Around about this time last year Heaven 17 came to Norwich, where they played at the sweaty, crowded and atmospheric Waterfront – a return to the venue where the band played their very first live gig. A fine time was had by all, but Heaven 17 play big songs that need space to breath. Although there are only two of them, the broader canvas of a bigger venue feels like their natural home, so it was with considerable anticipation that the good folk of East Anglia had waited for their promised return with a bigger, better show at the University.
Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory are men that are at ease with themselves, as their choice of support act makes clear. Last year, Neil Arthur’s excellent Blancmange very nearly stole the show, and for this tour they’ve invited along Claudia Brucken and Susanne Freytag, trading under the name xPropaganda. Criminally overlooked at the time (ZZT had their hands full with Frankie goes to Hollywood) it was quite something to see such a seminal eighties band in a support slot. It was also a clever contrast to the predominately synthesised sound to come, with real drums and guitar provided edge and energy to a set list taken largely from their classic Secret Wish album. Claudia Brücken’s vocals were as solid as ever in a set that ran from Dream within a Dream to Duel, with Susanne Freytag helping out on the quirkier Dr Mabuse. I met a couple from Maine, who had interrupted their tour of the UK just to see xPropaganda - not Heaven 17 - and I’m guessing they weren’t alone. I hope the all too brief half hour set didn’t leave them feeling short changed.
I, however, had come to see Heaven 17, and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. With no new material to showcase, this was very much a retrospective of their back catalogue, with the whole of their second album, Luxury Gap, in the spotlight. Such is the magnificence of Penthouse and Pavements, I can see why they might do this. Luxury Gap actually charted much higher than the first album, but memory is a fickle thing, and aside from Temptation, the second record now tends to get overshadowed by its predecessor. Glenn Gregory, as cheery and personable a fellow as you can imagine, explained that they debated long and hard how best to do this. To paraphrase Eric Morecombe, he wanted to play all the right songs, but not necessarily in the right order. Martyn overruled him, and was right to do so, but it did invest the evening with an odd trajectory. Temptation showcased Kelly Barnes and Rachel Mosleh’s outstanding vocals in whatwould normally be the glorious endpoint of an evening in Heaven 17’a company. Yet here the running order dictated it was knocked out the court barely twenty minutes in, leaving Gregory to wonder if we should all nip off early. Thankfully, the idea was rejected, so we also got to hear the relatively obscure Key to the World and Lady Ice and Mr Hex. Both remain interesting curiosities that will most likely be put back in the toy box after the tour, but The Best Kept Secret was exactly that, a magisterial revelation played live that should be kept in the set list.
Proper vinyl records were, of course, mercifully brief - we were done after 45 minutes – leaving the lads with time on their hands. The solution – which was a masterstroke in stagecraft – was to take a brief peek at Martyn Ware’s early material for the Human League. I was reminded of David Byrne leaving the Talking Head’s stage to make way for the Tom Tom Club as the gig changed gear and the deeply weird Circus of Death and Crow and a Baby were given an airing. Best of all was the Human League’s version of You've Lost That Loving Feeling, which apart from being very good, showed off the deep and really rather lovely friendship the two men share. Multi-talented keyboard player, Berenice Scott, was grinning from ear to ear as they sung together, her beatific smile a clear indication of her obvious affection for these elder statesmen of new wave synth-pop.
Affection and good humour were, indeed, the abiding characteristics of the evening’s performance. As we entered the third act, ticking off a few from the mandatory set list - Fascist Groove Thang, I’ve Got Money, Penthouse and Pavement – everyone on stage just seemed to be having a great time enjoying each other’s company. Unapologetically, they harvested music almost exclusively from the fecund first two albums, because they know it’s what people want to hear, and they are grounded enough to deliver. I live in hope that one day I might hear them perform their nutty cover of Don’t Fear the Reaper off the seventh album, but I begrudgingly realise I’m probably the only one in the room thinking it.
So instead they played Temptation all over again instead - and why not, particularly if they are going to do the extended, 12” inch mix version? As an encore, it proved unbeatable, and along with the hardy perennial Being Boiled, brought a master class in showmanship to a sparkling close.