Glenn Gregory, singer and songwriter with Heaven 17 chats with Kevin Cooper about the relationship between Martyn Ware and Phil Oakey, working with Tina Turner, the album Penthouse And Pavement and their forthcoming UK tour
Glenn Gregory is an English singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist with Heaven 17. With a musical career spanning more than 30 years, he first came to prominence in the early 1980s as co-founder and lead singer of the new wave and synthpop band Heaven 17, which released six singles that entered the Top 40 charts in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s, including Temptation, Come Live With Me, Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry, Sunset Now, This Is Mine, and (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang.
Gregory had known the founding members of The Human League for many years. He had been singing and playing bass guitar in bands with Ian Craig Marsh since 1973. In early 1981 he was contacted by Martyn Ware after the original membership of The Human League split, and was asked to join Heaven 17, a new band resulting from the split. However, by the late 1980s their popularity had declined. The band broke up in 1988, but reunited in 1996. However, Marsh left the band in 2007, but Ware and Gregory continued to perform as Heaven 17.
Whilst busy rehearsing for their forthcoming 35th Anniversary Tour of the album Penthouse And Pavement, he took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Glenn good morning how are you today?
I’m fine thank you, the sun is almost shining so all is good (laughter).
Dig out your wellies, its festival time (laughter).
Or should that be dig out your brollies its festival time (laughter). The weather is bloody rubbish. It depresses me so much. We played at a festival in Exeter last weekend in front of twelve thousand people, all really happy and then just as the music started the bloody rain started (laughter). It’s alright being on stage because you are undercover but you look out at the audience and they are as cheery as ever but they are soaking wet.
I think that it is just what we are now used to I suppose.
I guess so, yes it is. I played Glastonbury a couple of years ago now with La Roux and that was like a proper seventies festival weekend. It was really hot and dry and I just thought to myself this is how it should be (laughter).
The truth of the matter is that we have to have bad weather because it’s just in time for the tennis at Wimbledon. You couldn’t expect anything else.
That’s right, if only the powers that be cancelled Wimbledon then the rest of us could get on with summer.
Anyway enough about the weather, I suppose that we really should talk about music (laughter).
(Laughter) okay let’s do it.
Firstly, let me thank you for taking the time to speak to me.
It’s a pleasure.
And just how is life treating Glenn Gregory?
It’s good at the moment. We are very busy doing lots of different things and playing lots of festivals at the moment. Festivals tend to break-up your summer weekends because you always end up somewhere in the country, which is nice; it’s good fun. Martyn (Ware) and I are also busy working on some new Heaven 17 material which is good because we do so many different things, separately from Heaven 17. It is always sporadic whenever we do manage to get together, to be honest. At the moment I am working on an album with Berenice Scott who as you will know plays the keys with Heaven 17.
Berenice and I have struck up a musical partnership and we have been working on an album and we are going to call the band After Here, which hasn’t actually been put out there as yet, but I have to say that it is all sounding fantastic. We are currently working on the tenth song and so we are nearly there. It is sounding so good man, so good. So I am currently working on lots of different things, including a Chinese dance troupe, so as you can see there are always lots of different things going on. I love the variety so much.
If I had just spent the last thirty-five years in Heaven 17 I think that I would have got a bit bored with it all by now. It’s like a school trip whenever we do any Heaven 17 gigs these days (laughter). It means that I get to see my mate Martyn (laughter).
I was fortunate enough to photograph Heaven 17 a couple of years ago now at The Newark Festival and I thought that your voice was sounding as good as it ever has.
To be honest with you I actually think that my voice is better than it was. At the moment I have just come back from America after six weeks with Tony Visconti doing David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World tour. We have played thirty dates in six weeks and I feel as though I could sing all night at the moment (laughter). The voice is doing very well at the moment. I’m very proud of it actually because I had been doing three nights on and one night off for six weeks and I have to say that it didn’t disappear once. I didn’t have one spot of trouble with it. I must be doing something right. I think that it’s the beer and lack of warm up; that’s what helps me (laughter).
