IS THAT THE 12″ REMIX? Rob Grillo

The rise of the 12″ format – and an engaging exploration of the ’80s music scene

Rob Grillo’s 2010 book Is That The 12” Mix? acted as both a history of the rise of the 12″ format as well as a compelling memoir of his own experience growing up with music in 1980s Yorkshire.

Is That The 12″ Mix? managed to convey an educational exploration of the ’80s music scene with insight and humour, while deftly avoiding the traps of either using it as a soapbox or making errors in factual details. If there’s a key element here it’s the fact that Grillo knows his music, which gives him an informed view of a turbulent period in modern pop culture that has often been skewed by nostalgia.

Now Grillo has revisited the book and revised and expanded its contents for Is That The 12″ Remix? At its heart, the book is a history of the 12” format and the era that saw its rise to prominence. It marked a change in the way that record labels and artists alike approached chart music and resulted in some of the most iconic recordings by classic artists of their day.

During these formative years, the young Grillo would studiously tape songs off the radio, keeping detailed lists of the UK charts. It’s perhaps difficult for a post-80s audience to appreciate the determination and devotion of music fans during this pre-internet era. While today it’s a simple job to simply do a Google search for information on any music artist, record or label, the music fan in the pre-internet era relied on sheer dogged detective work on their own part. To some extent, this was augmented by the music press – then going through its most prolific era with the likes of Smash Hits, NME and Record Mirror at the peak of their powers – another element that Grillo covers in the book.

Along the way, Grillo also explores the history of HI-NRG and the rise of the Record Shack label in the early part of the 80s. It’s a period in time in which remixes played an important role in the emerging club scene of the time.


But, as the book’s title suggests, the 12″ format also gave way to a new marketing strategy of remixes which were often designed to keep a record charting. It’s an era in which outfits such as Frankie Goes To Hollywood, New Order and Heaven 17 were in their prime and in which some of their best work was delivered in the 12” format.

While the book chiefly delivers Grillo’s personal (and encyclopaedic) view on the era, he also makes room for other voices, quizzing blog writers who all lend their own perspectives on the music of the 1980s. Along the way we also get commentary from the likes of Neil Tennant, Rusty Egan and Heaven 17’s Martyn Ware (who also provides the foreword to the book).

Pop culture has suffered in recent years with a troubling obsession with the past. It’s delivered from blogs, websites and other publications whose personal viewpoints struggle to contend with a post-80s music scene (unless it apes the music of that era) as well as a broader desire to reheat and repackage the past by record labels and film companies alike.

Grillo, however, manages to cleverly tell a story that makes no bones in telling a narrative that focuses on a vanished past, but also gives a very concise and shrewdly observed view on record formats and music industry practices as a whole.

Obviously there are a selection of music history books which offer a more analytical perspective of this period, but there’s very few that give it the personal touch that Grillo has brought to Is That The 12″ Remix?

This article originally appeared on the Wavegirl site.


The Sinclair ZX Spectrum user manual had this to say on the subject of electronic music:

“Because there is only one loudspeaker in the computer you can only play one note at a time, so you are restricted to unharmonized tunes. If you want any more you must sing it yourself.”

This guiding principle to “try things out for yourself” and apply inspiration to see past technical limitations was a common piece of advice found in home computer and synthesizer user manuals in the late 1970s. Here in the UK, this was advice that inspired a new generation of young silicon dreamers; bootstrapping revolutionary new art in the form of videogames and electronic music.

The Silicon Dreams festival brought together some of these (now-slightly-older) electro pioneers at the Snibston Discovery Museum in the former coal mining town of Coalville, Leicestershire. Celebrating our silicon chip age, the festival offered computing workshops, retro computing and vintage gaming sessions. Visitors were encouraged to have a play on any of the hundreds of home computers and gaming machines on display: ZX Spectrums were there of course, but also original models from Atari, Nintendo, Sega, IBM, Apple, and a host of almost-forgotten machines; all brought to life and running glorious hand-made code.

