The Human League – Trolling the prehistoric era of electronic music

With new albums from O.M.D. and The Human League hitting this year we’ve observed some of the old debate resurfacing – which was the greater influence on the electronic movement. As we noted in our recent review of History of Modern we were on the O.M.D. side of the divide, but seeing folks discussing the issue again we were reminded of when we first discovered the first two Human League albums and the revelatory moment we experienced upon hearing them for the first time. If there was any doubt about the power of this band one need not look to the more obvious Dare or “Don’t You Want Me”, but dare to cast your eyes back a couple of years earlier to a pair of the most important electronic albums ever recorded.

Before the Human League most folks know (with the omnipresent female back-up singers), the band was a four-piece traditional electronic outfit. In addition to singer Phil Oakey, the original line up consisted of Adrian Wright, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. The material was dark, experimental, supremely odd, confused as to sound, direction and tone, utterly unsuccessful commercially and totally brilliant. These two albums are as important to the history of electronic music as any other and deserve a few moments’ attention.

In 1979 they released their debut album, Reproduction. The sound was all analogue synths, arty, airy-fairy vocals with surprising punch, and lyrics that were bizarre, obscure and oddly compelling (so many lyricists of the movement in the early 80s fell into the same category and it now stands as part of what made the music so charming in its way). The odd, spooky “Circus of Death” with its references to evil clowns and Steve McGarrett, the timeless plod of “The Path of Least Resistance”, “Blind Youth”, the clever rebellion against punk anti-materialism, the awesome slow build layers of “Zero As a Limit” – even the odd, if not entirely successful version of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” – one is hard pressed to find a bad song in the lot. What’s more surprising at this moment in time is the timelessness of the material. It shouldn’t sound as fresh as it does, given the technology in use, but it really does (while at the same time exhibiting a gorgeous quality that takes one immediately back to the era, like some kind of electro time machine – how does it accomplish both? Damned if we know.)

Then, a year later, they did it again. Their second album, Travelogue, was even more accomplished musically, if a little more derivative given it was album #2. “Crow and a Baby” is a sinister call back to a time when the 80s beckoned as a decade to be anticipated and feared concurrently. “Being Boiled” with its oblique references to Buddha and the best base line of the era (and among the best of all time), the surprising musical complexity of “The Touchables” (listen with headphones and goggle at the sheer number of things they have going on in the ensuing three minutes and 21 seconds), and once again, an odd choice for cover version – this time Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2”, as delightful randomness. Again, remarkably unsuccessful, but of lasting importance.

Within a year Ware and Marsh would be gone to birth Heaven 17, Oakey would bring in teenage schoolgirls Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall as back-up singers, and after a cynical response from the band’s hard-core fans, would win over the world with “Don’t You Want Me” and Dare. While Oakey and even March and Ware would go onto bigger things, and would know far greater success it is to these two albums that stick with us and never, ever feel tired or stale. These represent one of our favourite snapshots in the entire rich history of electronic music

The Human League have always been a huge influence on the Softsynth ethic, and we proudly own every album they’ve ever released, treasuring all (okay, not the execrable Crash), but it was these two trail-blazing, ahead-of-their-time albums that set the standard and showed us a band that could use electronics to create a sound, a world unto themselves, one that many bands have tried since to re-capture and fail for trying. Even in 2010 they stand the test of time.

Watch: Circus of Death

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2 Responses to “The Human League – Trolling the prehistoric era of electronic music”

  1. My two favourite albums ever! I listen to them nearly as regularly as I did when I discovered them in 1981. Brilliant and epic!

  2. You should also mention “The Dignity of Labour, Parts 1-4” a 15 minute instrumental EP that predates the first album – excellent electronica!

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