Heaven 17

The Jazz Café,London – 20 February 2014

"25 minutes of life experience I'll have difficulty matching"

Ah, yes. Heaven 17. Like many, I got into them at the time of their debut, and still definitive work, Penthouse and Pavement, largely on account of two-thirds of the band having previously been in The Human League. The first two Human League albums (released before Heaven 17 emerged) remain key works in many an electronic music aficionado’s record collection. These days, Martyn Ware is the only remaining former Human League member and, I'm delighted to be able to say, had agreed with front man Glen Gregory that a good number of their set tonight (no less than five songs) should be given over to tracks from those first two League albums. Not that Gregory needs persuading – much to his credit.

This was the first of two nights by the band at the stylish and relatively intimate surroundings of the Jazz Café in London's Camden Town. The key piece of information to be aware of ahead of booking tickets (and which was helpfully posted by Mr Gregory on H17's official Facebook page well in advance) was that the sets on each night would be markedly different. This first night was an electronic set. Tomorrow saw them take to the stage with a bigger band to deliver the band's broader (and less electronic) repertoire beyond the first album. For me, this was a no-brainer, it had to be the first night to attend. I and a good number of others had chosen wisely (even though the following night was sold out in advance – perhaps due to it being on a Friday night).

I hoped for, indeed anticipated, that the setlist would contain a smattering of Human League songs, but when I saw the setlist taped to the floor in front of me and right next to Martyn Ware's Roland synth, I very nearly wet myself. It was about as great a Heaven 17 setlist that a hardcore electronic music (and, in the case of H17, really only first album enthusiast) fan could decently wish for. Moreover, in the reverse of their usual approach to paying tribute the Ware's former employers, they kicked off the evening with a Human League track, and nothing less than the genuinely landmark Being Boiled. I remember seeing The Human League back in 2004 when they performed Being Boiled as part of their (otherwise less then brilliant) set. I still think that one song was worth the price of the ticket. Here, it was starting what was destined to be an evening of some nostalgic nirvana but also one of genuine passion, showmanship and respect from those assembled on stage for the original songwriting – whether it happened to be penned by Heaven 17 or their erstwhile fellow competitors.

Photo   [H17 setlist] 

My weakness for Heaven 17 always was, and remains, a penchant for their most overtly electronic compositions. A good chunk of their own material tonight was drawn from Penthouse and Pavement – their most overtly electronic album, with a choice selection from its follow-up The Luxury Gap. So that was a big tick. Where they embellished the original compositions, usually via the addition of some 'Woo hoo' and 'Whey hey' female backing vocals, or some superfluous additional and/or faster dance beats, whilst it undoubtedly added to the manifest almost private party atmosphere, I'd have been happier if they'd remained more faithful. Still, it's hard to begrudge them taking us to funky town and back on Temptation. Yet, just a few minutes before, they'd performed a near textbook version of The Human League's Circus of Death at which McGarret most certainly wouldn't have frowned.

Height of the FightingThe Song With No Name and Geisha Boys and Temple Girls were all emotionally precious in their individual ways, each showcasing the creative dexterity of Heaven 17 at the peak of their writing (I so wanted to say at 'the height of the writing' there!). As for those Human League entries, the choice was thrilling from start to finish: Being BoiledCrow And A Baby, (You've Lost That) Lovin' Feelin'The Black Hit of Space and Circus of Death. That, right there, is 25 minutes of life experience, I promise you, I'll have difficulty matching. 9/10 

Setlist: Being Boiled, (We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, Crushed By The Wheels of Industry, Height Of The Fighting, The Song With No Name, Crow And A Baby, Geisha Boys and Temple Girls, Come Live With Me, We Live So Fast, (You've Lost That) Lovin' Feelin', Let's All Make A Bomb, I'm Your Money, The Black Hit of Space, Let Me Go, Penthouse and Pavement, Dive, Circus of Death, Temptation

Rob Dyer