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Heaven 17 is one of the key figures in the synth pop movement that exploded in the 80s. Their futuristic electronic sound extracted the bizarre spirit and sophisticated technicality of Wendy Carlos‘ compositions for Kubrick’s film “A Clockwork Orange”, but innovatively adapted it to fit within a pop context.
The group’s name was actually taken from a reference in the “A Clockwork Orange” novel (The Heaven Seventeen was the name of a fictional pop band within the story), but before Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware founded this group they clocked in time as two of the three core members of the New Wave act Human League. During their formative stages The Human League weren’t exactly viewed as a New Wave band (at least in the general sense), but were rather associated with experimental electronica and at times punk.
The Human Leagues‘ lead singer Paul Oakley wanted to take a step in a more pop oriented direction, while Marsh and Ware wanted to work with the sound they had been developing on their 1st two albums. The rift between the members only grew with time and by 1980 Marsh and Ware left the Human league to form Heaven 17. The line up for their new project was completed once photographer Glenn Gregory filled the vacancy for vocalist. Their early recordings were characterized by heavy use of drum machines and analog synthesizers, but also included contributions by session musicians, integrating the sounds of more traditional instrumentation such as the grand piano.
Heaven 17 crashed into the public’s attention with their catchy, but lyrically controversial debut single “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang”. The track was pulled from BBC Radio 1’s rotation on account of it’s politically left overtones; however, many of those that managed to get ahold of it latched on and eagerly anticipated the band’s next offerings.
The wait was answered in September 1981 with the release of their studio debut “Penthouse and Pavement”, while the album was by no means a commercial hit, it sold modestly well and established a devout cult following. It has since been recognized as a crucial artifact of the synth pop genre and has gone on to appear in the book, “1001 Albums You Must Listen to Before You Die”.
The group still struggled to make it into the UK top 40 with their follow up single “Let Me Go”, but went well beyond their mark with the release of the track “Temptation”. This single climbed to no. 2 on the UK Singles chart and set the stage for their breakthrough sophomore album “The Luxury Gap”. The album included an additional three hit singles “Crushed By the Wheels of Industry”, “Let Me Go”, and “Come Live With Me” and eventually reached platinum status within the UK.
Heaven 17 never managed to achieve the commercial success they touched with their 2nd studio album; however, they were still going strong with their 3rd full length release “How Men Are”. It peaked on the UK Albums Chart at no. 12, went Gold and also introduced a modified sound for the group, emphasizing acoustic instruments and string sections into their previously synth dominated mix.
Also during this time Heaven 17 were immersed in the work of their production company B.E.F. (British Electronic Foundation), putting out cover albums such as “Music of Quality & Distinction Volume One” and helping produce Tina Turner’s classic version of the song “Let’s Stay Together” (which has been attributed to reviving her career).
In 1986 Heaven 17 made their concert debut on the UK pop/rock music program, the Tube and the following November released their 4th studio album “Pleasure One”. Though the album charted in the UK top 100 ranking at no. 86, it was a significant drop from their previous no. 12 position, which they achieved with “How Men Are”. Their 1988 follow up “Teddy Bear, Duke & Psycho” did not do any better on the UK charts; however, it landed at no. 46 on the German Albums Chart and featured the western guitar influenced single “The Ballad of Go Go Brown”.
Heaven 17 released only 1 studio album in the 1990s, “Bigger Than America”. The album did not garner commercial success, but it did earn favorable reviews with the critics, in particular their standout single “Designing Heaven”. Ware spent the majority of this decade operating the production company BEF and producing albums for the likes of Marc Almond, Erasure, and Terence Tent D’Arby.
The band’s follow up “Before After” came out in 2005 through Ninthwave Records and did reasonably well on a commercial level, peaking at no. 6 on the Billboard Magazine Club Play Charts. The next Heaven 17 release “Naked as Advertised” was their 1st release not to include Marsh and was a compilation of reworked Heaven 17 and Human League songs. The band still continues to release material and tour on occasion.