by Ross Yarnton and Graham Needham
(the original version of this article was printed in Music Collector magazine 1991)
Make-up, girls, synthesisers, strange haircuts - is this what you think of when you see the name The Human League? If it isn't then where were you in the early eighties?!! Catchy but never insipid, their brand of danceable love songs filled dancefloors all over Europe. Rarely releasing limited editions, fans relied on quality not quantity. Taking long gaps between their albums Virgin tried hard to keep material on the shelves. They reissued old material and released tracks that weren't originally intended by the band. The loss of band members and arguments with Virgin didn't stop them from being successful throughout the eighties. However, if you think that was all there was to it, then you are quite mistaken!
As punk flourished in 1977, two computer programmers (Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware) who called themselves The Dead Daughters rebelled by experimenting with instrumental electronic music. In June, Adi Newton joined and they renamed themselves The Future. They recorded more instrumental material which Philip Oakey quoted after hearing it as, "ahead of their time". Only one track by The Future has been used ("Dancevision"). However, it is possible that an album by The Future exists. On the inner sleeve of the original album of Penthouse And Pavement by Heaven 17 the album "The Future Tapes" by The Future is pictured and has a catalogue number of OVED 4. If this album was actually released as listed (October 1981) then it would be worth at least £40. It probably only exists on either promo or test pressing in which case the value would be doubled.
By the end of 1977 Adi Newton had left to form Clock DVA and The Future became the past. It was in January 1978 that an old school friend of Martyn's, then working as a hospital porter, Philip Oakey joined the band (bringing his unused saxophone with him). The three of them chose the name The Human League from the science fiction board game "Starforce". Right from the word go they opted for total use of electronics on the grounds that they were the only instruments they could play and the general consensus amongst the band was that conventional guitars and drums were deemed too tedious to even consider. Their early influences were Kraftwerk and, oddly enough, sixties music.
As The Human League they went into the two track Devonshire Lane studios on the outskirts of Sheffield and recorded "Being Boiled", "Circus Of Death" and "Toyota City". Bob Last, the manager and owner of Fast Products, noticed the band and helped them to release their first single on his own label. "Being Boiled" was released in June 1978 with the cover designed by one time ice cream salesman and art student Philip Adrian Wright. After seeing the band live, he liked the "weird electronic sounds" but thought they looked like a mobile rubbish tip on stage, so he joined as Director Of Visuals. Bringing a rather large collection of science fiction slides with him, he revolutionised their presentation on stage.
The single was viewed with confusion by all, what with its strange lyrics, catchy beat and simplistic tune. Unsuccessful, it sold only 2000 copies and the rest may have been destroyed making the original release very collectable. The originals have black and white picture labels. It was later reissued with red and yellow labels.
From the next year, while they toured, comes a highly collectable Human League item in the form of a bootleg cassette with no real title. It contained four instrumentals which were to appear later as the second official Fast release, "The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1 to 4", and some other tracks whose titles were "Blind Youth", "Year Of The Jet Packs", "Toyota City" and "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" (from a session recorded for the John Peel radio show). Although the cassette was an official bootleg (you had to write to a classified advert to get it), since you had to send a blank tape to them there is no way of telling an official version to a copy, so there can be no value placed on it - it is simply very collectable.
The four track "Dignity Of Labour EP" 12" was released in June 1979 and all copies contained a free 7" flexi-disc of the band discussing how good the EP actually is. The EP was not the most exciting of records but it offered a taste of things to come, melodically at least. Obviously the 12" is more collectable if it has the flexi-disc with it.
In the spring of 1979 Virgin records made the band an offer they could not refuse. With temporaries Simon Philips, Katie Kissoon and Lisa Strike they released the single "I Don't Depend On You", under the pseudonym The Men, on 7" and 12". Awareness of this particular single is very low and because of its instant failure it is extremely rare. Just as collectable are the German equivalents. The song spoke of love and sexual equality from the personal perspective of Mr. Oakey himself. With their heads in their hands, they returned to the proverbial drawing board and recorded their first major work - "Reproduction".
At the beginning of October 1979, the album was deemed by many as a synthesised masterpiece containing many varied styles showing the full capabilities of the band. It proved that what Kraftwerk had been producing for years, at great cost, could now be achieved using the latest technology, extremely cheaply. The album's cover is a sore point commercially. The rather unhealthy looking babies adorning both sides were a little off-putting to say the least.
One week later the single "Empire State Human" was released and followed in the tradition of the first three - failing to chart at all. It was released on 7" only and shouldn't be confused with the later issue which had a different catalogue number. This issue of the single should be of interest to collectors along with the fact that "Introducing", the instrumental B-side, is a non-album track.
