco chart as they called it in those days. We were all big fans of disco music, even though it was out of fashion then. But we didn't care. So we looked at all the titles. It wasn't all disco, there was some credible stuff. It ranged from stuff like, "Let's All Chant," to deep, more like Sly & the Family Stone-type stuff. We looked at all these titles because we loved the terminology. It was all very mysterious to us with words like hip talk, slang. That's why we came up with "thang" as a part of the title. We were so excited to have "thang" in there because it was a really cool word.

We started out jamming together loads of these cut up titles and coming up with ridiculous lines for the song, like, "Heart USA/I feel your power." What the hell does that mean? I mean, really, what does it mean? We just thought it was a comedy song. I know people will read meaning into it.

Then, as we got more into writing the lyrics, we thought, 'Wouldn't it be great to have some real world people in there?' We were obsessed with Reagan coming into power and the specter of Margaret Thatcher coming into power and those were some very genuine concerns. The whole world was going to be blown to smithereens. It seems a little melodramatic now, but it was a genuine thing at the time if you remember. So we thought, "It's time for action here. We're all political people. It's time to walk the walk." So as it evolved, the songwriting – it only took two days to write – it turned into this really bizarre hybrid of politics and dancing and comedy and black American soul influence.

Although you may not guess this from listening to frothy pop songs like "Don't You Want Me," the original Human League was more of an art-rock project at its beginning. The band was committed to being a purely electronic act, sticking with their synths and declaring guitars "archaic and antique." However, vocalist Phil Oakey wanted to draw more on contemporary pop music. Surprisingly, both Heaven 17 (Ware's spin off group) and The Human League began to sound much more poppy once they split.
And then the icing on the cake was we wanted a bass solo in the middle eight. We thought it would be really cool to go with the electronics, but we didn't know any real musicians at all because we were basically just kids messing around with the tape recorder and synths. At the time Glenn was working at the local theater in town in his spare time to make ends meet - because we weren't paying ourselves very much - at a place called The Crucible where the world snooker tournament was going on as well. He went into the greenroom. He said, 'Oh, I'll ask around because it's theatrical people, there's bound to be a musician in there somewhere.' He walked into the greenroom of the theater and said, "Does anybody play bass?" Literally. This is not some apocryphal story. This is literally what happened. And one of the stage hands [John Wilson] was this young guy who had just started, 17 years old. Black guy. Very shy, quiet was reading the newspaper. He put his hand up without looking up: "I play a little bit of bass." We asked him to come down because we just wanted to see if the idea would work. He said, "Oh, I'll go and get my bass. I just bought one last week. I bought it for 20 quid, so it's not a very good bass." It really doesn't matter. It's just the idea. We want to see if it will work. So he came down and the first thing he played was the solo in the middle of "Fascist Groove Thang" and we all went, excuse my language, 'Fucking hell!' Literally, in my entire life my jaw's never hit the floor. All of us, we were going, "This is phenomenal!" And so I said, "Would you like to see if you can play some bass on the rest of the tune?" And he went, "Sure."

So everything you hear on "Fascist Groove Thang" is first take. Honest to god, we were aficionados in Northern soul and American funk and this was like God going, "It's your time." We're not religious, but it was like the hand of God coming down with a big finger pointing, going "This guy's an angel. A musical angel that's just landed."

After he finished the bass on the track, he said, "Is that alright?" I said, "I think it was alright." "Because," he said, "It's not really my main instrument." I said, "What? What's your main instrument?" "Oh," he said, "I'm a rhythm guitarist." And I said, "Do you think you might want to go home and bring your guitar in, like, right now?" So he came back in and he sat down and plugged it in. And I said, "I think we'd like something that sounds a little bit like Chic." I knew it would be good because this kid's got the funk, but it was on another level. I've since talked to Nile Rodgers about this and he says, "Wow, that kid is just awesome."

Songfacts: That's quite a compliment because Niles is the coolest.

Martyn: Every time I meet a famous bass player, the first thing they say to us is, 'Who was that kid that played on "Fascist Groove Thang?" Flea, and various people I've talked to. Top quality, internationally famous session players, it's the first question they ask. That was just pure luck.

Songfacts: Or fate.

Martyn: Or fate. You make your own, I suppose. But, wow! We've worked with some fantastic bass players since then but nobody – and I don't think anybody we've worked with would probably argue – nobody has come close.

Songfacts: The latest British Electric Foundation album is Music Of Quality And Distinction, Vol. 3: Dark. The first thing I thought after I listened through it and then looked at the credits was that I did not guess that that was Boy George on his two tracks.

Martyn: That's funny because several people have treated this as kind of a musical test. A lot of the people listen to the album and go, "Can I guess who these singers are?" before they even look at the album cover. You're not the first person who has done this. You're actually the fourth or fifth person that hasn't recognized Boy George's voice.

Songfacts: Did he change his voice for it, or is that just how he sounds now?

Martyn: He sounds like he smokes forty cigars a day, doesn't he? It's hard for me to tell. He's changed a lot recently. He used to be kind of weighty, and he's lost a load of weight. He looks super hot now and he's right back on track again. He's given up drugs and everything. He doesn't drink. Macrobiotic guy. He's gone the exact opposite and he's super happy. He used to be on Virgin with me, so I've known him for 30 years.

