In Search of Air Conditioning and Heaven 17

A deep dive into the hilarity of a seemingly random song bridging time and space from Thatcher-era England to a smoothie stand in present-day Baltimore
Heaven 17
L-R: Glenn Gregory, Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh

After procrastinating for about two months, even going as far as trying to fix it myself with a coat hanger, I put in a work order for my weird shower drain. The guy they send out to fix stuff is kind of intense. He likes to tell me way too much about his dates. The last time he said, “I’m hoping to get lucky tonight if you know what I mean.” I think he was referring to having sex. Anyway, I knew he was coming so I took a long walk hoping that when I got back he’d be finished. Suds, sordid details and all.

But after 10 minutes of aimless walking, I need an escape from the sauna-like humidity that hangs around the Mid-Atlantic from March until mid-November. I ponder my options. I can pretend to buy a book at the fancy book store, or hey wait, I can duck into R House, a high-dollar food hub where I used to work making rather underwhelming paninis, salads, and $10 smoothies.

After struggling with the heavy hydraulic glass door, I feel the sweet relief of cool air and the unmistakable intro to “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang” by Heaven 17 striking my ears like a pulsating baritone transmission from deep within Eastern Europe. This is not the standard fare as far as music in this place. You are more likely to hear “Shakin’” by Eddie Money or “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles. Not an obscure synth-pop band from Sheffield, England. 

I started working in R House in 2016, the day after Trump got elected. I lasted about a year and a half, which for me is quite good. The smoothie spot I worked at let me play my own jams. I’d make my two-hour-long playlists with stuff like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Close Lobsters, Split Enz, and 10,000 Maniacs. I would connect my phone to the Bluetooth at the beginning of a shift in hopes of hogging up all the air time but usually, someone would get fed up, and when I’d go to the bathroom they’d connect their phone and put on Ed Sheeran or something of that nature.

The speaker blasted into the marketplace competing with all of the other stalls. Each stall would try to drown out the other. It was, and remains, an echoey building so you can imagine what a fucking headache this became after a while. I observed on multiple occasions my weird jams popping up on other people’s speakers. Was it because we were all on the same WiFi? All I know is that whenever my goofball stuff popped up at another stall, say “Dirty Creatures” by Split Enz, they would quickly turn to the next song cursing their flour-battered Bluetooth device and wonder how the hell it happened. My boss and I started really having fun by playing shitty Christmas music then low and behold within a day or so the song would play at another stall or at the bar to the deep chagrin of whoever got duped. It was one of the most pleasing things I’ve ever experienced: audio warfare.

No one remains from the original crew except the security guy who is more than likely a neutral party in all this. So what in sam hell is “Fascist Groove Thang” doing here on a muggy afternoon all these years later? How is it even remotely possible that this Heaven 17 song I long ago played to the unwitting ears of grumpy coworkers while improperly holding a knife, is playing at the very moment I walk in the door? Like a ghost, the song nudges my brain, pleasantly beseeching me and the oblivious eaters staring into the abyss of their poke bowls. 

I plop down in a booth which you’re allowed to sit in until it gets busy, at which point you’re  obligated to drop fifteen dollars on a sour beer or a martini which tempts me though I opt for a three dollar drip coffee as it’s 2:00 PM. 

I toss my raggedy blue hoodie onto the table to keep the hyper-clean gym goers away while I go off to grab a coffee. “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang ” continues its schmaltzy call-to-arms over the disinterested head of some bearded coder. 

Heaven 17’s frontman Glenn Gregory edges toward the chorus with the soul of a spaced-out train engineer chatting on a cig break between two long shifts to Siberia. “Evil men with racist views spreading all across the land,” he sings in his android-like mumble. “Don’t just sit there on your ass. Unlock this funky chain-dance.” 

Gregory’s chilled urgency is accentuated with beeps and boops of hyper syncopation provided by former members of the original Human League; Martyn Ware, and Ian Craig as well as accompaniment from Malcolm Veale assisting on synths, Josie James on backup vocals, and John Wilson brilliantly laying down the utterly infectious bass and rhythm guitar.

The humidity is now a full-on deluge, which brings in yet more REI wind pants and Lululemons. I observe them all hurriedly ducking into R House, feigning like it was always part of the plan; will they purchase a guilt drip as I’ve done? One guy with his shades flipped over the back of his head, Guy Fieri style, unconsciously bobs to the New Wave beat while ordering a chicken sandwich. I imagine him walking out of here and buying a Roland TR-808 Drum Machine and getting a Heaven 17 face tattoo but he probably won’t.

The 1981 song, a sweaty rebuke to The Man, was banned by the BBC for libel reasons as it likened the newly sworn-in Reagan to a fascist warlord at the behest of generals, and to boot, it was ardently left-leaning, amongst other “crimes.”

