by Giles Cooper
When two computer operators from Sheffield got together and experimented with electronics in their bedrooms as a hobby, it is unlikely that they could have imagined the future that lay before them, for they were to become part of one of the most influential synthesiser groups of the late seventies, early eighties; The Human League and Heaven 17. Along with Depeche Mode, O.M.D., New Order and even Gary Numan, Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware, Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright promoted the synthesiser, capturing the public's amazement across the world. Of course, many had used synths alongside conventional instruments before, but not as sole source of sound. The intentions of The Human League were to get a hit single which featured only electronic instruments; synths, beat boxes and sequencers, unheard of at the time. Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream did not use conventional instruments but had little commercial success until groups such as The Human League brought the European sound into Britain and into a major market.
Nowadays it is familiar to see successful yet faceless groups; can anyone name the members of Altern 8 for example? Less and less music is being recorded in the traditional environment of a studio, but in people's bedrooms, and many groups find that they need not promote their records by appearing in magazines and on television as their product sells quite well without it. The Human League were perhaps the first group to refuse to follow the then standard procedures that musicians took in those days to achieve success; they refused to have photographs taken of them, or to appear on TV for example. They were a now typical faceless group. By doing this they gave the band a mysterious image which appealed to the public. Although The Human league only reached the number one spot by perhaps adjusting themselves a little to the day (not least by acquiring two female singers to soften their image and to give their fans something to identify the group with), after Ware and Marsh had departed, the mysterious image hung with them. In fact the group were destined for success just before the two main songwriters left.
The story starts in 1977 when Marsh and Ware, who had had little or no musical experience, formed the dual synthesiser band The Dead Daughters. Their use of loop tapes intermixed with synth patterns was vastly different from the punk scene at the time, although it could be said that The Dead Daughters were a punk duo. The whole idea behind punk was the fact that you did not have to play a musical instrument to make music. Out went the hours of practising guitar chords and in came synth playing with one finger! Adi Newton and Philip Oakey joined the group, Newton soon leaving to form Clock DVA (the real futurists). Oakey was a plastic surgery hospital porter, again with no musical background. The name The Human League actually came from a computer game and the group soon gathered a cult following. To make a live performances more interesting Adrian Wright joined to handle stage visuals and concerts became an event in themselves; a barrage of synths against the backdrop of projected slides illustrating haunting images.
The group were on a shoestring budget; their first musical outing "Electronically Yours" (is this available anywhere?) was recorded on a two track Sony for under three pounds. By 1978, they had sent a demo to the major independent record companies which included versions of the classics "Being Boiled", "Circus Of Death" and "Toyota City". "Being Boiled" was perhaps the best of the three. It was radical, enigmatic and clever; Oakey singing deadpan over a background of Kraftwerk style beeps. Although rudimentary, the song was immensely powerful and futuristic; it has been said that Depeche Mode owe their entire existence to this very record. It remains one of the classic electronic tunes of all time, and sounds as good today as it did fifteen years ago.
On the strength of the demo, the group signed to the Fast label based in Edinburgh; the owner Bob Last became their manager. "Being Boiled" was released on the label to much critical acclaim; Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten described them as being "trendy hippies" and David Bowie frequently gave credit to the four, enthusing in 1979 that the band sounded like 1980. It seemed that a major label would snap them up which Virgin Records did in 1979. The instrumental EP "Dignity Of Labour" was released just before the deal was struck.
The first release for Virgin was under the pseudonym of The Men and titled "I Don't Depend On You". It was a surprisingly tame effort, featuring conventional instruments, obviously aimed at a commercial audience. This mainstream track was the first clue that stardom was not what Marsh and Ware were looking for. Like Vince Clarke five years later they preferred to be the back room boys, even "studio boffins". The League's excellent debut album "Reproduction" was released in late 1979 and the band supported Iggy Pop on a European tour. The album contained a new version of "Circus Of Death" (which had previously been the B side to the "Being Boiled" single) and the classics "Empire State Human" and "Blind Youth". However, not every thing went to plan as they were dropped from supporting Talking Heads because their style of making music went down badly with the public.
