‘She had very little to lose by trying new stuff’

Heaven 17/British Electric Foundation's Martyn Ware and Tina Turner circa 1982. (Photos: Getty Images)

Heaven 17/British Electric Foundation’s Martyn Ware and Tina Turner circa 1982. (Photos: Getty Images)

In the early ’80s, following Tina Turner’s acrimonious split from her abusive husband and bandmate Ike, many industry pundits believed her career was over, and that she was doomed play the club circuit and cheesy variety shows for the rest of her days. Instead, the rock ‘n’ soul icon, who died last week at age 83, proved all doubters wrong and pulled off one of the most spectacular pop music comebacks of all time, with 1984’s Private Dancer. That album sold 12 million copies and won three Grammys, and at age 44, Turner set a record at that time for being the oldest female solo artist to top the Billboard Hot 100, with the album’s lead single, “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

However, it can be argued that none of this would have ever happened if Turner hadn’t joined forces two years earlier with British Electric Foundation.

B.E.F., a Northern English production company comprising synthpop pioneers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh (founding members of the Human League and then Heaven 17), believed in Turner when few others did. And by producing her futuristic, electrofunky covers of the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” B.E.F. set the stage for her massive comeback, helping her get early MTV airplay alongside Heaven 17 and other Second British Invasion new wave groups half her age. The international success of “Let’s Stay Together,” in fact, prompted Capitol Records’ decision to roll the dice and proceed with the release of a full-length Tina Turner album — and the rest was history.

Following Turner’s death, Ware sat down with Yahoo Entertainment to fondly remember his time in the studio and onstage with the legendary late diva.

Yahoo Entertainment: Let’s start from the beginning. Were you a longtime Tina Turner fan before you started working with her?

Martyn Ware: Yes, I was very, very much in love with “River Deep — Mountain High,” which is probably in my top five singles of all time. One of the early experiments we did with the Human League was actually a cover version of it. I tried to persuade [former Human League bandmate] Phil [Oakey] to sing it, but he wouldn’t have it. I think he was frightened of it! [laughs]

Fair enough. I mean, Tina Turner is not an easy artist to cover. So, how did British Electric Foundation’s first collaboration with Tina, “Ball of Confusion,” come about? It laid the foundation, so to speak, for one of the biggest second acts in pop history.

It was fate, really, because I was due to record “Ball of Confusion” with James Brown as the final track on the B.E.F.’s first Music of Quality and Distinction album. And James’s lawyers tried to blackmail us by contacting us 24 hours before we’d got all the flights booked to go to Atlanta and everything, saying that James wanted points on the entire album, not just on his track. And we said, “Well, that can’t happen.” … So, that fell through. And on the same day, I’m sat in the offices at Virgin Records bemoaning my fate… and Ken Berry, who was the financial director of Virgin Records, happened to overhear our conversation. He’s got nothing to do with music at all; I mean, literally, he is just the guy who makes the engine go. And he said, “I’m going over to Los Angeles today and I’m going to meet my friend Tina Turner. What do you think?” And as luck would have it, two weeks before that, I’d seen her perform at a concert hall in London called the Venue, where she was doing her “Proud Mary Show” — which was a bit old-fashioned, but incredibly impressive from a show-business point of view. I suppose people would say it was like a nostalgia show, really. She was 42 then, and the music business perceived her as — I hate to say it — a has-been, somebody who was wringing out the last dredges of their career. She was clearly a fantastic performer still, but in solid need of updating if she was going do anything. In fact, she didn’t have a record contract at the time, and there didn’t seem to be very much prospect of her getting a record contract, considering her age, even though she looked 10 years younger. So, anyway, next thing I know, I’m on the Concorde flying to America with [Heaven 17’s] Glenn [Gregory] to meet Tina to try and persuade her, with the help of our American manager at the time, Bill Gerber, who facilitated us meeting up and helped broker it all.

Was Tina skeptical about working with these young electronic musicians from Sheffield?