To complement the retro computing and gaming exhibitions, Silicon Dreams also held a special evening for synthpop fans. This took place in the adjoining Snibston Century Theatre, a 200 capacity former mobile theatre that had been converted from wartime military trailers back in 1952. For decades it would travel in a convoy of 32 vehicles to provide theatre around the country, hosting performances from the likes of Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and Laurence Olivier. Now permanently based at Snibston, its tradition of re-using old technologies in new ways made the Century Theatre the perfect venue for this auspicious event.

Kicking off the evening, Martyn Ware – our godfather of synthpop – took to the stage to talk about his career outside of Heaven 17. Despite a ribbing from Glenn Gregory backstage that his presentation was really just a “cunningly disguised time-share promotion”, Martyn proceeded to talk us through a slideshow about Illustrious, the pioneering 3D sound company he’d formed with Vince Clarke in 2001. I’d heard of Illustrious of course, but had no idea of the range and vision of their convergent art. They’ve deployed 3D sound installations at such diverse places as the Palacio di Belles Artes in Mexico City and the enormous ‘Tales From The Bridge’ installation on the Millennium Bridge during the London 2012 Olympics. With upcoming plans for installations at the Royal Albert Hall (as exclusively revealed) and a 24-hour non-stop 3D soundscape, it’s clear that Martyn is still as inspired now by the possibilities of music technology as he was 35 years ago.

There was then as a chance for the audience to ask Martyn some questions, and as it happens I was first up. Ever the geek, I asked Martyn whether he thought machines or software would ever become self-aware, and if so what would be their favourite Heaven 17 song? Martyn spoke about existing software that could already compose its own music, then mused on the sci-fi inspirations of early Human League. The lyrics were often intentionally “multiplex” (to quote Mr Oakey) and open to different interpretations. This was also true for Heaven 17, in particular on the How Men Are album. Martyn reckoned a sentient AI would especially like ‘Five Minutes to Midnight’, for reasons that will remain to be seen.

Another question confirmed Martyn’s love of music’s disappearing physical medium – the vinyl version – and how Heaven 17 had always put a lot of thought and time into designing each album and 12 inch cover, something that just doesn’t have the same imperative when releasing songs as MP3s and digital streams. He teased us with news that plans were underway for some forthcoming special vinyl releases of early material with previously unreleased tracks and mixes.

A question about his thoughts on the impact of music television programmes such as X-Factor and The Voice saw Martyn fiercely critical of such manufactured shows. He felt they were insidiously shaping our music listening habits and were basically just free commercials for the promoters, who, incidentally, had already decided who was going to win from the beginning, regardless of who people were voting for. Martyn said he knew this was a sham with 100% certainty, a fact that in a fair world would make headline news. Lightening the tone, the apocryphal story about Phil Oakey chasing Martyn down the street and throwing bottles of milk at him can now also finally be put to rest: Martyn claims this is entirely fictional.

After a brief refreshment break (sorely needed on that hot summer night!), it was time for some music. Northern Kind have had a special place in my heart ever since I first heard their smash debut album Fifty Three Degrees North back in ’07. Their blend of Yazoo-y synthpop, crisp production, and memorable melodies earned them a place in my ‘Best British Bands’ list, with 2009’s wonderful sophomore album Wired: cementing their place. Now – after a slightly longer than expected gestation period – they’re back to preview some songs from forthcoming third album Credible Sexy Unit.

Opening with ‘Daggers’ (which some keen ears in the audience recognised from the special edition re-release of the first album), lead singer Sarah Heeley steps up to the mic looking like a divine Roman goddess in her silvery, shimmering toga-dress. It’s clear that despite their relative lack of recent live performances, Northern Kind have been busy rehearsing their set; new song ‘Piece of Me’ sounded assured and confident, with Sarah’s superior vocals on fine form and clearly gaining new fans who thought they were only there to see Heaven 17.

