NME 31st March 1979
A career in electronics can be yours!
Novices welcome, all letters answered…
Paul Morley grasps the soldering iron by the hot end, tackles the tack with THE HUMAN LEAGUE
I HAVE just seen the future of rock and roll. And there’s not a guitar in sight.
The Human League, an electronic pop group have intuitively discovered – along with equally primitive pioneers as Robert Rentel, Daniel Miller and Thomas Leer – that you don’t need guitars, drums and cohorted vocals to make a music that is rock’n’roll.
All you need is a few boxes, knobs and wires plus a fair amount of insolence.
The Human League have drifted, perfectly naturally as they see it, into a procedure for making rock’n’roll that doesn’t depend for its essence on emotional input and discipline, but that does rely for its specific impact on economy and overall animation – that uses synthesizers, electronics and, for live performance, prepared backing tracks.
The potential is awesome – more so, because The Human League are undoubtedly going to be popular. A catalyst.
Whether you like it or not The Human League are the approximate shape of things to come. Let your pre-conceived notions drop away, and you’ll probably like it.
RIGHT NOW, talk of synthesizers and drummerless trica tends to induce groans and frightful thoughts of sterile pretension and indulgent obscurity. But The Human League are not concerned with making a pseudo classical music, or mood music. What they’ve done ingeriously and simply, is to use electronic instruments to make pop music the way everyone else uses guitars. Ultimately, they’re not particularly adventurous – about as derivative as your friendly mainstream new pop group – except they are using totally the wrong instruments.
They’re proving that electronic music can be fun, fresh and just about everything else thought possible.
For instance, they use old man John Cage’s name purely in jest, and you’ll be glad to hear that they shrug indifferently at the mention of Philip Glass and Steve Reich.
“Who? No, never heard of them. No, we’re interested in the, um, cultural side of electronic music.”
Although they’re not particularly vivid or convincing at explaining their music, they are fully acquainted with the pitfalls involved in using electronic instruments – the inviting inclination to doodle rather than dazzle, to inwardly exercise rather than outwardly agitate on instruments which, as they’ll repeat many times, are the easiest of all on which to quickly play ‘proper music’.
“We’ve listened to Stockhausen and just think it’s a load of garbage. You can experiment with tonality and rhythm, but it’s only of interest to the composer and a limited number of people as an academic exercise. It’s not entertainment in any sense of the word. Perhaps you can get some sort of satisfaction out of understanding what was going on in the composer’s brain… probably not even that…
“Tangerine Dream interested us for at a while, being interested in synthesizers, but live they were totally unimpressive, absolutely boring… we just thought there must be better ways of using synthesizers. No one until recently has tried to writing songs using purely electronic means…there’s been plenty of long flowing pieces of music, but that’s not the same as writing structured songs. We’re interested in writing songs.
“We sometimes feel guilty about just doing what we want to do. We feel we’ve an obligation to entertain audiences. I don’t believe people enjoy the intellectual experience as much as they enjoy the fun experience. There’s a hell of a difference between the two.
“There’s a great temptation to be indulgent when you’re playing synthesizers. It’s something we’ve always had to control – it’s been a definite conscious decision since the very beginning not to be self indulgent. It’s very easy to create something that interests you personally , because we all love synthesizer sounds, but to actually adapt self-discipline and make the music more accessible is actually a lot harder than just choosing the first crummy sound that comes out… or the first nice sound for that matter.
“We are definitely trying to popularise electronic music: it should not be elitist.”
The Human League are about assault and effect, not tease. Their influences are as random as those of any other rock’n’roll group whose members are in their early 20s, except that the way they use and fuse those influences is unique because they’re not tied to ordinary poses and noises.
Imagine the feeling you get from all these people and corporals; The Maels, Bolan, Bowie, Lou Reed, Zappa, Roxy, The Goodies, Robert Fripp, early Eno, Neil Innes, Sweet, Space 1969, Rezillos, Andy Warhol, Alice Cooper, Hanra Barbara, Roy Wood. Now, mash it all together and think of a sound that doesn’t flow, dawdle, float, but thumphs, cracks, insists. You’re now close to an impression of The Human League.
If you thin kwaht you’ve arrived at is Giorgio Moroder producing The Sparks, let’s just say that fab thought that collaborations that sound is but one thenth as impressive as the League’s – which is ironic considering how often Moroder’s name is linked with theirs and that Sparks are the one group the band members wil agree they’re all keen on.
More clown than frown, the theatre, vigour and stimulation of pop grafted into a totally radical perspective.
“We don’t actually like the term pop group. It evokes too much… it’s almost infers you’re not serious about what you’re doing. Entertainers would be a more flattering description of what we’re about… if a paper like the Daily Mirror called us a pop group, then that’d be fine.”
