The Human League

TrackAlbum / EP
Circus Of DeathReproduction
The Black Hit Of SpaceTravelogue
Life KillsTravelogue
WXJL TonightTravelogue
The Things That Dreams Are Made OfDare
Open Your HeartDare
Mirror ManFascination! EP
Heart Like A WheelRomantic?


Human League playlist



Contributor: Duncan Harman

It was November 1982 – my ninth birthday, to be exact – and The Human League had released their latest single. Mirror Man has a swing to it. A Northern Soul swagger, accessorised with “oohs” and “aahs” in all the right places, its confidence hewn from pop’s inclination towards the pristine.

It was a sign, of course; that such a disc would be hitting the record stores not on any old day but a date specific to me was all the confirmation needed. Because the record gods had decreed that The Human League were the band for me; had underlined that, in some unfathomable way, our fates were now entwined, and the strange looks I received from time to time – the teacher asking the class what we aspired to be when we grew up, and I raised my hand to answer “Phil Oakey” – had been vindicated.

That I didn’t in fact grow up to be Phil Oakey remains a mystery; one of those loose regrets we carry about with us through life like charity shop vinyl in an Our Price carrier bag. That said, there’s something to the League’s story that resonates way beyond a couple of hits in a far-off decade (followed by a lengthy concession on the Seaside Special circuit). A mere 18 months separates their second and third albums, yet the chasm between Travelogue and Dare is so wide – in tone, timbre, execution and arrival – that it’s difficult to believe they were recorded by the same band.

To which the obvious answer is: they weren’t the same band; creative differences and personal animosity prompting the four-piece to schism just as Travelogue failed to shift the number of units the record company expected. “Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, to the BEF/Heaven 17 aisle,” came the call over the tannoy, the Oakey-lead faction suddenly free to pursue their pop agenda.

It’s a well-worn story – repeated almost as often as Oakey’s unorthodox method of recruiting backing singers to fill the subsequent touring obligations. Yet that split – and the dichotomy between Marks I and II of The Human League – is a fascinating study in how the subtraction and addition of certain key individuals has fostered a back catalogue both distinct yet resolute, working over and beyond the affectations of a weird, obsessive nine year-old.

If the first two albums are the sonic equivalent of a J.G. Ballard novel, then Dare is the glossy magazine your older sister left lying about on the sofa, and like thousands – perhaps millions – of others, it was the latter (or more accurately, the singles from the latter) that first drifted across my radar. Dare; effervescent and fully-formed, pop with a capital P. Yet is isn’t an arrogant record, or an insular record, the sophistication entirely provincial, entirely suburban in nature, and therefore readily accessible – not for nothing could you imagine bumping into this album down a dodgy Sheffield nightclub.

Don’t You Want Me may be the headline item (1981’s Xmas Number 1, it sold more copies than there were record players), but it isn’t an especially strong song – more of a charter for unimaginative businessmen hoping to chat up cocktail waitresses. No; it was Open Your Heart – the preceding 7” – that saw me hooked. It was penned by Oakey alongside former Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis, who’s been written out of the band’s history to some extent, but whose presence was integral to the early ‘80s allure.

From the clean lines of the drum machine intro to the jagged, high register bass and sweeping chords underpinning each verse – all implied drama and melancholy – this is synth-pop of the highest order, Oakey’s vocal carrying an air of barely-concealed desperation that’s only accentuated by the high pip punctuation (chorus) and rapid fire arpeggios (the middle eight) that the analogue synthesisers (Korgs, Casios and Rolands, for the most part) emit.

And here’s the thing about The Human League; Phil Oakey is not a particularly robust singer (albeit he grew into his voice a little over time). Jo Catherall and Susan Sulley – ditto. Open Your Heart does not feature vocal performances defined by panache, nuance, grace, texture or dexterity, and it works all the better for such deficiencies. Get someone with a decent pair of lungs near the microphone, and much of the charm would have dissipated.

Enter at this point another character vital to aesthetic. Producer Martin Rushent was parachuted in as Virgin Records were desperately trying to protect their investment, the League perceived to be something of a joke by a music press unimpressed that the “talent” had walked out. Yet not only did Jo Callis prove to be a fine (if very different) substitute for the Marsh/Ware brains trust, Rushent (whose CV included a sound engineer credit on Marc Bolan’s Electric Warrior, as well as production duties for Buzzcocks and The Stranglers) was an inspired choice to mould Dare into shape, owning as he did a keen ear for synth-pop’s distinctive lines and edges.

