GLENN GREGORY is not a fan of Margaret Thatcher. And that’s putting it mildly. The lead singer with Heaven 17,
GLENN GREGORY is not a fan of Margaret Thatcher. And that’s putting it mildly. The lead singer with Heaven 17, playing at Henley’s Rewind Festival this summer, hails from Sheffield and hit his teenage years just as the Iron Lady was closing down the steel works where his dad worked.
“He was a steel worker — until Margaret Thatcher stole his job,” he says. “He worked as a shop steward and fought tooth and nail against the closure. She wasn’t Sheffield’s favourite prime minister. She put the boot into Sheffield and lost many people’s jobs.
“They used to call Sheffield the People’s Republic of South Yorkshire — it was very left wing — and when she came to power she came up to visit and got booed and never came back again. She had got it in for us.”
Nevertheless Gregory did not join in the general public furore that greeted her recent death.
“When you’re dead you’re dead,” he says. “I did get asked quite a lot, but it was a big circus and I had no wish to be part of it.”
The 54-year-old now lives in London, and admits that he’s probably mellowed over the years (saying he’s now “rantless”) and certainly since he first started writing music in his teens.
His most famous song, Heaven 17’s Temptation, reached number two in the singles chart in 1983, but the band’s first ever hit was a more politically-motivated number, Fascist Groove Thang, which offended the ears of DJ Mike Read (who now lives in Henley) and was subsequently banned from being aired on BBC radio.
When Gregory talks about his early days in the music business he evokes a strong feeling of nostalgia — for a time when the country may have been politically divided along right-wing/left-wing lines, but when passions subsequently ran high, provoking a period of intense creativity and innovation.
After a brief spell at art college, Gregory moved to London the day after his 17th birthday to scratch a living as a photographer and in no time at all he was selling his work to the big music magazines, such as NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. But on a return trip to Sheffield — on a job to photograph Joe Jackson at the city hall — he phoned his old mucker, Martyn Ware. The pair met at the Red Lion behind the city hall for a drink and a chat.
He said: “Martyn was then in the Human League with another friend Ian Marsh, but he was a bit down. He kept asking me lots of questions — Was I happy in London? Did I like my job?
“Then he said the band had had a meeting and he’d left the Human League. He asked me if I wanted to come back up to Sheffield and be lead singer in a new band called Heaven 17. I immediately said ‘definitely, absolutely’. I thought it was a great idea. In fact, I didn’t even go and take the pictures of Joe Jackson, I’d had too much to drink.”
Gregory had been in schoolboy bands, including a punk band, and music had always been a big part of his life. He loved David Bowie and Roxy Music and “black” music, including the Jacksons and Funkadelic. One of his early blow-away musical experiences was when a mate shouted out to him on the way to school, “Come and listen to this!” It was Pyjamarama by Roxy Music.
“We were like, ‘Wow! That’s amazing! I want to do that,’” he says. “We didn’t go back to school that day. We just stayed in his room playing it over and over again and learning all the words.”
Nevertheless, joining Heaven 17 was Gregory’s first big commitment to making commercial music. The band — the third member was Ian Marsh — shared a recording studio in Sheffield with the Human League, with Heaven 17 taking the 10pm to 10am graveyard shift. Although Fascist Groove Thang was NME’s record of the week and attracted attention because of its broadcast ban, they failed to make any big impact in the early years.
It wasn’t until 1983, when Temptation romped the charts, that their fortunes changed.
The song was from their second album, The Luxury Gap, which also featured the singles Come Live With Me and Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry, and which made number four in the album charts. The synthpop trio, relying heavily on synthesisers and drum machines for their typical Eighties sound, had made a place for themselves in music history.
The most exciting moment of their musical career, according to Gregory, was recording Al Green’s anthem Let’s Stay Together with Tina Turner on lead vocals in 1983.
The band, by now signed to Virgin, had first approached soul and funk singer James Brown but his fee was way outside their budget. Then a producer at Virgin suggested ringing one of his contacts, Tina Turner’s agent Roger Davies, and soon the three young Sheffield musos were on a plane to Los Angeles.
“The experience with Tina was one of the best,” he says. “We’d always loved River Deep, Mountain High, a fantastic record, and there we were in LA, ringing this doorbell and Tina Turner answered the door in her full cavewoman outfit. It was wonderful. She was absolutely lovely.”
After the recording they persuaded Tina to come to the UK, where they performed the song on Channel 4’s The Tube, an experience he says was the most nerve-racking of his entire career.
“She had these backing singers, these sexy girls in cavewoman outfits,” he explains. “We had to go up on stage and dance with these girls — one each — and I was thinking, ‘I’m from Sheffield. I don’t do that kind of thing!’ When I look back at the footage on YouTube now I look so nervous.”
In the Nineties the music scene changed. Martyn Ware went off to become a producer for artists such as Terence Trent D’Arby and Marc Almond. This week, in fact, he was in Henley at the Business School delivering a lecture on music with Sixites singer Sandie Shaw.
Meanwhile, Gregory has turned his hand to writing music for films and adverts, an occupation that seems to keep him in pocket money and laughs.
As well as singing, he plays guitar and keyboards, and says his writing just keeps getting “weirder” and “more eclectic”. One of his recent jobs, for example, was to write music and jingles for the biopic Best Possible Taste:The Kenny Everett Story which aired on BBC4 last October.
“I had to build all the jingles because they couldn’t get permission to use the originals,” he says. “It was really good fun. I even had to make a recording of Bohemian Rhapsody, which took me 12 days on my own in the studio. It was like understanding a puzzle. I had to listen really carefully to all the different harmonies and reproduce them.
“It was a lesson in simplicity. Someone asked me if I was going to reproduce the whole Queen sound, with an orchestra and everything. When you listen to it properly you find there are no strings, it’s just a guy on a piano and a drummer and a guitarist.
“Freddie Mercury just had an amazing ability for harmonies, and it ended up being a very clever vocal arrangement.”
Gregory and Ware are trying to find time in their schedule to start writing new material. Meanwhile, he is looking forward to coming back to Rewind for the third time this summer, performing on Saturday, August 17.
“I absolutely love it,” he says. “We have a great time at Rewind. I don’t know what it is but it always seems to bring the sun with it. This year I’m bringing my whole family, including my wife, my mum and my dad, who’s now 80.”
He doesn’t have any siblings to bring, being an only child, but his “only brother” will be there — fellow band member Martyn Ware.
Rewind is from Friday to Sunday, August 16 to 18. For tickets go to the website www.rewindfestival.com