Heaven 17 Presents Reproduction and Travelogue

The Roundhouse, London - 5 September 2021

"A gig like no other"

This gig was always going to be something special for so many people in so many ways. Firstly there had been that teasing and tantalising possibility, some years ago, after Heaven 17 had performed a few of the classic Human League tracks, Martyn Ware had asked "Would anyone be interested if we would did a full show of Reproduction and Travelogue?". The audience response had been clear and inevitable... The possibility of seeing the 1979 debut Human League album and it's 1980 successor performed live again, causing a ripple of excitement and hopeful discussion among the fan base.

Nothing more was heard on the subject, then suddenly the news broke. Two shows were announced, one to take place in their hometown of Sheffield and the second at the Roundhouse in London. Dates confirmed at last, I immediately ordered a ticket for the Roundhouse gig, due to take place in over a years time, somehow fighting the temptation to get one for Sheffield as well.

Time passed and a previously unimagined event threatened to change our lives and the world. Just a few weeks before the highly anticipated shows, everything had changed.... Lockdown one, gig cancelled, rescheduled for September, surely everything would be OK by then? Everyone was hopeful that the nightmare would end and we could finally get our lives back, but no.... just as everything seemed on course, new variant... another wave struck and the lockdown misery began yet again.

Finally and tentatively another date was announced...

Sunday 5th of September 2021, the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, London, a beautiful sunny summers day.

Never had the prospect of going to a gig felt like this. The sheer nervousness and anxiety at simply travelling to London, using the train and tube again, meeting long missed friends for the ritual pre-gig drink. Things that had once been such a normal part of life and taken for granted, taking on a strangely unreal feeling. Sitting and chatting in a pub garden before making our way to the venue, seeing familiar faces and chatting to friends already in the queue. Scattered masked faces in the crowd adding to the surreal feeling surrounding the whole event.

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Tickets checked by masked staff, perspex protective screens at bars, served by masked but friendly staff, there was a tangible feeling of the strangeness at what would once have been a welcome and routine part of life. Finally into the auditorium. Anticipation rose as the first movements were spotted in the half light on stage, final brief equipment checks completed and Heaven 17 took the stage to loud cheers and applause.

Screens behind the band flash into life to as the menacing, pulsating beat of Almost Medieval began to pound through the PA. Sequenced electronic percussion, a key element of that unique early Human League sound, setting the pace, finally it was really happening.

Glen Gregory taking center stage, flanked by Martyn Ware to one side, two backing singers to the other, an additional synth player to the rear, with Malcolm Garrett on laptop, taking charge of the onstage visuals.

The stage had been set up in an attempt to recreate the original look and feel of those early Human League shows. Gregory center stage for lead vocal duties as per Phil Oakey, with Martyn Ware in his usual position to his right on synthesizers. For this show, also using his collection of vintage machines along with his usual rig, the vintage Roland Jupiter 4 and Korg 700s to one side and a Roland System 100 mounted in a recreation of the stand, which had also served as an improvised beer glass and spittle shield, that Ian Marsh had used in the days when the League had supported punk bands. A reel to reel tape machine spinning for effect, adding to the look and feel.

Circus of Death was next up, complete with unsettling images of the killer clown on the screens above the band, contributing to the macabre tale of blood and murder. The images helping to recreate the look and feel of those classic Human League gigs.

The set continued in album order, each track warmly greeted by the audience. Another of many stand out moments followed, with the classic Path of Least Resistance coming next. Then onto Blind Youth with it's warnings of peril to the past and future generations of youth culture, screens flashing images of style icons throughout the ages.

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And so it continued, with a fantastic version of The Word Before Last, showcasing once again the innate songwriting ability of the group of 'non musicians' that had created the band. Empire State Human of course closed side one to enthusiastic cheers.

Straight on to side two and immediately yet more classics followed. Firstly as Martyn Ware manned the Roland System 100 for the beautiful and atmospheric Morale, followed by You've Lost that Loving Feeling. The song had always been a stand out moment in the bands set, with it's unique, electronic take, on The Righteous Brothers 60's classic. This saw Martin Ware leaving his synthesizers to join Glenn Gregory on vocals in center stage, just as he had done with Phil Oakey all those years ago, when Reproduction itself, had been a mere "gleam in an eye".

Austerity/Girl One followed, with Zero As A Limit, the speeding, dystopian tale of crashing cars and early graves closing first album.