I think she took some recommendations from people in the business who’d heard the sort of thing we were doing — that we were futuristic, but appeared to have some perception of classic soul. It wasn’t really a matter of persuading her, because she very much came from the world of being a performer and not really being a strategist for her own career. Like the old saying, it was a man’s world in the music business then. And a lot of Black women were even more subjugated to the horrors of male domination at that time. … It’s interesting: I’ve just been watching the Donna Summer documentary, and there’s a lot of parallels there. You know, it’s difficult for a Black woman who’s supremely talented to get to the top. … And we all know now what we didn’t know then; I didn’t know at the time what Tina was going through, or what she’d been through with Ike. I mean, there were rumors that Ike didn’t treat her very well, but nothing like the details that we know now. … Somehow the press in England didn’t really focus on that sort of thing at that time. To be honest, the press didn’t see Tina as particularly newsworthy, because she wasn’t really in the public eye anymore.

Yes, in 1982, a lot of the music press had written Tina off and assumed her hitmaking days were far behind her. Was that something you were aware of? Like, were you hearing murmurs, maybe from peers or people in the industry: “Why are you working with Tina Turner?”

It wasn’t even a point for discussion. I mean, she just wasn’t in the public perception. She was [considered] an old star whose time had gone — a curio. There wasn’t any negative connotation. There was no connotation. She wasn’t in the public consciousness — which is probably a good thing, because that means you can reinvent yourself in any form you want.

What do you remember of your first meeting with her in L.A.?

She was charm personified. We went to her house and she sat us down, and she obviously had a lot of love and respect for the English way of life, because she said, “Would you like a cuppa tea?” And she brought us some biscuits, too. She was very nurturing. Then we explained what we were doing, and I think Bill Gerber had already talked her about it. I don’t think — having read her autobiography and what she said about that period — that she fully comprehended what the hell was going on, to be honest. But you have to get into her mindset at that time: I think she felt that she had very little to lose by trying new stuff. She felt a sense of freedom for the first time. … So, she came to London and we recorded the vocals for “Ball of Confusion.” And there’s that famous story about her coming into the studio and saying, “Where’s the band?” And we pointed at the Fairlight [synthesizer/workstation] and said, “Well, that’s it. This is the future. It’s just us and it’s a tape machine.”

I imagine that threw her off a little bit…

Well, people have to understand she was very much about being a performer. She never wrote any of her songs; she wasn’t interested in that part of the creative process. All she was interested in was interpretation. I liken her approach to that of an actor, really, which is more identifying the core storyline and values and emotional connection of a song, and then performing it in the most exciting way possible. … There’s this image of her as this sexual tiger and all this stuff, but if you listen to the songs, it’s about the light and shade and nuance of her interpretation. The singing is a given. She can sing — we know that. But very, very few people, even ones with fantastic voices, can impart as much meaning to a song as she did for her entire career.

“Ball of Confusion” was such a departure from the Tina we all knew. Even four decades later, it still sounds so edgy and modern. Can you tell me about the concept B.E.F. had for this futuristic R&B/new wave hybrid?

One of the key reasons we did the B.E.F. album was to create this new template for electro-soul. And this was the most electro-soul of all the tracks on the album, so we needed somebody who had a genuine kind of demigod status to perform it. Tina was perfect for it. The interesting thing is that it was more of a macho song. The backing track feels angular and driving and very kind of masculine — designed for a masculine voice. But she completely nailed it, because she’s one of the few soul singers who’s really got a voice that’s not really a mezzo-soprano; it’s below that. Her lower range really is impressive. And when she goes up an octave or more, it is like, BLAMMO! You’ve got that kind of restrained, pent-up energy of the people. At the end when she’d finished recording it, she turned around to me and said, “That was kind of difficult to sing, Martyn. It sounded like there’s more than one man on the track.” And I said, “Well, it’s the Temptations, Tina!” And she said, “Who are they?” I swear to God! She did not know who the Temptations were.

Really? I’m very surprised by that.

Yeah. I think turned her back on soul music, the world of R&B, because she wanted to be — as articulated later by the press — the Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll. She as more interested in being Rod Stewart or David Bowie or Mick Jagger.

So, did you sense any resistance from Tina when you started working with her?

It was more than resistance. … It was just a completely alien world to her, and not just in the sense of, “Oh, this is new technology and it’s a new way of doing things.” I’ve worked with many artists that are not familiar with working in this way, but most of them kind of understand it, even if it’s not their favorite mode. But this was so far removed from Tina’s performing experience — remember, the vast majority of what she did in the studio was with a live band — that it was an alien way of working. It must have been like, I don’t know, some old blues singer going into the studio with Brian Eno or something. [laughs]

Well, she definitely acclimated quickly to the situation, as evidenced by the result.

Yes! She was only in the studio for an hour.