If you’re ever pressed by your basic-ass uncle for an elevator pitch on this band, put it like this: Heaven 17 is one big public service announcement built to shake your booty but leave echoes of class commentary in your throbbing-molly-ridden-head the next morning as you hurl into the toi toi.  

The “politi-dance” formula is laced throughout their catalog with earworms like the Human League-sounding “Let’s All Make a Bomb”  or the dystopian foot-tapper “Sunset Now” to the more subdued “Bigger Than America.” They just can’t help but be brainy.

The seismic shift in Human League’s lineup after Phillip Oakey pulled out the rug resulting in Martyn Ware and Ian Craig’s getting ousted from their own band happened just days prior to the writing of “Fascist Groove Thang,” giving the song immediacy, texture, and a “fuck Phillip Oakey we’ll show his ass” kind of vibe. It was only days earlier that Martyn and Glenn had their “Jim Morrison vamping on the beach to Ray Manzarek” moment over drinks in Sheffield. After a few rounds, Martyn asked his old chum to trade in his act as a London rock and roll photographer for the position of resident Mojo Risin.

While blowing on my coffee I chuckle at how unorthodox of a frontman Glenn is.

He’s a sweet-hearted, gangly nerd who tries his darndest to be cool but visually reads like a bull in a “China Girl” video. He has the slickness of a LARPer in a cat-fur-covered navy peacoat bought at Plato’s Closet, talking about his hot TikTok girlfriend that no one’s ever met while vaping in front of a GameStop. Ultimately he’s more like Chris Elliott in Cabin Boy than Val Kilmer in The Doors. He’s an underdog. That’s why you love him so much.

As multiple couples give me that “I hope this weird dickhead leaves this booth soon” look, a line catches my ear in the song that I haven’t noticed in the hundreds of times I’ve chopped onions to this gem. Wait for it: “History will repeat itself, crisis point we’re near the hour, counterforce will do no good, hot you ass I feel your power”

I checked to make sure there was nothing funny in my coffee. The taste checked out, no curdled milk and I wasn’t stoned, at least for this listening. Was there something about the sound’s reflection in this cavernous uncarpeted yuppie mausoleum that made it morph in such a way that it perverted my ears? I took out my phone and skipped ahead to that same part of the song and sure enough, it sounds like Glenn is definitely saying, “hot you ass I feel your power.” Of course, I could read the lyrics if I had a physical copy, assuming lyrics are provided, which often is not the case. I turned to the internet, which quickly became the rather blurry ride into the mouth of Satan that I expected.

The majority of sources vindicated my “cheeky observation” citing the lyrics as indeed saying “hot you ass I feel your power” or in the case of songfacts.com the more refined “hot your ass I feel your power.” Then there’s azlyrics.com, which breaks ranks completely, positing that indeed the utterance is “white blue eyes, I feel your power” quite a strange Chef Du Jour, which perhaps says more about the transcriber than the original author. Good ole Genius.com comes closest to what seems like a plausible explanation interpreting it as “hot U.S. I feel your power.” 

The rain finally dissipated and Chicago’s 1984 hit “Hard Habit to Break” transformed the dim hall into an ’80s dentist’s office waiting room filled with earth tone pillows and a sense of fuzzy stability despite Peter Cetera’s chipmunk-like emotional struggle lay bare for all of us to witness.

Those jams have a way of walking you into the hypnotic cyclorama of schmaltziness that the ’80s fully embraced with a bear hug. Chicago picks a lane and carves an iron trench. The existential splash canvas and sweaty palms of Heaven 17’s 1981 jam surrender to a more upholstered sound that questioned less, falling into the mauve cushions of denial that would become the late ’80s.

The rain finally broke. I was getting antsy and decided to wait out the remainder of the repairman’s visit at the free art museum up the street. I’ve seen all the paintings a dozen times but it sure beats hearing stuff like “I might need to buy condoms if you get my drift.”

A few days later I found myself back at R House for an impromptu dinner run. The musical atmosphere returned to its usual sausage party vibe this time around with tunes from Men at Work, Billy Joel, and Hall and Oates. While waiting outside in another post-rain heat bath for my order to get cooked I speak with a resident custodian who asks to be called Jonas.  He was humble yet brooding, with a Headbanger’s Ball hairdo. He looks like he could win most arm-wrestling matches.

I asked what he thought of the music. “It’s just noise to me … other people like it.” I asked what kind of stuff he dug, admittedly I was thinking it’d be King Diamond or maybe Kyuss but you could have knocked me over with a feather when of all things he says “Andrew Sisters and Bing Crosby.” It was comforting to at last find myself in the company of a fellow outsider, two reluctant visitors in the rising heat.

This month, Heaven 17 embark on their first headlining U.S. tour in 40 years. Check out Ed Schrader’s curated Heaven 17 playlist on Spotify:

Ed Schrader is a writer and musician based in Baltimore. They are the lead singer of Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and the host of the comedy podcast, Coffee With Ed.

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