Monday, June 15, 2009

The Human Side Of The Human League

As the weeks dragged into months dragged into years, the Human League laboured in agonising fashion over material for their next album. Producer Martin Rushent found himself in constant disputes with the band, particularly Oakey, and eventually took leave of the project prior to its completion. Following Rushent rushing off, the Human League essentially wiped the recording slate clean and brought in producers Hugh Padgham and Chris Thomas, to help them finally get the album in the can. In April of ‘84, the first sign of life arose from the long winded process, in the form of the single ‘The Lebanon’. Philip Oakey had previously infused some of his lyrics with political and social comment, but with ‘The Lebanon’, he shifted the political comment clearly to the foreground. The song was essentially a comment on the ongoing Lebanese civil war, told through the story of a man who has joined a local militia and become embroiled in the conflict. Oakey and the Human League took some sting over, what some charged, was a misguided attempt to be a serious issues group. Musically, ‘The Lebanon’ gave a hint of a much edgier sound, with gutsier guitar and thumping bass components, courtesy of Jo Callis and Ian Burden. The band held open auditions at London’s Royal Theatre to choose extras to take part in the ‘live’ performance promo video, and thousands of hopefuls rolled up. ‘The Lebanon’ peaked at #11 in Britain (US#64/OZ#23), which given the Human League’s recent chart feats, would have been a disappointment for both group and record label.

Shortly after, the Human League’s fourth album proper, ‘Hysteria’, finally hit stores. But though the album’s title may have taken inspiration from the fraught atmosphere of the recording sessions, it didn’t reflect the general reception offered up by fans and critics alike. It had been well over two years since the real hysteria of the ‘Dare’ album, and the Human League just didn’t have the same drawing power. They weren’t the first, or last, artist to have a monster hit album, then let the iron grow cold whilst taking an eternity over the follow up - fellow Sheffield act Def Leppard did likewise following their own ‘Hysteria’ album. That said, the Human League’s ‘Hysteria’ did move rapidly to a peak of #3 on the U.K. charts (OZ#18/US#62), proof that the group still retained some commercial cache. Points to the Human League for attempting to engage with new rock territory, but on balance the quality of songs, and the band’s performance, struggled to find a solid footing. ‘Hysteria’ realised two more solid U.K. hits, in the moody ‘Life On Your Own’ (#16) and the ballad ‘Louise’ (#13), but the top ten had, quite remarkably, remained out of reach.

During the second half of 1984, Philip Oakey took his first extended excursion beyond the musical boundaries of the Human League. A long time admirer of Giorgio Moroder, Oakey teamed up with the famed writer/producer on the hit single ‘Together In Electric Dreams’ (UK#3/OZ#5), lifted from the motion picture soundtrack ‘Electric Dreams’. No doubt the hit would have restored Oakey’s dented confidence, and he followed it up by collaborating with Moroder on a full album of material, released in 1985 as ‘Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder’ (UK#52/OZ#52), and featuring another hit in ‘Good-bye Bad Times’ (UK#44/OZ#26). Oakey’s solo success, combined with the lacklustre performance of the Human League’s recent offerings, doubtless prompted some to question if it was good-bye Human League. Certainly as far as guitarist/writer Jo Callis, and long time manager Bob Last were concerned, it was good-bye, with both departing the scene during the group’s hiatus. Drummer/synth player Jim Russell joined the fray, but he must have wondered if he was climbing aboard a sinking ship.

