Friday, June 12, 2009

Anyone Here Like The Human League?

If you’re a fan of the madcap 80s British comedy series ‘The Young Ones’, you might remember the line ‘Anyone Here Like The Human League?’, spoken by Rik Mayall’s character. In the series one episode ‘Interesting’, the lads from Scumbag College decide to throw a party, and self proclaimed anarchist Rik tries to get the party moving by popping the Human League’s album ‘Dare’ onto the turntable. A few seconds later, a member of the local constabulary bursts through the door and smashes both album and turntable, on the premise that the neighbours have complained that the music is too loud. It’s likely that the Young Ones’ house party wasn’t the only gathering during 1982 to feature the music of synth-pop outfit Human League, though it’s doubtful that their music regularly incited excessive police violence. What the Human League did incite during 1982 was a considerable level of hysteria on the pop charts, fruits born of a labour harking back several years to the band’s origins in Sheffield.

During the mid to late 70s, the Sheffield music scene was thriving, with the likes of Cabaret Voltaire, and Vice Versa (an early incarnation of ABC - see recent post), waving the Sheffield banner as local representatives of the burgeoning British synth-pop movement. In 1977, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh both had day jobs as computer operators, but had a keen interest and love for pop music, and a fascination for the work of avant-garde electro-pop exponents like Kraftwerk. As with the likes of electro-wiz kids like Daniel Miller (The Normal), and Thomas Dolby (see previous posts), Ware and Marsh decided to combine their love of music. with their technical know how. By the mid 70s, synthesizers were within the fiscal reach of budding musicians, and the pair pooled their financial resources to purchase a pair of Korg 770S synthesizers. After learning to play the things, Ware and Marsh set about impressing friends and acquaintances with their new found electro-pop skills. They initially adopted the moniker of The Dead Daughters, and an early party piece was performing the theme from the TV series ‘Doctor Who’. Within a few months, the duo became a trio with the addition of Adi Newton and another synthesizer. Now dubbed The Future, the trio began exploring the possibilities of electronic music, writing and recording a series of demo tapes in their own home studio setup. After a brief period Newton left (along with his synthesizer) to form his own band, Clock DVA, and rather than look for another synth player to replace him, Ware and Marsh decided to look for a vocalist, in part because they couldn’t afford a third synthesizer, but mostly because they realised that without a singer, their commercial prospects were mightily restricted.

The duos first choice was Glenn Gregory, but he was, at the time, unavailable. Gregory would eventually team up with Ware and Marsh, but that comes a little bit further into the Human League story, well, a related chapter at any rate. Enter former school friend turned hospital porter Philip Oakey. Away from hospital corridors, Oakey had a reputation on the Sheffield scene for being somewhat of a barometer for cutting edge fashion trends, and though his experience in music didn’t extend past hanging out at local clubs, he had something every bit as important at that time - he looked like a pop star. After an informal audition during August of ‘77 at The Workshop, in Sheffield, got him the gig, Oakey initially listened to Ware and Marsh playing what instrumental material they had, and started to write some accompanying lyrics. He then thought he’d try and sing some of them, which took a little time to hone, but by early 1978 the trio had found some chemistry together, and had wisely dropped the theme from ‘Doctor Who’ from their repertoire. Ware made the decision to rename the band at that point, and took inspiration from the arcade computer game ‘Starforce: Alpha Centauri’. The game was based around a futuristic interstellar society called ‘The Human League’, and thus The Future became the Human League - kind of in line with the whole futurist image of synth-pop. Under Oakey’s influence, the Human League would soon prove a seminal player in the evolution of British synth-pop.

During the first half of ‘78, the Human League issued a demo tape to several record labels, and it was Bob Last’s Edinburgh based Fast Records that proved the quickest to respond to what the trio was offering. In June of ‘78, the Human League released their debut single ‘Being Boiled’, which harnessed the raw, alien-esque synth-pop textures Ware and Marsh had been refining, layered with Oakey’s richly resonating vocals. It was at odds with almost everything else on offer, and the track’s stand alone quality led it to being picked up by the influential N.M.E. magazine, who quickly labelled it their single of the week. The Human League wanted to avoid being consigned to a studio based operation, so they recruited Philip Adrian Wright as an additional synth player, but mostly as the band’s ‘Director of Visuals’, which essentially meant he was charged with the responsibility of augmenting the band’s music with slides, film clips, and lighting - very much in the fashion that Steven Griffiths would take on for Soft Cell (see recent post) - though Wright would remain a key component of the Human League beyond the band's formative years. Starting with their debut show at Sheffield’s Bar 2, on June 12th, the band’s ‘live’ gigs did rely to a degree on pre-recorded material, tape machines, and electronic percussion, but with Wright’s engaging visuals, and Oakey’s brooding presence out front, the Human League soon began building a strong reputation as a live act. They were soon supporting a punk band with glam rock overtones, called The Rezillos, who originally hailed from Edinburgh. The Rezillos, at that time, featured a young guitarist by the name of Jo Callis, who would in time be drawn into the Human League universe. During September of ‘78, the Human League scored a support slot on tour with Siouxsie & the Banshees, who provided a number of up and coming groups from that era with their first major exposure on the live tour scene. By year’s end, the Human League were being noticed in all the right circles, even attracting praise from David Bowie, who identified the ‘future’ in the Human League.

