Heaven 17/The Modern, Scala, London

Music of quality and distinction

If anything, with her peroxide locks, scarlet lips and corseted balcony, Cooke looks like a post-war glamour girl. She isn't the only Modernist who's got the look. She's flanked by two male co-singers and keyboardists, shielded behind curved white counters (very Dr Who, very Tardis) with style to burn. Nathan Cooper, to her right, has Nick Rhodes hair and a pout to match, Chi Tudor-Hart, to Cooke's left, has Bryan Ferry Brylcreem, a Man From Del Monte white suit and an Adam Ant lipstick kiss on his right cheek. In fact, all five members of The Modern - their faces superimposed on the video screen, blended into Euroscapes of pylons and motorways and manga (a massive clue to The Modern's aesthetic) - could be pop stars in their own rights. You'd never guess that they crawled from the Deptford/ New Cross squat scene: surely the least likely, and least scummy, band ever to emerge from such origins.

The Modern are frequently compared to Ladytron, but where Ladytron sang "He Took Her to a Movie", The Modern sing "he took her to a disco" (in "Discotheque Francaise"). This says much about their respective priorities, with the latter valuing dance floor exuberance ahead of moody atmospherics.

The whole post-RoMo, post-Electroclash sound has been thoroughly assimilated into the mainstream now, but no nouveau electro act has actually made it big. Could The Modern, signed to Polydor, working with legendary synthpop producer Stephen Hague, and with a Top 40 hit already under their belts be the first self-manufactured synth band of their generation to break through? We may find out in February, when they release a tale of romance on the factory floor: "Industry". As long as they don't get crushed by the wheels...

Speaking of which, Heaven 17 are and, as they remind us on the sleeve of new album Before After, "always have been" Glenn Gregory, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware. They've thinned on top and filled out down below, but they never were pin-ups - and Gregory's baritone remains intact, which is the main thing.

A Human League offshoot, they have been written out of history somewhat. Like Gang of Four, they satirised capitalism by stealing its imagery and rhetoric, but unlike Go4, they haven't become canonical - possibly because they made poofy old melodic pop music, instead of difficult angular white funk.

Equally important were their alter egos BEF (British Electric Foundation), whose covers-and-collaborations album Music Of Quality And Distinction prefigured the whole trend for rehabilitating unfashionable has-beens by at least a decade (Tina Turner owes her entire Eighties comeback to BEF), and proved that these new-fangled synthesizers and the classic virtues of pop songwriting needn't be implacable enemies.

Heaven 17's was a classic bell-shaped career curve, rising from such socio-political commentaries as "We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thang" (updated tonight to mention G W Bush) and "Geisha Boys", peaking with the barnstorming dancefloor monster "Temptation", before tailing off.

Their new material is perfectly decent (although "Hands Up To Heaven" summons unwelcome memories of D:Ream), but naturally it's the trio's 1982-84 prime which has drawn the crowds. "Temptation" is thoroughly milked, but for me the outstanding track is the immediately pre-fame "Let Me Go", whose melody bears the same elegant inevitability as Billy Idol's "Eyes Without A Face", and still causes shivers.

They close with "Being Boiled", The Human League's peculiar attack on the horrors of silkworm farming. It's as if Marsh and Ware are trying to tell us, in the words of another unplayed hit, "this is mine".

s.price@independent.co.uk

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