Finally, on a full tour of the United States, Heaven 17 recently engaged a DC-area audience at The Birchmere with stories and song, providing a fascinating look at the history of the band.
The synthpop collective’s core duo of Glenn Gregory and Martyn Ware have known each other since they were teens in Sheffield, England, so they arrive to the United States more than 45 years into their association full of fond tales and bright tunes.
Glen recalled, for example, how Martyn might dress in a bright green jacket, tight white pants, and platform shoes before going out for clubbing with him in the ‘70s.
More remarkable than Martyn’s outrageous dress was the fact that no one would bat an eye at him while they were out on the scene, Glenn said. At The Birchmere on Sept. 25, Glenn revealed those nights out were the inspiration for the Heaven 17 song, “Geisha Boys and Temple Girls,” a track from Heaven 17’s debut record, Penthouse and Pavement. Just prior to that number, Heaven 17 performed the potent “Play to Win,” and both tracks sounded rather fresh and powerful, particularly with the insights of Glenn’s personalization.
Heaven 17 gave the 1981 Penthouse and Pavement album a fair amount of love during the concert, showcasing five of its songs across the 17 selections in the setlist. The band played the title track toward the end of the show, featuring some powerfully soulful vocals from backing singers Kelly Barnes and Rachel Mosleh.
Watch the official music video for “Penthouse and Pavement” by Heaven 17 on YouTube:
Glenn and Martyn were glad to field some questions from the audience. On occasion, they indulged too much from the small crowd, which disrupted the show too often with its shoutouts. Still, the back and forth yielded some interesting results, such as when Glenn described their old-school writing process in response to a query.
Back in the day, Heaven 17 would work out the music to a song, and then they would gather with notes to write lyrics. Glenn said he always thought it was an odd way of songwriting until recently watching The Beatles: Get Back documentary revealed the Fab Four had a similar process. Back in the day, Heaven 17 would mix and match their lines following the “cut up” process David Bowie often used in the ’70s.
Martyn reflected that the meaning of various songs might change over the years from the perspective of the author as he, in this case, ages. The discussion led into “And That’s No Lie,” one of a few songs taken from How Men Are, the band’s third studio album.
Toward the end of the show, Heaven 17 performed two of the band’s very best songs — “Let Me Go” and “Temptation” both from sophomore record The Luxury Gap. “Let Me Go,” with its distinctive rhythm was an excellent platform for Ware and synthesist Flo Sabeva. The band gave “Temptation” a grand treatment to close the set. Kelly and Rachel belted out a surprising and potent prologue that nearly served as a standalone song. The vocalists built anticipation until Glenn returned to stage and rolled into the traditional start of the song with his tremendous baritone.
Watch the official music video for “Temptation” by Heaven 17 on YouTube:
Heaven 17 also sprinkled some pleasing covers throughout their set. I was really impressed to hear a moving version of “Party Fears Two,” a hallmark tune of Scots new wavers the Associates, performed by only Glenn and Flo. The band recorded the cover on their 2008 EP, Naked as Advertised, and it serves today as a testament to the vocal power of the late Billy Mackenzie, its original vocalist.
In their encore, Heaven 17 covered “Let’s Dance” by David Bowie, which was wholly appropriate as the late pop maestro was discussed a bit during the show. Glenn in fact recounted how he alone among his bandmates performed from the Bowie catalog at The Birchmere in 2016 with Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey as Holy Holy. (Read our Parklife review of Woody Woodmansey’s Holy Holy in 2016!)
All in all, it was great to finally see Heaven 17, as I never have caught their touring juggernaut in England, where they are often on the road year-round. Perhaps they will return soon to the United States and play a local venue where folks can appropriately dance the night away free of tables and chairs.
Here are some photos of Heaven 17 performing at The Birchmere on Sept. 25, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Jason Nicholson.