I think when your body goes through those kind of changes, it takes a while. It's like you have new false teeth or something. I would imagine it's difficult for him to adapt with that kind of level of change. I remember reading an article about the director of the Royal Opera or something saying he's moaning about the new breed of female opera singers wanting to be skinny because it gets them more dramatic roles, but it's affecting their voices. He's definitely interesting. And he's lived, you could say. I find it fascinating. It's almost like Nick Cave territory. It's a weird kind of storytelling narrative thing.

Songfacts: It seems like the songs you chose are songs that really had an impact on you, so what did Iggy Pop's music mean to you?

Martyn: Iggy was just a god, as far as I was concerned. Nothing could have made me happier than when he started working with Bowie. The holy triumvirate of him, Bowie and Lou Reed were our three kind of gods, really. Iggy, I just loved everything he did, right from the outset, frankly. Everything. Raw Power. Even before that. Some of his later albums I wasn't so crazy about. He kind of ran out of ideas a little. But things like Kill City.

Raw Power, in particular, was an enormous influence on us, the album. Funny enough, I didn't think he always sounded good. I always thought he sounded a bit weedy the way they mastered it. But the content is amazing. The Ashetons and James Williamson, fantastic. People think that because we're in an electronic band, all we liked was electronic music. We grew up in the '70s listening to American rock, among many other styles, and loved it. New York Dolls and all the kind of edgier bands - those songs are just fantastic. It defines youth rebellion to me. That's why when punk came out in '77 in Britain, I thought it was a bit old hat because they'd already done all that shit.

Songfacts: Why do you call the album Dark?

Martyn: Well, the original idea was to do dark, electronic versions of previously happy pop songs, but the idea kind of evolved over time. It's not quite as focused as that. So some of the songs were originally dark, yeah, like "I Wanna Be Your Dog" just ended up being a reinterpretation in a different way. I was fascinated initially with the idea of recontextualizing lyrics into a different context. So the thing that inspired me and gave me the idea was originally a song by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called "The Night." I don't know if you know that song. Do you know it?

Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons recording of "The Night" sounds so much like a Motown song from the label's classic era because it was actually recorded on that label. Along with "Can't Take My Eyes off You," it was one of the most significant songs Valli tracked for the famed Detroit label.
Songfacts: No.

Martyn: You've got to listen to it. It's an incredible song. It was a Northern soul classic in Britain. I think it got in the top ten in Britain in the '60s or something [First released in 1972, it made #7 UK when it was reissued in 1975]. It's quite fast and Motown-y dance-able, I suppose, but the lyrics are really deep. The verse is kind of half whispered. You've got this very kind of dance-y backing track going on, but he's going [singing] "Beware of his promise, believe what I say, before you go forever, be sure what you say." It's all about, 'Oh, I'm fucking up.' I've lost this woman. But watch out. The guy that you're with is a bastard.

So it's really quite a dark lyric, with quite a jolly backing track, and I thought, 'If I put a new backing track on that, it would sound like a stalker song or like a David Lynch song. Something Trent Reznor would do for a David Lynch film. As it turns out, I ended up doing that for that track, but it never made the album. But another song at the same time that inspired me to do the album, which made the album, was "Didn't I Blow Your Mind This Time?" by The Delfonics, which is just a great song. It's a great lyric. Again, on the original it's very sweet on this kind of Philly backing track with a sad, haunting melody. I thought, "Actually, if you read the lyrics in isolation from the backing track, you realize this is quite a bitter, twisted lyric." So that gave me the idea for that, too. The rest of it followed from there, really. I had a long list of about 30 songs that I presented to the artists and asked them to pick one.

Songfacts: Are there artists that you were surprised said yes, and are there artists that said no and made you disappointed?

Martyn: Well, this is the third volume of this, and as I mentioned on the first volume that's how I met Tina Turner. This goes back a long way, 13 years. And on each of the three albums, I've done my darndest to try and get David Bowie to do it, but for various reasons he hasn't done it. I actually know the head of his worldwide fan club and I could get through to him. Likewise, with volumes two and three I've asked Kate Bush, but she's turned me down a couple of times. But mainly, people said yes because obviously it's a cult thing, but people know the album, particularly in Britain and in the music industry it's quite a respected series. Basically, the people I asked were more than happy to be involved. It really was a labor of love. I mean, there's no money in this and it might sound weird, but this is done for nothing in my own studio.

Songfacts: I wanted to wind things up by asking if you could pick one or two favorite songs on the album, and tell me why they're your favorites.

Martyn: Sure. I'm very pleased by the way the current version of "Picture This" turned out with Kate Jackson, who used to be in a band called The Long Blondes, originally from Sheffield. I think it's a beautiful reinterpretation of the song, which gives it an entirely different and deeper more poignant meaning.

Songfacts: That's a Blondie song?

Martyn: Yes. When I completed that song I thought, 'God, that would be perfect for the closing credits of some sort of teen angst movie.' A beautiful piece of work, I think. I'm really proud of it. And I'm very happy with the Kim Wilde ["Every Time I See You I Go Wild"] tune. I think she's never sung better. That song was created on the first synth I ever bought in 1978, exclusively. All on a monophonic modulistic, so the chords had to be done one note at a time. Everything manually. That is something I'm proud of from a musso point of view. Also, I think it works.

August 6, 2013
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