In April ‘79, the Human League released the EP, ‘The Dignity Of Labour’, which for some reason featured all instrumental fare (maybe Oakey had laryngitis that day). Although an odd choice to build on their growing commercial appeal, the EP certainly didn’t damage the Human League’s chances of being signed to a major label, and sign to a major label they did, when Virgin Records came a calling in May of ‘79. Following a stint supporting Iggy Pop on his European tour, the Human League released their debut single for Virgin Records, ‘I Don’t Depend On You’, in July of ‘79. The single was a classic case of record label interference, as Virgin insisted on a more conventional ‘pop music’ approach, dispensing with some of the experimental, avant-garde tendencies that had defined the Human League to that point. The band didn’t have much bargaining power at that stage, but Martyn Ware did insist that the single not be released under the Human League moniker. As a result, the single was initially credited to the pseudonymous ‘The Men’. Needless to say, the dance styled ‘I Don’t Depend On You’ sank without a trace, but it was the earliest example of a Human League song featuring female backing vocals, a prelude of things to come for the group.

The whole commercial dance pop angle just didn’t fit with the Human League approach, and sensibly Virgin relented and allowed the lads to have their creative head in recording their debut album. Ware, Marsh and Oakey revelled in the chance to create an album as cold, and as stark, as any synth-pop album to have evolved out of that era. If Kraftwerk pioneered the concept of a musicians as high tech automatons, then the Human League’s name proved a misnomer for all the warmth and human emotion conveyed via the album ‘Reproduction’. Though recognised by some critics for its innovative brilliance, initially the album’s darkly detached, even sterile, approach failed to warm the hearts of record buyers, and the single ‘Empire State Human’ also missed the mark. The Colin Thurston produced album didn’t include the band’s first single ‘Being Boiled’, at least on initial pressings, but did include a bizarre version of the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, as one of its nine tracks. Poor returns on both album, and single, led Virgin Records to withdraw their backing for a proposed national tour late in ‘79 (The ‘Reproduction’ album did eventually chart in August of ‘81 (UK#34), re-released as a mid price album, and benefiting from a surge in the Human League’s popularity at that time).

The trio of Ware, Marsh, and Oakey returned to the studio in early 1980, and by April the EP ‘Holiday ‘80’ was released. It was essentially a double pack single, featuring the new track ‘Marianne’, and also featured ‘Being Boiled’ as part of the package. The EP signalled the Human League’s first foray into the mainstream charts (UK#56), during May of ‘80 (and their first appearance on Top of the Pops), and soon after the single ‘Empire State Human’ received a new lease on life (UK#62), though as a free 7” single included with the new single release, the old Mick Ronson song, ‘Only After Dark’ (well the first 15000 copies anyway). In May of 1980, the Human League released their sophomore album, ‘Travelogue’, which immediately undertook a tour of the British charts, the highlight being a week spent sunning itself at #16, during June of 1980. The album , co-produced by the group with Richard Manwaring, retained some of the harsher stylistic aesthetics of its predecessor, but was mildly more accessible, and even dared to offer up some melodic pop fringes to the band’s synth-based textures. But part of the reason for the conflicting stylistic tendencies on the album, no doubt lay in a widening chasm between vocalist Oakey, and his synthesizer cohorts Ware and Marsh. Oakey and Ware, in particular, had always had, an at times, tempestuous relationship, and by October of 1980 things came to a head. Some of the internal tensions had been brought about by a perceived lack of support from the band’s label Virgin, and resultant frustrations at a relative lack of commercial success, particularly by way of comparison to other contemporary synth-pop acts - most notably at the time Gary Numan. Ware and Marsh were committed to maintaining the Human League’s ties to the purer strains of synth-pop, whilst Oakey was hell bent on mainstream pop success (this is the man who once named ABBA as his chief musical influence). Just prior to a proposed U.K./European tour, slated for late 1980, the situation became untenable. Philip Oakey took the Human League name with him, but in return Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were absolved of any existing debts associated with the band, and retained a residual 1% interest in all future royalties gained under the Human League banner (at least whilst they remained attached to Virgin Records).

Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh went on to form the British Electronic Foundation (B.E.F.), a front for their creative vision, and birthplace of their next band, Heaven 17, which would unite them at last with vocalist Glenn Gregory (see previous Heaven 17 post). Ironically, Heaven 17 would adopt a more commercial element within their own music. Meanwhile, Philip Oakey now had complete creative autonomy over the Human League name, and it was his to make, or break.

2 comments:

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

That certainly brings back memories. One of my best friends in high school spent considerable time (and money) vainly attempting to purchase the many singles, maxi-singles, EPs, etc. of The Human League.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

I had a friend who suffered the same compulsive condition, though relating to Devo. There's something about the appeal of vinyl that makes it much more alluring than current day digital fare could ever be.

Cheers for the comment :)