Heaven 17, Corn Exchange, Brighton

Heaven 17 celebrate three decades of their debut album, which hasn't lost its relevance

Heaven 17 never toured during their Eighties heyday, a fact acknowledged wryly as Glenn Gregory declares: "Thirty years late." Time's a funny thing. Last time I saw Heaven 17 was on 2008's Sheffield-centric Steel City package tour, which – though a glorious celebration of the musical legacy of what is essentially England's Detroit – felt somehow reproachful, a reminder of an unrequited future abandoned by the rockist Nineties.

If a year's a long time in pop, two years is an eternity, and the participants of that jaunt suddenly feel newly relevant. Heaven 17's recent collaboration with La Roux received a record 1.2 million hits on the BBC's red button, while the Human League – Steel City tour-mates, friends/rivals and, of course, the band from whom Heaven 17 originally split – are about to release their first new material in a decade: the storming "Night People", which sounds utterly magnificent over the big speakers when Mark "Back to the Phuture" Jones drops it into his warm-up DJ set.

The pretext for Heaven 17's current tour is the 30th anniversary of their classic debut, Penthouse and Pavement (just reissued, somewhat inevitably, in deluxe double-disc format). Never a massive seller at the time – it reached No 14 – P&P has since attained cult status. A prescient satire on social trends (particularly the then-imminent rise of the yuppie), it was politicised yet playful, didactic yet danceable, as epitomised tonight by tracks like "Let's All Make a Bomb", "(We Don't Need) This Fascist Groove Thang" – banned, bafflingly, from Radio 1 by Mike Read – and "At the Height of the Fighting (He-La-Hu)".

It's an album that single-handedly gives the lie to the brainless notion – which has sprung up in more recent times – that the New Romantic era was an amoral, hedonistic celebration of Thatcherite excess. A bitterly ironic commentary from a band who were based, lest we forget, in the industrial North, it's 10 times cleverer than its detractors will ever know. It's also 20 times more fun than that description makes it sound.

Accompanied by visuals from Ian Anderson of legendary Sheffield collective Designers Republic, its crisp electro-funk is sounding ridiculously contemporary, even if the rapid word rate leaves Gregory breathless: the songs, he explains, were tailored for the MTV age, with no thought given to the need to inhale between lines.

Original member Ian Craig Marsh has retreated from the pop life for one of academia (right here in Brighton, coincidentally), so the H17 frontline now consists of fellow founder Martyn Ware, singer Glenn Gregory – or "Gwen Gleggory" as Jools Holland Spooneristically introduced him the other week – and Brighton girl Billie Godfrey, who lends her formidable lungs to Carol Kenyon's bit on "Temptation" and Tina Turner's bit on the, er, Temptations' "Ball of Confusion", one of two selections from Heaven 17's covers-based side project BEF (British Electric Foundation). The other is "Wichita Lineman", the romantic beauty of Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell's original given a dark undercurrent by the addition of a sinister, anti-melodic root note, the same trick Ware had previously executed with the League's version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'", and indeed the trick the Orb borrowed when undermining Minnie Riperton's "Loving You" on "A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld".

The memory of one guest on the original BEF album, Billy Mackenzie, is honoured with a rendition of the Associates' "Party Fears Two", whose heady, exhilarating rush is decelerated to a more reflective, gentle waltz. Gregory – a friend of Mackenzie who even named his pet whippet Billy – wisely doesn't attempt to match the great man's soaring falsetto. Nobody ever could.

A crowd-pleasing hits section follows, and the housed-up, Nineties-sounding extended version of "Temptation" actually feels more dated than the original (a cautionary tale for any 'heritage' act inclined to jiggle their classics into contemporary shapes). However, existential electro-soul epic "Let Me Go", Heaven 17's favourite song of theirs (and my favourite too), remains untouched, and therefore untouchable.

The ghost of the Human League, whose home-town show I was due to review before it was snowed off, makes several appearances. Ware pointedly sticks his flag in the early League oeuvre with an encore of "Being Boiled" (the Travelogue album version, synth-nerds), that impassioned and ever-bizarre karmic critique of the farming of silkworms, and cue for a bout of mass overhead handclapping.

And, strapping on what must surely be the most sarcastic acoustic guitar on earth, Gregory starts strumming a familiar melody: "Don't You Want Me". During this least likely of covers, Ware heckles, "I could have written this. I'd be rich by now..." He's not bitter, though. In effect, that song, he tells me later, bought his first house. He gave Phil Oakey's faction the rights to the Human League name in exchange for 1 per cent of their next album, which happened to be Dare.

Heaven 17's pavement days were over.



Next Week:

Simon Price visits the endangered 100 Club for The Fuzztones, and finds out whether Frankie can tug at his Heartstrings.

Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits