Perfect Sound Forever

The Human League

1980 promo photo

Steel City Space Age
Unearthing their early years
By Hector E. Ramos Ramos
(June 2010)

"Don't you want me, baby?" With this exhortation, the Human League reached the summit of success and defined themselves as a band for a future generations of listeners. Their best known song is the archetype of that '80's phenomenon known as synthpop. In many ways, it stands in for the entire decade as a whole. So much so that when the day comes when your grandchildren ask you to explain why so many second-rate bands went through so much trouble reviving the eighties in the halcyon days of the new millennium, your best bet would be to show them a well-preserved copy of the Human League's biggest hit.

Yet, though it might seem almost perverse to say it, the birth of the Human League did not coincide with Reagan's inaugural address. Like so many others, the League got together during punk's short heyday. The band was the brainchild of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, two Sheffield natives who'd found their muse in the computers and sequencers bleeping to them from across the Channel. Spurred by these cutting edge clarion calls, they decided to make their own futurist sounds. They got their hands on newly affordable synthesizers, formed a succession of bands (Dead Daughters, The Future) and approached Philip Oakey, an old school buddy with a lopsided haircut and matinee idol looks, to front their new project, which they would later call the Human League. Non-musician Philip Adrian Wright rounded out the lineup by providing the impressive visuals and slides that were an essential part of the early League's live act.

This version of the band only lasted until 1980 when Bob Last, the band's manager, exploited in-group tensions in order to cleft the League apart, with the intent of giving their label, Virgin, two acts for the price of one. The split led to bigger success for all parties concerned. Ware and Marsh founded electro-funk group Heaven 17, with which they scored hits on both sides of the Atlantic. Wright and Oakey took on the task of reconvening the League. They added new members (including teenaged backup singers Susanne and Joanne) and, armed with an arsenal of invincible singles, conquered the world, splashing their hook-heavy new sound and Oakey's authoritarian baritone all over the radio. This reinvented Human League's greatest triumph, though, remains 1981's Dare, a shimmering, ageless album, and one of the most resplendent jewels of the eighties synthpop crown.

Yet for all the glories of the League's "chart-topping" phase, it would be a mistake to dismiss of this first lineup's career as a mere warm-up for the real thing. The first two albums released before the break-up of Human League mk.1, Reproduction and its follow-up, Travelogue, deserve to be rediscovered. These albums offer a completely engrossing experience, different from both the later League, and anything else from the annals of synthpop. Unique in the new romantic era as exemplified by pale, über-detached Bowie imitators, the Human League didn't let machine supplant emotion. In the words of Bob Last, "there is a soul in those machines." Whereas bands like Visage, Ultravox, and Japan embraced the chillier side of electronic instruments, the League imbued their metal machine music with an endearingly quirky personality.

Behind their ominous album covers and unwieldy contraptions, the Leaguers are quite palpably a bunch of blokes just like you and me. They are oddballs for sure, intent on summoning the most outlandish alien noises out of temperamental equipment, but they're also people. Like all people, they make mistakes. Some of their attempts to push the envelope, for example, are most charitably described as interesting failures, but the botched efforts are part of what makes that band likable as well as listenable.

Take their cover of the Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost that Loving Feeling" from the debut album. The song proper only begins after a pointless prelude called "Morale," which is all chimelike keyboards and paranoid yelping courtesy of Oakey. Frankly, it drags, and after three and a half minutes, it's a little tiresome. When you're about to fast forward to the good stuff, Oakey's voice disappears and the keyboards hone in on a welcoming, almost familiar melody. Oakey reappears and sounding benevolent for a change, bites into the unmistakable opening line of the blue-eyed soul anthem. The effect is jarring, even unsettling. It lingers on and entrances for the remaining six minutes, thus justifying the prologue's tedium in spades.

The first two albums are full of powerful moments like this, and they are well worth having to sit through the more instrumental filler and scattered moments of dissonance. And really, not all the more outré pieces are bummers. The multi-part suite, "Dignity of Labour," for example, is an absorbing tapestry of sequenced beats and simulated musique concrete, which anticipates the rhythmic ambient of innovators like the Orb, Richard D. James, and Lindstrøm. Lyrically, the League offered a futurism idiosyncratic enough to match their sonics. Many of their songs are miniature works of science fiction, offering peaks into a universe in which the inexplicable and the impossible rub elbows with the more humdrum realities of life. In the Human League's world, a "bored kid" can kill the time by making himself grow so tall he towers over the Pyramids ("Empire State Human") and the innocuous act of putting a record on a turntable may unlock a black hole capable of swallowing up the universe ("Black Hit of Space").

Most of the time, the atmosphere is optimistic, but there's a bitter edge to many of these weird tales too, best exemplified by sardonic tunes like anti-mope manifesto "Blind Youth" off the debut and "Life Kills," a highly danceable downer from Travelogue. Even when things get a bit too glum though, the proceedings are still frequently, if unintentionally, comedic, as in their minimalist debut single "Being Boiled," released on indie label Fast, before the move to Virgin. The song consists largely of Oakey chanting some nonsense about silk worms, slaughter, and Siddhartha Gautama over menacing rhythms and analog grunts. The result, believe it or not, is mesmerizing. Oakey's call for cross-species empathy might be banal and confused, but his authoritarian baritone almost convinces you otherwise. The bravado of his performance and the relentless beat of the drum machine should make a convert out of anybody. Arguably "Being Boiled" deserves the same admiration as "Don't You Want Me," which like most later synth pop builds on the foundations laid down in that first League benchmark from 1978. While the boys became more sophisticated lyricists and knob-twiddlers as the years went by, everything exciting in the original band's sound is already present on their debut single, in inchoate form. The abandon and irrepressible enthusiasm of that song runs like a live wire through the rest of the League's early catalog.

There's an energy in the recordings from the League's initial run which sets the band apart from the work of their more languid contemporaries. Their sound was vibrant, polychromatic, a forerunner of colorful keyboard-toting auteurs like Stephin Merritt, Max Tundra, and the Russian Futurists. Appropriately, these and other artists have revisited and raided synthpop idiom the League launched, usually with impressive results. Their revival echoes the League's own creative interpretation of the pop-canon, most clearly exemplified by their stunning reworkings of the Righteous Brothers, Gary Glitter, and Iggy Pop (the first covered on Reproduction, the last two on Travelogue).

The Human League have themselves entered the canon. They are now undeniably a part of pop's above-ground history, having achieved that strange immortality a band attains when its most massive song's been used to sell Chips Ahoy! cookies. Fortunately, I don't see any of the tracks off Reproduction ever being plundered to sell a mop, but the LP's and singles from that era remain timeless nonetheless. They provided the springboard for so much that followed, and as a result, are now deeply woven into the DNA of electronic music. Yet, while one imagines the electro scene wouldn't be the same without the League's blueprint being there to propel folks to trade in their flying V's for Roland Jupiters, the blueprint itself retains an inimitable personality, an eccentric geometry that ought to be experienced firsthand.

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