Martyn Ware interview

In May 2013 I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of hours in company of the very excellent Martyn Ware for Electronic Sound. The Human League story is a well trodden path, but the tale of BEF, the production company he formed with Ian Craig Marsh following the split, isn’t so well trodden. The release of ‘Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume Three: Dark’ was a good excuse to tell the tale. This is the full, unedited version of the piece that was published.


Lingering at the door of London’s Groucho Club we catch a glimpse of the guestlist for the evening. In big letters, right at the top, the name Noel Gallagher.

As a private members’ club, this is not a place shy of celebrity, but you get the feeling later on Gallagher Snr will have the place all a-bristle, yet sat upstairs now is someone whose influence not only on electronic music, but on pop music itself, occupies very dizzy heights. Strange times.

Unassuming, relaxed and looking dapper with slicked back hair and natty cardigan, Human League founder, BEF Big Chief and Heaven 17 lynchpin Martyn Ware greets us with a warm toothy smile and hearty northern handshake.
We’re here to talk BEF, whose latest offering ‘Dark’ or ‘Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume Three: Dark’ to give it its Sunday name, serves up another set of inventive electronic cover versions, the first volume of which first appeared in 1981.

The story of BEF begins when, along with Ian Craig Marsh, Ware found himself on his backside when The Human League, the band they formed with school pal Phil Oakey, unceremoniously rendered them surplus to requirements in autumn 1980.

“The more I think about it,” says Ware, “and I have had a long time to think about it, it’s obvious that it was planned in a Machiavellian way.”

The band’s manager Bob Last was thick with King Machiavel Malcolm Maclaren with who he would regularly plot and scheme. The League’s untimely demise being one such plot.

“The way Bob tells it was we were going to split up anyway, which was nonsense,” he says. “We’d recorded two albums which were critical successes, but weren’t selling a lot so we were under pressure from the record company to come up with the goods, we understood that, but we had no inkling.”

So much so the band were in the final stages of preparations for a European and UK tour that was due to kick off in days.

“The venues were booked, we’d done all the slide shows, decided on the setlist, done new versions of songs,” says Ware. “So the idea that we were going to split was total and utter tosh. Basically, they’d been talking to Phil and convinced him it would be a good idea to ditch the deadwood.”
The “deadwood” was the songwriters.

“Ditch the songwriters, yeah,” laughs Ware. “It was clearly premeditated, because it was Bob who suggested the idea of forming a production company. I don’t think he was prepared for how upset I would be about it all. I was in a state of shock, Phil was my best buddy, that’s the reason he was in the band. At the time I’d just got married and Bob suggested we get out Sheffield and go and stay with him and his wife in Edinburgh.

“So we went up and he said, ‘We think your strength is in the studio’, which is a very curious thing. It’s like ‘Phantom Of The Paradise’ [Brian De Palma’s twisted 70s musical where a satanic producer sets about destroying a songwriter and stealing his tunes for another band], you stay in the back room and we’ll go and make all the money.”

Despite the stinging done deal nature of it all the idea must have appealed?

“It appealed enormously,” says Ware. “It felt like a big optimistic thing and I’m very gung-ho anyway so I immediately warmed to it.”

Spend even a short time with Martyn Ware you’ll soon realise that here is one of life’s thinkers. Everything gets the full attention of a very active mind. As such, the very idea of forming a production house in the grand tradition of Motown or the Brill Building had the cogs turning.

“I really fancied calling it something that sounded incredibly authoritarian,” he says. “Something that sounds like it has been around forever and you just haven’t noticed it. I liked the idea of British and Electric… and we were trying to find a third name. It was going to be Company, but you can’t call yourself company unless you actually are…”

Which blows a big hole in the tale that BEF was set up as a company with three managing directors?

“Two directors,” interjects Ware, before a second later the penny drops. “What Bob? Yeah, of course Bob.”

That particular tale goes that Ware and Ian Craig Marsh held 42% each and Bob had 16%.

“Do you know, I had no idea about that,” he says. “Do you know, I never saw any accounts for it though. Not unusual.”

Although BEC had a certain ring to it, British Electric Company sounded like an energy supplier, and Corporation, which was also in contention, suffered the same fate. Eventually they settled on Foundation.

“Foundation sounds solid doesn’t it?,” he says. “Could be a charitable organisation, could be educational. I wanted the logo to look like it had been carved in stone on a giant office building from the 1930s.”

So along with Ian Craig Marsh and old pal Glenn Gregory, British Electric Foundation sprang to life. They were signed to Virgin for a whopping six-album deal for up to six artists a year. The first fruit came in March 1981, a BEF cassette-only release called ‘Music For Stowaways’.

