Martyn Ware’s career has had plenty of twists and turns, but it’s been typified by a remarkable resilience. Sheffield-bred, Ware was a founding member of The Human League, helping to turn its avant-garde synth sound into chart fodder. Ware and fellow bandmate Ian Craig Marsh left the group in the early ’80s to form Heaven 17, one of the great conceptual pop groups of the decade. Ware also found success producing other artists throughout the ’80s, reviving Tina Turner’s career with Private Dancer and introducing the world to Terence Trent D’Arby. More recently, Ware has been exploring the limits of surround sound, yet another chapter in an already remarkable novel of a life. In this excerpt from his 2007 lecture at the Red Bull Music Academy, he describes the process of making “Being Boiled,” the £3 tune that gave The Human League their start.
I was kind of obsessed with synthesizers since [The Beach Boys’] “Good Vibrations,” to be honest. In Europe we used to listen to Radio Luxembourg. It was the only radio station that played interesting music. That was the peak time of Motown as well. So all those Motown records that incorporated synthesis, very early synthesis, theremins. That was always stuff that made my ears kind of prick up.
They thought we were gay because we wanted to buy a synthesizer.
I always followed bands that had synthesizers in them, it was just always something that interested me. Then it got to the point of, I was a computer operator, actually. I had a spare bit of money for the first time in my life and it was either learn to drive or buy a synthesizer, because they were just cheap enough to buy at that point. So I went to the local guitar store that had just got the first entry-level synthesizer in there. They were all rock dudes, they didn’t know anything about synthesizers. They thought we were gay because we wanted to buy a synthesizer and didn’t want to play “Stairway To Heaven” interminably in the store.
Ian Marsh, who was also in Heaven 17, bought a synthesizer and we just started messing around really. Mine was a Korg 700S. It was quite funny, really. It was like a three-and-a-half octave keyboard, monophonic so you could only play one note at a time, no MIDI, some very severe filters on the front. Resonated filters, which were really cool because you could make sounds like cats dying and things like that. Very little in terms of presets. Every button had one function, that was it.
The only recording equipment we had was a reel-to-reel recorder, two track. We didn’t have a mixing desk, no equalisation, no effects, apart from the ones built in to the synthesizers. And yet, by bouncing from track to track and adding a new instrument each time, we managed to create our first single “Being Boiled.” Literally, all we had was two synthesizers, a tape recorder and a microphone and that was it. I think about two months later we managed to blag some guitar pedals to try and distort the sound a bit, but that was it.
It cost about £3 to make that record. We made it in one of these disused small factories where they used to make cutlery. It was absolutely filthy, had a partially working toilet, it was the filthiest place you could imagine. To soundproof it, we used the trays that apples come in. We just got them from the local greengrocers and put them all over the walls to dampen it down a bit.
We ended up sounding like we came from Mars. It still sounds pretty strange to me now.
Our friend suggested we send it to Fast Product, an independent label in Scotland. So we put this very bad copy onto an even worse cassette, sent it up there, and the label owner loved it. We made the single cover artwork ourselves. We were always intent on keeping control of all aspects of the production and released it, thinking, “Maybe 20 members of our immediate family would buy it and some friends,” but within three months I think it had sold 3,000 by word of mouth. John Peel fell in love with it, played it two or three times a week. I can honestly say, God rest his soul, our career probably wouldn’t have happened had it not been for John Peel. And I think probably 50 or 60 other bands could say the same thing.
What happened is that we ended up sounding like we came from Mars. It still sounds pretty strange to me now, but we had diverse influences. Obviously, things like Kraftwerk were important to us, a lot of German bands like Can and Neu!, Faust, but also Funkadelic, Parliament, Bernie Worrell. The biggest compliment that my manager ever gave to me when we signed was that I sounded like Bernie Worrell.
I can’t really play keyboards and all the brass work I had to play at half speed. Actually, I learnt an awful lot from Frank Zappa because he used to do that a lot, “Peaches en Regalia” is one of my favourite tunes of all time. “I’ll stay in this same key and it’ll be fine and I’ll just move around really fast and we’ll see what it sounds like when you speed it up.”
I’m a big believer in a limited canvas.
I’m a big believer in a limited canvas. I switch on Logic Pro at home and I’ve got a gazillion samples to pick from. Even if I only use the built-in synthesizers, they’ve all got three hundred presets each and you’re never encouraged to make stuff up yourself. On “Being Boiled,” every single item was handmade, the kick drum, the snare, it was all made from raw electronic materials from scratch. There were no samples.
I do a lot of lecturing in different places and I’m always telling people, “Accidents are important. Mistakes are important because that’s how you get interesting stuff out.” The problem with contemporary sequencing programmes is that they actually work it all out for you pretty much. Everything’s quantised, everything’s nice and smooth, it all locks together. And what you end up with is something less exciting than if you’d played it for real, however crap you are, like I am.