Sheffield Telegraph December 2008

John Quinn


The ABC of Sheffield music nostalgia


A MAJOR pop music event took place on Saturday night.
But let's ignore The X Factor.

Several thousand Sheffielders did, instead opting for a night of not-just-nostalgia with three of the best-known acts ever to hail from around here The Human League, ABC and Heaven 17.

Whatever entertainment Simon Cowell's crew provides, one negative effect is spoiling the suspense and potential surprise of the race for the Christmas number one single.

However the crowd at an impressively almost-full Arena preferred to hark back to the days when the festive chart-topper could be made by a weird synthesizer group whose singer had responded to a split in the ranks by recruiting two teenage girls with no musical talent except the ability to dance and sing. Well, sort of...

The city's music scene at that time consisted largely of electronic experimentalists, some of whom suddenly discovered they could write pop songs. Very good pop songs at that, which sold by the bucketload until the tide of fashion changed.

The acts still exist, albeit after several line-up changes each, and occasionally release albums to diminishing returns, so whoever decided to combine all three pulled off a masterstroke. Other dates on the tour have apparently gone well but it all built up to this grand finale a hat-trick in front of a home crowd.

Heaven 17, the group formed by the other half of the original Human League after the split, were up first. First time around they never played live but original members Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory the other founder, Ian Craig Marsh, is apparently taking study leave have been joined by a proper band which fills out their sound.

Singer Glenn, looking cool in a hat probably to hide lack of locks pointed out that not only both his parents, but also his little son Louis were watching. The senior and junior Gregorys probably weren't either the oldest or youngest people there - although the majority will have been teens during the 80s, there was quite a crossover of crowd ages. However it took until the title track of H17 debut album Penthouse And Pavement, and an extended version of their biggest hit Temptation to really get them up on their feet.

Martin Fry is the only original member left in ABC and is obviously much too mature to wear gold lame nowadays, but still keeps the sharp-suited image, sashaying across the stage like he owns not only it but the entire venue.

But it wasn't always this way, as he notes with a mention for the scruffy student house on Barber Road at Crookes where the avant-garde Vice Versa became ABC and wrote their first proper song and first hit, Tears Are Not Enough.

There's a fine line between parodying cabaret and actually being cabaret and a couple of times during the set ABC straddled that line, but a fair selection from The Lexicon Of Love, their debut and best album brought back all the memories, both good and bad, As Fry pointed out during The Look Of Love, "25 years on" people still ask him if he'll ever find true love.

He was a year out but we'll forgive him.

The Human League who unlike the others still actually live in Sheffield always know how to put on a show, and had a split-screen set-up with an extra stage in the middle. This was used to great effect on the first number Seconds, with the lower tier showing a selection of random red numbers, like a deranged digital watch LED astray so to speak. After that we got bugs, buildings and much more, while a surprisingly athletic Oakey sprinted across the stage and Joanne and Susan were...well, they were Joanne and Susan.

They were the only one of the three acts not to do a completely new song, but with a back catalogue like theirs, they don't really need to. The hits kept coming, Love Action, Open Your Heart, Mirror Man, Tell Me When... even a passable version of worst-ever single Louise, complete with a name check for Tony Christie, who has recently released a cover version, and Richard Hawley, who produced it.

Oakey thanked the fans who had made their way to the "Meadowhall flood plain on the coldest and wettest night of the year", and after finishing the set with that 1981 Christmas chart-topper, Don't You Want Me, they returned for an encore consisting of first ever single Being Boiled and the Oakey/Georgio Moroder collaboration Together In Electric Dreams. It has undoubtedly been a dream of all three bands to play venues this size and with the response they got, you can almost guarantee that the Steel City Tour will become a recurring reality.

By the way, who did win X Factor? December 2008

Anna Lord


Triple helping of the best of Steel City heritage

SHEFFIELD has recently been busy playing host to the dignitaries of its music scene past and present.Jarvis Cocker played a homecoming gig, Arctic Monkey Alex Turner performed at the City Hall with The Last Shadow Puppets, while Richard Hawley turned out for the opening of Lady's Bridge as well as working with Tony Christie to produce Made in Sheffield, an entire album dedicated to the city.

To top off this flurry of activity, three iconic bands of Sheffield's electropop golden age in the 1980s joined forces for the Steel City Tour.

Heaven 17, ABC and The Human League pioneered a musical movement, starting out as arty anti-rock experimentalists, mastering the techniques and exploiting the potential of a new electronic sound.

Eventually they emerged as triumphant pop innovators whose influence can still be heard in today's charts as well as on the fringes of avant-garde electronica.

Thirty years on they show no sign of slowing down.

The homecoming gig at the Arena on Saturday night, the last of the tour, kicked off with Heaven 17, charismatically led by Glenn Gregory.

With their own funky spin on the electropop sound they romped through the Heaven 17 hits, including the sumptuous 'Come Live With Me' and Gregory's personal favourite 'Let Me Go'.

They finished the set with an extended version of their signature tune 'Temptation', which got the crowd singing along, unperturbed by the impossibly high notes.

ABC stepped out next. Frontman Martin Fry charmed the audience, an old-fashioned smoothie in a dapper suit with a flash of silver hair.

"We've been travelling all round the UK," he says, "but we knew tonight was going to be the best."

Their set is slick Sixties crooning, Seventies disco and Eighties synths rolled into one with no shortage of old favourites for the fans. 'All Of My Heart', 'Poison Arrow' and 'Look Of Love' are all much-loved gems.

Through a cloud of smoke and haze of red lights, Phil Oakey appears in a sweeping trench coat, commanding the stage with panache.

"It's lovely to be here on the Meadowhall floodplain on the wettest and coldest day of the year," he remarks.

Despite the fact that they have been doing this for three decades, The Human League still have a futuristic ambience and it is easy to see why they are hailed as electropop pioneers. They sound as fresh as ever.

Oakey is flanked by Susan Anne Sulley and Joanne Catherall, like two glamorous cyberpunk dolls; the three of them make a captivating line-up.

The Human League are accompanied by an impressive array of lights, colours and images on a huge screen. It is a theatrical performance which includes several costume changes. But this does not detract from the quality of the music.

Oakey's rich, deep tones contrast with the warble of the synths. Hits like 'Love Action' and 'Don't You Want Me?' represent pop at its best.
But the night belongs to 'Electric Dreams', the final song of the evening beautifully uplifting pop perfection, leaving everybody in the Arena with a spring in their step and a sense of pride in the musical heritage of the Steel City.