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“Play To Win: The Virgin Years” • Heaven 17 (review)

Play To Win: The Virgin Years
Heaven 17
Edsel Records


The Human League‘s 1981 album DARE has become one of the most popular and beloved albums of the ‘80s. Their polished and percolating Synthpop was a turning point in Electronic Music, paving the way for a new and exciting sound that had barely bothered the charts up to that point.

However, The Human League’s story began four years earlier with more experimentation and a far less rapturous commercial reaction…

Formed as The Future in 1977 by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, the duo tried to recruit vocalist Glenn Gregory to join their Electronic project but since he was unavailable, they brought in vocalist Phillip Oakey. Fast forward two years and the band – rechristened The Human League and expanded to a quartet with the addition of Philip Adrian Wright – the band released their debut album REPRODUCTION to critical raves but very little chart action. Their sophomore album, TRAVELOGUE, was released in 1980 yet failed to achieve commercial success. Shortly after the album’s release, creative differences led to the departure of main writers Ware and Marsh.

While Oakey and Wright went about recruiting new League members, Ware and Marsh reconnected with Glenn Gregory, who was more than ready to help form a new band with the duo. Ware, Marsh, and Gregory dubbed themselves Heaven 17 (named after a fictional band mentioned in the novel A Clockwork Orange) and set out to change the way Electronic music was created.

Edsel Records’ massive 10 CD set PLAY TO WIN: THE VIRGIN YEARS traces the band’s musical journey throughout the ‘80s as they took their Funk, Soul, Rock, Pop, and Dance Music influences and created something new and different. Focusing on the band’s first five albums, this is a set that will hopefully remind older fans of the band’s unique recorded legacy and introduce new generations to a band that is sometimes overlooked, especially here in America.

Their 1981 debut album, PENTHOUSE AND PAVEMENT, was released within weeks of The Human League’s breakthrough album DARE but was far less polished and much more sonically brave. While Ware and Marsh were still experimenting with electronic sounds, Heaven 17’s sound added more layers that revealed themselves upon repeated listenings. Songs like “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang,” “Soul Warfare,” “Play To Win,” and “Penthouse And Pavement” revealed a heavy Funk influence mixed with danceable yet robotic Kraftwerk-inspired rhythms. On other tracks – notably “Let’s All Make A Bomb” and “Geisha Boys And Temple Girls” – Glenn Gregory guided the melodies with his confident vocals soaring over Ware and Marsh’s experimental musical playground.

The band’s next two albums – THE LUXURY GAP (1983) and HOW MEN ARE (1984) – were bigger and busier, reflecting the band’s commercial success. THE LUXURY GAP is often considered their finest album and includes the hits “Temptation,” “We Live So Fast,” “Let Me Go,” and “Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry.” However, HOW MEN ARE was just as exciting as LUXURY and found the band sounding more confident than ever. “Sunset Now,” “And That’s No Lie,” and “This Is Mine” were solid standouts on the album.

The band’s fourth and fifth albums – PLEASURE ONE (1986) and TEDDY BEAR, DUKE & PSYCHO (1988) – found Heaven 17 tuning down the experimentation and embracing a full-band sound. Guitar and bass were just as dominant as the synthesizer work that drove their first three albums. As slick and commercial as they albums were, they were still filled with great songs and passionate vocals from Gregory. Their early fanbase may have been dismayed by this change in direction but they were soon won over by songs like PLEASURE ONE’s “Trouble,” “Somebody,” and “Red” and TEDDY BEAR, DUKE, & PSYCHO’s “Don’t Stop For No One,” “Can You Hear Me?” and “Snake And Two People”.

This box not only features expanded editions of all five of their Virgin Records albums, it also contains an additional five CDs worth of demos, remixes, extended versions, and so much more. If you are only a casual H17 fan, then tracking down a single disc compilation might be your best bet. Fans of Heaven 17, Synthpop, The Human League, and ‘80s music in general should seriously look into tracking this set down. This is truly a treasure chest of Electropop delights!

(NOTE: Initial pressings of PLAY TO WIN: THE VIRGIN YEARS contained errors on four of the discs. The label – Edsel Records – was made aware of these errors and they have been corrected and the discs have been replaced as this review goes to press.)


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