SHEFFIELD WAS an important hub of steel and coal production during The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s and was nicknamed ‘The Steel City,’ but in the 1970s and 1980s international competition and the anti-union stance of Margaret Thatcher meant industry in the area collapsed.
“The steel industry lost 80 per cent of its production in three years due to the policies of Thatcher and a number of other reasons,” says Martyn Ware of Sheffield electronic music bands The Human League and Heaven 17.
“It had been the biggest industrial town in Britain and had all its eggs in one basket. The economic impact of losing all those manufacturing jobs had a tremendously negative impact on everyone. It wasn’t just the steel and coal workers who were impacted but also the small traders who supplied the factories. Consequently the city centre became empty and bereft of life. It was hard to imagine what a future in Sheffield would be like.”
Across Britain during this era young people had very mixed emotions about what lay ahead for them. It was the decade of the three-day week and strikes, of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee, and of prog, glam, punk, and new wave.
Yet Martyn Ware and his friends Ian Craig Marsh, Phil Oakey, and Adi Newton were not into wearing motorcycle jackets and putting safety pins through their noses like the punks. They had more lofty ambitions.
Ware and Marsh were working as computer operators and Oakey was a porter at a local hospital but they all dreamed of pop stardom. They were looking towards a computer-generated future and were in to pop music, Tamla Motown, and avant-garde German electronic music.
“I’d say prog rock and glam rock were our two biggest influences,” Ware says. “It was of a case of when punk came along - which is more or less around the time we began making our own music – we’d already been through our wild phase.
“It was far more daring to wear make-up and platform shoes and walk down the streets of a working-class Yorkshire town! The key movers in music as far as we were concerned were Bowie and Roxy Music, and their sense of glamour was an enormous influence. They represented a hugely positive life force for us and were our way out of the grimness of living in Sheffield at that particular time.”
The Human League
Ware, Marsh, and Newton put their meagre savings together and purchased two synthesisers and learned how to play them. They formed a band called The Future and recruited Oakey as lead singer because he “already looked like a pop star”.
In early 1978 they became The Human League and released cassette tapes of songs such as ‘Being Boiled’ and ‘Toyota City’ to record companies. Later that year their hero David Bowie appeared in the audience at one of their shows and declared he “had seen the future of pop music”.
The band signed to Virgin and released two critically acclaimed albums - Reproduction and Travelogue. However, they lacked significant commercial success, and internal conflicts between Ware and Oakey began to erupt.
“We did clash on various things but I think creatively we were always on the same hymn sheet,” Ware recalls. “We grew up together, were best friends from school, and our musical tastes were almost identical. It wasn’t a case of artistic differences but rather that the record company weren’t earning enough money out of the original Human League and wanted two bands for the price of one.”
Oakey continued with The Human League name and Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form a new band called Heaven 17. It was the 1980s, the decade of ‘Greed Is Good’, and the corporate Yuppie. In keeping with the spirit of the era Ware and Marsh formed a production company British Electric Foundation. They hired vocalist Glenn Gregory and explored themes such as nuclear war and Reaganomics in their music.
In March 1981 they were just about to release the lead single ‘Fascist Groove Thang’ (a thinly disguised swipe at Thatcherism ) from their debut album Penthouse and Pavement when it was banned by BBC Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read.
“We were convinced that it should have been a Top 10 hit because it was the most popular and fashionable dance song at the time,” Ware remembers. “In those days if Radio 1 refused to play your song it killed it stone dead because they were the only game in town.
“We went into panic mode and recorded another version with different lyrics but it was never going to work. It did set us back as a band quite a lot because it soured our relationship with the BBC for a very long time.”
Heaven 17 licked their wounds and within three years returned with a cracking second album The Luxury Gap. It was a complete contrast to their debut and produced a number of hit singles such as ‘Let Me Go’ and ‘Temptation’.
Ware had achieved his childhood dream of becoming a pop star and continued to record with a variety of artists throughout the second half of the decade. He produced Tina Turner’s hit single ‘Let’s Stay Together’ and worked on the Band Aid single with Bob Geldof and Midge Ure.
Reuniting with Oakey
In recent years pop music has been heavily influenced by electro pop and synth pop as acts such as Lady Gaga and Ellie Goulding have looked to the late 1970s/early 1980s for inspiration. One artist who has been very vocal in her praise for the ground-breaking music of The Human League and Heaven 17 is Eleanor Jackson (aka La Roux ) and has earmarked Penthouse and Pavement as one of her favourite albums.
“She had talked about us being a major influence in a number of interviews and so Glen sent her a message on Facebook,” Ware says. “It sort of blossomed from there and sort of became a mutual admiration thing. Then the opportunity came along to collaborate on BBC 6 and it ended up being their biggest live music event with over 1.2 million viewers. Jarvis Cocker (who is from Sheffield ) is also a big Heaven 17 fan and a while back he did an excellent version of ‘Temptation’ with Beth Ditto of The Gossip.”
It seems that the future that Ware, Marsh, Oakey and others pictured all those years ago in Sheffield is now coming to fruition. As part of this year’s Galway Arts Festival series of Big Top events The Human League and Heaven 17 will share the stage at Fisheries Field on Saturday July 24.
“We’ve worked together quite a lot recently” says Ware of his relationship with Oakey. “We did The Steel City Tour at the end of last year and that was a big success. I’m very happy that Phil and I will be on the same stage in Ireland. It’s a place we both love and are very much looking forward to playing.”
Heaven 17 and The Human League will play The Festival Big Top on Saturday July 24 at 7pm. The festival programme and tickets are available from www.galwayartsfestival.com The festival box office, Galway Tourist Office, Forster Street, opens on June 21.