Melody Maker 24th February 1979
The Cyclic And Random Lyric Organisation System
Or CARLOS for short. IAN BIRCH talks to the Human league, Sheffield Novorockers with a weakness for torch ballads.
I SUPPOSE you could trace it back to the early days of Stiff. Taking a cue from Beserkley, the world’s once-most-flexible record label developed an inspired approach to marketing. Their brilliant throwaway graphics, advertising campaigns, publicity stunts and catchphrases trod a new line between dastardly disrespect and loving expertise. What’s more, it worked.
The art of clever packaging had surfaced. People would only buy singles if they were 12-inch collector’s items in picture bags. Nevertheless in ’77 the gimmick was still generally regarded as, first and moremost, fun. However, come ’79, the emphasis has shifted. It’s now becoming - to borrow a nifty line from Fast Records – “difficult fun”.
The reasons are several. “New Wave” is almost three years old and its initial impulse is to attack the sleepy old corporations has decidedly ebbed away. The musicians are older and a great deal wiser to board-room tactics. Many of them now want to be part of the star system that they once reviled. Internal jealousies revolves less around getting a contract and more around how much money their label backers are willing to lavish on that first trip to the States. Complete control is less a stand against being a manipulated pawn and more a carefully-plotted policy to ensure maximum business.
This increased awareness amongst the first flush of bands has naturally filtered through to both the hopefuls waiting in the wings and the newer contenders still associated with vanguard subversion. As a result, the latter (let’s take as examples The Mekons, the Gang Of Four, and – our men of the moment – The Human League) are almost preternaturally wary of rock’s mechanics. They not only want to be involved at every stage of the process – they also want to be responsible for every stage of them? In addition, they want to expand on all the packaging possibilities that have been hitherto available introducing a kind of DIY multimedia blitz.
The three bands I mentioned are all on Bob Last’s Edinburgh-based First label, which is trying to be less a label than an audio-visual attack (appropriately, the Human League see themselves as “an audio-visual-team”).
As well as releasing singles, to date Last has issued what I can only call packaging projects. Fast’s generic umbrella is “The Quality Of Life.” The latest package, “Sexex”, is a plastic folder of Xeroxed consumer images (e.g a lonely toothbrush in a glass tumbler beside which is described “sexy”).
Getting confused? Well, the covering note to “Sexex” should help elucidate. It explains how information can only be mass-produced via packaging, and, rather than get upset about this, one should consider the positive aspects. For instance, more people can get in on the act. The letter concludes that this isn’t a new gimmick, but “just rearranging and disarranging what’s already there.”
NOT surprisingly, the Human League work hand-in-glove with this notion. Their advance publicity includes an “Electronically Yours” sticker, catchphrases like beware of sugar-coated bullets”, a computer print-out of the band’s, er, world-view, and a demonstration tape that splices music and selfsatirising commentary.
The multi-media blitz emerges more forcibly in their stage act, where modern technology has a ball with pulp culture from the previous two decades. Very much the descendants of glitter rock, Bowie, Roxy Music, the Velvet Underground and other innovatory bands like Kraftwerk, Can and Faust, they were fascinated by the power of images, “noise”, and 20th century hardware. Punk provided the impetus and the cottage-industry confidence.
Consequently, they don’t use the conventional rock line-up. Drums, bass and guitars have been jettisoned in favour of two synthesizers, controlled by Ian Marsh and Martin Ware. Because of this they have been repeatedly classified in lazy journalistic pigeonholes alongside other new electronic combos like Trobbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti and Prag Vec.
Ian explains the contradiction: “They use electronics to treat standard acoustic instruments, whereas we use synthesizers as synthesizers.”
Phil Oakey simply sings while Adrian Wright remains unseen as he operates a projector. Every number is acoompanied by a slide show which complements the music and lyrics, with varying degrees of obviousness. The overall effect is one of science-fiction romance: New Scientist diagrams cheerfully collide with shots from Fireball XL5, Hammer Horror movies and Sunsilk-shampoo-styled erotica.
The band certainly don’t want their presentation to stop at that point. They have plans for video, incorporating computers into their act (in an organisational” rather than “creative” sense, you understand), and perhaps even selling inexpensive copies of the slides they use at gigs. When videodiscs hit, they’ll surely be panting.
THE group started at the tail-end of ’77, Ware and Marsh, both computer operators, had toyed around with a possibility called The Future. It was primarily orientated towards instrumentals promptly denounced them as “trendy hippies” – a silly remark.)
After the single, Wright – who had dropped out of art school and was driving an ice-cream van – joined the ranks, and opened up the visual dimension with the help of his dad’s camera. Sporadic gigs, followed a tour with Siouxie and the Banshees took place, the word spread, and recently Virgin signed them to a publishing deal. They gave up their jobs and are currently shopping around for that major contract. Polydor have made vigorous overtures.
IF you’re beginning to think that all this talk about packaging and the rock process and sequenced backing tracks means that the Human League are a kind of fashionable dehumanized bunch of aesthetic cybernauts, then breathe again. They are adamantly anti-elitist, repeatedly emphasising their desire to appeal as popular entertainment on the widest scale possible.
