Martyn Ware Interview
I recently had the great privilege of talking to Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware ahead of their show at the Academy on 4th October.
It’s a show under the banner of the BEF; the British Electric Foundation, and marks only the third ever album release from this umbrella project which they started in 1980. As with the first two albums, it consists of cover versions, produced under the guidance of Martyn, and the shows (one in London, one in Sheffield) will feature appearances by a host of guest vocalists. The Sheffield show has confirmed appearances from Andy Bell, Green Gartside, Glenn Gregory and Kim Wilde, along with the tantalising promise of ‘special unannounced guests’.
Martyn was good enough to give me his time on a sunny afternoon recently and we talked through the album track by track. The album is called Dark:Vol 3 Music of Quality & Distinction’
It was really a labour of love. If it was being done for money it would never have got made. I used my contacts in the music business to see if people would show faith in it, and all the people who’ve participated have come up with some amazing performances.
Kim Wilde covering a Stevie Wonder song, Everytime I See You.
Most people know this as a Northern Soul classic by JJ Barnes, and are unaware it was originally by Stevie Wonder. I’ve always been a bit of a fan of the scene and here’s something about the edgy lyrics of some of the hits from that time that fascinated me. Songs like ‘The Night’ by Frankie Valley have such weird lyrics that I realised if you removed the dance music behind them and inserted something more menacing like say the soundtrack music to a stalker film, you could reinterpret the entire song. That concept of dark reinterpretations was something that inspired the entire album. Kim does a great job singing this and I especially loved the way the music is multi-tracked from one old-style synthesiser.
Green Gartside covering The Delfonics Didn't I Do It Baby .
When I started out, I had a long-list of about 30 songs for this project. With this one I immediately knew that I wanted it to be sung by Green from Scritti Politti. It suits the delicacy and sensitivity of his voice, and I was sure we could make it more contemporary without ruining the original beauty of the song. From a musical point of view, I really love the way it shifts between major and minor all the time.
Sandie Shaw covering Gladys Knight and the Pips’ Just Walk In My Shoes.
Sandie is a character of the old school and is incredibly feisty and creative; we get on really well. You never know quite where she’s going to go with things, but I’m quite happy to follow. She selected this song from the list of songs I suggested to her, most likely because of the title and the fact she’s known for not wearing any. We both love Sixties soul and this is a Northern Soul classic. It’s a great re-interpretation and one of the few where we kept close to the original spirit of the track rather than slowing it down or mutating it in some way.
Sarah Jane Morris covering John Martyn’s Don’t Wanna Know.
In this country, Sarah Jane is almost unknown, and is only really remembered as being the female singer with the Communards, but she is absolutely huge in Europe. She’s like the ‘Cleo Laine’ of Italy and has recording contracts over there. I saw her play a sold-out show in Venice, where she and a guitarist performed this song as an encore, and I never forgot it. I thought I could take the song and make a sort of mid-seventies soul/Prince-type of track. She’s so used to singing it that I was able to build a sort of house of electronics around it.
Kate Jackson covering Blondie’s Picture This.
Kate was the singer with the Long Blondes, who you’ll know were based in Sheffield. This is probably the darkest version of any song on the album, and it would suit the soundtrack to some sort of teen-angst type of movie. When it was done, I decided that the actual music behind the song was so beautiful that it deserved an extra couple of minutes at the end, so I extended it and developed a little coda after the vocals have finished.
Andy Bell covering Kate Bush’s Breathing.
This is quite a dark song in itself, without any treatment from me. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s about a nuclear attack as viewed by an unborn baby. The spoken commentary in the middle section, which was on the original, and which is voiced by Andy, is an actually a quote from a nuclear scientist.
Glenn Gregory covering Frank Sinatra’s Good Year and The Associates’ Party Fears Two.
