AN IMAGINARY COMPILATION ALBUM : #228 : THE HUMAN LEAGUE

The positive response to the recent musings on Don’t You Want Me, and in particular the unbridled enthusiasm of Post Punk Monk, has led to this very quick cash-in.

It’s awfully easy to forget that much of the new wave/electronica music and the sound of the underground here in the UK in the late 70s/early 80s was unable to travel very far, unless it either crawled into the mainstream or the singer/band in question was on a label that had the ability to have product issued on overseas subsidiaries or affiliates; even then, a would-be-listener, especially in North America, usually had to dig deep to find things in smaller record stores having, in all likelihood, heard the music on an obscure or college radio station.

PPM mentioned that his first Human League purchase was The Sound of The Crowd EP, released by Virgin Canada in 1981 which very handily contained some tracks from the back catalogue, thus giving him a great insight as to how the band’s sound developed.

This ICA is quite narrow in its outlook. There aren’t necessarily the best ten tracks that the band ever recorded and everything is lifted from a short period in time, with nothing after 1983. There’s also no Don’t You Want Me or Seconds on it, on the basis that both songs featured a short time ago (both tracks would ordinarily have been shoo-ins).

Side A

1. The Things That Dreams Are Made Of

Even if had turned out that Dare wasn’t packed with unforgetable hit singles, the very existence of this, the album’s opening track, would have made it an essential purchase. It’s the perfect blend of art-house synth and pure pop in which Phil Oakey gets to go all Mary Poppins and sing all about a small number of his favourite things.

2. Being Boiled (John Peel Session)

It’s still amazing to think that this track has such a strong Scottish connection, originally being released (in mono) on Fast Product, an Edinburgh-based independent label which was run by Bob Last. The music for this one was composed by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, both of whom would leave The Human League in 1980 and going on to form the equally successful Heaven 17.

It was released at different times in different forms to differing acclaim and sales, I thought for something different that it would be worth featuring the Peel session version that was broadcast in August 1978.

3. The Sound of The Crowd (complete)

The breakthrough hit that catapulted the band into the Top 20 for the first time, here it is in its full 12″ vinyl glory.

It was a real bolt out of the blue as just two month previously, they had released a single called Boys and Girls which was a real disappointment, offering little of merit and suggesting they had next-to-nochance of surviving the departure of Ware and Marsh. The decision to feature female vocals and to ask a more pop-orientated producer to get on board proved to be a masterstroke. It also got invited onto Top of the Pops on 30 April 1981, and would, over the ensuing weeks and months, lead to many a joke about a particular haircut.

4. Rock’n’Roll/Nightclubbing

As featured on the Holiday 80 EP, which was released in the period between debut album Reproduction and its follow-up, Travelogue, and came from a period when the band had been working with John Leckie, who was also very heavily involved at the time with Simple Minds and Magazine.

The EP had a new version of Being Boiled on it, but the highlight for many was this six-minute effort that was a medley consisting of a cover of tracks by Gary Glitter and Iggy Pop, neither of which seemed obvious choice for the electronica treatment.

In what was a very unusual move, the producers of Top of The Pops invited the band to perform on the show in May 1980, even though the EP wasn’t in the Top 40. It proved to be the only time the original line-up would appear on the show:-

Ah…. the haircut was in place all that time before…..but when you don’t have hits, nobody pays attention!

5. Hard Times

Such was the depth and quality of material available during the sessions for Dare that this, largely instrumental number was only made available as the b-side to Love Action (I Believe In Love). The 12″ version of the single came with a 10-minute effort in which the b-side segued seamlessly into the a-side….but that’s for another occasion.

Side B

1. Black Hit of Space

A song that should provide a stonewall defence should anyone accuse early-era The Human League as being po-faced and without humour. The opening track on Travelogue in which a shit-faced Phil Oakey gets home after a night on the piss and proceeds to play a futuristic looking and sounding record that proves to be so big and popular that it takes over everything. Some said at the time that he was looking enviously at Gary Numan……

2. Mirror Man

The first new song to emerge after the success of Dare, almost a full year after Don’t You Want Me had been the world-wide smash. It’s reminiscent of the Motown sound, having the same sort of beat as so many of the big hits of the 60s; worth noting too that the the female members of the band, while being very integral to the song, don’t actually have any lyrics beyond ooh-ing and ahh-ing to great effect.

