Six years after Bowie came out with Young Americans, this trio of Sheffield lads nailed what he was trying to do and married UK coldwave to funk/R&B, and the result was brain-melting. Foolishly, I always played the “Penthouse” side first (as the CD releases later corrected me, it’s “Pavement” side first), so the Clark-Kent-watches-ice-fortress-create-itself prelude of “Geisha Boys and Temple Girls” ushered in a this-ain’t-your-father’s-Kraftwerk revelation of white soul on a platter of Human League electrosynths and (in spirit) bassist Busta Cherry Jones, keyboardist Bernie Worrell and maybe the darker tones of a ska horn section (aka the Boys of Buddha) bringing the funk.
The album begins properly with “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang,” a proudly left-wing anti-Reagan/Thatcher anthem that does not beat around the Bushes:
Democrats are out of power
Across that great wide ocean
Reagan's president elect
Fascist god in motion
Generals tell him what to do
Stop your good time dancing
Train their guns on me and you
Fascist thang advancing
Though how they thought anyone would stop our good time dancing when hearing something this catchy is quite beyond me, this was just the beginning; the band confidently moves into muscular and macho disco territory with the following tracks, “Penthouse and Pavement“ and “Play to Win,” both of which were staples of the gay-dominated dance scene of the time. Interestingly, “Play to Win” has a mastering error that has apparently carried through to this otherwise-outstanding 2006 remaster; just before the first female vocal, Gregory’s voice loses “presence” very akin to a “ducking” error. I’d have to go back to the original vinyl to be sure, but it’s been present (though less noticeable) on my older CD issues of this album IIRC.
Glenn Gregory’s powerful baritone voice, dominating the outstanding bass, keys and horn works of Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, combined into a perfect fusion of British musical theatre, the Radiophonic Workshop and Soul Train. In the dark days of the worldwide recession and Reagan’s election, this album was a beacon for a brighter future even as it predicted doom and despair, in much the same way Devo was concurrently doing.
The Pavement side finishes with the less-dancey but enjoyable “Soul Warfare,” which lays down a busy but mellow bassline as smooth as Thunderbird wine that really shows off the dominant production style: lowest and highest frequencies up front, everything else in the backroom. On this remaster in particular the percussion is spatially surrounding you, a trick borrowed form the Associates and much copied by other keyboard-and-bass driven artists like Level 42 and Joe Jackson to this day -- a great way to get a “full” sound without depending on the confrontation of voice and guitar (which sonically share the same “space”).
This version of the album restores the cross-fade transitions between songs, making the album feel more like a DJ set. The aforementioned “Geisha Boys” kicks off the “Penthouse” side with an actual storyline of love found and lost. Whereas the “Pavement” side used R&B techniques and work subjects to relate to the proletariat, the “Penthouse” seems more like a greenhouse, with plenty of heat and sweat to go around as well (though more emphasis on synths than the previous side).
“Let’s All Make a Bomb” and the huge dance-club hit “Height of the Fighting” are definitely down in the trenches, forecasting nuclear annihilation (as was much on everyone’s mind at the height of the Cold War) and hoping to squeeze in one last joyous celebration before The End. This ode to despair reaches an apex with “Song With No Name,” in which a frenetic rhythm fights with the lethargic bass vocals that complain of endless fatigue and shattered hopes. The finale of the album was the ironically upbeat death march “We’re Going to Live for a Very Long Time,” which on the vinyl version ran into the runoff groove, repeating the line "for a very long time” into infinity. The CD version, of course, pulls the plug at 3'15", just as it starts to get annoying. :)
A brief 1-second gap signals the start of the bonus tracks section, which kicks off with the “dub” version of “Fascist Groove Thang” simply called “Groove Thang” (and oddly credited to British Electric Foundation -- B.E.F. was the meta-project that Heaven 17 came out of -- rather than Heaven 17). Perhaps the first contemporary “karaoke” single, it was child’s play to add your own vocal and edit your own version, as I and others did.
Also included are some of their best-known b-sides, including their cover of the Buzzcocks’ “Are Everything,” and the richly enjoyable call-and-response layer cake of “I’m Your Money.” Finishing up the 2006 version are two-and-a-half tracks from B.E.F.’s first album, Music For Stowaways. “Decline of the West” will sound familiar to anyone who collects early Human League material, recalling the more experimental nature of Marsh and Ware’s earliest efforts. “Honeymoon in New York,” which I first got as a b-side to the “Height of the Fighting” 12-inch, is really just an undeveloped idea. Most of the “bonus” tracks are sourced from inferior tapes, audibly over-driven and over-processed, but there appears to be no better copies available.
The B.E.F. tracks don’t really gel with the fury and earnestness of Heaven 17, so their inclusion is an odd choice (where there are many alternate remixes of P&P singles still bouncing around, and B.E.F. stuff deserves a proper reissue/remastering job themselves), but it doesn’t take anything away from this amazing debut of British synth-soul. The music still sounds incredibly fresh and dancey, particularly as contemporary sounds have shifted strongly away from baritone voices (entirely due to Rick Astley, some claim). Best of all, even the Funk Brothers would be hard-pressed to match the mojo in these white-boy grooves. Any album that can make you sweat to the days of eminent thermonuclear war and recession is a hell of an oldie.
But don’t take my word for it -- listen to some of it yourself and just see if you can keep your butt in your chair, ya young techno-babble whippersnappers!
“Height of the Fighting” by Heaven 17 from Penthouse and Pavement