Glenn has two cover versions on the album. The first is a Sinatra song that I’ve always loved, and if you know the lyrics you’ll agree that it couldn’t be sung by a young singer. It needs a singer of a certain age to make it work. The second song, Party Fears Two, is a live favourite, and seemed to fit the album perfectly. We were great friends with Billy MacKenzie who wrote it, and he worked on the two previous BEF albums before his suicide in 1997. He was so prodigiously talented, but was a very nervous guy. He used to cram so many ideas into the lyrics of the songs, but they are so difficult to appreciate because played and sang them so fast. Perhaps it was because he was such a bundle of nervous, manic energy. When the songs are slowed down it reveals a beauty to them that was hidden before. We performed this live in Glasgow, on the ‘Penthouse and Pavements’ tour and you could hear a pin drop. After the show Alan Rankin, who was Billy’s partner from his days the Associates, came backstage and told us how much he appreciated what we’d done, and was in floods of tears.
Boy George covering Iggy Pop’s I Wanna Be Your Dog and Lou Reed’s Make Up.
George is another singer with two songs on the album. My inspiration for the Iggy Pop cover came from the first Hannibal Lector film, Manhunter. The music was a big part of that film, and I’ve tried to give this song a similar feeling of menace. I wanted to try to paint a filmic vision in people’s minds and came up with this idea of performing the song as if it was being spoken down the phone. When you hear it like that, the words become very dark and menacing. The other song, Make Up was originally on the Transformer album, and was George’s choice. It takes its constituent parts from the live performance we did at the Roundhouse last year.
David Roche covering Bill Withers’ Same Love.
David’s another Sheffield-based artist and is a great singer. He suggested this song himself after I’d explained the concept of the album to him, and it’s a song he sometimes covers in his live shows. My initial idea was to lay down an abstract electronic soundscape behind the song, but when he was in the studio I sprung on him the idea of a Georgio Morroder disco-type backing, which was a bit naughty of me, but I thought he’d freak out if I told him any earlier, and I think it really works.
Shingai Shinowa covering The Beach Boys’ God Only Knows.
Shinga is from the Noisettes. This is a song where I was so in love with the original that I tried to create the same mood as the Beach Boys’ version. This one track took longer than any of the others to finish, especially the vocals arrangements in the middle.
Polly Scattergood covering Dusty Springfield’s Look of Love.
Polly is an amazing performer but she’s only ever released one album, which came out a few years ago. I think she sings like a young Kate Bush, although I played his to a friend and before I told him who was singing, he was convinced it was Bjork.
Max Pokrovski covering Abba’s The Day Before You Came.
Max is bonkers; even more bonkers than he sounds here! He sings with the Russian punk group Nogu Svelo, who are enormous over there, and he’s also a famous reality TV star. Despite what you might imagine from the music he usually sings, his big passion is Western European electronic music. The choice of song was his, and the arrangement was very much down to him too as he’s a very talented musician. Despite the way it sounds, he didn't camp it up at all, and he actually tones it down for most of the song.
Billie Godfrey covering Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy.
Billie and I have worked together for years, as she’s the vocalist for our live shows. I like the way you think the song’s finished, but then it moves onto another level. I think this is one of the tracks I’m most proud of.
Kelly Barnes covering Teena Marie’s Co-pilot to Pilot.
Kelly is someone else I’ve worked with for years live and in the studio. I chose this obscure Teena Marie track because it’s such an amazingly beautiful song. She was such a fantastic singer who made some truly groundbreaking music, and it was such a sad loss when she died so young.
Sticking with the idea of reworking songs, I asked Martyn for his thoughts on cover versions of Heaven 17 material.
There haven’t been all that many, but there was a Cradle of Filth ‘sceamo’ version of ‘Temptation’. Yello did a cover of ‘Let Me Go’ and a few there have been a few lounge-style covers, but not much else. I’ve always wanted to work with Aretha Frankin, and it did almost happen once, but sadly came to nothing. If there’s one cover version I’d love to hear it would be for Aretha to cover Temptation. That would be amazing.
BEF Pictures: The Electricity Club www.electricity-club.co.uk