Monday, November 2, 2009

Dare To Be Different

Back in 1981 things looked very bleak for The Human League. Two of the original members, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, had left to form Heaven 17, taking with them most of the band’s equipment and the writing talent responsible for the music on the first two albums. They left behind Phil Oakey, the singer with the bizarre haircut and strong Yorkshire baritone; Philip Adrian Wright, the exotically titled Director of Visuals; and, of course, the band’s name. The music critics were quick to write them off, while their own fans were hardly placated when Oakey recruited two teenage girls from the local disco (“I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor”) to provide backing vocals and throw a few shapes.

However, the League was evolving from an experimental, underground electronic group into a more commercial mean machine, defining the sound of the 80s with shimmering synthesizers and booming drumbeats, culminating in “Dare”, the enormously successful third album (though the first album by The Human League Mk2). The record captured a moment in time perfectly (“Zeitgeist on a stick” according to Q magazine) as the post-punk fascination with electronica combined with an infatuation with fashion and modern art in the form of pop culture.

"League of extraordinary gentlemen (and ladies)"

The new breed of music was heavily synthesizer-based, but was welcome to those who were growing weary of the tired old guitar heroes and dreary ballads that belonged in the 70s. The energy provided by punk’s shining star had faded away, so the masses were looking for a new sound (of the crowd). Possessing sophistication and style, The Human League’s music was years ahead of its time. As a headline in the essential NME said, “The Human League: one day all music will be made like this”.

Although The Human League were more inspired by Kraftwerk and, to a lesser extent, Gary Numan, the synths have a quality unlike those seen on earlier hits like “The Model” or “Cars”, giving the League a unique sound. “Dare” was the first successful mix of electronics with pure, unashamedly commercial pop music. Taking it a step further, this record brought in sequencers and synth basslines. It sounded like nothing we had heard before, but it was also instantly accessible and utterly irresistible – straight to the top of the league …

"This is Phil talking"

The band threw another curve ball, when they hired veteran producer Martin Rushent. Famed for working with punk bands like The Stranglers and the Buzzcocks, Rushent was also an expert on the emerging music technologies of the time and his production is a true marvel – gleaming and seamless. His techniques gave the album a sense of power and urgency that electronic music had previously lacked, while the cleverly crafted pop with multi-layered, melodic synths provided warmth and took the edge off the chilly sound that typified the League’s early efforts. It is not too strong to say that the amazingly clean sound that Rushent achieved set the tone for the first half of the new decade.

For “Dare” was not only a genre-defining album, but one that re-invented and enhanced electronic music, heralding an era of synth dominance. It re-defined what people thought of electronic pop, establishing synthesizers as a viable musical instrument. Challenging the very conventions of pop music and the essence of innovation, “Dare” can be considered electronica’s “Sgt. Pepper”, proving that timeless pop music could be created using exclusively synthesizers and drum machines. Yet, with all the knobs and switches at their disposal, the League still went for the hook, demonstrating their love of a good song.

"Sheffield steel"

There were plenty of other electronic bands around at the time, but few managed to manipulate the technology in such an emotionally effective and satisfying way. “Dare” paved the way for groups such as ABC, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran, Soft Cell, Pet Shop Boys and, of course, Heaven 17. Uncluttered by sci-fi pretensions and art school cleverness, the face of popular music was changed forever, as solemn, industrial rhythms were replaced by unsullied, brilliant pop.

“Dare” sounds dramatically different from the League’s austere, experimental beginnings, such as their debut album “Reproduction” with its simplistic, repetitive songs, though the follow-up “Travelogue” is more fun and hints at the band’s future direction. Indeed, “Dare” remains true to the group’s original blueprint and is hardly a sell-out, when you listen to some of the darker, eerie tracks. What they did abandon was the new wave posturing that accompanied their initial appearances, focusing exclusively on making superbly realised, perfect pop songs.

