Listen to this track by Sheffieldian one-time Human League splinter group, and sonically ambitious hitmakers in their own right, Heaven 17. It’s their smash UK single “Temptation” as taken from their 1983 album The Luxury Gap.
One of the features here is guest vocalist Carol Kenyon, who sings in a Northern Soul influenced style, contrasting the synth-pop groove. The tune would also incorporate a full orchestra, creating even more textural contrast, and producing a high-charting single that year for the band, reaching number 2 in the UK pop charts.
The Luxury Gap was the group’s second record, after 1981’s Penthouse and Pavement. The band had been one of the most prominent proponents of Northern synth pop, although initially split off from the Human League, a project that was abandoned by keyboardists Ian Craig-Marsh and Martyn Ware. They’d left the band in the hands of vocalist Phil Oakey. That version of the Human League under Oakey’s leadership would become an international success with a new line-up.
But, Craig-Marsh and Ware had pop smarts of their own to draw from.
One smart move upon parting ways with Oakey was inviting vocalist Glenn Gregory into their fold. This helped to pave the way into the pop charts themselves as pop trio Heaven 17, and as B.E.F (British Electric Foundation), a production team project. These new projects would be darker, and more political lyrically speaking when compared to Oakey’s Human League. Yet, one thing the two concerns had in common was the love of Northern soul music. You can hear that influence in Kenyon’s vocals, but also in the on-the-beat rhythm track as well.
At the time, synth-pop was an important strain of pop music on the radio, although much of it (like this one) was thought of as “alternative” in North America. It was also thought of by many as gimmicky, and not just a little camp as well. And where the latter is difficult to deny, the former turns out to have been something of an error in perception. After all, music made to dance to has always had legs, as it were, in the history of pop music.
In the days after disco, synth pop filled the gap quite nicely. It also helped to establish Sheffield as a key cultural centre where pop music is concerned, first with Heaven 17, the Human League, ABC, Cabaret Voltaire, and others that gave way to a lasting scene in that city that includes Pulp, Richard Hawley, Arctic Monkeys, and Warp Records, a prominent record label which certainly continues to promote bands who explore the possibilities of dance music and music with synthesized textures. All of these groups from the ’80s scene in Sheffield reminded us that pop music and dance music could converge quite effectively, and produce some lasting hits too.
As such, a key dance track of the era was created in “Temptation”, and one that would have a ripple effect on the same in the decades to come. Retro-synth pop purveyors La Roux would perform the song in 2010 at the Glastonbury Festival, inviting Glenn Gregory to join them. This demonstrates something else; that the synthesizer music of the late ’70s and early ’80s certainly made a lasting impact afterall.
Although not consistently productive over the decades, Heaven 17 are still a touring group. Check out the official Heaven 17 site for news, tours, and new music.