3. (Keep Feeling) Fascination

There are days when I think this could very well be my favourite of all the hit singles. It was the follow-up to Mirror Man and it felt as if the band were throwing the kitchen sink at it. From it’s jarring and nearly out-of-tune opening synth notes to the fact that all three main vocalists get a solo turn (as indeed does the mostly unheralded Jo Callis), it was the signal that, from now on, The Human League were going down the pop route and to hell with anyone who pined for the days of the Being Boiled/Reproduction era.

OK….there wasn’t all that much that I loved afterwards as the sound degenerated largely into the sort for which the 80s became loathed, with the synths bordering on soft-rock at times (exhibit #1 being the album Crash which was released in 1986), but that spell from April 81- April 83, which was bookended by Sound of the Crowd and Fasination was triumphant.

4. Empire State Human

My first exposure to the band and one of the first electronica singles that I ever bought, back in June 1980 when it was given a re-release by Virgin Records some nine months after first flopping. I wasn’t the tallest of teenagers and I was envious (a bit) of the lads who could hold their own at centre-half in the football team. It was easy to sing-along to this one.

5. WXJL Tonight

The closing track on Travelogue and a sort of sci-fi fable in which radio DJs have become a thing of the past and music is played on an automated basis. Might have seemed a tad far-fetched in 1980, but with Spotify and its ilk becoming the choice of millions the world over………………..

JC

 

THE UNDERSTANDABLE POPULARITY OF A FOURTH SINGLE FROM THE ALBUM

Here’s the dates when The Human League released material in 1981:-

20 April: The Sound of the Crowd (single)
27 July: Love Action (single)
28 September: Open Your Heart (single)
16 October: Dare (LP)

All the singles had been major hits, with the latter two going Top 10. The parent album entered the charts at #2 and took the top spot the following week. It would spend 22 successive weeks in the Top 10 of the album chart, and it wouldn’t drop out of the Top 100 until 19 February 1983, some 70 weeks after its release.

The reason for the longevity? The popularity of the fourth single which was released on 27 November 1981 at the insistence of Virgin Records and very much against the wishes of the main principal in the band:-

mp3 : The Human League – Don’t You Want Me

Not counting a particular charity release a few years later, it is, arguably, the most recognisable song of the 80s (at least here in the UK). It is everything you are looking for in a perfect pop single – hooks, rhythm, beats and a chant-along chorus. It came with the added bonus of the verses being similarly ear-wormy, and, in an era when music videos were beginning to be an essential part of the package, the promo was memorably different and watchable, for at least the first 50 viewings or so.

Don’t You Want Me had a difficult birth. Phil Oakey had initially thought of it as a song that he would sing on his own, considering it not an ode to lost love but, in his own words in an interview many years later, as a nasty song about sexual power politics. It was while in the studio working on all the songs that would appear on Dare that he realised it could also work as a duet, and this led to Susan Ann Sulley, one of the two backing singers in the band, being asked to become co-lead for the first time. Seemingly, the initial duet version was quite dark and harsh, reflecting the bitter feelings of the male and the exasperation of the female. Producer Martin Rushent, with whom Oakey had already had a number of rows about the way the songs on the album were turning out, remixed things (with the help of Jo Callis from the band) to the singer’s horror who felt it now sounded limp and was by far the weakest of the new material, which goes someway to explaining why it ended up as the last song on Side 2 of the album.

As mentioned earlier, the album had enjoyed immediate success, but it had slipped off the #1 spot after just one week which led the label bosses to float the idea of a fourth single to boost sales, particularly in the run-up to Christmas when sales are traditionally at their highest levels. The fact the bosses wanted to issue Don’t You Want Me did not go down well with Oakey – partly as he felt it was substandard to the earlier 45s and that he felt its pop-feel would alienate many long-standing fans. He must have been amazed when, just two weeks after its release, it gave the band its first #1 single, holding on to the top spot for five weeks, including over Christmas, fending off all the novelty stuff and one-offs that often dominates the singles charts at that time of year.

It’s to his credit that Phil Oakey went along with things, playing the role of pop star to perfection and making sure all promotional activities around the song were realised. Six months later, the song went to #1 in the USA and he, and his bandmates, were made for life.

