On the first day of spring Glenn Gregory has been out on a three-hour walk around central London.
The Heaven 17 singer is preparing for a forthcoming tour with legendary David Bowie band mates Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey and is readying himself by listening to the songs they are going to be playing on an MP3 player while out on a long stroll.
“I put the whole set on then just walked,” he says. “In three hours walking I ran through the set one and a half times. The only way I feel I can do these songs justice is to know them inside out.”
The tour focuses on Bowie’s classic album The Man Who Sold The World, plus a few choice cuts from the period 1970 to 1974, and will be heading out across the UK in June.
Before that, Gregory has a string of dates with his longtime Heaven 17 colleague Martyn Ware. The pair have known each other since the 1970s and formed the pioneering electronic pop group – with Ian Craig Marsh – in Sheffield in 1980.
“It’s funny,” Gregory reflects, “I guess you never really think about what you are going to be doing in 30 years time. It’s strange that we are out there performing, though – we did 50 gigs last year.”
Had Gregory not opted to move to London on the day the Human League was conceived in 1977, the history of Sheffield synth pop could have been different. He had already performed in various bands with Ware and Marsh, including Musical Vomit, Underpants and VDK, but when he chose to head for the Big Smoke, he says, “Martyn and Ian decided to do this thing”, drafting in an old school friend – Phil Oakey – on vocals.
“Martyn said, ‘I don’t know he can sing but he’s got a fantastic haircut’, and that’s what happened, they got Phil in and gave him a track to take away – it was Being Boiled. He came back with amazing lyrics and the deal was done. He was the man for the job.”
Gregory was to hook up with Ware and Marsh in 1980 after they left the Human League. In 1981, as Heaven 17, they released the album Penthouse and Pavement, featuring the anti-Ronald Reagan anthem (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang. Greater commercial success came in 1983 with the single Temptation and the platinum-selling album The Luxury Gap.
“I remember vividly the writing of it,” Gregory, now 56, recalls of their signature song, which has twice been a top five hit in the UK. “We’d been writing demos in my flat in Ladbroke Grove and sometimes at Martyn’s flat round the corner, he lived on the top floor.
“He and I sat on the window ledge, the sun was coming in, and he said, ‘I’ve a brilliant idea for a song based on the Lord’s Prayer. The structure keeps building higher and higher to a frenzy, It’s going to be called Temptation.’ I said, ‘Blimey, have you been drinking already? It’s 10 in the morning.’”
They “buckled down” and wrote a chord sequence in a day but it took time to find the right female singer for the chorus. “We tried out two or three but they had not got the ballsy thing we wanted,” says Gregory. “We finally got that with Carol Kenyon.”
With the addition of a 50-piece orchestra, a moment of pop magic was made. “It was awesome, big and strong, we were sat in the studio control room saying, ‘This is amazing.’”
Heaven 17 were by then bona fide pop stars yet the irony of their chosen image – three Northern socialists with ponytails and designer suits – was “widely missed”.
“We got incorporated into the yuppie thing. It was meant to be a juxtaposition of modernity and old-fashioned but a lot of people thought, ‘That’s what I am’. No, that’s not what we meant.”
Thirty years later, the themes the band touched on in Penthouse and Pavement and The Luxury Gap, of British society’s winners and losers, sadly seem more relevant than ever. “Key to the world we’d written about, about living on credit and countries living on credit and other countries feeding off that, that’s totally relevant now,” Gregory notes. “Even our first single, Fascist Groove Thang, is incredibly relevant now. We would have hoped it would not be so relevant but it is. We could have written that yesterday, Penthouse and Pavement, the haves and have-nots, that gap has got wider.”
Heaven 17’s mainstream success was to last for one more album, How Men Are. Gregory concedes that “probably in retrospect” it might have gone on longer had they been prepared to tour. “Perhaps we did miss out on certain things, we turned down a lot of money for offers to play live, but we thought that was old-fashioned at the time. We were a modern music band, MTV had just started, there were videos, we thought, ‘That’s the way to do it’.”
It was not until the 1990s that they finally played live “almost on a whim”, when they were invited to support Erasure after Ware produced their album I Say I Say I Say.
“After 17 years of not doing it there we were at Manchester Arena in front of 15,000 people.” Gregory believes their stance paid off in the long run, with the band – now minus Ian Craig Marsh, who left eight years ago to study neuroscience – full of appetite for being on stage.
“I’m glad we did it now,” he says. “It’s good fun. I think we are getting quite good at it now.”
• Heaven 17 , Warehouse 23 in Wakefield on April 10, Hebden Bridge Trades Club on June 19, Let’s Rock Leeds on June 20, Grassington Festival on June 27 and Holmfirth Picturedrome on July 10. Glenn Gregory will perform with Tony Visconti and Woody Woodmansey at O2 Academy Leeds on June 21. For more details visit www.heaven17.com