You have briefly mentioned that Heaven 17 have been around now for thirty-five years. Can you honestly believe that it is thirty-five years since you released Penthouse And Pavement?
In all honesty, no, it does not seem like thirty-five years. To be honest it seems like three and a half weeks. It was such an angry, exciting, vibrant period because The Human League had just split which wasn’t that friendly and both Martyn and Phil (Oakey) are both strong minded guys. They really are quite similar. At the time they weren’t speaking and both of them were insisting that they were in the right. Martyn wanted to prove to everyone that Heaven 17 were the best whilst Phil was hell bent on proving that The Human League were the best.
I don’t know if you are aware of the fact that both of those albums, Penthouse And Pavement by Heaven 17 and Dare by The Human League were written in the same studio because it was the only asset that Martyn and The Human League had got once they had split. They had got this little terrible studio in a derelict building which was filled with old knackered bits of equipment (laughter). It was all that they had and neither of them wanted to give it up. So both albums were written in that same studio. Heaven 17 worked nights, ten at night until ten in the morning, and then The Human League worked days, ten in the morning until ten at night (laughter).
I mean really honestly it was hilarious. How very Northern is that; writing albums on shift work (laughter). My mum used to shout out of the window “shut up, our Glenn’s on nights” (laughter). Even when I listen to that music now, it takes me back to those times. In fact I can even remember the curries that we ate and who went to fetch them. It is thirty-five years and it really does not feel it.
You have toured the album before haven’t you?
Yes that’s right, we have and at that point we tried to make it deliberately as much like the record as we could. Obviously things have changed and so the way that we now perform those songs has changed. Over the years the way that we have performed the songs has changed and the songs themselves have evolved and changed a little bit over that period of time.
The tour is being billed as being a fresh interpretation of the album. Just how loyal to the original album will the songs be?
They are still the same songs but the equipment that we use has changed. When we toured the album the last time, we deliberately went back and used the old stuff that we had used on the original recording. What can I say, it’s the bigger, fulfilled, new version of the album. The songs are still exactly the same songs; no one need be afraid, we haven’t changed them in anyway whatsoever. It’s just kind of the full fat version (laughter). It is simply how both the album and Heaven 17 have evolved. I have been working on some of the tracks for the past couple of weeks and I took another look at Geisha Boys And Temple Girls and Soul Warfare.
I had forgotten just how funky they were. They are so funky, it’s amazing. In fact when you listen to them now they are so fresh and so funky they could have been written by Mark Ronson. All of the songs on the album sound really good; for instance Play To Win sounded brilliant.
You have mentioned Soul Warfare which I have to say was my favourite track on the album. What was yours?
My favourite track is one that most people forget about but whenever I hear it being played I just really love it and it is Song With No Name. It’s the song which always seems to disappear and is easily forgotten. I have been trying to relearn it because it is a really wordy song is that one (laughter). When I first heard it again I thought ‘what, I have got to learn all that lot again. Why the hell didn’t we write something simple’ (laughter). But we didn’t and I really do love that song; I love singing it.
When you were listening back to the album now, were there any shocks or surprises?
I think that the only shocks and surprises for me were only good ones because I think that the album really does sound so new and fresh in a way that was almost born out of necessity. The equipment we used was still at that point where there were no computers, so it is all analogue. It was just the equipment that we had in the studio. When you listen to it there is nothing there, it is just like a skeleton. And that is what the surprising thing is to me, just how little there is there. But on the other side of the coin that is why I personally feel that the album has lasted so long and that is why it sounds so good.
It’s not over bloated and it doesn’t sound dated purely because it is so skeletal and it is just the bare bones of the idea. I love it.
Back in 1981 did you and Martyn realise that you had got something special?
We loved the album and we were trying our best not to give people the opportunity to say that there were now two Human Leagues about because they had split. With that in mind we were searching for a new way and I think that very, very luckily (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang was the first song that we wrote. We had got the backing track together with the melody and then suddenly Martyn decided that the song needed a bass guitar solo in the middle (laughter). Whilst it was kind of random I could almost see where he was coming from (laughter).