Don’t You Want Me is fast approaching its 40th anniversary but shows no signs of losing its popularity. Indeed, it is better loved nowadays than even at its height when it sold in its millions, with fans of an age when it was first released now joined by millions across the world who only know it a retro-hit or as a bona-fide karaoke classic. Yes, most of those who get up and grab the mics during drunken nights out with friends and/or work colleagues probably do think they are singing a doomed love song and aren’t acting out the tale of sexual power politics, but so what? It’s a great, instantly recognisable tune that only the hardest and coldest of people can say they have no time for.

The b-side was also lifted from Dare, indicating that The Human League had all but exhausted their seam of material for now. It’s one of the tracks that harked back to the harder-edged sound of earlier material, and probably the song that Phil Oakey would have been happy see released as the a-side to any fourth single:-

mp3 : The Human League – Seconds

As with the earlier singles from Dare, the 12” version contained an extended dance mix which stretched out to more than seven minutes

mp3 : The Human League – Don’t You Want Me (extended)

Quite experimental in some places, it’s impossible to deny its influence on so many pop tunes that followed in its wake – the Pet Shop Boys were most certainly tuning in!

Almost 1.6 million copies of the 7” and 12” were sold in the UK. It also went to #1 in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and, as mentioned earlier, the USA. It also enjoyed Top 10 success in Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany.

JC

SOUNDS

It is now more than 37(!!!) years since the April 1981 release of the 45 which took the new-look The Human League into the charts and onto our television screens via Top of the Pops. Synth-pop had duly arrived with a bang.

The Sound of The Crowd was an extraordinary single that still sounds superb all these years on. It was full of catchy little chants such as ‘Get Around Town’ and ‘Arse Around’ (sorry that should read ‘Pass Around…but I’m sure the way it was put down on record was deliberate) and yet it was impossible to fully sing along to without making an idiot of yourself thanks to phrases like ‘Make a shroud pulling combs through a backwash frame” which I’m sure is one that Ian McCulloch has always wished he’d come up with.

This was the first release in which Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall featured as backing vocalists to Phil Oakey. There can be no argument that their contributions were every bit as vital as the tune itself in creating the pop hooks which made it such a natural tune for daytime radio.

The visual element they brought with them was also a huge factor in raising the profile of the band – if you want evidence for that claim then just look at the fact the first TOTP appearance came when the band was sitting outside the Top 50 ; the show’s producers obviously believed that the contrast between these two young and attractive teenagers and the bloke with the funny haircut would get people talking.

Further evidence that TOTP saw the band as naturals for the show? The second appearance came a few weeks later when the single was at #15….having dropped down from #12 the previous week, thus breaking the rule-of-thumb on the show in those days that you would only be invited to perform if your song was rising up the charts.

I’m sure that many who had been interested in the band from the early days would have been appalled at the apparent sell-out. The Sound of The Crowd was a million miles away from Being Boiled and about half that distance from Empire State Human but there were no grumbles from me as the song became part of the soundtrack of my final few weeks at school and its follow-ups were aired at the student union disco nights as I found my feet at University.

Here’s some cuts straight from the 12″ vinyl:-

mp3 : The Human League – The Sound Of The Crowd (Complete)
mp3 : The Human League – The Sound Of The Crowd (Instrumental)

JC

HOLIDAY 80

Back in 1980, this was the review penned in Sounds which was then one of the main weekly music UK papers:-

Too much, too late, but too good to be missed. Eighteen months ago The Human League stood on the brink of altering the course of British pop music. Their humour and conviction combined to create an aura of (until then) unknown commercial excitement. Had the Sheffield funsters swallowed their hip pride and attacked the singles charts, they would have created a devastating impact on the British pop music(k) scene.

But as always seems to happen to the originals, they failed because of their own foolish move towards dignity and ‘below ground’ obscurity. They stood back for a moment allowing the empty and dull Gary Numan to ruin their market with his one and only flash of excellence. As soon as ‘Are Friends Electric’ hit that number one spot it became clear that The Human League had lost the gamble. And the stakes were high.

So, now in the midst of ska silliness, the finest electronic band of all time finally release the goods. A double single that clearly defines to all four angles of synthesised madness. The soft beauty of ‘Marianne’, the weirdness of ‘Dance Vision’, the perfect semi-harsh statements of ‘Being Boiled’ (new version) and finally the absurd pap-poppity of Gary Glitters ‘Rock And Roll’ and Iggy’s ‘Nightclubbing’. To be taken in large doses. To be played to life.