"Up against the wall"

All of the innovation in the world would not have mattered and would only have been enjoyed by a small, arty clique, if it had not been for the songs. It was crucial to balance the modern techniques with tuneful charm, mixing the state-of-the-art technology with good old-fashioned songcraft. The League had an amazing talent for catchy melodies, lending a human touch to the cyber-rock and providing real emotional substance to the songs. Oakey’s gruff vocals blended surprisingly well with the untrained, sweet harmonies of the lasses, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, especially on the soaring choruses in the gleefully approachable singles. This was a triumph of content over considerable style. Never mind the haircuts, remember the music.

The cover’s fashion magazine pastiche captured the atmosphere of the heady period known as New Romanticism, but the League were never really part of that movement. Subversively glamorous, Dare’s album sleeve was ripped off from a Vogue magazine cover, though the band’s gender-defying portraits were cropped, so that the design would not age when their hairstyles went out of fashion. Who would have thought that Phil’s asymmetric fringe would ever date? I also wonder whether the album’s title is an in-joke reference to lyrics from Travelogue’s weird “Crow And A Baby”, where “the result was a dare”.

"The years have been kind"

The League were not renowned for social comment, but they dealt seriously with the age-old themes and issues of relationships (love, desire, beauty and jealousy), wrapped up in a love of film, books and television. Phil Oakey epitomised romantic agony in his songs, though he also exhibited a tough streak of intellectual scepticism. He made it acceptable for pop music not to sound happy, no doubt inspiring the likes of Neil Tennant. His lyrics were often deliberately obscure, in order to provoke thought and get people talking about the songs, but the music was insanely infectious. Love and Dancing, if you will – or, more pertinently, as their album of “Dare” remixes was entitled.

Ironically, the band’s success was really a fortunate accident. There was no grand plan, as evidenced by Oakey’s unwillingness to release “Don’t You Want Me” as a single. History shows that this became one of the highest selling singles of all time in the UK; but the band was convinced that this was the weakest track on “Dare”, which was why it had been relegated to last position on the album, and insisted that the single should be sold with a free poster to boost sales.

"Matinee idols"

In this case, the record company knew best, as it went straight to number one, aided by another innovation – a snazzy pop video. The ideal marriage between glossy visuals and perfect pop, the song featured the classic Human League vocal interaction between Phil and the girls, encapsulating the mood and feel of the period flawlessly. At the time, few bands understood the potential of music videos, but the League’s promo was a godsend to the nascent MTV.

“Don’t You Want Me” was the fourth hit single to emerge from “Dare”, though it is by far the best known. It’s a devastating, he said/she said duet, chronicling a frayed romance, first from the perspective of a svengali figure who plucks a waitress from obscurity, turning her into a star; then, from the point of view of the girl who no longer loves him after she has obtained fame: “Now five years later on you've got the world at your feet/Success has been so easy for you/But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now/And I can put you back down too”. The man is simultaneously threatening and pleading; the girl is defiant; and the song is a masterpiece. The utter genius of this pop classic, including one of the greatest pop hooks of all time, means that there is little danger of familiarity breeding contempt.

"Top of the league"

The song that gave The Human League 2.0 their first taste of success was “The Sound Of The Crowd”, a cracking tune with a big anthemic chorus, “Get around town/Get around town/Where the people look good/Where the music is loud/Get around town/No need to stand proud/Add your voice to the sound of the crowd”. This is the one that introduced the female backing on the vocals, which was a key ingredient of their new-found success. Appropriately enough, it’s a song for anyone laying on the slap, tarting themselves up, and getting ready to go out. It’s unclear whether the band approves of this glam lifestyle, especially with the playful “ah, ahh, ahhh, ahhhh” section, but I suspect that this is a dig at the glitterati trying to be oh-so fashionable, but ending up all dressing the same way.

Love Action (I Believe In Love)” is simply pop gold, a semi-autobiographical confessional about good and bad relationships. Complete with the famous “This is Phil talking” lyric, inspired by a similar reference from Iggy Pop, this track just glowed in the dance clubs, taking me all the way back to the Camden Palace, though the message was far from a happy one, “When you're in love/You know you're in love/No matter what you try to do/You might as well resign yourself/To what you're going through/If you're a hard man or if you're a child/It still might get to you/Don't kid yourself you've seen it all before/A million mouths have said that too”.