As the eighties dawned, The League's new material gained the success they had been waiting for. The "Holiday '80" EP, consisting of two 7" singles, reached number 56 in the national chart. It contained five tracks, "Rock 'n' Roll/Nightclubbing", "Marianne", "Dancevision" and finally a rerecorded version of "Being Boiled". The latter being completely transformed from a catchy little pop tune into a synthetic anthem. The band finally got to play on the British television programme Top Of The Pops, choosing "Rock 'n' Roll" as their televisual debut. A week later they climbed down the charts gracefully with the vow to return.
Their second album, "Travelogue" was released in May 1980 and managed to get to number sixteen. Not as complete as the first album and not being as well produced was the only outward sign that conflict was already occurring within the band.
Virgin rereleased the "Empire State Human" single at the same time the new album came out. This time around it did better and reached number 62 but it caused arguments between the band and record company executives which was to have devastating effects. The single had a 7" and a 12" release, although the 12" only had the same tracks as the 7". The band didn't want to release another cover version for quite some time but the first 15000 copies of the 7" included a free single coupling "Only After Dark" (a cover of a Mick Ronson song) and "Toyota City(Long Version)". It seems most of these double packs have been split up and it is usual to find the freebie 7" being sold separately.
At this point EMI bought the rights to distribute the Fast label's back catalogue and the original "Being Boiled" 7" was reissued and this issue came with red and yellow labels. Yet again though the single didn't chart.
Even though they were about to tour in October, pressures of an imminent tour, breakdown of communications on a personal level and hidden musical differences finally came to the fore when Ian and Martyn left. An amicable split, there were the obligatory arguments over the name but Marsh and Ware passed it over in exchange for a small share of future royalties while they set up the British Electric Foundation (B.E.F. as it is more commonly known). Even so, the music press was filled to the brim with bitching between the two sides. Philip and Adrian, determined to carry on recruited two school girls from a local disco
Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall, two teenagers who frequented the Sheffield futurist nightclub called The Crazy Daisy Disco, were the surprise choice as new members when Philip and Adrian had admitted not being able to play keyboards. Recruited as temporary dancers, they livened up what would have been a dull stage show.
The post-split League made their vinyl debut in February 1981 with the single "Boys And Girls" revealing an altogether more commercial approach. It reverberates as an emotional retrospective piece, a spooky transition to The Human League mark three. Another instrumental, non-album track appeared on the B side. The single itself only had a 7" release of which initial quantities had a gatefold sleeve. Although the girls were not on the track they did appear on the sleeve.
Philip's friend, Ian Burden, was drafted in from Graph to help out on that dreaded tour and Philip asked him to stay on permanently. Very soon he co-wrote "The Sound Of The Crowd" with Phil and it became the next single. The initial batch of the 7" singles had laminated picture sleeves and the initial 12" singles had a sticker on the sleeve but these are only of interest to the die hard collectors. The single was very successful reaching number twelve. Philip was looking for a producer and had heard Martin Rushent's work with the group 999 and asked him to produce for them. Rushent took over as a father figure to the band and these changes turned the League's fate. Punk had led the way, a group made up of amateurs and misshapes with success guaranteed.
Marsh and Ware, meanwhile, were finding their own fame and fortune as Heaven 17, charting with the album "Penthouse And Pavement". On the track "We Are Going To Live For A Very Long Time", we find Marsh and Ware mocking their betters, the drum track being identical to "Marianne", right down to the last bleep. Little did they know what was to come
Jo Callis, formerly with The Rezillos, shared the same manager and met with Adrian Wright and after discussions joined The League. It seemed with the new line up and the new producer they had the formula that would take them to the top. When "Love Action(I Believe In Love)", Oakey's ode to Joanne, was released and reached number three the band began recording the legendary album "Dare". "Love Action" only had standard 7" and 12" releases.
The recording sessions produced another single, the exploratory whistle-along epic, "Open Your Heart". It only came out as a 7" and 12" with the first batch of 7" singles having laminated sleeves. The single didn't fare as well as the last but still got into the top ten stalling at number six.
Two weeks later on October the 16th "Dare" appeared on the shelves of every major record store. It was an instant success and went gold in the first few weeks of sales. Ten slices of pure pop and totally synthesised, the album contained, amongst other things, sentiments of eternal optimism, crisp synth riffs and love songs which were continually applicable to everyone. The following month saw a picture disc version of the album appear in a black sleeve. This picture disc was later reissued with a white sleeve thus making the original worth more to collectors.
Music history in the making, "Don't You Want Me" was finally culled from the album. It was clear that just as everyone had wanted Adam And The Ants' "Stand And Deliver" earlier in the year, the very same people wanted "Don't You Want Me" and in two weeks it graced the number one slot, staying there for five. The accompanying video, unlike most videos of the day, was a glossy promo with a plot and helped boost sales a great deal. The single had a 7" and 12" release with the 12" containing an extended dance remix which went down well with the punters. This single actually had a limited edition release in the form of a 7" with poster and this item is now quite collectable. Also of interest to collectors is the German 12" maxi single which included the extra track "Do Or Die" taken from the album.