Album track Darkness is a case in point; it’s the manner in which the opening cadences pool at Oakey’s feet. Synth structures that prod at the vague existentialist sentiment behind the lyrics. The production is crisp in the extreme, and necessarily so, elevating the track beyond routine.

In fact the entire LP – from The Sound Of The Crowd through to Love Action (I Believe In Love) and beyond – remains essential listening, no matter the years piled up in the meantime. Sure, Dare is voguish in both nature and composition (which by rights should make it feel dated), but it’s sleek with it. Engaging. All is forgiven. Seconds – alongside I Am The Law the closest in tone to League Mark I – is all brooding and detached in the way it subverts melodic intent, dispensing with a conventional chorus to get its point across (even if the lyrics plod a little). And opening track The Things That Dreams Are Made Of parades its affirmation in primary colours, the strident riffs that buttress both chorus and verse gifting bounce, promoting a mere list of favourite things into statement of intent.

Oh Dare, you luscious beast. In many respects it can’t be improved upon. So it wasn’t. The Human League in all of its forms, and the suggestion of clashing egos and unhappy campers has never been far from the narrative. Rushent bailed during the recording process for follow-up Hysteria. Callis departed shortly after its release. By the time that ‘86 had rolled around, fifth album Crash proved to be little more than a misguided attempt at reinvention; a slick, shark-jumping mess with its focus upon worldwide sales (specifically, the US market). The Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis produced results were lukewarm and disingenuous, epitomised by the generic lead single Human.

1986 was a very different music landscape to that of five years previously, synth-pop having blown itself out amidst mediocrity, ubiquity and Howard Jones records. To that extent, Oakey ceding creative control makes a degree of sense in a pop landscape demanding chameleon tendencies in exchange for remaining centre stage (see also: Bowie. Madonna. Kylie).

Yet Crash is a poor compromise, devoid of both charm and chemistry; Adrian Wright – the only other original member of the band – duly quit, and if it wasn’t for Human’s (inexplicable) commercial success (a US Number 1, somehow), that may have been the end.

And perhaps it was, if we’re speaking about relevancy (as opposed to the pension pot that is the nostalgia carousel). With zeitgeist looking elsewhere and Oakey no longer sporting avant-garde hair with which to distract us, subsequent albums (1990’s Romantic?; Octopus from 1995) suffered from career relaunch inertia (even if the latter, to be fair, shifted a fair few units), leaving those of us beholden to the Dare-era material to root around for our copies of Love And Dancing, Rushent’s 1982 remix LP released under the League Unlimited Orchestra banner (or failing that, the Fascination EP from ’83, which alongside Mirror Man spawned subsequent hit (Keep Feeling) Fascination … or even the self-explanatory ‘85 side project Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder, famous for Together In Electric Dreams).

This is how the music industry works. It’s a long way down from the summit, yet the descent can be deceptively swift, leaving an eternity back in the foothills of fame with dwindling royalties and the mantra I used to be someone for company. There is however one brief exception to any premise that the Oakey/Sulley/Catherall triptych is Dare and little else. Heart Like A Wheel – lead single from the Romantic? album – was written by a certain Jo Callis (alongside ex-Rezillos bandmate Eugene Reynolds), and produced by Martin Rushent, lured out of a self-enforced music biz sabbatical for one last tilt at recapturing the magic.

I still recall the first time I heard this track. Loitering in the exotic confines of a Leicester shopping centre (the closest thing we had to the internet back in 1990), when, from a PA system of a store that’s no doubt long-closed: that whoosh of vaguely retro, synth-hauled stanza. The bop-pop positioning. “Heart like a wheel, changing in time, beating colder steel.” In no way can I claim that such a track is their greatest moment (if nothing else, there’s a late ‘80s/early ‘90s corniness behind the melody’s cut and thrust). Yet standing there amidst the shoppers and other assorted ne’er-do-wells of a dreary Midlands afternoon, it didn’t matter; the League were back, and once again, our futures were entwined.

There’s a postscript, of sorts. Or perhaps that should be prologue; we’re almost pre-programmed to understand back-cat as chronological – only sometimes we make an entrance half-way through. I wasn’t buying records in 1979, the first single purchased with my own cash being See You by Depeche Mode in early ‘82.