"Smoke gets in your eyes"

In contrast, although about infidelity, the complex “Open Your Heart” is an uplifting song with an insistent synth melody. A glorious exhortation to better communication in relationships, this should cheer up any one who is feeling depressed, “But if you can stand the test/You know your worst is better than their best”. Oakey sings in a higher key than usual, which boosts the “feel good” factor.

In those days it was rare for four singles to be released from one album, but in truth, many other tracks could have been equally successful, like the wonderful ode to life’s pleasures “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of”. This is an exciting adventure into the League’s travel plans, as Oakey sings of taking a lift to the top of the Empire State; driving across the Golden Gate; and march, march, marching across Red Square. As synths swoop around the lyrics, punctuated by delightful keyboard flourishes, Oakey name-checks some of his favourite things, “New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times, Norman Wisdom, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, good times”. While these are simple choices, the song is clearly also a metaphor for the group’s growing ambition.

"The black hit of space"

The chorus-heavy “Do Or Die” sees Oakey adopting a sneering tone to sing about a troublesome girlfriend - he said that it was “about being in love with a girl who has been taken over by a poltergeist”. The brilliantly unorthodox beat contains African grooves, which somehow imply intrigue and danger. Indeed, some have interpreted the lyrics as referring to an anti-government stance, but I’m sure that it’s working on a far more personal level, “I'd like to leave, so would you kindly look the other way/You tell me to be honest, but I've nothing left to say”.

The album also includes quite a few dark, haunting tracks, which are reminiscent of the band’s earlier work, showing the League to still be in a stage of transition. “Darkness” is a melancholy song, with the intro comprising a slow, atmospheric church organ and an almost Gregorian chant. It’s about subconscious fears from deep in the soul, which manifest themselves when you are alone at night, “And the clock stops/As darkness closes in/I hesitate, but it's too late/I scream and scream again/I hear colours black and red/I see sounds that fill my head/I'll never read those books again”.

"Make sure you get my good side"

Equally sombre is the extraordinary “Seconds”, which recounts the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy and its far-reaching impact. Glacial, powerful synths set the mood, as Oakey’s deadpan lyrics send shivers up your spine, making you really feel the urgency and outrage of such a despicable act: “Your knuckles white as your fingers curl/The shot was heard around the world/It took seconds of your time to take his life”. A cinematic, huge song that could have equally applied to John Lennon’s murder, which took place the year before “Dare” was released.

Get Carter” is the album’s only instrumental, inspired by the seminal Michael Caine movie of the same name, serving as an intro into the ominous “I Am The Law”. Minimalist, stern and dominated by Oakey’s vocal, this track is perhaps most evocative of the early Human League, not least the science-fiction references. Inspired by the character Judge Dredd from British comic 2000 AD, the song was unusually written from a policeman’s viewpoint in a future world of martial law, “You're lucky I care/For fools like you/You're lucky I'm there/To stop people doing the things/That you know they're dying to do”.

"Here come the girls"

Although sounding nothing like punk rock, The Human League fully subscribed to the DIY ethos. They could not play any instruments, but their lack of musical prowess proved to be a blessing in disguise, as they constructed their records using synthesizers and computers. However, as they burst into the mainstream, they were condemned by the Musicians’ Union, who started a “Keep Music Live” campaign, as they worried that keyboards would make musicians redundant. In response, the League only needed to raise two fingers, first, because it was their style of playing synths; and second, as a V sign to the music business (and maybe their former band members), who had ridiculed them a few short months earlier and were now forced to acknowledge their triumphant return.

Phil Oakey had indeed done all the things he ever dared, producing one of the greatest pop albums of all time that completely re-invented the electronic genre. Without his compelling blend of synthesizers and soul (and his lop-sided haircut), many great electronic bands would not have seen the light, but for a short while his band was in a league of its own.


  1. One of the best commentaries I've read on The Human League and what I consider to be one of the greatest albums of all time. Nice job sir!

  2. @fairdes,

    Thanks. I'm always delighted when somebody tracks down one of my old articles.

  3. i agree with virtually every word, takes me back to the people and places. Excellent review.


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