Nobody then could have predicted that within 12 months, The Human League would be the band to redefine British music in a way that no-one else had done since the era of The Beatles as synthesisers replaced guitars as the instrument of choice on the attack on the pop charts. Listening to Holiday 80, which is as excellent a release as the Sounds critic indicates, it really is hard to imagine what would unfold in the months ahead:-

mp3 : The Human League – Marianne
mp3 : The Human League – Dancevision
mp3 : The Human League – Being Boiled
mp3 : The Human League – Rock’n’Roll/Nightclubbing

But 37 years ago???? Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

JC

PS : This is an apt posting as I’m off to Lanzarote for a few days with Mrs V.  The rest of the week will be guest postings of a far higher quality than the rubbish that’s been here in recent times.

TALL TALL TALL

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It was the summer of 1980 when I heard this in a local record shop not far from where I lived with my parents and brothers. It was in the box of singles marked ‘Just In’ and I remember thinking that I was dead clever at picking up so quickly on something so utterly quirky, mesmerising and unique. It was a single I bought with money for my 17th birthday.

My bubble got burst about three days later when my mate’s big brother, who was very much into weird electronica music and hated, with a passion, the new-wave guitar bands that I was such a fan of, took immense pleasure in pointing out that I’d bought a re-released single and that if I really thought I was cool in my choice of music and wanted to stay ahead of the game, I had to be a bit sharper.

And while I wasn’t among the first to pick up on The Human League, I’m still proud that I knew a bit about them before the the astonishing success they enjoyed from late 1981 onward when they unleashed the magnificent pop opus that was Dare.

Empire State Human is a magnificent record. I cannot to this day understand why it failed to chart on its original release in September 1979. It wasn’t as if radio stations were totally adverse to electronic pop as Gary Numan was riding high in the charts throughout that year. It’s one of those songs that sticks with you when you play it and you just cant get it out of your head. And its not an unpleasant feeling.

mp3 : The Human League – Empire State Human

It also added to my fascination with NYC, a city that as a teenager seemed to be the most exciting, exotic and vibrant on the planet.  But it may as well have been on the moon such was the cost and ability to visit there back in the early 80s. Changed days for young folk nowadays.

 

MY FRIENDS ELECTRIC (21)

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It’s now coming up to 8 years since I started up TVV during which time many very fine bloggers have come and gone, many of whom now concentrate their efforts on podcasts or other more instant forms of social media.

It has become increasingly rare to find new kids on the blogging block – particularly those who decide to focus in on that punk/new wave era which was so exciting – and so you can imagine how delighted I was to find my way onto For Malcontents Only, particularly given that it is a place which looks back at the scene in and around Glasgow.

This excellent blog kicked off back just 12 months ago.  Judging by some of the postings, I’m hazarding a guess that Jamie (I’ve only just learned his name thanks to his e-mail address!) is maybe a couple of years older than me given that he is able to reminisce about gigs in pubs at a time when I was dreaming of being able to shave on a regular basis… or maybe unlike me he didn’t have a baby face and a great fear of knock-backs from bouncers.

As you’d imagine, it’s a place heavy with nostalgia but there’s also a tremendous selection of posts concentrating on the here and now.  One of the most unique aspects of FMO is that it features interviews with some of the lesser-known artists who were part of the punk/new wave scene and brings their stories bang up to date.  In short, it is the sort of blog that I had dreams TVV would look like when I set out all those years ago!!

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from May when Jamie looked back at a single released on a small Scottish label:-

The Human League: Being Boiled (1978) Fast Product

In a Melody Maker interview back in February 1979, Martyn Ware of The Human League mentioned that the band were more influenced by films than by they were rock, claiming he’d rather see a good film than a good rock band. In the cinema, ‘You’re part of the experience. Whereas, watching a rock band, it’s just some guys up on a stage.’
When a tour (due to take in Edinburgh and Aberdeen) was later announced supporting Talking Heads, it became apparent that The Human League didn’t see themselves as your standard guys up on a stage kinda band.

Their idea for the show was a multimedia extravaganza, utilizing their new synchronization units that meant they could operate slides in sync with each song. The problem with the plan as far as Talking Heads (not exactly backwards looking dinosaurs themselves) were concerned was the fact that while each member of The Human League would be at the gig, rather than being the centre of attention, they would supposedly be in the audience, hopefully discussing the automated events on stage and signing autographs.