1982 came along and with it yet another reissue of the original "Being Boiled" single and this time it managed to chart and even reached number six. The only reason for this reissue appears to be EMI cashing in on the recent success of the new album.
Virgin retaliated a month later, while the Dare tour was in full flow, by rereleasing the "Holiday '80" EP. These reissues having the standard Virgin green and red labels. Released in two forms, a normal double pack and a limited edition double pack in a gatefold sleeve (more collectable due to arty photographs not included on previous releases). For those interested in tour material a tour book was made available.
In June, they began the trend for the rudimentary remix album. Virgin released "Love And Dancing" which consisted of five tracks taken from previous 12" singles and three other tracks. There are two issues of this album, an original, housed in a full printed sleeve and a reissue with a rather bland sleeve and red and green labels.
New material appeared in the form of "Mirror Man" their next single. Telling the retrospective tale of Adam Ant, and even then not completely synthesised, it marked a departure from their brand of clinical pop, adopting instead a jaunty Motown sound. Ian Burden returned to his first instrument of bass guitar, relinquishing his post as primary keyboard player. The single's only limited edition was a 7" picture disc. None of the releases are particularly rare as the single managed to reach number two in the charts.
Five months later "(Keep Feeling)Fascination" got to number two with its optimistic chant. Predictably, it was produced by Mr. Rushent, remixed by Chris Thomas, but of what is it a remix? Are there acetates or test pressings of original versions? If so these would be worth a lot to collectors. Though warmly received by the fans there were no limited editions which was unusual. The material available on this and the previous single did not appear on an album making the singles collectable from that point of view.
Continually in the studio, the band spent more than a year recording the next album. This gap in releases hinted at what was to become a regular occurrence in the Human League legend. Having only released a couple of singles and a remix album in over two years, the album was much awaited. During this time rumours spread that the band were having problems working with Martin and so switched to Hugh Padgham and Chris Thomas. Out of these final sessions with Mr Rushent only one track survived. "I Love You Too Much" appeared, rough and ready, complete with selected tracks from the last two singles on a Canadian 12" called "Fascination". Collectors should note that this track is only available on this disc.
So, thirteen months after "Fascination", the first single from the forthcoming album "Hysteria" appeared. "The Lebanon" was a complete surprise to those who thought of the band as an unthinking pop group. A rock song in its approach, it all but abandoned synthesisers throwing the "synthesisers and vocals only" adage out of the window. Severely topical, the track told a pitifully unaggressive tale of the horrors of Beirut. Oakey admitted that he was more or less pressurised into releasing it. To not have released it would have meant that Human League fans weren't intelligent enough to either understand it or respect it. Which they were of course. No limited editions issued for the single though.
With a blast of absolutely no promotion whatsoever, "Hysteria" was overstocked in every major music store in Britain. Incomparable to "Dare", the album lacked the level of overall perfect poppiness that their previous album reached. Opposed to the trend of epic, grandiose production techniques employed by their contemporaries, The League intended to produce a clean, sparse album. But although the female vocals were used to their full advantage the walls of funky bass on gems such as the James Brown cover "Rock Me Again And Again(Six Times)" are unnecessarily egotistical. It has its moments, such as the singles and the lavish reworking of "I Love You Too Much" benefiting from the wonderfully simplified production. It shows how powerful pure, freshly synthesised instruments can sound in the hands of talented amateurs. After all, and lets not kid ourselves, that's all they were.
When "Life On Your Own" was lifted from "Hysteria" in July, it moodily clawed its way to a respectable number sixteen in the national chart. Once again the style was deliberately Motownish despite the loneliness of the lyrics. The video was equally as lonely, placing Oakey in the Charlton Heston role from the post-holocaust, sci-fi thriller "The Omega Man".
The film "Electric Dreams" spawned the Oakey/Giorgio Moroder single "Together In Electric Dreams". Collectors should be wary of the seven inch picture disc. A fan of Moroder's work with Sparks in the seventies, Oakey was eager to initiate the collaboration. Immensely successful, the duo decided to further the project by recording an album. Oakey sent lyrics to Moroder, while he in turn sent the bare musical essentials back.