Wow! Same with “Let’s Stay Together,” right?

Yes. … She never wanted to know anything about the backing track, or contribute to it in any way, or have any notes to give. She just did her job using her supreme ability and confidence, and then just let the producer get on with the rest.

Was this a situation where she’s said, “Look, I’m just giving you one take,” or did you plan to be in the studio longer but then you thought, “Nah, that was perfect, we don’t need to redo it”?

Well, as part of her methodology, in the same way that an actor would learn their lines, she read the lyrics, understood the meaning of the lyrics, knew what kind of buttons to press in terms of communication with the audience, and performed it amazingly. … I’d never seen anything like it, and I still haven’t. I’ve recorded with some fantastic singers — I mean, Chaka Khan is right up there with the very best — but I have to say Tina blew even Chaka out of the water. I’ve never experienced anybody who so thoroughly understood what was required of a vocal performance. And, you know, she came from that world of “hard work wins.” Whatever faults Ike had — which are multitudinous — part of what she learned with Ike was how to deliver, because I think probably she was afraid of Ike and knew if she didn’t deliver, she’d be in trouble.

Let’s talk a bit more about “Let’s Stay Together,” because that was even bigger hit than “Ball of Confusion.” How did that collaboration come about in 1983?

[Tina’s manager] Roger Davies, who’d been there at the recording of “Ball of Confusion” as well, unbeknownst to me at that time was putting together plans for Tina’s first solo album post his involvement — which turned out to be Private Dancer. And they actually came to Heaven 17 and said, “Would you write a couple of songs for us?” They were very impressed with the B.E.F. stuff and the first Heaven 17 album. But it turned out we were in the middle of recording [Heaven 17’s sophomore album] The Luxury Gap; we had a stretch of time booked in a very expensive studio. We were very flattered to be asked, of course, but I know we were a bit kind of daunted by the idea, because we didn’t write for anyone else; we only wrote our personal kind of taste, for us to perform. I wish we had done it now, to be honest, but it was in the middle of recording The Luxury Gap and it would’ve been quite disruptive. By this time Ian had left B.E.F., and it was just me as producer, so I thought I’d put together a shortlist of [cover] tracks that would potentially work for Tina. No. 1 on the list was “Let’s Stay Together,” and she loved the idea.

I’m surprised she loved the idea, since you just said she’d been shying away from the classic soul thing.

Well, yes, but she had certain heroes. It’s hard to imagine Tina having heroes [laughs], but her heroes were Al Green, Sam Cooke, and Otis Redding. So, I just hit the nail on the head, basically. I also said to her, “I know where you want to go in terms of being a rock star, but we need to reawaken the world to the fact that you are one the world’s great soul singers, whether you like it or not. Even if this is your last hurrah as a soul singer, it’s good to nail that legacy in a different context.” So, that’s what we did.

What other songs were on your list of potential covers for her?

It was about seventh on my list, actually, but it struck me that it’d be good to do something that was a bit more edgy and unusual, and I knew she was a big fan of David Bowie. … So, I thought it would be great to do a version of “1984,” with her singing it, because we knew [Private Dancer] was going be coming out in 1984. So, it was like a self-fulfilling-prophecy thing. And she loved that idea as well.

When you had had that early success with “Ball of Confusion” and “Let’s Stay Together,” was there a feeling going into the album, which ended up including “Let’s Stay Together” and “1984,” that this was make-or-break moment Tina’s one last shot to get back on top?

No, strangely. I really believe that Roger Davies knew what he was doing. He seemed to have a real love of her work and a real belief that she should be back in the forefront of people’s perception. The great thing about her being a solo singer and free of the whole Ike thing was now she was free of that genre as well. She could be anything she wanted to be. That requires a kind of auteur approach from different producers, different songwriters, but Roger was the mastermind of all this. He was the guy who had the vision to put it all together.

“Let’s Stay Together” was such a massive success. It was the biggest 12-inch single in America at the time. And that’s what famously convinced Capitol Records to greenlight Private Dancer.

“Let’s Stay Together” in Europe was [an even bigger] phenomenon. It was something beyond anybody’s expectations. … That was the technique that Roger took. He said, “We are not going to try to break the U.S.; we’re going to do an incubator kind of technique in Europe” — because at that time, the U.S. record companies and radio stations, to a certain extent, were looking for new ideas from the U.K. Also, they could let the U.K. record companies take the financial risk, and then they could say, “Hey, it’s already been proven in Europe!” … Anyway, if you’ve seen the live show we did on [British music television program] The Tube, that was like a light in the blue touch paper. It just went off after that. People’s perception of Tina changed completely.

