Monday, 9 May 2011
56 Penthouse And Pavement - Heaven 17
Tracks : Fascist Groove Thang / Penthouse And Pavement / Play To Win / Soul Warfare / Geisha Boys And Temple Girls / Let's All Make A Bomb / The Height Of The Fighting / Song With No Name / We're Going To Live For A Very Long Time
This was Helen's present for my 22nd birthday.
It originally came out in 1981 as their debut LP. It reached number 14 and proved surprisingly durable for an album which failed to produce a Top 40 single although it was undoubtedly helped by the association with The Human League then at the height of their fame.
It was also helped by Ray Smith's fantastic sleeve, rightly regarded as an eighties classic. Of course right back to Apple , artists had set themselves up as businesses but no one had embraced the iconography that went with it before. When you look closer the discreet pony-tails on Ian Craig Marsh and Glenn Gregory are a little subversive marker ; a hint that all is not what it seems but doubtless not all its purchasers picked up on that. Of course there's an element of hubristic conceit ; the British Electronic Foundation production company concept (with manager Bob Last as the non-musical strategist on board) foundered in little more than a year after two dud albums (though it provided the template for ZTT). The boast that they were "opening doors all over the world" was never fulfilled although Tina Turner has reason to thank them.
La Roux apart, not many regard the contents as classic and my expectations in 1986 weren't high. I never ranked the list I gave Helen so as to retain an element of surprise but this wouldn't have been high on it ; I'd lost interest in the band's recent material and it probably only survived by virtue of being an artefact of the halcyon year of 1981.
Recorded in haste in an atmosphere of fierce competition with erstwhile bandmate Phil Oakey's Human League , the album is split in two with the "Penthouse" side containing four tracks with overt funk influences and the "Pavement " more austere synth-pop more in the style of Marsh and Martyn Ware's old band .
The "Penthouse" side starts with " (We Don't Need No ) Fascist Groove Thang" their debut single from early 1981 which was stymied in its progress up the charts by (in another premonition of ZTT) a radio ban initiated by closet Tory Mike Read on the grounds that it was too overtly political. Few songs date the time of their composition as precisely as this with the line "Reagan is President-elect". The song interweaves political observations with dancefloor slogans possibly as a riposte to the New Romantic movement's escapist themes. Despite the fact that the politics are wrong headed (it's well known that fascist groups disintegrate when the democratic Right are in power as last week's local elections proved yet again) and the music isn't dance-friendly at all with its frantic skittering synths and sledgehammer Linn drum beat, it's still a rousing song and a strong statement of intent. The middle eight with John Wilson's bass solo writhing over the top of the brutalist drum machine is startingly raw.
The title track is up next, an edited version of which was released as the third single at the tail-end of 1981. It's difficult to read it as anything other than a proto-yuppie anthem ; if the guys intended it to be ironic there's little evidence in the grooves. Again Wilson's bass is prominent (though I recall one of Record Mirror's journalists claiming it wasn't actually danceable) but he also throws in plenty of funk guitar. Then you have session singer Josie James delivering the breathless chorus. All the early Wham sound is here apart from the voice and Glenn Gregory's clumsy phrasing is the track's weak point. This one too stiffed in the forties while Sheffield contemporaries ABC clocked up their first Top 20 hit with debut single Tears Are Not Enough.
The same fate befell the next track, "Play To Win" released a few months earlier. Even their debut on Top Of The Pops couldn't help it limp over the line into the Top 40 which was rare in the early 80s. However it's easier to explain why this one failed ; Glenn Gregory has recently said it needed a chorus and he's dead right. Over the cluttered half funk half salsa (the in sound of summer 1981) backing track with a pretty horrible farty synth sound, Gregory sings, chants and shouts (almost raps in places) various disjointed busines slogans while the others occasionally interject with the title a la Fade To Grey (the phrasing is identical). It's too clever for it's own good and the first sign of an enduring tendency to forget to come up with a tune.
"Soul Warfare" isn't very good either (have any white group made a decent record with "Soul" in the title ?" ) and was a resounding flop as a single for dance troupe Hot Gossip (B.E.F.'s ill-fated second project which destroyed the Dindisc label ) . It starts promsingly enough with Gregory's laconic voice and the cool piano fills rather fitting the icy romance as business transaction theme but the chorus is awful - a bridge that just goes on and on with crass rhymes instead of leading somewhere. It just sounds really clumsy and unfinished. Both these last two tracks testify to the band's desperation to get some fast product out there and compete with the League.
Although Martin Ware said on a recent documentary that the Pavement side was intended to be a farewell to their old synthy sound that seems like a gloss on the fact that they were using up material originally intended for the third Human League LP. It all sounds like nothing so much as another side of Travelogue with an inferior singer.
That's not meant as a criticism. "Geisha Boys And Temple Girls" is melodically strong and benefits from Gregory adopting a softer tone in contrast to the high-pitched synths and brutalist electronic percussion. The others come in on the crashing chorus along with a vaguely Russian male voice choir singing a counter melody. The lyric seems to allude to high class prostitution of both sexes (prefiguring West End Girls ) without any direct reference to Japan. It would have made a much better single than "Play To Win" for one.
So too would "Let's All Make A Bomb" with its clever double meaning and chant along chorus. Is it an anti-nuclear song ( I think it is ) or a satire on capitalism ( again anticipating the Pet Shop Boys ) ? Mentions of sirens and vaporising seem clear cut but then "Take the M out of M A D " and you get ad . The twitchy synth sound reminds me of New Order's Everything's Gone Green released a few months later. The track is also full of trendy salsa whistles particularly on the abrasive middle eight.
"Height Of The Fighting" was the final single in early 1982 albeit in a remixed version with added horns from Beggar & Co to mitigate the uncompromising dryness of the sound. There isn't that much of a song beyond the title hook ; the verses consisting of Hugo Montenegro- like grunted slogans like "Work" and "Sweat". The police sirens herald a key change in the middle just as it starts getting boring.
"Song With No Name" explores very similar territory to The Black Hit Of Space from Travelogue. Gregory seems to be trying to mimic Oakey at his most portentous on an icy Ballardian fable with horror movie synth screeches for punctuation. It's dreary and tuneless , the album's worst track.
That leaves us with "We're Going To Live For A Very Long Time" essentially a chant built around a crashing Linn drum hook. The lyric satirises religious cults like the Jehovah's Witnesses based on the idea of an elect although it could be applied to any self-satisfied grouping. As an attempt at a synth-pop We Will Rock You it's not bad and the vinyl version ends with one of those everlasting grooves on the phrase "For a very long time" which is a good joke.
It's not a great album, sterile in some parts and unfinished in others but there's enough invention and intelligence on show to make it still worth a listen.