Zig Zag Magazine August 1978

The Human League

Chris Westwood

SIMPLY, The Human League have adopted the synthetic/mechanistic disco stance and beaten Kraftwerk at their own game. One of Sheffield’s many new (underexposed) outfits, The Human League have excisted for some eight or nine months, during which time much practical research and recording has been entered into. There follows a snatch from a Fast Product hand-out…

SCENARIO: “IN THE SUMMER OF 1977 THE HUMAN LEAGUE WAS FORMED DUE TO THE MEMBERS FINDING NO CONVENTIONAL CHANNEL FOR THEIR IMMENSETALENTS.”

BACKGROUND: “NONE OF THE LEAGUE HAVE ANY ORTHODOX MUSICAL TRAINING, BUT PREFER TO REGARD COMPOSITION AS AN EXTENSION OF LOGIC, INSPIRATION  AND LUCK. THEREFORE, UNLIKE CONVENTIONAL MUSICIANSTHEIR INFLUENCES ARE NOT SO OBVIOUS.”

I would assess their strongest connection as Kraftwerk and Danny Miller (The Normal), though these references are merely guidelines, y’know, and NOT heavy parallels. Besides which, they admit to liking music as diverse as Kraut-rock, Spector, Gary Glitter, and Captain Beefheart.

The Human League are: Ian Marsh (synthesizer/”associated peripheral devices”); Martyn Ware (synthesizer/occasional backing vocals); Phil Oakey (vocals).

CONCLUSION/MANIFESTO: “INTERESTED IN COMBINING THE BEST OF ALL WORLDS, THE HUMAN LEAGUE WOULD LIKE TO POSITIVELY  AFFECT THE FUTURE BY CLOSE ATTENTION TO THE PRESENT. ALLYING TECHNOLOGY WITH HUMANITY AND HUMOUR. THEY HAVE BEEN DESCRIBED AS ‘LATER 20th CENTURY BOYS’, AND ‘INTELLIGENT, INNOVATORY AND IMMODEST.”

Take that too seriously, and you might end up picturing a bunch of elitist bourgeois bods on an intellectual trip, which The Human League most certainly AIN’T...

And to prove it: towards the end of June I spent some four hours at the League’s rehearsel pad in the city centre, during which time I not only found the guys to be thoroughly affable, unpretentious humans, but I also ended up dabbling with a five-hundred quid synth and catching techno-mania.

Phil was working at the time, so I settled down for a chat with Ian and Martyn (both of whom, incidentally, are computer operators).

Martyn: “When we started, electronic music was ‘unknown’ in the commercial sense, but since then Throbbing Gristle and Devo and those Ohio bands have surfaced and it’s become something very hip.”

So how come the band took their particular approach at that time?

Martyn: “Because we love technology and we love the idea that things are gonna become more involved with machines in the future. I think rock’n’roll’s had a fair crack of the whip and now it’s time for something different.”

Ian: “It’s not as if something new comes along and everything else disappears…you’ve still got jazz and folk and everything left…even though they’re not carrying the forefront any more.”

Human League’s approach is likely to encourage parallels with the Germanic generation of Robot-rockers, and we talked, for obvious reasons, about Kraftwerk…

Martyn: We go out of our way to AVOID sounding like Kraftwerk if possible, ‘cos I think it’s very easy to do, and I think that with the amount of money and equipment Kraftwerk’ve got, they could do a lot better. You know, to laymen, Kraftwerk are the epitomy of good electronic music…but in fact, the tunes and structures and noises they make are not particularly complex in any way. I think the thing that influenced them was that they won that award in New York for best disco album of the year or something… and since then they’ve gone overboard on the disco thing.”

Are you guys, ahem , “disco-biased” then?

Martyn: “I’d say we were disco-biased. No, I’d say we were DANCE-biased. Disco’s a bit of an evocative word isn’t it? You see all these people going out in Birmingham bags an’ shiny suits…

Let’s change the subject…what about lyrics?