What you have to remember is that at that time we were still based in Sheffield and we simply didn’t know any bass players. What we were imagining was a funkadelic, Rick James kind of bass sound. That was who we thought we were at that point in time (laughter). And again by shear chance I was earning a bit of money by working at The Crucible Theatre as a stage hand over the Christmas period, doing the panto, oh yes I was (laughter). I just happened to say in the Green Room one day “does anyone know any bass guitar players” and this very young seventeen year old really quiet little black guy slowly put his hand up and said “I play a bit of bass”.
It was John Wilson and I said “bring your bass in tomorrow and tomorrow afternoon at lunchtime we will go down to the studio and play some bass”. So John came down to the studio and he played that bass guitar solo on (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang once, with his coat on; he didn’t even take his coat off, on a right handed bass that he was playing upside down because he was left handed. We were just on the floor like “oh my god” (laughter). And then he said, “that sounds like Play To Win doesn’t it”, and then he said “is that ok because I have only just bought that bass from a second hand shop because the bass isn’t really my first instrument, I am more of a rhythm guitarist” (laughter).
I can remember saying to him “shall we go down to your house and get your rhythm guitar” (laughter). So we did and he came back to the studio and so that is how we just stumbled upon this thing because we had got a very electronic backing track for (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, and then suddenly half way through the song it becomes a complete hybrid of what we imagined funk dance music to be together with our electronic music. In a way that became the template for the album; the whole idea of two sides and the saying goodbye to the purely electronic side of the album, and ushering in the new Heaven 17 sound on the other side. I’m talking about it now like it was yesterday. It just feels like that. Every memory is really fresh.
Despite the hard work of learning all of the songs again, are you looking forward to touring the album once again?
Most definitely, yes, it is going to be great. I have got some ideas of how I want it to be lit; I have got some nice ideas and I want to keep it quite dark because it is quite a dark album really, Let’s All Make A Bomb, (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang; it really is quite a dark album (laughter). So I have got some ideas as to how I want it to look and be performed. So I really am looking forward to doing it.
All that I ask is that you don’t make it too dark as I am shooting you in Birmingham so at least give me half a chance (laughter).
Really, well don’t worry, it won’t be too dark (laughter).
Just to be on the safe side I will bring a torch with me.
(Laughter) who’s that photographer…oh don’t worry it’s alright he had prior warning (laughter).
If I may I would like to speak about B.E.F. (British Electric Foundation) for a moment. I can remember seeing you on The Tube singing backing vocals for Tina Turner on the cover of Al Greens Let’s Stay Together. What was she like to work with?
I have to be totally honest with you and say that she really was an absolute joy. Quite often, anyone who is that good and that professional are just a joy because she had been through it all, done it all, and she met us and she must have thought that we were from Mars to be honest (laughter). I remember the first day that she came into the studio and there was just me, Martyn, Ian and a Fairline and she said “where is the rest of the band” and Ian just pointed to the Fairline and said “it’s there” (laughter). Tina turned around, looked at her manager Roger and said “what the fuck have you got me involved with” (laughter).
After that, when we started working together she really liked it, she loved it actually. We first recorded Ball Of Confusion with Tina and then very quickly after that she asked us if we would like to get involved in working with her again and that is when we did Let’s Stay Together which thankfully became a massive hit. In fact that was the first ever 12” number one over in America. It was massive.
I was fortunate enough to speak to Al Green and when I mentioned Let’s Stay Together he actually said that he thought that Tina’s version was in fact better than his.
Now that I did not know, that is proper special that is (laughter). Right, now that you have told me that I am going to turn the lights up in Birmingham just for you now (laughter).
I have always thought that you, Martyn and Ian were personally responsible for Tina Turner’s second career.
To be frank certain things came together to make it all happen. I remember when me, Martyn and Ian first met her over in Los Angeles, she opened the door and I shouted out “it’s Tina Turner” (laughter). We just couldn’t believe it because we were all massive fans of hers especially River Deep, Mountain High. In fact I think that The Human League even covered that song at some point. It was just always a big favourite of theirs. So I have to say that it was a joy to get to work with her. But at that time she was playing small places in Las Vegas, roadhouses almost and then it did change. So yes, I would have to say that we certainly had a hand in it.
