In most British cities, punk had inspired kids to grab guitars and make sub-Clash two-guitar thrash. In Sheffield though, the city's resident aesthetes dug the London bands' clothes and shock value, but the idea of back-to-basics garageland rock seemed dated from the start. In Sheffield's garages - and bedsits and living rooms - you'd find youths grappling with synths, tape recorders and crude rhythm boxes.
Simon Reynolds, Rip it up and Start Again.
...In amongst those 'resident aesthetes' was a young computer programmer named Martyn Ware. As the founding member of two of the city's most significant bands (The Human League and Heaven 17), he would become integral to the music scene, not only to that city but also as part of the greater sea change in popular art and culture. 'Electronically Yours' is his fascinatingly plain-spoken account of how Ware became a pioneer of electronica, an 80s pop star, and an in-demand record producer. It is really quite a journey.
The young Ware would befriend a lad at school named Phil Oakey, who'd moved from Solihull and who shared with him his intriguingly eclectic music finds. Later, at the Meatwhistle Theatre and Arts Workshop, Ware would meet a quiet lad who was building his own synthesizer, his name was Ian Craig Marsh and later the three would form the first incarnation of The Human League, history was being made. Other Sheffield music scene characters would also appear in Ware's story, including the gregarious Glenn Gregory (later to be the vocalist in Heaven 17) and, as drinking mates, the hugely influential Cabaret Voltaire (affectionately referred to as 'the Cabs').
Although 'Electronically Yours' is primarily a tale of Ware's fantastic voyage and is positive throughout, it does settle one important score. Despite the innovation and critical approval of their first two albums, The Human League's record label was keen for hits. In a bizarre turn of events, their manager (Bob Last, who had known, and may even have been influenced by, that most well-known of pop music svengalis - Malcolm McLaren), together with the lead singer, unscrupulously sacked Ware from the band. For many years the version of events given by Oakey is that he was abandoned by Ware and Craig Marsh on the verge of a major tour and had to rope in teenage dancers/singers (followed soon by additional musicians and chart-friendly songwriters) in order to continue. Ware corrects this (it's obvious that the new recruits were aware of the coup beforehand!), and although Ware is not the type to hold grudges, you feel that he is still appalled by the events.
From then on, Ware's tale follows the arc of success of Heaven 17 (their steady rise but slow fall) and also his British Electric Foundation (BEF), a project that had famous (sometimes faded), vocalists would take on pop/cult classics with a musical backdrop by Ware and co. Amongst these was Tina Turner whose career he would help rekindle with his production of Turner's 'Let's Stay Together'. You get the sense that, at this point, life for Ware would never be the same again. Even though that may be the case, he never succumbs to stardom or celebrity behaviour. What is most endearing with 'Electronically Yours' are the moments where he breaks from the linear narrative to focus on subjects that are close to him (music, TV, socialism, and Sheffield Wednesday). It is here where his sincerity and zero-bullshit approach shine through the most.
In addition to this being Ware's autobiography, 'Electronically Yours' also includes an in-depth appendix (over 100 pages!) that details his reflections on all of his recordings with The Human League, Heaven 17, and BEF. If you've ever wanted to know about the inspirations for 'The Black Hit of Space' or the experience of working with the genius of the late Billy Mackenzie on BEF's version of Bowie's 'The Secret Life of Arabia ' (and personally I always have), then this section is indispensable.
It is enticing that 'Electronically Yours' is subtitled as 'Volume One' and that the story ends in 1992 with 'the fall and rise of Heaven 17.' There is still so much of Ware's wonderful story left to tell, 'Volume Two' is eagerly anticipated.
Notes: Martyn Ware's excellent podcast is available to listen to here, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.
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