Following Jo Callis' premature departure, due to an uncompromising urge to be with his family, "Louise" was unleashed. An optimistic tale, "Louise" supplied the listener with the definitive synthetic ballad. The B-side, a radical remix of "The Sign", was further remixed on the twelve inch, though "Louise" itself remains in album form. A twelve inch with poster was issued, but mint condition copies are hard to find. Also an extremely rare seven inch picture disc was subsequently released. As final and clinching proof that there is no correlation between band upsets and chart positions, the single reached number thirteen. Unlucky for some
With the synonymously titled Oakey/Moroder album imminent, "Goodbye Bad Times" was unceremoniously chosen as the promoting single. Ironically, with the single only managing to crawl to number forty four. It was very much hello old times. The album was received just as warmly, as was the "Be My Lover Now' single.
During a vinyl silence which was to last two years, work progressed on the bands studio, Philip bought a C5 and The League went to America to record Crash. It is not clear which is the most important fact out of the above. The studio wasn't used for the next album, the C5 broke down within a month and the album itself? Well
The consensus of the band was that the next album should be as applicable to the nightclubs as "Dare" had been to the disco. The Minneapolis duo, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were chosen as the production team most likely to succeed in updating The Human League legend. With Jim Russell on drums, the band set off to America in search of originality, style and most of all, a good cup of tea.
During recording, Jam and Lewis presented The League with their archetypal late-eighties ballad. "Human" employed the very latest sampling technology but localised it to the drum machines. Pure elegance, a classy smoocher written to eradicate the pain of past mistakes. Still synthesised a great deal, it seemed that The League had taken to their new sound with relative ease.
With the album "Crash" following close behind it, "Human" was lifted from the Minneapolis sessions and peaked at number eight. Though the album reached number seven, it only stayed in the chart for six weeks. The world gasped. The beginning of the end?
Either fed up or in disagreement with the musical direction that Oakey had his heart set on, Philip Adrian Wright left after eight years devoted visual directorship. When the clinically funk/soul "I Need Your Loving" clawed at the bottom edges of the chart (number seventy two for one week), their fate seemed sealed. Adding insult to injury, it was their worst selling single since the "Dignity of Labour EP" but no one expected that to chart.
For another silent two years, the music press continually published rumours that a new album was almost finished and that it was in the final mix down phase. "Love Is All That Matters" contradicted these rumours completely. Hacked from "Crash', the single was a mere promotional taster for a forthcoming 'best of' album. It was slightly remixed and backed with a dub version of the Rushent produced "I Love You Too Much". A fold-out sleeve seven inch was made available but isn't very rare. However, the CD single is quite difficult to get hold of now.
Out in time for Christmas '88, "Greatest Hits" failed to represent The League as a whole. Omitting anything from before Dare, apart from a speeded up version of the original "Being Boiled", the album was a purely commercial venture for the casual fan. For the die hard fan though, there were no redeeming features whatsoever. Of course it sold well reaching number three and remained on the chart for nineteen weeks. Big bucks!
In February '89, after unexplained delays, "Travelogue" was finally issued on CD and not without its surprises. Containing a staggering eight extra tracks from the era, including The Men single and "Boys And Girls", it sells at mid-price. Two months later, the "Reproduction" CD duplicated the marketing ploy. Issued with seven extra tracks and at mid-price, it contained, amongst other things, "The Dignity Of Labour EP" and the accompanying interview previously only available on the flexi-disc free with the original 12". "The Path Of Least Resistance" has a completely different beginning and puts Oakey's voice through some vocoder device or other in the second half of the song. With "Travelogue" running in at 68 minutes and "Reproduction" at a whopping great 75 minutes both CD's are very desirable indeed.
Throughout '89, the rumours of a new album continued. When Ian Burden left, it was the only thing that the music papers missed. Honed down to a trio, it was inconceivable that Oakey could write an entire album on his own. Yet when "Heart Like A Wheel" was announced in August and the world didn't explode, the faithful waited with bated breath. Heralding a return to the clean pop of "Dare", it backs up the optimism from earlier compositions. Having reached the top thirty, The Human League have obviously retained the admiration of the general public.
Summarising the album "Romantic" in a single song, "Heart Like A Wheel" represents what The League have become. Using nineties technology and integrating it with The League's distinctive compositions, the album shows the direction which pop music should travel. Tracks like "The Stars Are Going" and "Rebound" prove that although Oakey is reluctant to return to the simplicity of previous incarnations, he has compromised, combining "Crash" with "Hysteria". With Callis back as temporary writer (he co-wrote "Heart Like A Wheel") and two new members, The League have shown that they are back with a vengeance toward the chart that snubbed them so unnecessarily.
Since then all has been quite on The Human League front. Unlike Heaven 17 who have had a whole host of nineties remixes unleashed on the unsuspecting public The League have been quite with no remixes or silly marketing ploys. Sadly lacking from the press news seems thin on the ground. Let's not forget a very innovative band who made some great synthesised music. An original member of the band was Adi Newton who went on to form Clock DVA. Although no article is included with this issue I have included a discography.