With several key players from ‘Dare’ now departed - including producer Martin Rushent and guitarist/writer Jo Callis - the Human League were in danger of facing the same creative stagnation that confronted them post Ware/Marsh. After a problematic period in the studio with producer Colin Thurston, the band’s momentum had seemingly ground to a halt. At the suggestion of their U.S. label A&M, the band agreed to recruit the production duo of Jimmy ‘Jam’ Harris and Terry Lewis, hoping to inject some new energy into proceedings. The pair had come up through the ranks of Prince’s band The Time, and their first major break into producing came via an association with the S.O.S. Band (see previous post) in 1983. They had since gained a strong reputation for slickly produced modern-funk/R&B with artists such as Cherelle, Alexander O’Neal, and Klymaxx. They’d also come fresh from working with Janet Jackson on her breakthrough ‘Control’ album. The band and producers butted heads frequently, although figuratively, over the four month period it took to record the Human League’s next album, but the Jam and Lewis methodology helped the Human League finally focus on getting the job done. Both parties had strong ideas on how they wanted the album to sound, and much of the band’s original written material was actually rejected by Jam and Lewis. As a result, the album’s lead out single, and the Human League’s biggest hit in over three years, was actually written by the production team of Jam and Lewis. ‘Human’ was a plaintive ballad, that lyrically, dealt with the raw emotional dynamics of relationships. Though not penned by any of the band, Jam and Lewis came up with a song that, stylistically, sat comfortably in the Human League songbook. ‘Human’ returned the Human League to the top ten in Britain (#8/OZ#26), and delivered their second U.S. chart topper. ‘Human’ supplanted Boston’s ‘Amanda’ at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, in late November ‘86. It was the second chart topper for Jam and Lewis within the space of five weeks, following on from Janet Jackson’s ‘When I Think Of You’.

The single was lifted from the 1986 album ‘Crash’, which had a bit more of a dance oriented feel to it, and shifted the band’s long term instrumental ally, the synthesizer, to more of a support role. In fact long time associate and synth player, Philip Adrian Wright, barely got a look in on the sessions, and disillusioned with his demotion (and the band’s change in direction), left the band to pursue a career in film work. It was clear from the album’s cover, that the Human League had essentially trimmed down to the trio of Oakey, Catherall and Sulley. Bassist Ian Burden had been involved in the ’Crash’ sessions, though his role had greatly reduced also, and he too left the scene shortly after the album’s release. ‘Crash’ (UK#7/OZ#32/US#35) yielded only one further hit, and a minor one at that, with ‘I Need Your Loving’ (UK#72/US#44). Over the course of late 86/early 87, the Human League toured in support of the album, but rather than building on the momentum generated by ‘Human’, the Human League then all but disappeared once more from the public view.

In October of ‘88, Virgin released the single ‘Love Is All That Matters’ (UK#41), but the song had been dredged up from the wreckage of the ‘Crash’ album, recorded two years previous. It was a sure sign that Oakey and company had nothing better to offer by way of new material, to supplement the release of a ‘Greatest Hits’ package for the Human League, released shortly after (UK#3/OZ#62). In 1989, Oakey co-funded the construction of the Human League’s own recording facility, based in Sheffield. Guitarist Jo Callis offered some support in the guitar playing stakes, but essentially the Human League were now the trio of Philip Oakey, Jo Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley. Keyboardist Neil Sutton, who had worked with them on the ‘Crash’ tour, and session player Russell Dennett came in to provide logistical support - ie. play most of the instruments. In August of 1990, the single ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ (written by Jo Callis) rolled gently into the British charts, before peaking at #29 (US#32/OZ#47). It was lifted from the Human League’s new album, ‘Romantic?’ (UK#24), which saw the return of producer Martin Rushent (all had been forgiven). But the follow up single, ‘Soundtrack To A Generation’, failed to ignite any interest, and it was evident that the Human League’s sound wasn’t one that struck a chord with the latest generation of music buyers.

A decade earlier, the Human League had been Virgin Records biggest selling artist, and were firmly planted at the pinnacle of the British pop scene. Fast forward to 1992, and the band were unceremoniously dumped by Virgin, ridiculed by the media, rejected as old school by a fickle public, and on the brink of financial ruin. These were dark days for the Human League, but slowly and surely, the trio began to find their feet again. In 1993, they were invited to collaborate with the legendary Japanese electro-pop outfit, Yellow Magic Orchestra, who at one time had featured one time ABC drummer David Palmer in their ranks (see recent post). The sessions resulted in the EP ‘YMO Versus The Human League’, and though its release was limited principally to Japan, it sparked life back into the Human League collective.