In October 1980, Smash Hits magazine printed a poster of Robert Palmer. Barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt he was wearing funny little headphones plugged into a small box he was holding in his hand.
The box was the Sony Stowaway. A pocketable cassette player that was soon to be renamed the Walkman and pretty much changed everything.

“I distinctly remember thinking for the first time you could design a soundtrack for your everyday life,” offers Ware, “you could listen to music walking around, which was just thrilling to me. It liberated music basically.”
And there was BEF at the sharp end with a cassette-only release…

“Lucky?” Ware guffaws. “It was deliberate, we loved the device so we wrote some stuff specifically for it inspired by Eno’s ‘Music For Films’, ‘Music For Airports’. I’ve always liked the idea of music written for a purpose, a film soundtrack, a theatre piece… narrative is important.”

With everything getting small, the songwriting process also began to change. Essential kit was fast becoming Casio keyboards, Teac four-tracks and Dr Rhythm drum machines, kit you could carry around with you.

“We did have a studio of sorts,” says Ware, “but we were more interested in going to other people’s houses and being able to record ideas. We were interested in the popular technology as much as the popular music.”

And it showed. The nine instrumental tracks on ‘Music For Stowaways’ sounded more like Human League than the Human League… with the exception of one track. ‘Groove Thang’. Hearing it for the first time, radio tucked under the pillow tuned to Peel, it was a total revelation. For the first time, to my young ears, electronic music didn’t feel cold and mechanical, it felt warm and funky.

“It was an enormously liberating to be able to use any instrumentation we wanted,” explains Ware who was emerging from a self-imposed electronic instruments-only diktat with The Human League. “I love electronics, obviously, but I was also keen to spread my wings. ‘Groove Thang’ was the first thing we did and we thought wouldn’t it be great if it had a really cool bass solo.”

Problem was after knocking out electronic tuneage for the best part five years, they didn’t know a single decent bass player. They knew plenty of crappy ones in local bands, but a decent one? Nope.

“We didn’t know anything about the session world,” beams Ware. “You’ve got to bear in mind that The Human League was just three young lads from Sheffield in a room doing shit. At the time, Glenn was working at [famous Sheffield theatre] The Crucible as a stagehand and I said to him, ‘Why don’t you ask if anyone there knows someone who can play bass?’.So he did and this 17-year-old black lad called John Wilson says ‘I play a bit of bass’.

“He came down with his bass, a right-handed one, but he was left-handed so he was playing it the wrong way round like Hendrix. When he started playing the solo we’re all looking at each other going, ‘this is fucking awesome’ or words to that effect. So we said, ‘Do you want to have a go at playing on the rest of the song, just to see what that might sound like?’.

“When he was done he said, ‘I hope it’s alright because bass isn’t really my main instrument’… soooo what is your main instrument? ‘Guitar’. How far away do you live exactly? It’s a bit like something out of one of a biopic where they say, ‘Son you’re going to be a star’. The guy’s a virtuoso. And that’s never happened to me before or since in 35 years in the music industry. We just got lucky.”

‘Groove Thang’ proved to be the birth of their first outfit, Heaven 17, whose debut album ‘Penthouse And Pavement’ was worked on alongside ‘Music Of Quality And Distinction Volume One’.

“The whole point of the first ‘Music Of Quality And Distinction’ album was as a manifesto to the kind of production we wanted to do. We thought what a great way to do, put an album out and show what you got and hopefully it will draw people towards us.”

The seeds for an album packed with inventive electronic cover versions had already been sowed with their pre-Human League band The Future turning in a fabulous version of The Four Tops’ ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ and Human League’s leftfield take on The Walker Brother’s ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, which caught the attention of Virgin’s Simon Draper and led to the label signing them.

“Do you know what,” says Ware, “no one else apart from me liked that version of ‘Reach Out’. Phil didn’t like it very much. Ian thought it was alright, I thought it was really filmic.”

Those initial seeds were about to poke their heads out of the musical soil in a big way – not only was electronic music fresh, but reworking these kind of songs was genuinely startling.

“I’ve always thought that it’s quite interesting to confound expectations by creating unusual versions of something people are familiar with,” Ware offers. “We wrote some really good songs on the first two Human League albums, but they’re almost too far out there, so actually the things that had the most impact were the things that made people feel strange.”

The title ‘Music Of Quality And Distinction’ was inspired by one of Ian Craig Marsh’s shirt boxes, which had the words ‘shirts of quality and distinction’ emblazoned across it. The image on the album cover was a recreation of said shirt box.

So name, album title and concept firmly in place, it was time to roll up sleeves and get on with the job in hand. Songs first… or artists first then?

“Let me think about this…” says Ware, staring off into space. “I definitely determined what the songs were. I mean they’re not my top ten songs of all time or anything, it was just a bunch of songs l liked. It was as simple as that.