A sequence of five songs from the previous albums followed, showcasing highlights like ‘Pleasurely That Machine’, ‘Euphonic’ and my own personal favourite: ‘Millionaire’. Then for ‘Dirty Youth’ Sarah drops her guard of innocence to come over all sultry; flirting with the audience as she croons “she sees a cute boy in the corner” and raising the temperature in that little theatre to dangerous levels.

To cool things down, music maestro Matt Culpin completes his re-wiring of some machine that looks like a telephone exchange and new song ‘The River’ gets its first public airing. “This is my favourite one from the new album” says Sarah and my gig buddy Paul later reckoned it was the best song of the whole night too. A slower number with intricate vocals, I can’t wait to hear ‘The River’ again in the comfort of my own room. Northern Kind closed their set with a third and final new song called ‘Out of Time’, an upbeat tune and a good choice to end with. Although I’d expected to hear a few more new songs than the three played on the night, the balance was probably about right given that the majority of the audience were most likely new to Northern Kind.

Now it was time for headliners Heaven 17: Glenn, Martyn plus Billie Godfrey, Berenice Scott and Kelly Barnes. “This’ll be like playing in Grandma’s front room”, smirks Glenn as he enters and surveys the cosy theatre. The band launch into a strong sequence of favourites including ‘Let Me Go’, Penthouse & Pavement and ‘Geisha Boys & Temple Girls’. Both the band and the audience are clearly enjoying themselves; this band know how to make an audience feel like we’re all mates together and the low stage and low roof just added to that intimate atmosphere. “Here’s a song little Martyn and little Phil wrote together while sitting on the swings in the playground” jokes Glenn to the opening strains of ‘Crow & A Baby’.

After a few more hit songs he tells us it’s time for “an Enid Blyton bedtime story” (“…with lashings of Ginger beer!” prompts Billie). Martyn steps up for a ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ duet and it’s never sounded better. As the heat of the night warms away my goose bumps from that brilliant bromantic duet, Heaven 17 close with the obligatory ‘Temptation’ and ‘Being Boiled’.

The Snibston colliery is long gone, and the dawn of the age of computing is fast becoming a distant memory too. But synthpop’s still alive and as vibrant as ever, as evidenced by the two bands who performed here tonight.

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum user manual had this additional piece of advice on the subject of electronic music:

“If you are really keen to make a lot of noise you could record the sound onto tape and get the Spectrum to play along with itself”

Thankfully people like Martyn Ware were keen to “make a lot of noise” and his silicon dreams are still inspiring us into the 21st century.

The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Matt Culpin

Text by Jer White @ Pansentient League
ZX Spectrum manual by Steven Vickers
Photos by Jer White
9th July 2013

HEAVEN 17 / BEF Weekender at The Roundhouse

Music of Quality and Distinction Live

“I was once watching Richard Burgess play drums with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and Carol was a singer in the band. It was really when I was a budding drummer and Richard was a session drummer, I was about seventeen… Anyway Carol was about fifteen and an amazing singer of jazz. I always remembered her and she joined a few jazz bands around the time… Later I was recording in Trident Studio when Martyn Ware called me asking if I could suggest a singer for a track they were working on, someone with a range like Tina Turner or a real singer. Carol Kenyon was firmly in my mind as an amazing talent and I suggested her, found her number and connected them… once I got my copy of ‘Temptation’ by Heaven 17, I knew she was just perfect” – Rusty Egan, 2011

Electronic music has developed in the form of many diverse sources over the years. Take the in-depth German-influenced, vintage synth beat maps, through to the more easily accessible pop-toned song crafting – what you emerge with is a fine continent of channelled influence, on which to build and explore. The Heaven 17 / BEF weekend festival double-header, at the London Roundhouse, offered up the perfect opportunity to rekindle such journeys over land so often treasured. Effectively a career celebration of Martyn Ware who formed British Electric Foundation, the production company set up by himself and Ian Craig Marsh following their departure from The Human League, it was certainly an occasion of distinction. As the billing would suggest, it was an event filled with memories, warm feelings, dancing shoes and the most extravagant party dresses you could possibly imagine. Colourful, it was.

