Dec 152010

A fascinating insight into the remarkably rapid development of a genre.

Stone-cold classic or sacred cow? With synth-pop a prevalent pop force again, La Roux and Little Boots carrying torches first lit in the late 1970s, first-wave acts like Heaven 17 are arguably more fashionable now than ever before. The Sheffield band’s 1981 debut album is regularly cited as hugely influential, a landmark of its time. And it’s certainly a super listen, mixing the steely cool of Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware’s previous outfit, The Human League, with an assured funkiness that echoed the Brian Eno-produced Talking Heads albums of the era. But faultless? Of course not – it’s a debut, with all the inconsistency that typically entails.

The album’s singles remain striking, though, however much some of the surrounding material has inevitably dated. The first, March 1981’s (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, took leftist ideology into the (lower end of the) chart, much to the dismay of Radio 1’s Mike Read who promptly banned it from airplay. The track was the highest-charting cut from Penthouse and Pavement – proper mainstream recognition would arrive with 1983’s The Luxury Gap and its number two success, Temptation – but Play to Win and the title-track are similarly superb. The former is a twitchily insistent ode to positive mental attitudes, whatever the risks involved; the latter, a sublimely smoothly backed portrait of a work-hard, play-harder attitude and the cost to the soul in question.

Affixed to the end of the original nine-track album are the first of this set’s bonus tracks – 12″ versions of I’m Your Money and Are Everything, and Decline of the West. The latter originally appeared on the cassette-only release Music for Stowaways, and further B.E.F. (British Electronic Foundation – “the new partnership that’s opening doors all over the world”) tracks appear on the second disc, a collection of lost demos from 1980. These carefully restored recordings illustrate just how keen Ware and Marsh, and vocalist Glenn Gregory, were to expand the synth-pop palette. The demo tracks exude a greater organic quality than their glossed-up final mix counterparts, the band clearly feeling their way around new ideas and directions; they’re ultimately inferior as songs, but certainly interesting, even the instrumentals. Several alternate B.E.F. takes are superbly sharp and direct – the evil pulsations of Uptown Apocalypse and Music to Kill Your Parents By particularly unsettling, a world away from the glamour of The Luxury Gap.

The fine assortment of bonus tracks – and an accompanying DVD documentary – will sell this latest packaging to existing admirers, but newcomers have never had it better either. In its outtakes and experiments Penthouse and Pavement reveals its truest colours yet: it’s no masterpiece, but it is a fascinating insight into the remarkably rapid development of a genre which shows no sign of drifting quietly away into the night.

Mike Diver 2010-11-18

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The opinions expressed in this review do not necessarily reflect those of Adventures in High Fidelity Audio.

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