“Have you heard it on the news…
About this fascist groove thang?”
While watching the news these days isn’t the most uplifting experience, back in the early 80s it was equally grim… a whirlwind of strikes, terrorist attacks. rioting and the perennial threat of nuclear war. Unemployment. Thatcher. Murder. Reagan. Unemployment.
Into this socio-political maelstrom came Heaven 17′s debut single, (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang, one of the more unlikely pop hits of the 1980s, with references to ‘evil men with racist views’, trigger-happy military generals, and Hitler’s ‘funky stuff’.
Released on 6 March 1981 (40 years ago this week), the lead track from the album Penthouse and Pavement appeared destined for chart success, peaking just outside the Top 40 before being banned by the BBC, thus confirming its place in the annals of infamy.
And given the recent rightward slide in global politics, as embodied by Trump and his ilk, it has also turned out to be remarkably prescient.
909originals caught up with Martyn Ware of Heaven 17 (and The Human League) to chat about the track and its legacy.
“We had always been fascinated with politics, when we were in The Human League,” he explains. “Ian [Marsh, Heaven 17 bandmate] and I used to talk about what was going on in the world all the time. Phil [Oakey, Human League compatriot] was less into that, he was more esoteric.
“With The Human League, we had set out to deliberately avoid writing songs that were about ‘love’ and subjects like that, we wanted to be more abstract, or fantasy-based. So we carried that sort of thinking into Heaven 17.
“Plus, at the time, we were honestly convinced that Ronald Reagan was going to bring about the destruction of the planet. Of course, more recently, until Biden came in we’ve had a genuine fascist in the White House. That which used to be hidden from view in the past has now been normalised.”
The music for (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang had its origins in an instrumental Ware and Marsh originally recorded under their British Electric Foundation moniker, a project that was launched at roughly the same time as Heaven 17 – “within a couple of weeks of each other”, says Ware.
That instrumental, Groove Thang, featured on the cassette-only release Music For Stowaways, and saw the group team up with teenage bassist John Wilson to bring some extra funk to proceedings – this was, after all, supposed to be a dancefloor-friendly track.
“We wanted to bring a funk element into it, but none of us played the bass,” says Ware. “We didn’t even have a drummer, we used to just program the drums into the Roland System100.
“We went along to The Crucible in Sheffield, where you used to have lots of musicians hanging out, and we came across this 17-year-old kid who told us that he could play – as he told us, he was more of a rhythm guitarist, but he had just bought a new bass guitar.
“We had no idea whether he was any good or not; we brought him into the studio and asked him to do his thing. He was incredible! He also ended up playing rhythm guitar on the track.”
As for the controversial title and lyrics, Ware says that he and bandmates Marsh and Glenn Gregory (vocalist) were strong advocates of the William S Burroughs ‘cut-up method’.
“We were obsessed with American disco and funk music,” he says. “I remember we picked up a copy of Record Mirror, which featured the Top 75 dance chart. We borrowed some of the phrases that were used in these tracks. As for the use of ‘thang’ – we were big fans of Parliament Funkadelic.
“The use of the word ‘fascist’ in the title came later. The track was just going to be called Fascist Groove Thang, but we felt we needed to add the ‘We Don’t Need This’ to make sure it didn’t get into the wrong hands.
“We did want it to have an anthem-like quality though,” he adds. “The ‘chant ‘was huge in disco music at the time, remember Michael Zager Band’s Let’s All Chant?”
The scene was set, therefore, for pop stardom. With the backing of Virgin Records – “they loved it!” – Ware and co were confident that they would soon be gracing the stage at Top of the Pops [at that stage, their only previous appearance on the show, as part of The Human League, saw them perform a bizarre cover of Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll.
“We were confident [Groove Thang] would go Top 20,” says Ware. “But then Mike Read got it banned from the BBC playlist, because of the line ‘Reagan’s president elect/Fascist god in motion’. In hindsight, we could have been more subtle, we could have said ‘American president’ rather than identify Reagan directly.
“We got a panicked phone call from Virgin Records asking us whether were was a chance we could re-record it, with new lyrics. We weren’t really up for that, but we still did it, we went into the studio and re-recorded it as We Don’t Need This Axis Groove Thang.
“But it didn’t really work out, and it was never released. There are around 100 white labels of that somewhere, it’s quite a collectors’ item.”
The subversive sentiment (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang was echoed on Side B of Penthouse and Pavement, released in September of that year, which pointed to an impending apocalypse via cheery lyrics like “Come and join the fun on the way to heaven…”
“The second side of the album was developed from a collection of instrumentals that were going to go on the next Human League album, before we left,” says Ware.
“A track like Let’s All Make A Bomb is about mutually-assured destruction – ‘if you’re making a bomb, we might as well make a bomb and we’ll all destroy ourselves’.
“I think the only really properly dark song from that album is Song With No Name [Sample lyric: “I’ve drank in bars, destroyed careers/Sold on a need to be famous”]. We were very influenced by Ennio Morricone and movie soundtracks – that track references the Man With No Name.
“The second side of Penthouse and Pavement sort of ‘killed off’ our connections to The Human League, and paved the way for The Luxury Gap [Heaven 17’s 1982 follow-up, which featured the epic Temptation].”
While much of the music of the early 80s is remembered through rose-tinted headphones, (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang is a unique curio in the pop canon of the period, due to its lyrical content, scattergun percussion and aforementioned funk breakdown. Does Ware think it has stood the test of time?
“I think it’s like a fine wine, it has aged quite well,” he says. “It’s been covered quite a bit in recent years, notably by LCD Soundsystem, and when the Red Hot Chili Peppers came to Sheffield a few years ago, they played it as part of their set, along with Being Boiled.
“A few people have come to us over the years asking whether we would consider updating the lyrics, but we’ve said no. We wouldn’t want to come across as opportunistic. It’s a track that’s very much of its time.
“You do still see, sometimes, when there are protests against Trump or whatever, people have (We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang written on placards and things like that. So the message still resonates with people.”
Thanks to Martyn for talking to us. Make sure you check out his excellent podcast, Electronically Yours, which has seen him interview everyone from Midge Ure to Kim Wilde. Also, keep an eye out for part one of his autobiography – “which covers the period up until 1992,” he tells us – which will be coming soon.