Kicking off on the Friday were Heaven 17 – following up on the success of their 2010 Penthouse And Pavement 30th Anniversary Tour, with a live world premiere performance of The Luxury Gap, in 3D sound. Blending their polished and precise instrumentation with the sophistication of innovative electronics, Heaven 17 as a band, were able to express their own visionary concepts that would etch into mainstream, and slot seamlessly into pop culture. Interestingly, The Luxury Gap was one of the first albums to use the Roland TB303 Bassline Computer which later became synonymous with Acid House!

Acid House aside, Heaven 17 dished up a tempting opportunity to unlock the doors once more, leading us into a world of shimmering electronic pop. However, the critical acclaim of 1983’s The Luxury Gap, which charted at No. 4 in the UK Album chart, is not so much of a secret . Whilst it was performed in its entirety for the very first time this weekend , tracks such as ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’, ‘Key To The World’, ‘Lady Ice And Mr Hex’ and ‘We Live So Fast’ were making their onstage live debut.

As per the album’s running order, the show opened with the metallic clasps and crashes that was ‘Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry’ – a production line of electronic beats, strobes and funk-driven guitar, all with uplifting piano lines slotted between the cogs of the track. It got the party off to an edgy start, with no shortage of action.

Next up was a bouncy rendition of ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’ that kept spirits high, courtesy of its funky bass line and catchy synth (hanging on just a couple of notes, yet enough to carve a unique personality all of its own alongside some fine singalong backing vocals). Things slowed up with ‘Let Me Go’, but that didn’t mean compromising on energy, not at all. It reached down to great depths with its big chorus and heavily woven synth textures that cleverly brought richer tones to the fore, plus ultra sharp guitar work just blending subtly in the background.

By the time we grasped the ‘Key To The World’ it was a bright contrast, full of curiously groovy movements. Without hesitation, the time then came to welcome and give in to ‘Temptation’. Although the original 1983 version featured the renowned Carol Kenyon on vocals, this show saw that we were treated to the equally sensational Billie Godfrey’s immensely powerful interpretation – this being just one of many opportunities throughout the weekend for Billie to shine. ‘Come Live With Me’ brought the pace back to touch on essences more smoother and cooler ­but with absolutely no passion missing.

You could almost taste the late night cocktails with ‘Lady Ice And Mr Hex’. A track that flaunted a split personality – busy, slightly eerie jazz like piano that integrated its passing notes of rich individuality, all alongside its alter-ego, that held a funky edge. Sometimes it was hard to believe that a particular cut was born almost thirty years ago – precisely the case with ‘We Live So Fast’. Glenn gave it his best to maintain the speediness on this one, by his own admission. Nonetheless, the audience were happy to leap in time to the animated electronic pulses that were stabilised by clasps of beat – all sounding strangely up to date now (in 2011). Speaking of change, Glenn Gregory’s vocal hadn’t faltered one little bit ­throughout, and sounded just as rich as it was back in the day.

As The Luxury Gap was almost completed, the show didn’t finish with the ballad-like ‘The Best Kept Secret’ however. There was plenty more in the offering, much to audience approval. With the original line-up of Heaven 17 comprising two former members of The Human League, it was highly appropriate for Martyn Ware to revisit tracks from his sojourn ­the sedate ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ (as covered by The Human League on Reproduction) and ‘The Black Hit Of Space’. In fact, at this point, it was evident that The Luxury Gap had just been the warm-up.

It wouldn’t be a Heaven 17 show without showcasing cult favourite ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ which gave way to a tantalising slap bass solo.

Absolutely saving the best until the last, the audience swallowed up the encores – huge crowd-pleasers, the first one in the form of ‘Being Boiled’. This lush and extremely powerful take on The Human League song was given true justice and had the audience diving out of their seats as they revelled in the pure excitement of it all. Then, to follow, and equally as pleasing and energetic, came the dance remix and super extended reprisal of ‘Temptation’. An untraditional twist, with regards to encores, but layered with a driving pulse that every one of the audience now craved – not to mention a truly spine-tingling intro that, once again, danced around the dynamic vocal talents of Billie Godfrey.

