Steel crazy: The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17

The Human League, ABC, Heaven 17 – what was it about Sheffield that inspired a generation of musical mavericks, asks PAUL LESTER

IT'S HARD TO BELIEVE NOW, BUT the six men and women having their photographs taken on the roof of a disused building in central London were once such a threat to rock's status quo that they made the punk hordes feel queasy.

Back in 1981, when Martyn Ware and Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17 unveiled their ponytailed proto-Yuppie businessman image – circa their landmark 1981 debut album Penthouse & Pavement – it had ultimate shock value, in an era of dour, post-punk greatcoats and severe cheekbones. Today, they are as smart and stylish as ever.

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ABC's Martin Fry, meanwhile, doesn't look that much different from the man who, back in the day, eschewed malnourished student chic for gold lam threads. And Phil Oakey of The Human League, who once sported the most famous haircut in Britain – a bizarre asymmetrical job that encouraged all manner of New Romantic tonsorial experiments – now has a shaved head. Of the Human League girls, only Susan Ann Sulley, with her little strappy dress, has the look of a pop star. Fellow singer Joanne Catherall is decked out in jeans, her raven hair tied back with a matching scarf.

Even now, even at their least outrageous, all three groups cut striking, modish figures. But then, in their home town of Sheffield – long before Arctic Monkeys and their blokey ilk roamed the plains – androgyny and ostentation were de rigueur. And that was just the boys. Time was when standing out was the new fitting in. Oakey believes the lack of flamboyance today is a function of people having too much to lose. "It's partly money," he says. "These days, people are terrified they won't be able to afford their mortgage. They're all hiding away in little corners. Conformity is amazing. How many men do you know now with long hair? How many women do you know with short hair? It's incredible."

He recalls less conformist times, arguably when Britain was more conservative (small and big "c") and restrictive. He remembers when "it was absolutely normal for us to walk into a nightclub that was full of men in make-up, probably transvestites. At least a third of our friends were gay."

"Half," corrects Sulley, while Catherall – who, like her best friend, joined the League just in time for them to achieve world synthpop domination with their third album Dare! – smiles when she recalls the lengths she and Sulley would go to in the name of fashion.

"Our parents were horrified by the way we looked," she says. "We had to do a certain amount of getting ready after we'd gone out. You'd take it as far as you could so that your mum and dad would still let you out the door, and then you'd go to the flat opposite and put lots more make-up on."

Their subversive appearance and refusal to kowtow came at a price. "My dad poured a bottle of milk over my head because I'd greased my hair back with gel," says Sulley, who was neither a stage school nor art school girl – just a common-or-garden 17-year-old schoolgirl – when Oakey invited her to join the League. "Every parent finds it hard when their children rebel."

It was, according to Oakey, a period when the watchwords were audacity and adventure. "We were looking for ways to be not traditionally masculine," he says. "I deliberately wore clothes that either men or women could wear. But I don't think I ever really looked like a woman. And I never wore very masculine clothes. I wore fur coats that I got from second-hand shops. If I wore a suit I would put a belt round the middle and pull it in with bits of jewellery."

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Was he sexually experimental? "Not at all. I always really liked girls, so much so that I thought I wouldn't mind being like one. It always looked such fun."

A sense of adventure was reflected in the music of The Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC, informed as it was by glam, krautrock, disco and the sequenced throb of Giorgio Moroder's proto-electro. "We wanted to be Roxy Music," he explains. "But we didn't want to copy them. We thought, 'What would Roxy Music be like if they started now? They'd probably be a synthesiser band.' "

Martyn Ware used to be in the League himself until ego battles with Oakey led to him forming breakaway unit the British Electric Foundation. BEF were a pseudo-corporation, based on Motown or the Chic Organisation, under whose umbrella Heaven 17, featuring Ware, fellow ex-League computer whizz Ian Craig Marsh and Glenn Gregory on vocals were designed to be their first pop group.

