Of the myriad well-dressed synth lads who held sway in England during the new wave '80s, perhaps the greatest was the trio who took their name from Stanley Kubrick's adaptation of Clockwork Orange: Heaven 17.
Spun off from the British Electric Foundation, which was formed by two ex-members of the Human League, 17 blended irresistible dance hooks, burbling electro-beats, and sharp lyricism in a way that put most of the better known pretty boy bands of the era to shame, though they never achieved the level of commercial success as, say, Duran Duran. With the reissue of the trio's first three albums – Penthouse And Pavement, The Luxury Gap, and How Men Are (EMI) – we Americans have been given a second chance to discover the glory that continues to be Heaven 17 (the band is still, amazingly, intact). Most likely we'll blow it again, anyway.
In America, the first original release of the band's premiere album had a somewhat different list and order of songs – it being someone's bright idea to take three of Penthouse's moodier songs (like "Song with No Name") and replace 'em with a couple of the poppier tracks from Gap. The new reissues give us the albums as they were originally released in Britain, which is a little disconcerting since I kept expecting "Who Will Stop the Rain" to show up, and it doesn't 'til the second disc. Penthouse opens with its "controversial" dance track, "(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang." Apparently, the BBC refused to play thr slam against '80s conservatism, which dated lyrically ("Reagan's president elect/Across that big wide ocean"), even as its dance floor rhythms remain taut and overpowering.
The band's openly left-wing politics most likely didn't help when it came to getting airplay in this country, but it also provided (the angry "Groove Thang" aside) some of the group's more sympathetic lyrics. One of the themes of the first two discs in particular, as is probably apparent from their two titles, is the gap 'tween the haves and have-nots. In "Penthouse And Pavement," we're taken on an uptown/downtown trip, contrasting the two lifestyles, while in "Key to the World" (from where Gap gets its title), vocalist Glenn Gregory takes on the persona of a guy struggling to maintain a life of affluent poverty, dancin' as his maxed out credit cards rub against each other in his wallet. Perhaps the songs hit too close to home for a lot of dance club habitués?
Musically, 17 centered around Ian Craig Marsh & Martyn Wire's synthesizers — with splashes of real horns added to Gap and Men — plus deep-voiced blue-eyed soulman Gregory. In a musical movement largely characterized by bland-voiced crooners, Gregory possesses a much evocative instrument: you believe him when he simultaneously pleads to be freed of a life of nighttime hedonism even as he wishes it could continue (the magnificent "Let Me Go"). In "Temptation," the band's biggest UK hit, Gregory plays against diva-esque belter Karol Kenyon to great effect, though to these ears, he's better singing alongside bandmate Wire. When he indulges in some "gather ye rosebuds" special pleading in "Come Live with Me," you know from his voice (and the song's slight musical nod to Jimmy Ruffin's "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted?") that he's not gonna be successful, which ultimately gets you sympathizing with the smarmy bastard.
Men, the third release, isn't as consistently danceable as the first two discs. In tracks like the ten-minute "And That's No Lie," it's almost as if the band was attempting to produce its updated version of Aja, a jazzy improvisational refutation of the dance-pop singles-based songwriting that brought 'em their greatest musical moments. Not bad in a more arty atmospheric kinda way, but weak compared to earlier infectious dance screeds like "Crushed by the Wheels of Industry" or "Let's All Make a Bomb." Still, there are a few juicy pop tracks, "Sunset Now" and "This Is Mine" (which neatly mines a Steely Dan minor key R & B groove), in particular.
All three reissues contain the obligatory bonus tracks — many of them remixes — but the real deal can be found on the back end of Penthouse And Pavement: the 12-inch version of non-Brit-album track "I'm Your Money" (perhaps the greatest ambivalent capitalist love song ever!) and a peppy synth-driven cover of the Buzzcocks' "Are Everything." That one of the great underappreciated synth-pop bands would do a track by one of the great underappreciated pop-punk units is the kind of musical history lesson only a hard-core American Anglophile could appreciate.