Martyn: “We write some pretty weird lyrics, it’s just that people don’t hear them too well ‘cos we haven’t got a very good PA.

“I don’t think we’ve ever written a conventional lyric. I think the nearest is “Blind Youth” which is saying to the youngsters in the audience – DON’T WORRY, YOUR TIME WILL COME. I don’t see any reason to be depressed. Mind you, we’re alright to talk cos’ we’ve got lotsa money.”

Ian: “I wish I had.”

Cut to aforementioned “Blind Youth” lyric:

NO FUTURE THEY SAY/BUT MUST IT BE THAT WAY? NOW IS CALLING / THE CITY IS HUMAN…

Freeze. Another snatch of handout commences:

OUTPUT: “COMPOSITIONS NUMBER TWENTY TO DATE. REFER TO SINGLE ON FAST PRODUCT – REFER ALSO TO LIMITED EDITION CASSETTE AVAIBLE FROM FAST PRODUCT.”

Fast record released The Human League single in late June: “Being Boiled” / “Circus of Death” are the titles…

Martyn: “It’s about silk worms.

Right, the B-side is…” Whaatat??? Silk Worms, did he say?

Ian: “This is when we knew Philip was the right vocalist ‘cos we were looking for one, and hes uddenly came running in with these lyrics – LISTEN TO THE

VOICE OF BUDDHA SAYING STOP YOUR SERICULTURE – and we just said ‘what are you on about?’”

Martyn: “He’d just been reading this book about Eastern religions, and he was talking about how Buddhism says you should treat all animals as equals, which I agree with to a certain extent – but he just went right over the top and wrote a song about it…which is a good song actually. “Circus of Death” is about…there was this film called “Death Circus” or something, where you got the clowns going round and a psychopath with an axe…and this si the same thing expect the ringmaster is a clown as well, and he distributes this drug. We wrote this in about seven minutes just reeling off the lines, incidentally, and he distributes this ficticious drug to all his cronies, and basically they go round killing people and then take over the world.”

Ian: “Just a totally ludicrous lyric, but people can interpret it however they want.”

A demo-tape is played, and pretty damn fine it is too, covering a multitude of areas, though fully electronic throughout. If you considered “The Man Machine” to be a mite one-dimensional, or unadventurous, then here’s where to look.

“Dancevision” is a powerful instrumental, heavy on rhythm/pulse and melody, stunning. Then there’s “Dance Like A Star” which, you need to be told, is a heavy parody on bland-out disco slop, complete with 2.3’s Paul Bower on backing vocals, singing – by the by – what Ian terms “the ultimate in bland lyrics”.

YOU LOOK SO GOOD NOW/AND I’M YOUR MAN/COME TO THE DANCEFLOOR BABY/YOU’RE IN MY PLAN…

Martyn: “If we got a manager, where do you play in South Yorkshire, or within striking distance? A lotta bands here are narrow-sighted, they tend to think of earning money locally. We try to think ahead to the national impact – but unfortunately it’s not worked yet.”

The lack of live work has allowed much time for thought, and the League are currently toying with ideas such as computerised programming of rhythm tracks (correct me if I’m wrong, lads), plus synchronisation of soundtrack and visual, which bodes for an exceptional on-stage atmosphere, right?

Martyn: “Also, it would be and incredibly good GIMMICK!”

I’m still left with a helluva lot of untranscribed tape here, but hopefully this jaunt’s given at least some type of Human League low-down, and hopefully it’ll draw attention to the guys in the future. Their attitude is succinctly summed up by Martyn:

“There’s a lot of vogue and chic attached to electronic music and it’s about time it was blown into the wind. I mean, anybody, literally, with a few good ideas could create an album like the latest Kraftwerk one.”

Hence, the syntho-musick myth is put out to grass: all ya need I cash…and remember, The City IS Human. Communication terminated 26/6/78….Normal operation restored.

I thought it sounded good, anyhow…