The Sound of The Crowd-Pleasers
“The Human League: one day all music will be made like this! And it is!” acknowledged Philip Oakey in 2001, paraphrasing a 1980 NME headline in a TV documentary about synthpop pioneers. It was a prophetic statement on both their parts. Hugely influential, with a succession of million-selling records behind them, Sheffield’s synth heroes are still going strong after almost 40 years.
Emerging from the embers of punk in the late 1970s, inspired by all things sci-fi, and a love of Kraftwerk, Roxy Music, ABBA and Donna Summer, The Human League were key flag-bearers of an exciting new breed of electronic artists. David Bowie, lest we forget, famously declared them “the sound of the future”. But by 1980, co-founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh had walked away, forming BEF/Heaven 17, while Oakey, with a tour looming, recruited schoolgirls Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley in a Sheffield nightclub: a shrewd move, as it turned out.
It transformed The League from arty, avant-garde wannabes to mainstream, zeitgeist-ruling players. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing Oakey’s lugubrious baritone blaring from the radio, or seeing him on the cover of a magazine, with a killer, kohl-laden look straight out of Vogue, peering out moodily from behind that famously lopsided curtain of hair. The Human League were everywhere. The rest, as they say, is history.
Featuring all the hits, this extensive sound and vision anthology covers the group’s various incarnations, from trailblazing early albums ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’ to the 1981 phenomenon that was ‘Dare’, and all that happened in its wake. That latter record – sleek, glossy, punchier than a swift right hook – was undoubtedly the tipping point. In the hands of production genius Martin Rushent, the latest technology was employed to gild and embellish The Human League’s sound, spawning four huge hit singles, including, of course, omnipresent anthem ‘Don’t You Want Me’. For a while, they were arguably the biggest band on the planet.
But that early 80s heyday gave way to a frustratingly stop-start career dotted with setbacks. Well-documented tiffs (most notably with Rushent), creative apathy, fallow periods, bad decisions and rotten luck (2001’s excellent ‘Secrets’ album was released on the day their record company went bust) all conspired against them. Even with their unmitigated success, there’s a still a nagging sense of potential unfulfilled.
And yet, in the face of adversity, they’ve somehow always bounced back, as the rich seam of belting tunes on this anthology so colourfully attests. The surreal, art-pop buzz of ‘Being Boiled’, talking of silkworms, sericulture and Buddha; atmospheric instrumental ‘The Dignity Of Labour [Part 3]’, like Vangelis doing techno; the infectious, exhilarating stomp of ‘Empire State Human’ and ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ (only the instrumental version is included here, curiously); ‘Love Action’, perhaps their most resonant and direct love song; the glossy, Motown-inspired pop of ‘Mirror Man’; ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’, ‘Louise’, ‘Human’… the list goes on and on.
Even the post-80s comeback singles such as 1995’s soaring ‘Tell Me When’ and 2001’s uplifting ‘All I Ever Wanted’, with its snarling central synth riff and futuristic video inspired by Kubrick’s classic ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, surely rank among their finest moments. And the clubby ‘Night People’ (taken from 2011’s ‘Credo’, their most recent studio album), proves they can still knock out a hook-laden nugget when required.
But there are glaring omissions, too. ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ and ‘Seconds’ from ‘Dare’; there’s nothing from ‘Love & Dancing’, Rushent’s pioneering remix album; the Moroder-produced ‘Together In Electric Dreams’; and ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’, their seductive, gloriously melancholy cover of The Righteous Brothers’ standard from their 1979 Virgin debut ‘Reproduction’. There’s no new material either, not even a token cut to appease the die-hards.
Still, devotees can console themselves with a hardback book featuring unseen pics, memorabilia and a new essay by Bowie/Kraftwerk biographer David Buckley, plus a DVD of promo videos and key BBC appearances, including rare ‘Top Of The Pops’ episodes that can no longer be shown due to presenter “issues”. And completists will no doubt revel in the plethora of unreleased demos and edits.
Ultimately, there’s something very final about this defining compilation. Whether it’ll be their swansong, in terms of recorded output at least, is anyone’s guess – let’s hope there’s an earworm or two still left in the armoury. But if it really is time to power down, this is a hell of a way to bow out. The Human League, then: the quintessential British synthesiser group.