That Tube performance from 1983 was that the only time you ever performed onstage with Tina. What are your memories of that?

Well, firstly it was national live television, which was terrifying, especially considering that we didn’t play live at the time; we were a studio band! I’d done two years of touring with the Human League [before leaving that band in 1980], but for Glenn it was maybe his first live TV performance. … I remember Tina introducing us to the audience, going, “I’d like to introduce you to my producers, Martyn and Glenn!” And we’re just 26, 27 years old. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is a legend!” And of course, at the time we’re thinking 42 is ancient. Oh, the irony. [laughs] We were just kids, so we were very nervous. She came into our dressing room before the show, 10 minutes before the show went live, and went, “Martyn, I’ve got an idea for the middle-eight of the song. You’re going to come to the center of the stage, you and Glenn, and my two backup dancers are going to run their hands up and down your legs!” I said, “Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea, Tina. We don’t tell any embarrassing accidents, you know?” [laughs] I just thought, “This is way too showbiz for my taste…”

Wow. It was like you both were fish out of water in this situation.

Oh, I’ve never been so terrified. But it turned out really well, and it absolutely rocketed Tina back into the public perception. … And the weird thing is, you can almost see that moment happening on the screen in real time. She and her dancers were still wearing the costumes from the “Proud Mary Show.” It’s hard to explain, but the perception changed from her being a kind of “glamorous grandmother” figure to being a fully rounded adult pop star. The media just isn’t used to giving kudos to fortysomething women and seeing them as vital, energetic performers.

I think it’s even worse now. I wonder if the sort of comeback that Tina pulled off in the ‘80s could ever happen with a fortysomething woman today. Do you think so?

That’s a very good question. I really don’t have an answer for it. I think we were living at a period then where there was starting to be this level at the top with what I call “the eternals” — people like the Rolling Stones who people still pay a lot of money to go see. Tina just wanted to be at that level, where your age didn’t matter so much and it was about whether you could still deliver what people paid for. It was really as simple as that.

What interesting to me is I don’t think Private Dancer was nearly as daring as the tracks you did with her the tracks that helped put her back on that level.

Yes, it’s my opinion that once “Let’s Stay Together” and “Ball of Confusion” helped reframe her popularity with a potentially younger audience, she quickly reverted. Maybe Tina was starting to get more confident in her own power, and her taste was more middle-aged and more middle-of-the-road, so she took control and went back to that. The album was more middle-of-the-road, for my taste anyway. … In fact, Roger and Tina came back and asked us if we’d like to do a couple of cover versions for her next album, Break Every Rule, and the two tracks that we came up with were “A Change Is Gonna Come” and “Take Me to the River.” I was just listening to “Take Me to the River” the other day and I’m absolutely heartbroken they never chose to put it on that album or to put it out as a single, because it still sounds fresh now. It sounds dynamic. … I think the reason they didn’t use it was because they’d moved on from that slightly edgier electrofunk thing, and they didn’t feel it fit with where she wanted to go anymore.

I suppose if she’d continued in that more electro/B.E.F. direction, she still would have had a career renaissance, but more along the lines of a Grace Jones or Kylie Minogue a cult heroine in the U.S., but not so much as a mainstream pop star. And I assume Roger was aiming for the mainstream.

Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. That was their technique, and you can’t knock it. It worked!

Did you and Tina keep in touch?

Yes. I was a little bit disappointed by the sidelining of the work that we’d done on the following album… and she was becoming more of a world star as she moved up to the plateau of success that she wanted. So, we didn’t stay in touch on a regular basis, but every time she came to Europe and performed, she did very kindly give me a VIP pass and we’d meet backstage. I saw her penultimate gig she ever did [in 2009] at the O2 Arena in London, and she performed for two and a half hours. She was 69 or 70, still dancing and still knocking it out of the park. But then she got ill. Her last gig, strangely enough, was in Sheffield. That was the last gig she ever did.

Do you have any final thoughts about your time with Tina and the music you created together?

I’ll just say she’s one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. People often use the term “down-to-earth” as a kind of faint-praise thing, but she was a very grounded person when I was working with her, and I enjoyed her company immensely. … There will never be another Tina.

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