❉ Scraping beneath the surface of the career-spanning anthology of Sheffield’s finest.
I’ll start this with a caveat; I’m a massive fan of the Human League. The first time I saw them on Top of the Pops performing The Sound Of The Crowd was as big an epiphany for me as the generation before had had their minds blown seeing David Bowie performing Starman. This prompted the typical generation gap row with my father stating ‘He only has that silly hair to distract you from the awful music’.
You can be safe in the knowledge that the Human League would never, ever vote UKIP.
He’d never admit it but my dad was wrong. The Human League are one of the best bands the UK has ever produced, although of course they have in effect actually been two of the best bands. The dividing line is the departure of Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware in 1980 to form BEF and Heaven 17 and the arrival of teenage school friends Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall (known to music snobs who only like the all-male line up as ‘the girls’) who couldn’t really sing, couldn’t really dance yet gave the band perfect audience identification figures – they were fans asked to join the band.
The band have just issued a new Anthology, in 2CD and 3CD/1 DVD configurations called ‘A Very British Synthesizer Band 1977-2016’. That last date is rather ominous, there are no new songs on the set could this be a final stop? Let’s hope not.
The two disc version is a chronological singles collection, from Being Boiled to Sky, with a few choice B-sides thrown in, though oddly The Sound Of The Crowd, the song that started my love affair with the band is only represented in its instrumental version. The deluxe edition adds a disc of unrelased demos and a DVD of promo videos and BBC television appearances. Up to and including the mega-selling ‘Dare’ the Human League were a bloody weird pop group.
Their first two, pre-‘the girls’ albums, are full of creepy, cold songs and finding singles from them must have been a nightmare for their label Virgin. Empire State Human (1979) is a lost hit, big glammy electronic drums, a chorus you’ll hear once and won’t be able to get out of your head yet it failed to trouble the charts until it scraped into the top 75 a year later on re-release.
In 1980 the two musicians left on the eve of a European tour and that left singer Philip Oakey with a ‘band’ consisting of himself and director of visuals Adrian Wright. Philip added local musician Ian Burden on a temporary basis, Adrian started writing and learning keyboards and in a fairy tale masterstroke Philip asked two girls he’d spotted dancing in a Sheffield nightclub to join and add some glamour. The band’s first single of 1981, Boys And Girls (which doesn’t feature the girls, although they were on the single’s picture sleeve) shows the band rather lost without Ware & Marsh, it chugs along without ever really catching fire, the rhythm programming really letting it down.
Enter new song-writers (Ian Burden joining full time followed by former guitarist in the Rezillos Jo Callis) and perhaps more importantly producer Martin Rushent and the Linn Drum computer. Dare and its singles (The Sound Of The Crowd, Love Action (I Believe In Love), Open Your Heart and Don’t You Want Me) were ubiquitous in Britain and 1981 was the Human League’s commercial highpoint. They still sound great today, even the over familiarity of Christmas number 1 Don’t You Want Me.
Unfortunately the only way from there was down and the band from that point on showed an amazing ability to the be in the wrong place at the wrong time and bad luck combined with a knack for shooting themselves in the foot time and time again meant the band’s commercial stock fell, although they still managed two successive #2 hits with Mirror Man and (Keep Feeling) Fascination and a surprise second number 1 in the USA in 1986 with Human from the much maligned by fans album ‘Crash’.
Once ‘Crash’ had crashed the band were reduced to the vocal trio and new recruits Neil Sutton and Russell Dennett did not yet have the song writing chops of Callis or Burden and so as the 1990s dawned they ended up being dropped by Virgin and their work rate started to take on Kraftwerk-like glacial speed. A mini renaissance saw them return to the UK top 10 with the Tell Me When single and album ‘Octopus’ in the mid ‘90s but then silence descended again until 2001 and the album ‘Secrets’. This was easily their best album since ‘Dare’, possibly even their best ever, yet their bad luck continued as their label went bust and ‘Secrets’ was a totally undeserved flop. An almost decade-long recording silence ensued broken by the lacklustre ‘Credo’ in 2010.
For the hardcore fan, the main interest will be in the deluxe edition’s third CD of demos and early versions. None of the big singles are represented but what is here is absolutely fascinating. The absolute gem is the early version of Liar from ‘Secrets’. This has a completely different lyric and is almost a new song, one that seems very timely in 2016 being a lyrical plea for humane treatment of refugees and immigrants. You can be safe in the knowledge that the Human League would never, ever vote UKIP. Other tracks on this disc also have alternative lyrics to the familiar versions. Oakey (the main lyricist) obviously spent a long time honing his work, not letting a good song go to waste and refining his words to best suit the melodies. The only superfluous tracks here to my ears are an instrumental of Soundtrack To A Generation (the band’s first single to fail to chart in a decade from 1990) and an even more boring demo of the already boring song Louise.
The DVD shows the highs and lows of the band from the iconic visuals of Philip’s infamous lopsided haircut and band being the epitome of cool in 1981. See Philip tackle the malfunctioning mic stand on Swap Shop, see Adrian not bother to try to mime keyboard parts on Top Of The Pops and wonder how anyone let the band out in public looking a right state in 1990.
One area where the band almost always excelled though was with their singles and, annoying appearance of the instrumental Sound Of The Crowd aside the two disc version of this set is the best one stop compilation the band have issued. Obviously I hope this is not the end of the band but if it is this a good way to go out. I have my fingers crossed for more archive releases (Super-deluxe editions of ‘Reproduction’, ‘Travelogue’ or ‘Dare’ would make me VERY happy indeed) and more ideally some new music from this very British synthesizer group.
❉ ‘The Human League Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group’ was released on 18 November 2016 by UMC, RRP £12.99