Friday, 23 September 2011

Heaven 17 - Penthouse & Pavement

I Love 1981 - pt 18
So here's another one of those "classic 80s" albums, although if the truth be known Penthouse and Pavement didn't really have such a major success or impact at the time. It's an album of two halves - literally. The 'penthouse' side being the slik 'uptown' funky style which was coming back into fashion, and the darker 'pavement' side which was heavier on the electronics and darker lyrics, obviously harking back to Marsh & Ware's Human League days (you can easily imagine Phil Oakey singing these instead of Gregory).
Fascist Groove Thing is an uneasy opener, lingering somewhere between the two worlds - an early attempt at electronic funk with the lefty politically aware lyrics, driven along nicely by John Wilson's bass, as is much of the 'penthouse' side, boosted by the newly discovered Linn drum and, thankfully, some lighter lyrics. The funk-pop triptych of the title track, the non-charting single Play to Win and closing Soul Warfare lulls us into a false sense of "uptown" optimism before the needle lifts. A possible dance soundtrack to the shiny new 80s Britain.

Over on side two however it's more doom and gloom and grim late-70s: more Callaghan than Thatcher, more cold war than cool. Nothing wrong with that of course, as Heaven 17 - citizens of the People's Republic of South Yorkshire - knew only too well. Let's All Make a Bomb and Height of the Fighting are an ironic take on modern warfare, as advocated by the reigning Thatcher-Reagan alliance, while Song With  No Name touches on the alienation of the modern artist in a fast changing world, with echoes of the Human League's darker sci-fi scenarios. We're Going To Live For a Very Long Time is the best take on born-again religion you'll ever find, and the final run out groove repetition on vinyl - unreproduceable in any other format - is a clever means of hammering a message home à la Billy Graham et al.

Problem is of course that Heaven 17's irony was never quite appreciated and au contraire was often taken on face value. From the faux-business brochure cover art to BEF's sales-pitch slogan, they were often misinterpreted as being part of the new yuppy culture - young, urban, professionals on the up, emerging from the grim-up-North pavements to the penthouse world of an emerging nouveau riche Britain. As it turned out Heaven 17  would take some time before they actually found their balance, but they would have their day later and duly became household names.
In hindsight, Penthouse and Pavement does remain a classic 80s album as demonstrated by its albeit premature 30th anniversary celebration in 2010, with live shows and a full blown re-issue, extra tracks, DVD etc. Heaven 17 and BEF now prepare two live shows at London's Roundhouse on 14th &15th October next. They're going to live for a very long time....for a very long time....for a very long time....for a very long time....for a very long time....for a very long time....for a very long time....

edit: a big "Holà!" to going underground and we refer you to that rather spiffing blog for HEAVEN 17: THE STORY OF 'PENTHOUSE & PAVEMENT' videos

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