“A large part of all this was the ambience and atmosphere of Virgin Records at the time,” he continues. “They were based at Vernon Yard, just off Portobello Road, in a couple of big old Victorian houses knocked together. Me and Glenn lived a 10-minute walk away in Notting Hill so if we wanted something doing we’d walk round there and pop into people’s offices. Because we managed ourselves, I think they liked that, it fitted with their ethos, we were like part of the staff.”

Whoaaah. Hold those horses. Managed yourselves? Folklore has it Bob Last picked up the management of both sides of the exploded Human League…

“Bob had nothing to do with what we were doing,” offers Ware. “He was with The Human League because they were flying. Anyway, we didn’t need him, they needed organising because Phil wasn’t that kind of person.”

Was pulling the album together was a bit more of a mammoth task that they’d imagined perhaps?

“Slightly,” laughs Ware. “But anything seemed possible. All we had to do was pick up the phone to famous people and asking them if they’d do it, right? We didn’t know what the logistics were for making it happen, we were just busking it.”

Some busk. The finished result went one better than showcasing BEF’s production credentials. It managed to bring together an unlikely collection of singers yet serve up headturners left, right and centre. Billy MacKenzie romping home with Bowie’s ‘The Secret Life Of Arabia’, Glenn Gregory acing ‘Wichita Linesman, Bernie Nolan’s disco diva take on The Supremes’ ‘You Keep Me Hanging On’ and Gary Glitter’s blast through Elvis’ ‘Suspicious Minds’. Irony not lost on that one in hindsight?

“They did a brilliant job,” says Ware. “That’s the only time Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band recorded live together in the studio. Ever. Don’t knock it.”

Perhaps the most unexpected side-product was that it relaunched careers – Sandie Shaw for one (she recorded two songs, ‘Anyone Who Had A Heart’ which appeared on the album, and ‘Be My Baby’ which remains unreleased), Tina Turner for another.

“‘Ball Of Confusion’ was the last backing track that didn’t have anyone on it,” Ware explains. “James Brown was supposed to do it, but the day before I was due to fly out to Atlanta his lawyer rang and said James wants all the percentage points on everyone’s tracks, not just his own… well, that wasn’t going to happen.

“So I was in Virgin bemoaning my fate and Ken Berry, the financial director, walked into the office, overheard the conversation and said, ‘I’m going to LA tomorrow, I’m mates with Tina Turner…’. I went ‘River Deep Mountain High’? Perfect!

“She’d not had a record deal for eight or nine years, amazing when you think about it. By coincidence she was looking to re-start her career so we went to her house and it was like something off a film. It was one of those ranch houses, multiple floors, beautiful place near the beach. I explained the idea and she said she’d love to do it.”

Career relaunched, Martyn got the call when she needed a producer for her 1983 comeback single proper ‘Let’s Stay Together’. As a calling card, ‘Music…’ worked like a dream. With production work flowing in and Heaven 17 taking off, it would be a decade before BEF revisited the format.

Volume Two though, would be a whole different kettle. Although it didn’t start out that way. The first two tracks recorded were a couple of reggae numbers featuring John Lydon.

“Oh yeah,” nods Ware. “He gave us permission to put them on the second album, but in the end they didn’t fit with the rest of the album, they were just so out there.”

They’re yet to see the light of day, and with Ware’s request to include them on the recent BEF box set getting a flat refusal, it’s unlikely they ever will. As the list of artists began to shape up for Volume Two, the album was becoming something of a soulful affair. Billy Mackenzie turned up again, as did Tina Turner and they were joined by, among others, soul legends Mavis Staples, Billy Preston and soul legend offspring Lalah Hathaway. But it could have taken any number of paths in conception if the list of people they asked is anything to go by.

David Bowie?

“I approached him for Volume Two and Volume Three,” offers Ware. “I’ve always thought he was foolish to turn his back on ‘Young Americans’, that album is so stupendously good, it’s unfinished business. I was going to appeal to him on that basis and get him to do a soul classic.”

Bryan Ferry?

“I love his voice, but over the years he’s got blander and blander until he’s almost invisible now, which is very sad because the first Roxy Music album was revolutionary, it changed our lives.”

Issac Hayes, Barry White, Luther Vandross, Sydney Youngblood, Terrence Trent D’Arby, whose gazillion selling debut album Ware also produced…

“Terrence is brilliant, he still sends me his albums. I got a new one last week, it’s really… good in parts. His voice is still amazing.”

Kate Bush?

“Kate was really close to saying yes. She was really apologetic though. I wanted her to do a soul song, still do. It would have been something truly soulful to try and show a different side of her and that’s often the point of doing these kind of things.”

