Question: You’re the lead singer and lyricist of an up and coming underground synth-based band. You’ve just lost your songwriter and main keyboardist to an ego clash. You’re left with no one but the man who runs the slide projector during your live shows. What do you do?
If you answered “immediately go clubbing and hire two teenaged girls you see dancing as your new band members,” collect your smash platinum album and worldwide number one hit. But perhaps we should start at the beginning…
The Human League began life as an overly-arty, all-synth, anti-rock manifesto, brash in its rejection of all the trappings of “rock and roll”, eschewing the typical four-piece combo of bass, drums and two guitars in exchange for a reel-to-reel tape deck, two wobbly synthesizers and a slide projector. There were fewer more radical notions in 1977 than going onstage and boldly pressing “Play” on a tape deck to cue the drums that began your live show. It was a demonstration of wholesale rejection of what people expected from a concert, probably the most punk move made since “gabba gabba hey” was first uttered.
As word spread and crowds began to come ‘round, the League made some baby steps towards the mainstream. This came in the form of cover songs, the glammier and more popular, the better. A standout from the early League days was a medley of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll, Part 1” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. Combining these two disparate tunes was a statement in and of itself, the populist football cheer and the jaded heroine-fueled club tune…quite summing up the League itself.
Word spread. Crowds grew bigger. Egos clashed. Martyn and Ian left, taking the songwriting with them, leaving lead singer Phil Oakey with nothing but his talent for melody and provocative, sometimes austere lyrics. Oh yeah, and Philip Adrian Wright, the slide projectionist. The League had a European tour scheduled in two weeks time and pulling out meant financial ruin. Something had to be done, and quickly.
So, Oakey went clubbing, found the girls, recruited new synthkids Ian Burden and Jo Callis, and even taught Wright the famous single-finger keyboard technique. Then together, they made pop history.
Don’t get me started on the resulting album, “Dare.” I could go on and on about that LP, how it’s nearly the most perfect pop album made, how it broke ground by being the first all-synth LP to hit number one and result in Top 40 hits, how it’s to this day still as fresh and vital as it was in 1981. Like I said, don’t get me started on “Dare.” And since “Dare” featured that song,
it can’t be quite considered “Lost in the ‘80s”…after all, millions bought and heard it.
The follow-ups, however…
“Dare” was a hard thing to match. When you hit near-perfection, where do you go? The League Mark II had some luck with their next follow-up singles, “Mirror Man” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” But when it came album time, severe writer’s block set in. This set a pattern that continued through most of their recording career; incredible singles surrounded by sub-par and sometimes even cringe-worthy tracks.
Three years after “Dare,” the group finally delivered “Hysteria.” The album is disjointed to say the least, with some real gems like “I’m Coming Back,” “So Hurt,” and “Betrayed” successfully recreating some of the chromeo-pop majesty, alongside things like a remake of James Brown’s “Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (Six Times),” which was as truly awful as it sounds. For the lead-off single, they chose “The Lebanon,” a song that instantly betrayed the League’s mission statement – it featured guitar, front and center.
“Hysteria’s” second single, while not making any big noise chart-wise, was noticeably more listenable. “Life On Your Own” is a sparse, desolate sounding track, nicely bringing home the point of the song’s narrative. It also manages to accomplish the neat trick of being Motown-ish while using no acoustic instruments. Try pulling that one off sometime. While “Life” charted a respectable #16 in the UK, it failed to chart at all in the States.
Now, how do you follow-up a flop follow-up? In the League’s case, it involved a lot of hand-wringing, internal squabbling and what may have sounded at the time to be an inspired decision to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were just leaving The Time for a production career. They needed a crossover pop band to work with and the League needed a hit. Badly. Thanks to Jam & Lewis, they got one. “Human” sailed to Number One worldwide and made the League viable again.
Then came the album.
“Crash” couldn’t have been more aptly named, to go for the completely obvious joke. It seems as if the League put themselves completely in the hands of Jam & Lewis, who had no idea what to do with them. The magic of the League was that they were perhaps the least funky, whitest band on the planet, and that exact mechanical nature, that very lack of funk, made them in fact quite
funky. Kids breakdanced to drum loops pulled from “The Things That Dreams Were Made Of” and “Hard Times”. They did not dance at all to the horrific, forced-funk of “I Need Your Lovin’,” perhaps the worst song the League ever recorded (and it took SIX people, including Jam & Lewis, to write it).
But, like all Human League records, there’s at least one hidden gem. “Crash’s” came in the form of “Love On the Run,” another Motown-inspired song that mirrored “Mirror Man” and is an instance of what the Jam & Lewis/League teaming could have been. On this song, the producers do what was previously impossible…they pull an emotive performance out of Mr. Roboto himself, Oakey. It’s also, unsurprisingly, one of the few tunes on the album actually written by the League (though it should be noted, they didn’t write “Human”). Naturally, when it came time for a follow-up to “Human’s” massive success, the song chosen? “I Need Your Lovin’.” Ugh.
It took mere months for America’s cutout bins to be filled with copies of “Crash”. It’s currently out of print. Surprise.
Since then, the League have been fairly consistent…put out an album every five years or so, get one Top 40 hit off it, have the record company pick a horrid follow-up, repeat. In 2001, the League broke this streak by releasing “Secrets,” an excellent album from front to back, easily their best since “Dare” 20 years earlier. Reviews were stellar, appetites were whetted, and a killer first single, “All I Ever Wanted,” was chosen.
Weeks after the album’s release, their new record company went bankrupt.
Give them a year or so. They’re due for another hit.
Download "Rock 'n' Roll/Nightclubbing." ”Dare” peaked at #3 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.
Download "Life On Your Own".
Download "Love On The Run".
”Hysteria” peaked at #62 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart.
“Crash” peaked at #35 on the Billboard Top 200 Albums chart and at #28 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
“Secrets” failed to chart.
Learn more about the Human League at the totally tubular Secrets Online.”The Very Best of the Human League” is being released Stateside this Tuesday, March 22nd. Highly recommended, along with the DVD of the same name.