The idea got the band dropped from the tour although they wanted to press ahead with the concept and even expand it.

As their manager Bob Last explained to NME: ‘It’s cost us a lot of money to set up and now we have audio-visuals, tape memory banks – in fact, the whole gist of the show – just sitting in boxes and waiting to go.’

Last outlined the potential of the show and spoke of creating a version for discos rather than rock concerts. ‘There are various other avenues to be explored. For example, I think it would be the ideal support for Alien, or a film of that nature.’

After the comparative failure of second album Travelogue, tensions within the band increased; eventually singer Phil Oakey decided that he wanted to sack Ware, Ian Craig Marsh wasn’t keen on the idea and the pair quit and teamed up on a new project to be known as the British Electric Foundation (BEF).

Remaining members Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright retained The Human League name, although they had to be convinced by Bob Last to do so. The music press didn’t see much of a future for a band with only a singer and director of visuals (even if Wright had started playing incidental keyboards). And you could hardly blame them.

Oakey, though, came up with a possible solution to enable a forthcoming European tour to still go ahead. His plan to fill in the gap left by Marsh and Ware revolved largely around the recruitment of two schoolgirls, Suzanne Sulley (17) and Joanne Catherall (18), who he’d spotted on the dancefloor at the Crazy Daisy’s ‘Futurist’ night in Sheffield although he also additionally employed a professional keyboard player, Ian Burden.

Neither girl had any kind of remarkable singing voice and neither was that great at dancing either. If the pair had time-travelled thirty odd years forward and showed up at an X-Factor audition, they would likely be dismissed as no-hopers.

Luckily the pop buying masses of 1981 didn’t require performers with touching ‘backstories’ on Saturday night TV, neither did they require anyone to have been coached by professionals to perform pointless vocal gymnastics or to display a look that had been (supposedly) ‘styled’ to perfection by somebody with no sense of originality or indeed style.

Having seen the new look League on Top of the Pops miming to Sound of the Crowd, the pop buying masses decided they actually liked the caked-on mascara, beauty spots and lippy and the slightly awkward and un-coordinated dance routines. Generally, girls identified with them while boys fancied them.

Joanne and Suzanne soon became the poster girls for synth-pop but Bob Last, in particular, judged the band could be improved further by the addition of one final and vital ingredient, another professional musician, after Ian Burden temporarily left post-tour.

It might have appeared that the ex-guitarist of the retro obsessed Rezillos and the futuristic Human League had little in common bar sharing the same manager but in April 1981, Jo Callis was invited to become a permanent member, the idea being even stranger if you bear in mind Callis’ confession that he had never been near a keyboard in his life.

The first Human League album with the new line-up, Dare was released in October, 1981 and quickly made its way to the top of the UK album charts. By Christmas it had gone platinum in Britain, its number one status equalled by a single that Phil Oakey hadn’t wanted released, Don’t You Want Me – he only agreed finally on the condition that a large colour poster accompanied the 45, otherwise, he felt, fans would feel ripped off by the ‘substandard’ single alone.

Co-written by Callis, Oakey and Wright, the ‘substandard’ single went on to become one of the UK’s biggest ever selling songs*, the British Christmas number one of 1981 and also later an American #1 too and a worldwide smash.

And here I finally get round to the Scottish independent labels part of the post. Due to the success of Don’t You Want Me, the first ever Human League single, Being Boiled, which had been originally released during the summer of 1978 on Bob Last’s Edinburgh based Fast Product label, was made available again and this time entered the top ten of the singles charts, where it should have been first time around. For me it’s a much better record than Don’t You Want Me. See what you think:

mp3 : Human League – Being Boiled

And if anybody is wondering, this is only the first of a number of entries in this series looking at Fast Product, so I will get round to writing more on the actual label in the future. Honestly.

* It even re-entered the charts here a couple of months ago after being taken up by Aberdeen fans in the run up to their team winning the Scottish League Cup.

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I’ve never met Jamie…not knowingly anyway…..but there’s no doubt that over the past 35 years, we have been in the same place at the same time on many an occasion…we might even have nodded to one another in passing and noot realised!!

The last of this particular Friends Electric series will be tomorrow. TVV should, all being well, begin to return to normal next week.