Mick Jagger?

“Did we really ask him? Maybe I just made that up.”

As the tracklisting firmed up, it occurred that here was a record designed for America, it wasn’t the intention, but the thought that was growing in the back of Ware’s over-active mind was that the Americans would get this. It seems the Americans thought that too.

“Virgin America had just started and they wanted to establish themselves,” says Ware. “They heard the album, met the executives in London, said we want to make it the priority release. And I thought, ‘This is it, this is the big leap forward’. Next thing, out of the blue, they decided not to put it out. What the fuck? They were all over it. Turns out that was before they’d played it to the head of urban music. This woman was something of a black activist and although she liked the album, once she realised I was a white producer, she pulled it.”

The volte face left BEF with a £65,000 hole. The album had been recorded using his own money.

“So this absolutely floored me as you can imagine,” he understates. “But that’s life innit? It was actually money I made from Terence [Trent D’Arby]. I was just reinvesting it.”

If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll know that by now we’re probably expecting another 10 year gap before Volume Three appears in 2001.

“I thought about it,” nods Ware. “I always wanted to do another one and I started thinking about it approaching the 10-year gap, but there was just nothing that appealed to me about it, I couldn’t think of anything good to do for it. It just didn’t seem appropriate at the time. I was kind of busy too. I’d turned my back on traditional production around then and started the whole Illustrious thing.”

Along with Vince Clarke, in 2001 he had set up a The Illustrious Company creating spatialised sound compositions using their own unique three dimensional surround-sound system. With work pouring in from around the world the idea of Volume Three was put on the backburner.

So what was the spark this time round? A concept, that’s what.

“I was listening to ‘The Night’ by Frankie Valley And The Four Seasons’ and thought how incredibly creepy that lyric is for that song,” he says. “If you took away the backing track and replaced it with something more filmic it would force a reinterpretation of the lyrics. And that gave me the idea for ‘Dark’.

“The other track that inspired ‘Dark’ was The Delfonics’ ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’, that’s the perfect example of quite a heavy lyric with a beautiful backing track. So I began to put together a long list of songs that fitted that idea and started to present it to a load of different artists. Throw enough shit at the wall and some of it will stick.”

Anyone turn you down?

“David Bowie, traditionally,” he sighs. “Martin Fry was keen to do it and came up with the idea of doing an ironic version of Chic’s ‘Good Times’. I put the backing track together and he didn’t like it. So that’s sitting there in the can. Kate Bush, again, Phil Oakey…”

Holding those horse again.

“What happened is all water under the bridge now, me and Phil get on fine so I offered him a track on this volume,” he says. “I had long list, he could have picked anything he wanted, but he wasn’t interested. Pretty much everyone I asked said they wanted to do it, which is very flattering.”

It’s such a solid piece of work that picking a favourite track must be like being asked to choose your favourite child, but does he have a favourite?

“I’ve not really lived with it long enough, but I really like [Long Blonde Kate Jackson’s] ‘Picture This’, it’s just a great piece of work and [Kim Wilde’s] ‘Every Time I See You I Go Wild’, that was made on our Roland System 100, every single note, it was the same synth we used with The Future and The Human League, so that’s quite something. Actually, I didn’t arrange that it was Brian Duffy from Modified Toy Orchestra, he’d just bought one and I said, ‘Tell you what, why don’t you have a go at a track’ and he came up with the goods.”

And what do the artists make of it all?

“I was talking to Andy [Bell] and he was saying he wasn’t sure at first because he thinks his version of [Kate Bush’s] ‘Breathing’ sounds scary. [Boy] George was the same with ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’. When it was finished I said, ‘What do you think? And he said, ‘I’m not really sure, it’s so out there’.”

George is something of a revelation sounding not a jot like his old self.

“He came in to sing [Lou Reed’s] ‘Make Up’,” says Ware. “I’d already done the backing track for ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ with Marvin Ayres, an ambient composer who plays string instruments and builds up an orchestra, but I couldn’t find anyone to sing it, so when George came in I asked him if he fancied having a crack at it. The first version he did sounded a bit like… Meatloaf. I’m going this is fantastic, but he said, ‘Let me have another crack’. And I said, ‘Why don’t you do a spoken version, like you’re Johnny Cash’. It’s a spokal as he calls it.”

Looking back over the 30-odd years since The Human League dumped him on his backside, did everything work out for the best in the end?

“In the beginning it felt like it was going to last forever,” he offers. “There was no fear. I remember thinking to myself one day, if I need to, if we’re running out of money, I’ll just do someone else, put another album out, we’ll be fine. And it actually nearly worked. More than I thought. More than I’d expect.”

Didn’t it just.

Neil Mason

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