If Heaven 17’s Friday evening show failed to send you into a captivating reverie focussed around those dynamic swinging groves, and we can’t imagine why, then the fast paced action delivered on the Saturday certainly would have done.

Saturday night was devoted to BEF and the ambitious Music of Quality and Distinction covers project. Volume 1 effectively relaunched the career of Tina Turner while Volume 2 fully revealed Martyn Ware’s love of soul music. The forthcoming third volume Dark promises happy songs reworked in a more sombre electronic manner. In true keeping with the weekend’s exclusivity theme, the set featured only four songs that had been played live previously. Picking up on the general atmosphere around the venue and many comments, this had been the night everyone had been waiting for – the most anticipated. A host of classic talents, all brought together on one stage ­there were great expectations for a glittering show.

Glenn Gregory opened the show and performed ‘Wichita Lineman’ before the stylish, sharp-suited Ultravox front man Midge Ure took to the stage to perform David Bowie’s ‘Secret Life of Arabia’, followed by an immensely passionate version of Roy Orbison’s ‘It’s Over’. Despite the shouts from the audience, there was no slot for ‘Vienna’ tonight, although that said, Midge did warn us, slipping in the notification between a joke about synth reliability! Kim Wilde held a captivating stage presence; still looking great as she performed three songs – among them was a fiery rendition of her 1986 hit record ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’, originally recorded by The Supremes and part of Volume 1. Her rendition of ‘Everytime I See You I Go Wild’ with its stark Depeche Mode-styled Roland System 100 backing will be one to look forward to on the new BEF album. To follow, the atmosphere mellowed blissfully, with Green Gartside singing ‘Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time’ and ‘I Don’t Know Why I Love You’.

BEF was never going to be without the huge vocal workouts, and this is where Heaven 17’s female vocalists came in. Both Billie Godfrey (who was the first western vocalist to record a full album in Japanese) on ‘Smalltown Boy’ and Kelly Barnes on ‘Co-Pilot To Pilot’ certainly showed their virtuosity, with Glenn Gregory commenting on Kelly having the best twenty-four year old voice he’d ever heard. He’s got a point.


As the night drew to a close, Noisettes vocalist Shingai Shoniwa gave her heart to her performances of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and ‘God Only Knows’. Meanwhile, Sandie Shaw stunned the Roundhouse, not only with her lively and seductive ‘Walk in My Shoes’ ­ and yes, she was barefoot – but also, arguably, the most stunning outfit of the evening. At that point, she owned the stage. Finally, to close, Boy George took to the stage to huge applause, in perfect make-up and sporting a bright pink hat. Sure enough, ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ really did wonders to aid a brisk pace. He even took time to joke with Martyn Ware about a Gary Glitter concert they both attended and how the autograph he’d obtained was probably worth nothing now! With so many different highlights, it was a monumental production that was pulled off admirably, and it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint every specific talent – everyone had something unique to offer.

There was no doubt that this weekend would be bountiful and, true to promise, BEF unleashed plenty of electro pop hooks with soulful visions and captivating vocals – all of which soared great heights and formed perfect melodic arcs. By the time the all-star finale featuring the iconic ‘Temptation’ came around, it was time to think fast-paced action sequences, contrasting artistic talents, not to mention throbbing pulses of electro pop, all tinted with soulful extravagance. Billie Godfrey led the upbeat anthem with the audience cheering their approval, while Sandie Shaw and Glenn Gregory were in fine duet. You can add to that plenty of fun – certainly judging by the huge smile that was etched across Boy George’s face.

Special thanks to Peter Noble at Noble PR.

BEF 1981-2011 3CD boxed set is available now on Virgin/EMI Records.

Photos by Jus Forrest.