“DAVID BOWIE ASKED US BEFORE WE WENT ON AT THE NASHVILLE HOW LONG WE WERE WORKING FOR, WE THOUGHT HUH? OH ABOUT FOUR YEARS I SUPPOSE… AND HE SAID NO, HOW LONG ARE YOU ON FOR… OH 43 MINUTES AND 23 SECONDS…”
THE FOUR HUMAN beings in The Human League are likeable, restless coons; they’re a temperamental, dry unit.
Ian Marsh, who handles synthesizers and ‘devices’, is small, quiet, tense and speaks quickly and keenly. Philip Oakey is awkward, argumentative yet amenable, his conversation constantly cutting and sardonic. He has, as Siouxsie once exclaimed, “a real voice” – a smooth, strong, soulful voice that gives the group considerable melodic and emotional depth. Martin Ware, synthesizers and voice, is steady and straightforward, his comments measured and emphatic.
Gruff non-musician Adrian Wright, grandly labelled as visiual technician, whose visual contributions give the group even more idiosyncratic depth, is the unseen fourth member. While they perform, Wright is perched at the side of the stage with crude programming equipment, projecting selected slides onto two screens. Such decoration, the group emphasise, is not simply a diversion but part of The Human League whole.
Each member is proud in his own way at the state and potential of The Human League. They also take the piss out of each other relentlessly. Wright is usually the target for (perhaps) affectionate ridicule.
Halfway through our conversation in Oakey’s smart Sheffield flat, Wright turns up excitedly informing the rest of the group that he’s just picked up some slides from the developers for inclusion in the act.
“Really!” mock the group.
“Yeah, I’ve got some Bonanza, Crossroads, Emmersdale Farm, Tommy Cooper…”
“There’s some really good programmes on TV,” Oakey sighs. “Horizon, Life On Earth – where you’d get some great pictures. And he takes pictures of Tommy Cooper and Daffy Duck. The stupid League starring, Adrian.”
Great chunks of the interview degenerate into formless and futile dialogue as the group methodically pick holes in each other’s opinions and likes.
Typical of their repartee, and the ultimate proof that The Human League are hardly the frigid, undemonstrative pseuds often assumed, was a few minutes in a Sheffield pub where we had moved towards the end of the interview. Marsh had mused about that… “wedo want to popularise the electronic music form. I can’t think of any other band like us. And that’s why I think we’ll do well and will become popular.”
“But,” pipped up Wright, “whilst they want to be popular, I want to be popular too. I want to be a famous film director!”
Ware: “I want to be more popular than you!”
Wright: “When they’ve got millons when they’re 30, which I can see happening…”
Oakey, mimicking Wright: “I’ll still be walking through Barnsley market finding Man From Uncle cards.”
Wright: “I will be, because they come to me like a magnet… no, but the group is a vehicle for plenty of things, it’s a vehicle for them to make lots of money…”
Ware: “Hey, you’re painting us really black here…”
Wright: “… and it’s a vehicle for me to be famous and start making movies… I was really pleased when we met David Bowie, bit I’d really like to meet Gerry Anderson.”
Oakey (mimicking Wright again): “I was in Barnsley Market, right, and I saw these Man From Uncle cards that I got, right. Now most people don’t understand about The Man From Uncle, right, but Gerry Anderson does, right. I want you to write this down. Gerry Anderson is my hero!”
Wright: “What I like was that David Bowie mentioned me in the NME... he didn’t mention you!”
Are: “I’m not bothered. I don’t want to be famous. I only want the money…oops!”
Oakey: “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY.”
Ware: “Yeah. I love money. No, I’m not bothered. I just want enough to be able to buy a video cassette recorder. That’s quite a lot of money actually… look, we’re not blessed with money, honestly.”
Marsh (dreamily): “Y’known, I’d really like for us to appear on TOTP. Us appearing on TOTP like we do on stage would be quite something. I can’t thinkt of anyone who’s like us, with just synthesizers…”
Ware: “You’re getting a bit obsessed about us being different, a bit over the top.”
Marsh: “But there hasn’t been anyone like us!”
Ware: “What do other groups think of making money?”
Oakey: “Do they like the feel of it in their fingers… do they like the rough jangle of it in their pockets against their thighs…”
Ware: “Hey, you haven’t asked us about our new EP!”
Interviewer eyeing exit: “Oh no. What about the new EP?”
Ware: “We are fairly confident that the rock press is going to hate it.”
Marsh: We’re fairly confident that when we hear it we’re going to hate it!”
Ware: “That’s possible. It’s like archive material, music from our past stuff, things we did fairly spontaneous using our new equipment. They’re all instrumentals. We never get the chance to play instrumentals on stage, mainly because we never want to bore our audience to death…”
Oakey: “So we thought we’d bore them on record…”
Ware: “We thought that before we got tied down to a major company it’d be quite nice to get it out. We don’t really want to make a profit out of it… just a few pence, jangling away…”
Marsh: “It’s going to be a four part EP and it’s called ‘The Dignity Of Labour
Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4’.”