In other words, there’s an entirely different Human League configuration to consider. One I was too young for at the time; as such, appreciation for both Reproduction and Travelogue had to wait until a much older girlfriend introduced me to her record collection. A punk in the late ‘70s, she possessed a fascinating vinyl stash – Throbbing Gristle, X-Mal Deutschland, Public Image Limited; to an extent, the entire relationship was centred upon a musical (re)education.

And having been indentured to pop Human League – to Susan and Joanne’s moves and shakes and sultry cooing – discovering the concrete walls and half-lit dystopian experimentation of the first two LPs was a startling experience.

It wasn’t simply that these records sounded profoundly different to what came later (even if there is a discernible route from Travelogue to Dare if you’re willing to follow the threads); it was the manner by which each theme is folded in upon itself, threaded through apertures in a manner more reminiscent of German Expressionism.

These are records made by the maths faculty. By the chess club, the astronomy society; stark, tight and frequently chilling, each application of chord a premeditated attempt at probing the listener’s aura of comfort.

Formed from the ashes of Sheffield experimentalists The Future, and being unable to recruit Glenn Gregory for vocal duties (they had to wait until Heaven 17 for that particular line-up), Ware and Marsh hired Oakey to front the newly-fashioned Human League, principally because – with his art school appearance – he looked the part (Adrian Wright joined later, initially to provide a visual dimension to their live performances). Yet whilst the quartet didn’t and couldn’t endure, the material they produced most certainly has.

Identifying just four tracks from this era feels like rum sport. Short change. A fudge. But that’s the exact number of tokens remaining, so here goes …

Once we’ve dispensed with the unsettling collage of distended sound that comprises its opening 40 seconds, Circus Of Death straddles the line between manic waltz and morbid, goosestep locomotion. Built around unorthodox chord structures that suggest the BBC Radiophonic Workshop are in the building, Oakey’s enigmatic lyrics spin out from tourist guide chic through to macabre confessional as if there’s a genuine link between the two (also, the outro mirrors Bowie’s Hunky Dory; specifically the introduction to Andy Warhol. If a reader can confirm that this is intentional, I’d be extremely grateful).

The Black Hit Of Space is a dramatic, cross-hatched meditation upon the mechanics of playing records, across which cosmological detail and premonitions of nihilism are layered, creating a unique paradigm of context. The lyrics also namecheck James Burke – probably an obscure reference these days, but in the ‘70s and ‘80s he was the BBC’s face of intelligent, science-based broadcasting. A boffin, in other words, and that’s exactly what this is – boffin pop. Somewhere, even as you read these words, serious young things in lab coats and heavy-framed spectacles are grooving to this, their movements slow, precisely calibrated.

Life Kills predates many of the themes further explored in Heaven 17’s Penthouse To Pavement LP (“Your life is like a schedule, you run to meet the bills, no-one’s awake to tell you – life kills”). Sprightly electro-pop aligned to a weird, snappy momentum almost funk in nature; just another example of the power of the analogue synth.

And to save the best for last (no, it’s not Being Boiled). In 1974, American singer-songwriter Harry Chapin released the MOR standard W.O.L.D. – a sort of Wichita Lineman for the wireless generation (“I am the morning DJ on W.O.L.D. Playing all the hits for you, wherever you may be”). WXJL Tonight is The Human League’s variation upon theme – a critique of airwave automation that’s proved to be particularly prescient should you ever be unfortunate enough to tune into commercial radio. And whilst both Reproduction and Travelogue offer a playful intimacy, WXJL Tonight is big. Expansive. Musically ambitious. Chord progression that’s deliberately splayed and disjointed. The bass prods, and the central hook sounds like a steel band trapped in a cremulator; intoxicating.

So, there you go; The Human League – two tales for the price of one. Both fantastic, and for completely different reasons; there’s not too many other bands that can offer such varied strands of evocation. And it is evocation; the record gods had decreed that my fate, and that of The Human League, were indelibly entwined; looking at what my record collection looks like these days, I can see where they were coming from.


The Official Website of The Human League

The Human League fan forum

The Human League’s hit singles and albums

The Human League biography (Apple Music)

Record obsessive and occasional drunkard, Duncan Harman usually writes at Lazer Guided Melody.

TopperPost #480

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