British Electric Foundation was a studio project launched in 1980 as stepping stone between Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh’s stints in the Sheffield bands the Human League and Heaven 17.
Releases have been sporadic but over the ensuing decades BEF has released four albums – one instrumental, the other three featuring singers as varied as Tina Turner, Boy George, Paula Yates and Sandie Shaw.
Now at last Ware – minus Craig Marsh – is taking BEF out on the road, with a little help from friends such as Mari Wilson, Peter Hooton of The Farm and the Sex Pistols’ original bass player Glen Matlock.
For good measure, on their national tour, which includes a home city gig at Sheffield City Hall, Ware will also be opening the night by performing Heaven 17’s classic album Penthouse and Pavement in full with his longtime musical partner Glenn Gregory.
Given that Ware had announced onstage after BEF played at the Roundhouse in London in 2011 that it would be their “last show ever”, it took some convincing by his manager to bring the project out of retirement initially for a Rewind festival. “He said, ‘There will be a decent budget’ and I said, ‘Yes, I know but it’s six months work on and off getting this together, plus we had to write new arrangements for everything and I have to deal directly with all the artists and persuade them to do it and liaise with them’. It takes your life up.
“Then they said ‘Oh, go on, just do one and see how you feel about it’. And of course I did it and it was a big success and people loved it and I didn’t make any money out of it – well, a tiny bit. This year came along and [the Rewind organisers] asked me to do three of them and said, ‘It was so successful, we’ll up the fees’ and I couldn’t refuse that so we’ve done three of them this year and it’s been massively successful and it’s turned into a little industry now.”
The idea for the BEF/Heaven 17 tour came from a promoter. Ware says he acquiesced when it was suggested they could use it to mark Penthouse and Pavement’s 35th anniversary as well as playing at larger venues. “I’m not being funny about it, but I put an awful lot of effort into this – a lot – because all I’ve got left is my legacy now,” he says carefully. “I can’t ruin the perception of what we’ve done over the last 35 years, consequently it’s going to be a great show and you are literally getting two shows for the price of one.”
Ware’s guests – who will each perform “their biggest song in BEF style, electronically” as well as a cover version, “hopefully something a bit unexpected” – are old friends. “Peter Hooton is a fellow socialist and Altogether Now is just one of the classic 90s tunes,” Ware notes. “Mari Wilson is one of the loveliest people you’re ever going to meet, she’s also still got a fantastic voice, and I toured with Glen Matlock when he was the bass player for Iggy Pop in 1979 with the Human League, so we go back that far. We’re going to be doing an electronic version of a Sex Pistols tune and an Iggy Pop tune.
“Then Glenn is going to do a BEF thing as well. It’s a lot of laughs but it has a kind of music thoroughness and rigour to it.”
The Heaven 17 part of the show promises to feature new electronic arrangements of Penthouse and Pavement. Ware says: “The original album was half our new sound as it were, which was drum machines, live bass, live guitar and some electronics, then the other side of the album was all electronic because a lot of those instrumentals we were already writing for the next Human League album.
“That side of the album is still electronic but we’ve updated the sounds; the first side of the album is going to be much more electronic than the original was. It’s just keeping it interesting for us and the audience as well.”
Fresh from breaking up with the Human League, Ware remembers the band being “super-motivated” at the time they made the record in 1981. “Thematically whilst myself and Ian and Glenn who came into the group were always engaged in politics – Glenn’s father was a steel worker, mine worked in tool making, Ian’s dad was a builder, all trade unionists, shop stewards, socialists – we wanted to carry the torch. The idea that we suddenly had this new vehicle, we thought it was kind of cool to incorporate the real world so it’s not just fantasy based. We thought it was really cool to make it like a news-based musical. It was exciting because we couldn’t think of anybody that had done this, but there was a kind of premise for it in the protest songs from the R&B community in the 60s and 70s – the black rights movement and things like Across 110th Street by Bobby Womack, talking about reality for people. I think hip-hop has taken up that baton for people now.
“Music is a fantastic tool for talking about people’s real lives. It was less about an overt message, it was cloaking it in entertaining dance music so that people who weren’t particularly political could enjoy it for one reason then if you wanted to dig a little bit deeper there’s added depth. I think some of that is the reason why it’s had such longevity.”
Aside from music, Sheffield-born Ware says he is “seriously considering” standing for Parliament.
The 60-year-old, who is a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, says he is thinking of running as a Labour Party candidate in a future election.
“The reason why Corbyn is getting such buy-in from ordinary working people is because he speaks their language,” he says.
Ware says he’s looking at “various options” if Labour’s Parliamentary party splits. “Say there’s a mass resignation of the Labour whip by these MPs, which is not out of the question, they’re going to have to find a lot of representatives because the majority will be deselected by their CLPs [constituency Labour parties], quite rightly, and there’s going to need to be a huge number of people to volunteer to stand as an MP. It’s not because I’m in a pop group or whatever, but it needs ordinary people who are dustbin men, it needs nurses, it needs journalists, it needs photographers, not just career politicians. This is where we’ve gone wrong in this country, in my view, so rather than just talking the talk I’m going to walk the walk while I still can.”
BEF and Heaven 17 play at Sheffield City Hall on October 25. For details visit www.heaven17.com