Oakey: “And it’s on Fast Millions…”
You’ll realise that not only are The Human League the most revolutionary rock act around but also the New Monkees.
“WE’RE INTO CHEAP CULTURE BUT NOT IN A CHEAP SENSE. WE RESPECT OUR AUDIENCES. WE HAVE TO. THEY THROW THINGS AT US. IF PEOPLE COME BACK A SECOND TIME MAYBE THEY’LL BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND THAT THERE IS HUMOUR INVOLVED IN WHAT WE DO. BUT POSSIBLY AT THE MOMENT WE’RE NOT VERY GOOD AT PUTTING IT ACROSS. PEOPLE THINK WE’RE TRYING TO BE ENIGMATIC. BUT WE’RE NOT.”
THE HUMAN League came into being at the end of 1977. Prior to that Marsh and Ware had been involved in a group called Future. They never performed, but tapes were pushed towards record companies. “It was very much the same as now, but less melodies, less refined and virtually no vocals.” They got rid of the third musician in Future and searched for a new member. “We thought of Philip for no good reason’”
Oakey: “It was the word member that did it… who’d make a good member?”
Ware: “In fact I’d known him since school.”
Oakey: “Martin has always looked up to me.”
Ware: “I have, actually.”
Oakey: “Here worship.”
Ware: “More that you are three inches taller than me.”
After toying with the name ABCD they settled on The Human League, and played a first, moderately successful gig at a local art college – “although we’re not particular affiliations.”
Despite the fact that their influences and musical loves were largely obvious mainstream rock people, the guitar was spurned in favour of the synthesizer. Perhaps it was the logical extension of listening to Bowie, Bolan, Reed, Sparks, etc., being intrigued by their edge of eccentricity and bizarreness, and being fascinated by the experimentation of those people on the fringes of rock like Frapp and Eno.
Whatever, The Human League have played electronic music from the beginning, when it was totally unfashionable and even reactionary to do.
“Synthesizers are very easy to play. It’s one of the easiest things to do to get an impressive tune out of. We’ve had no musical education or anything like that. It just seemed obvious to us at the time that electronic music was going to be the thing. Rock just couldn’t expand any further as it was. The fact that we were interested…, well it just seemed perfectly logical.
There’s still a considerable mystique around electronic music, with all the knobs and initials… people think it’s really complex. It’s not! Anyone with a modicum of common sense can play a synthesizer. Even Phil.”
In those early days they commited themselves to buying good equipment on HF. “We just had to do something once we’d got that first equipment. It was an inspiration for us not to sit around.”
Almost as soon as they’d begun, the problems of presentation threatened to halt their progression.
“The incorporation of slides into The Human League was initially intuitive. They quickly adapted and realised that the use of pictures was a productive and appropriate way of enhancing their performances.
Both musically and visually they have become aware of the potential of the devices they’ve utilised after they’ve committed themselves. The Human League story is one of accidents and coincidences.
It was after four shows that they realised that three straight-faced guys standing uneasily on stage was not a pretty sight, and didn’t help the unpretentious effect they were after. So Wright, who had a camera, an interest in films and a passionate love for tack, trivia, pulp and general memorabilia, joined up.
“I like them. Not as people… I like the music.”
Ware: “So you thought you’d donate your immense talent.”
Marsh: “And he had an interest in collecting Daleks and bubblegumcards that we thought was quite amusing at the time.”
Ware: “But is has since got totally out of hand.”
Wright: “Yeah, I got a Rin Tin Tin book today…
Ress. “Oh gawd…”
Wright: Yeah, and I got a Fantastic Four book that’s really good.”
Obviously Adrian’s ‘loveable’ fetish for cheap comic culture helped in shaping the content of the slides, but they do blend and bolster imaginatively the edge of eccentricity, the bizarre, the tang of surrealism in the League’s songs.
Ware: “I think Adrian’s interest was definitely instrumental in the way the visuals we’ve approached… The fact that Adrian is totally around the bend.”
Wright: “For that first concert every song was Batman, Star Trek or a few horror ones that I’ve borrowed. They were nothing to do with the music, I didn’t have the slides. Didn’t have the facilities.”
Marsh: “Initially the slides were simply a prop because we were worried about the visual aspect of the group. But it rapidly became more than that. We soon saw the potential.”