As the final track crashed to it's conclusion I swapped position, moving from the front to a location near the desk, expecting a break in the performance. Instead, the band continued straight on into the second album, Travelogue.

The atmosphere and closeness to the stage had of been great during the first half of the show, but the sound quality was definitely better further back, my new vantage point near the desk, probably providing the best position to benefit from the clear and powerful PA. The snarling, Black Hit of Space, announced the arrival of the League MK1's second and final album, always a fans favourite, the powerful synths and percussion setting the scene for what was to follow. Keeping to the album's track order again, the wonderful Life Kills followed, as Travelogue continued to flex it's muscles.

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That recording's production had much more truly captured the band's sound and edge at the time. Coupled with the sheer invention and development in technique, it had taken the band to another level in places, as was proved tonight in a truly stunning performance.

Glenn Gregory's vocals were superb throughout, as he continued to interpret Phil Oakey's distinctive and creative lyrics to those early Human League songs. Later, at the end of the marvelous A Crow And A Baby, both Gregory and Ware, humorously questioning, just what was that about? Only Phil Oakey will ever know for sure.

The visuals provided by artist Malcolm Garrett, continued to provide a perfect foil to the music. A touch more restrained perhaps than Adrian Wright's alternating images of humour, horror and nostalgia that had accompanied the Human League's performances in the late 70's, but still in keeping and adding to the atmosphere. One particular highlight being the poignant accompaniment to a powerful and emotionally charged version of Dreams of Leaving, coupled with moving images of the destruction and desolation of war torn cities.

Each song delivered perfectly and demonstrating the true variety and unique sound and take on electronic music that the MK1 League had developed.

Final track of the album, the excellent WXJL Tonight, revealing the song as a truly unrecognised classic and underlining just how undervalued the band had been at by the wider public and media at the time. If ever a band had been ahead of it's time, The Human League were surely the epitome, the lack of commercial success leading to the inevitable tensions and breakup of the original band.

Finishing to loud applause, they finally left the stage.

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In the days before the gigs, the Ware and Gregory had promised a few more surprise tracks to come on their social media feeds and they certainly delivered.

Returning to the stage for a much deserved and demanded encore, they took no prisoners. First came the classic Holiday 80 EP, complete with fan favourite Marianne and yet another favourite and highlight from their early sets, the Rock and Roll/Nightclubbing medley. The crowd sang along loudly and enthusiastically as Rock and Roll pounded and bleeped to it's conclusion, before segueing into a truly amazing performance of the Iggy Pop classic, Nightclubbing, again accompanied by tremendous visuals. I really had forgotten how just fantastic and groundbreaking their version of this song had been.

The encore continued with the ill fated, yet portentous "disco classic", I Don't Depend on You, a song which the band had released under the pseudonym of The Men. A curious oddity at the time, which in hindsight, pointed so clearly to the directions that both Phil Oakey's Human League MKII and Heaven 17 would eventually take. The knowing audience suitably enjoying and singing along.

Finally, following a brief retelling of the tale of the break up of the League and birth of Heaven 17, we were taken full circle with a rousing and much appreciated version of Heaven 17's debut single Fascist Groove Thang, audience again in full voice, enthusiastically singing along to the final song of a fantastic evening.

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Of course, short of having a time machine, it could never be possible to fully recreate the sheer uniqueness and impact of the live experience that had been the Human League in the late 70's. The more edgy and playful visuals Adrien Wright, Phil Oakey's look and voice, Ian Marsh's sheer coolness. That along with the volume and driven power of the sound at gigs in those days, was a different experience.

That said, this gig was quite simply nothing but a triumph in every way. During the show, the band had spoken of how they had originally tried to persuade Phil Oakey to join them for these shows, if only... But tonight they raised the possibility that there may be more to come, perhaps next time with Phil? I truly hope so. But with or without Phil, I for one would love to hear and experience these fantastic songs live again.

This really was a gig like no other. 10/10

Set list: Almost Medieval, Circus of Death, The Path of Least Resistance, Blind Youth, The Word Before Last, Empire State Human, Morale...You've Lost That Loving Feeling, Austerity/Girl One (Medley), Zero As A Limit, The Black Hit of Space, Only After Dark, Life Kills, Dreams of Leaving, Toyota City, Crow And A Baby, The Touchables, Gordon's Gin, Being Boiled, WXJL Tonight, Marianne, Rock and Roll/Nightclubbing, I Don't Depend on You, Fascist Groove Thang

Review: Cliff Chapman
Photos: Rob Dyer + Mark Smith