Martin: “Anyone can sit around and be weird. The very early stuff we did, we
wouldn’t even consider letting people listen to it now, but it would compare favourably with a lot of the output of those other bands that have been compared with us, because it was more overtly experimental.
“Are people into that? I don’t believe they are. It’s a matter of discipline. What we’re aiming for is to be professional. People are going to be more impressed if they think a lot of work has gone into something than if you shamble on stage and do something that you self-consciously think is very valid and arty, and thell them they can either take it or leave it. We’re not interested in that.
“If we get a thousand people in a hall, we’d like to try and impress every one of them – not just the few at the front who’re really into it. I think it’s the floating vote we’re trying to capture, rather than just the fanatics.” Beneath the modernistic trappings lies an old-fashioned cardiac pump.
Referring once again to that original computer print-out, it reads: “Interested in combining the best of all worlds, the League would like to positively affect the future by close attention to the present, allying technology with humanity and humour.” They set self-parody and quirkily stylised humour alongside commitment and gentle experimentation. Martin: “Half the time we’re stating something forcibly, and half the time there’s the opposite viewpoint, somehow. We always try to realise that there is another viewpoint… Oh God, we’re so fair!” Multiple interpretations are almost a biological necessity in a band that “has massive arguments about everything all the time.”
Another angle on their deliberate accessibility is the inclusion of evergreens in performances. At the moment they do deliciously sparse replicas of Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll” and the Righteous Brothers “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” – a pound to a penny that Polydor will want that as their first single if the group sign the dotted line.
They want to do more cover versions, and have already earmarked two Walker Brothers songs, “Make It Easy On Yorrself” and “No Regrets”, for serious consideration. Martin: “Basically we love ballads, torch songs.” By re-locating this type of song in an electronic context, they can neatly show how apparently mechanoid combos can be as emotive as, er, Jimmy Pursey.
THE slide-show, which pans between two different screens, also offers huge potential for increased entertainment and personal interpretation. Quite often, the individual members of the group don’t know the significance of certain slides. Adrian, an inveterate pulp fan who is currently compiling a book about Fifties sci-fi movies, will slip in images that had not been originally planned.
During the interview he explained to the others, for the first time, what two slides contributed to “Zero As A Limit”, a re-enactment of an emotional tussle that results in a car crash. “There are pictures of Lolita because I’m trying to tie up sex with cars.”
They are beginning to put the actual song titles on slides, which inevitably militates against the idea of a frontman. That responsibility would traditionally devolve on Phil, as the singer, but he refuses to have any part of it.
“I can’t do it,” he says. That was one of the reasons we had slides right from the start. I can’t dance.” Ian continued: “If you can’t dance, there’s no point in trying, because you just look stupid. There are too many people around who do dance and shouldn’t.”
An obvious future step is to start making their own films for use on stage. They’ll do it as soon as finances permit. Martin: “I think we’re more influenced by films and TV than by rock. I’d much rather go and see a good film than a good rock band. You see a film and you’re caught up. For that period of time you’re not a person sitting in a cinema. You’re part of that experience. Whereas watching a rock band, it’s just some guys on stage.”
But what avbout communication: A rock gig is essentially a live experience. The celluloid experience is trapped, immoveable. That turns out to be exactly what they like about movies.
Phil: “You stand more chance of having accidents on stage. With a film, they’ve got exactly what they wanted to put out. It’s correct.”
So they don’t think then that accidents can be beneficial sometimes?
Phil: “Well, they can be.” Martin: “We’ve always done that in our compositional technique anyway. Like the way we composed ‘Circus Of Death’ was a complete freak.”
That song in fact, grew out of an attempt to cover Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing”. Martin: “We had the echo unit doubling the beat and creating another beat, and we decided this is too good to use for ‘Nightclubbing’, we’ll use it for a track of our own. We do have an abnormal compositional technique. It’s only myself and Ian who can actually play instruments, and we usually start off with some rhythm. It all builds up from there. So we’re more or less using studio techniques to create the songs we play live.”
Ian agreed: “The more natural state for us is in the studio, and the difficult thing is playing live – which is the reverse of most bands.”
This technique is one of “selection”. They have countless snippets of music on tape, which are either developed individually or patched together in a kind of jigsaw assembly line. There is also a communal wire basket where lines or isolated words are collected (Bowie’s use of Burroughs’ cut-up method springs to mind).
Indeed, in their early days they used a system called CARLOS, or the Cyclic And Random Lyric Organisation System - which, to put it briefly, was a sort of home-made fruit machine that substituted words/phrases that they fed in, the greater the number of resulting permutations. Weirdness at the pull of a handle!
The experiment was, however, short-lived. Apart from saying that they lost faith in the system and that it “had a tendency to make things over-staccato”, they (or rather Phil) weren’t sure why CARLOS slipped away into the night.
Nevertheless, if you can imagine a Phil Spector production stripped down and translated into a digital delay system by an apprentice Giorgio Moroder, besotted by late-nite American TV, with only a synthesizer in the studio, you’re in the right frame of mind for the Human League.