Ware: “In the beginningit was just a set of random slides, then we got into programming. The whole band now confers on slide selection. We’ve got a good slide pool now. About 400. Sometimes they complement the music, sometimes they contradict. They trigger off associations. Some of the associations are incredible. Like for ‘Circus Of Death’, the slides at one point are a rocket, the Statue of Liberty and an oil rig, and this guy came up once and said, ‘Have you read Marx?’ ‘What, pardon?’ ‘It just shows you where capitalism’s going doesn’t it?’ ‘What, huh?’ ‘When you put that slide up of an oil rig I just knew that capitalism was finished.’
“We couldn’t believe it.
No two people will react the same way. We’d like it so that there are six screens and people wont be able to take it all in. And they’ll go away and talk about what they saw and felt, swap ideas. The slides stay up on the screen for a certain amount of time, so that you can absorb the image, whereas film, which we were going to use, dictates your pattern of thought. With slides you need to use your imagination more.”
After 50 shows they have established a sophisticated, seemless and suggestive balance between music and slides. They have become a strong, unique live act, most effective in a large hall… musicians all but motionless, and quite nervous, equipment sparsely laid out, their synthesizers housed in wooden frameworks. On other side of this bare functional activity the slides flick through swiftly and systematically.
They’re fun, different to watch, never monotonous to listen to, and good to dance to.
“MUSICIANS DO HATE US. PEOPLE WANT TO SURROUND PLAYING MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS WITH A CERTAIN AMOUNT OF MYSTIQUE. ALL THIS ‘WE ARE BETTER THAN YOU’, THERE’S NO CHANCE OF US GETTING BOGGED DOWN IN TECHNOLOGY AND TECHNIQUE. WE PLAY OUR MUSICAL INSTRUMENTS BECAUSE IT’S SO EASY. MORE PEOPLE OUGHT TO DO IT. PEOPLE SHOULD GO OUT AND BUY THEIR OWN SYNTHESIZERS AND CREATE THEIR OWN MUSIC.”
EARLY LAST year, someone suggested that the group send a tape to Bob Last – then manager of The Rezillos – whose Fast Label was emerging, taking chances and winning.
“So we did and he said yes. I’ll put out a single. He initially thought the tape we sent him was good enough but we ended up doing it on a two track tape.”
The single, boldly wrapped, electronically yours, ‘Being Boiled’ b/w ‘Circus Of Death’ is a crude but charming representation of their sound.
Last has since become their manager.
“The way he became our manager developed from Fast. He put the record out and said he’d help us but didn’t want to mange us because of The Rezillos. We didn’t actually meet him until after that gig in August, which was almost six months after he’d put the record out. We’d always spoken to him on the phone until then. He didn’t look like we expected. He turned out to be a greasy little twerp!”
The group do, however, have faith in Last’s perceptive and ambitious management, but after the‘Dignity Of Labour’ release all future League product will be on a major label.
Their rise really starts here. Thanks to The Banshees who the group toured with at the end of last year, and who you must remember are notoriously choosy about who supports them, persuading Polydor people that the group have considerable commercial potential, it looks set to be Polydor who will pull the hottest unsigned-by-a-major-label act this side of the Little Fingers. I’ve already placed a bet they’ll have a hit single before the summer’s out.
The group themselves anticipate their debut long-player with honest apprehension. Despite the maturity of their live sound, the only time they’ve been in a recording studio was for a Peel session – and the result wasn’t overly satisfactory. This time they’re well aware of the possibility of indulging of overdoing certain songs.
“That’s something we’ll have to watch out for. Like in a 24-track studio if we ever get in one, that’s a hell of a lot tracks. Most rock groups use 10 tracks just for drums, whereas we could get a whole song onto four tracks – which gives us a hell of a lot of scope to play around with. And that could be a temptation to go over the top. We’ll have to watch ourselves.
Any chance of a Bowie or an Eno producing…?
“The problem with using a well known producer is that it increases people’s expectations and will inevitably lead to disappointment if we don’t live up to those expectations. Which is a possibility we can’t ignore. After the Devo build up for instance, the album was quite an anti-climax.”
“WE WANT TO REACH A CINEMA AUDIENCE…”
THE HUMAN League are a tantalising, ill-formulated glimpse of the future leisure activity and entertainment. They await the arrival of video discs with disgusting relish – because that’s when the group will be total. They’ll be around for a long time.
The most important thing they’re doing is de-mystifying the electronic synthesizer.
Apart from all that, they’re just a great rock’n’roll group: accusations of lack of immediacy and intimacy come from those wilful cynics who have yet to experience The Human League Experience. As profound as Public Image Ltd, as trivial as The Monkees. As challenging as Robert S Iverberg. Wait till they grow up!
We leave them arguing.
Oakey: “I just don’t understand why we have to travel around the country in the freezing cold during all these support gigs.”
Ware: “I think what we’re doing is the best way to reach people.”
Marsh: “I do too, and I think you’re completely wrong.”
Wright: “I want you to write this down… I’m writing a science fiction book about the…”