Having been relegated to the minor leagues, the Human League received a lifeline via the East West Records label, a subsidiary of Time Warner. The label backed them to record a new album, and teamed them up with former Tears For Fears associate Ian Stanley. Where Virgin had largely turned their back on the band, East West backed the Human League’s new endeavour to the hilt, with a big budget promo video, and appropriate promotional support. The single ‘Tell Me When’ returned the Human League to the top ten in early 1995 (UK#6/US#31), their first foray into the upper reaches of the singles charts in almost a decade. The Human League would have savoured the sweet taste of success for a song that had been rejected by their old label Virgin. In January ‘95, the album ‘Octopus’ hit stores, and extended all eight of its tentacles to grab a peak position at #6 on the British album charts. The album was essentially credited to the Human League, in the guise of vocalists Philip Oakey, Jo Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, though their in studio efforts were supplemented by producer Ian Stanley, and one time members Jo Callis and Neil Sutton both contributed to the writing. ‘Octopus’ spawned two more hit singles, in ‘One Man In My Heart’ (UK#13) which featured Sulley on lead vocals, and ‘Filling Up With Heaven’ (UK#36). With a revival of interest in their work, the Human League hit the road again for the first time since 1987, touring both the U.K. and U.S. during 1995. East West released the non-album track ‘Stay With Me Tonight’ in early 1996, but that would prove the Human League’s last venture into the British top 40 to date (#40). Just a few months earlier, Virgin had spied the opportunity to cash in on the resurgence of interest in the Human League, and released a Red Jerry remix of ‘Don’t You Want Me’ (UK#16), along with another ‘best of’ package.

Before the Human League had the chance to capitalise on their success with East West, the label promptly dropped them as part of a reshuffle of the playing roster brought on by a change of management. Over the late 90s, the Human League laid low, aside from a few appearances on the burgeoning nostalgia tour circuit. In 1999, Philip Oakey provided some vocals for Sheffield outfit All Seeing I, on the single ‘The First Man In Space’. The period of the early 00s saw a resurgence of interest in the synth-pop sound, sparked in part by the ‘electroclash’ movement. The Human League were once more fashionable in some quarters, if only for the music they had recorded two decades earlier. Small time label Papillon signed the band up to record their first album of new material in six years. 2001’s ‘Secrets’ (UK#44) met with favourable reviews, and the band’s long term fan base welcomed some echoes that harked back to the Human League’s glory days. Oakey and co. revisited some familiar ground, augmented with the use of the latest cutting edge technology. The album even re-introduced some instrumental pieces as bridges between album tracks. However, fate conspired to undermine any chance of a major comeback, when Papillon went belly up, and the BBC of all places refused to back the single ‘All I Ever Wanted’, because the Human League were deemed as past it. Despite the obvious disappointment, the Human League hit the road once more and have continued to tour regularly over the ensuing years, the core trio supplemented by a fluid roster of support players. In 2004, ‘Live At The Dome’ was released on both CD and DVD, and though it didn’t show Oakey at his best, offered long time fans the chance to revel in some of the band’s best known material. The 2003 DVD release, ‘The Very Best Of The Human League’, offered the same opportunity with regards to the band’s oft innovative music videos, and featured an insightful extended interview with the core trio of Oakey, Catherall, and Sulley. In late 2007, the Human League marked their 30th anniversary as a going concern, with a sell out tour of Britain and Europe. A year later they hooked up with fellow synth-pop legends ABC (see recent post), on the Steel City Tour. The 2008 tour also saw Philip Oakey’s Human League share the bill with his former band mate Martyn Ware, touring once more under the Heaven 17 banner.

Though their recordings over the last decade have been infrequent, the Human League have maintained a regular touring/appearance schedule, and remain as popular as ever with fans of the 80s synth-pop era. Considering that Philip Oakey, Jo Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley, all embarked on the Human League odyssey with zero professional experience, it is a testament to their tenacity and endurance, that they stand strong to this day as the driving force behind one of the true icons of 80s era music.

Here are a couple of first class web sites worth checking out, for a more detailed and comprehensive look into the world of the Human League:


Warwick said...

Amazing work, as always. Can't wait for some more Aussie bands too. Very interested to hear any tidbits about the Models, or even James Freud!

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Cheers Warwick, much appreciated. Some more Aussie artists coming soon, including Uncanny X-Men, Allniters, Tim Finn, The Ferrets - Models/James Freud on the radar too :)