On the tour you are going to be joined by Glen Matlock (The Sex Pistols) Mari Wilson and Peter Hooton (The Farm). Who was responsible for those choices?
They were all down to Martyn actually. If you look back over the B.E.F. albums there have always been slightly unusual choices of singers together with slightly unusual choices of songs and I think that is what he likes to do. They are all brilliant artists, they have got fantastic voices and that is what Martyn likes. It doesn’t have to be a name that is going to blow everybody’s socks off; he likes to blow peoples socks off with them realising that they were going to get their socks blown off. That’s the joy of B.E.F. and that is why Martyn does it like that.
Some of the choices of the songs that they are going to be singing, I can’t tell you because I am not allowed to say, but what I will say is that even I can’t wait to hear them. I keep listening to them during rehearsals and think “that is going to be brilliant” (laughter).
When you and Martyn formed Heaven 17 back in 1980 could you have ever envisaged still being involved in the music business some thirty-six years later?
I have to say that I don’t think that you ever think that far ahead if I am honest. I didn’t even consider it. I never even considered what I would be doing in ten, twenty, thirty years’ time. As time goes on you do start to think ‘what am I going to do now’ but that comes a little later (laughter). Luckily now for me I do so many different things; I am always either in the studio or playing live and I probably turn down more things than I would like to but only because I am so busy. So I love it, and I am doing such diverse things that, as I said earlier, whenever we get together as Heaven 17 it just feels like I am coming home.
There have been so many great acts to come out of Sheffield, why do you think that this is?
I can only really answer for us, but at the time that we were writing music even before The Human League, I am talking from the ages of about fifteen, sixteen and seventeen, Sheffield was a pretty depressed place. All of the cutlery factories had gone, all of that had collapsed and the city centre was surrounded by empty buildings. The steel works were on their way down and then Thatcher came along and buggered everything up. If we wanted to see bands playing live we would have to travel to Manchester, Leeds or Liverpool simply because there wasn’t a lot going on in Sheffield.
There was obviously The City Hall for the bigger bands, and that was great, but you would never get to see any young up and coming bands. Sheffield simply didn’t have that infrastructure. So what we did was, we kind of built it ourselves. We would put on nights which I know sounds normal now but it wasn’t back then. We would find these old derelict buildings, find out who owned them and go and ask the owner if we could rent that building off them. The guys would think that we were completely insane, a filthy derelict building with an outside toilet (laughter). There was a hundred years of grime everywhere and they would rent it to us for a fiver a week.
We would move in. I remember The Human League having a studio in one, and we just made it all work for us. Sheffield is a very doing place; it is full of people who do, who want to be involved and not just sit back and watch and I think that is what it is. We all knew that it was all going on down there in London so we thought fuck you we will do it up here on our own. That’s what it was like for us. We started our own fanzine called Gunrubber and I remember the first issue having ‘Oh London up yours’ on the cover (laughter). It was all very much a case of we are going to do it our way.
How are things now between Martyn and Phil; has the rift healed?
I am pleased to say that it has pretty much healed. We toured with The Human League a while back on The Steel City Tour with ABC and I am glad to say that tour was the end of any lingering animosity between the two of them. It was tetchy at first because the two of them are just so very much alike, both strong minded guys, and the sad thing in all of it was that they had been friends since school and you know what that’s like when you go that far back. But I am pleased to say that they are fine now. There have been several attempts by me and a host of other people to get the original Human League back together to perform but being honest I don’t think that it is ever going to happen. I think that is a massive shame, as I would personally pay good money to stand at the front to watch that.
Especially if they used the slides of Captain Scarlet and Joe 90 whilst performing in Perspex boxes.
(Laughter) it would all have to be like that. Its brilliant isn’t it (laughter).
On that note let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me. It’s been fun and I am looking forward to seeing you in Birmingham. Remember to leave a light on for me.
(Laughter) I will just for you (laughter). It’s been a pleasure Kevin and I really hope that I get to see you in Birmingham. Cheers and bye for now.