by Ross Yarnton
Pop stars come and go like Chinese meals - fifteen minutes later and you want another one. Only a handful of bands make the grade and battle with old father time, to come back from the edge of the great pit of despair that is the dumpster - The Stones, Genesis, Bowie, Cliff
Sandwiched in between East 17 and Slade, 'Tell Me When', a catchy little ditty, was like a breath of fresh air in the quagmire of novelty festivities. And so, Christmas 1994 saw the return of that dodgy Sheffield band whose fringe reputation precedes them. So, how did this remarkable turnabout transpire?
The answer is probably in the head of Ian Stanley - the man responsible for the freshly remodelled Human League. Stanley - writer, producer, arranger and all round nice bloke has a resume to die for - he started out as keyboard programmer for Tears For Fears on their "The Hurting" album, soon became an integral member, sharing the writing credit for "Shout" as well as half the "Songs From The Big Chair", smash hit album. Stanley learned how to produce on TFF B-sides and went on to be the man behind the control desk for The Sisters Of Mercy and The Pretenders before assigning himself to The Human League as head of A&R at East West .
By recognising the potential that a correctly managed League held, Stanley set himself the task of arranging the songs that would eventually become "Octopus". During this paced, well thought out endeavour, Stanley co-wrote three songs ("These Are The Days", "Filling Up With Heaven" and "Houseful Of Nothing") and ended up producing the project.
23rd of January, 1995 - Octopus was released to a staggering response from critics and fans alike. A musical smack in the face to those who branded The Human League as has-beens.
The album itself, well
"These Are The Days" is unprecedented in its perfection. A song to flaunt in front of grannies worldwide. A thought provoking poke in the eye to cynics who had written the League off as a band who had done their best in the past. WRONG! The inclusion of "Hysteria" era stereo effects work and Kraftwerk's "Radioactivity" Geiger counter syncopation are inspired harmonics. Lingering melodies combined with Susan Ann Sulley's newly trained tones make it the best minutes on the album as well as a contender for the best thing they've ever done.
While "One Man In My Heart" opens with a Strawberry Switchblade (remember them?) impersonation from Susan, the relegation of Oakey's baritone to backing vocals doesn't undermine his position as front man it is simply logical to do it that way. Susan's loyalty to her 'man' is conveyed with absolute sincerity whilst classic League chord structures play out almost unsubstantially in comparison.
"Words", a hypothetically disturbing composition about childhood affecting adult psychology, is replete with Depeche Mode (circa '81) primitive percussion and effects work that would not seem out of place on Travelogue. The resurrection of the barely accompanied Oakey vocal, in the first few bars at least, is a welcome return to the atmospherically charged Marsh and Ware days.
DJ's would certainly lap up "Filling Up with Heaven" with a beatific analogue synth solo so amazingly Erasure-esque as to be positively Vince Clarketastic in a sort of restrained non-Andy Bell type way. A chorus so divine as to render depressives helplessly happy descends from upon high.
"Houseful Of Nothing" casts a critical eye on materialism and the value of people compared to possessions. It's a melodic reminder to seize the day and not let chances or relationships escape you.
There was a time when the B-sides of League singles often slipped into comedy, "Non Stop" for example, but "John Cleese; Is He Funny?" is seriously dreamy in the mould of Kraftwerk's "Electric Cafe". Simple, varyingly modulated sequences merge most pleasurably while restrained drum programs synchronise subtle harmonics and effects.
"Never Again" depicts a relationship past the point of return and is a throwback to the days of "Human". It's the slowest masterpiece in this gallery and not the best, for that is yet to come.
Ninth on "Octopus" is "Cruel Young Lover", a techno triumph totally typical as a last track funk out. Comparable to "Rock Me Again(six times)" the closing offering on "Hysteria" on steroids. After a deliciously sinister synthetic introduction, Phil expresses lust, love and anger simultaneously.
Octopus has fully synthetic backing for the now experienced laryngeal tones of Mr Oakey and company. This is not surprising as the not-so-brief flirtation with bass and lead guitars had led to the debasement of the Human League sound during the Hysteria, Crash and Romantic? albums.
Now, halfway through the nineties The Human League have, unlike so many of their counterparts since the dawn of the electronic age, bounced back into fashion. Whether this is a temporary arrangement or not remains to be seen but undeniably Octopus is a triumph in the unspoken, on-going synthesiser versus guitar war.
OK, so the theory that if a band sticks around long enough then they will eventually come up with a hit seems to hold water but from pathetic to prolific despite a five year holiday?
Stanley's production is as tight as one would expect from the man who practically made Tears For Fears. But it's Oakey's intelligent lyrics which have always shone above the fussy, over-complicated multi-directional production, especially on "Romantic?". Now replaced by a nineties equivalent to the bare minimalism of "Dare" The Human League again have a formula for success. The acidic clicks and no-nonsense bass synthesis that is Kraftwerkian in the extreme is an obvious rebirth of the very conceptual foundations of The Human League Mark I, but who would have thought that sixteen years on it would still work so well?
Having realised that Janet Jackson they most certainly are not and having Virgin axe them would also not, you might think, put a pop group in a very positive frame of mind. Oakey and co. have ignored, with ease, the critical backlash from failure after failure. They have endured their virtual non-existence in the eye of the media and have gone on to produce a positive tour de force with which to fend off the hordes of clumsy imitators chart-wide