They wanted to prove to the London-based music industry that they could do business on their own terms; it also pushed the idea of BEF as a glamorously global entity, a notion enhanced by Heaven 17's sleek, shiny, future-facing electro-funk.

"It was about letting people realise that the music industry was just that – an industry, a business," he explains. "It was a brutally honest, typically Sheffield thing to do. But we weren't glamorising the north; we weren't being professional northerners because we had a broader aspect. No disrespect to Arctic Monkeys – I think they're really good – but it's a bit like being a professional Cockney, like Squeeze, and talking about 'life on the street'. Well, we didn't want to sing about the street because it was just too grim, frankly."

Like many working-class boys of the time, Ware was a soul fan who liked the confrontational aspect of punk while considering its musical methods too primitive and constraining, so he chose the synthesiser, not the guitar, as his mode of communicating Heaven 17's startling new aesthetic, their cosmopolitan electronic dance music. As Gregory points out, "We wanted Penthouse and Pavement to sound like a Jacksons album. We were into contemporary New York funk."

It was also inevitable that their sound would be mainly electronic. Ware has a theory as to why Sheffield's musicians – from Cabaret Voltaire to the heroes of this article all the way up to the bleeps and drones of the city's pioneering Warp label – are into synthesised noise.

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"The city was always infused with industrial sounds," he says of the former steel stronghold. "I remember lying in bed at night with the windows open in our two-up, two-down, and you could hear the sound of the steel forges. I've discussed this with Cabaret Voltaire and they're pretty sure this kind of continual industrial soundscape must have bled into our psyches."

Martin Fry was a member of Vice Versa, a bunch of League-worshipping DIY electro kids, when he decided to form ABC with the express intention of combining the edge and attitude of The Sex Pistols with the high production values, sumptuous melodies and shimmering rhythms of symphonic disco gods Chic. They aimed high, and on their all-time-classic debut album The Lexicon of Love, they realised every one of their ambitions.

"It was a different, more aspirational age," he says. "There was a lot to escape from. It was a shithole. There were only three TV channels. It was grim. You wanted people to think you were larger than life. That's where the flamboyance came from. It was very creative, but all homemade. Everything came from jumble sales. It was DIY. Musically, we would draw on Chic and James Brown and James Chance and Sinatra and B52s and Grace Jones records. It was something in the water supply."

ABC might have come out of punk but they recognised its lack of musical ambition and so drew on the modern dance sounds coming out of America. It's easy to overlook just how daring an initiative this was, for a white so-called indie band to incorporate so successfully black dance moves and mores. It would be like The Strokes, instead of trying to mimic the sound of late-1970s CBGBs, creating a new sort of garage R&B informed by Timbaland and The Neptunes.

"We grew up seeing The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam and Subway Sect, but our generation wanted to do something different," explains Fry. "We wanted to make escapist, ambitious music. It was big choruses, big hair, big shoulder pads, big everything. I put that down to it being a generation with not a lot of self-esteem. We thought we were invisible. That's why it was so peacock and loud. It was a way of getting attention. We were trying to paint the world DayGlo and do the Busby Berkeley thing on a shoestring."

ABC were big on theories and manifestos; they called themselves the Radical Dance Faction. The great thing about the forthcoming Steel City Tour is that it reclaims the idea of The Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC as revolutionaries, not a bunch of nostalgia acts for the chicken-in-a-basket circuit.

"Sheffield's very left-field," says Fry. "I speak as an outsider because I was born in Stockport. But when I got there, I realised that it's ingrained in the people. They're like, 'F*** you. I don't care what you think.' Vice Versa would play and the guys in The Human League would be in the audience or Cabaret Voltaire or Heaven 17 or early Pulp or the Comsat Angels. We'd try and out-freak each other. It was a kind of hothouse of people making very different music. We were all highly experimental. More than anything else, it had to be brand-new and original. I don't know where that sense of ambition has gone."

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• The Steel City Tour is at the Carling Academy, Glasgow, on 30 November.