1980 was an eventful year for the group and signalled the arrival of The Human League to the top twenty album chart with the album "Travelogue" a milder effort than "Reproduction". It featured a new version of "Toyota City" and reached number sixteen in the UK album charts. The band seemed destined to become a great success and it was therefore a surprise that the two main orchestrations and composers in the band, Marsh and Ware left. Many reasons have been given; some have said that the two were paid a large quantity of money for Oakey and Wright to continue and keep the name, others that there were internal, personal differences and disagreements between the members of the band. It is more likely though that Marsh and Ware felt uncomfortable as stars. The British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.) was established, a production umbrella for future projects.
The Human League minus Marsh and Ware went on to achieve great success, the B.E.F. recruited Glenn Gregory as they had Oakey to be the lead singer in a new group Heaven 17. "We Don't Need This Fascist Groove Thang" was the first release and was banned by the BBC because of the title and the lyrics which implied that President Reagan was a fascist. The bands mutant stomp contrasted with the new romanticism popular at the time, and with the image that the present Human League tried to portray. The first and only recording to be released just for the new Sony Walkman was "Music For Stowaways" by the B.E.F. a limited edition cassette (although reissued several times Ed.) which featured instrumental tracks including the band's first single. The album was "mixed so the sound is surrounding you instead of coming just from two directions" they explained at the time. Other B.E.F. releases included the albums "Music For Listening To" and "Music Of Quality And Distinction", the latter of which featured guest stars singing pop oldies and relaunched the career of Tina Turner. Both albums were disappointing and bland, however, Heaven 17's first real album release was not.
"Penthouse And Pavement" featured the first single as well as future releases "Play To Win" (UK chart number 46), "Penthouse And Pavement" (UK Chart number 57) and "Height Of The Fighting". On this album, the group portrayed themselves and the B.E.F. as a business not as a conventional band. Drawings, not photographs were included on the front cover of the album as well as the statement "B.E.F., the new partnership that's opening doors all over the world". Perhaps the best song was the title track with crisp synth chords lying over an electro beat background with a hint of funk. This is a classic album and is a must for any follower of electronic music; it reached number fourteen in the UK charts in October 1981.
1983 saw the release of the album "The Luxury Gap" which unlike their previous album was panned by the critics. For a very short while the band were the coolest, most fashionable band around but just like real fashion things change and the journalist and public alike changed their views and their feelings. However, the "boys with their toys" image was beginning to wear off, although 1983 was the group's most successful year. The album reached number four and the main single "Temptation" hit number two in the charts. The funk and mutant element had disappeared from their work, although this gentle image created more fans; "Let Me Go" and "Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry" were top forty hits, "Come Live With Me" reached number 5.
Marsh and Ware turned to production work, breaking off to record the album "How Men Are" in mid 1984. The singles "Sunset Now" and "This Is Mine" lacked the original duos recording charm, although each are good examples of synth-pop. Gregory drifted away from the two and although the members featured on Band Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" to try to stay in the limelight, the band were by now hardly seen or heard.
A compilation "Endless" was released in 1986 as was the album "Pleasure One". Heaven 17 officially split up after the failure of the album "Teddybear, Duke And Psycho" in 1988. Marsh went on to co-produce Terence Trent D'Arby's debut album and the duo released "Music Of Quality And Distinction Number Two" in 1991 to little commercial success, although the album featured a multitude of stars. It is rather disappointing that two of the most influential and pioneering high technology music stars chose to investigate more traditional areas of rock and so it was a welcome relief in November 1992 that "Temptation" was rereleased having been given a very light and unnecessary remix by Brothers In Rhythm. Since two further singles have been remixed and a couple of 'best ofs' have also been released. At last maybe two of the most innovative and pioneering commercial electronic musicians will belatedly earn the respect they deserve.