The Face 1980
THE PLAIN PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE
Heather Hart edits a Beginner’s Manual, with Illustrated Slide Lecture (Could someone please draw the blinds?)
WHEN IT comes to roll-calling the places that have made decisive contributions to the course of popular music, the cities of Sheffield and Edinburgh do not spring immediately to mind. Until recently Sheffield’s sole claim to fame was Joe Cocker, and even that’s a (literally) borderline boast.
Edinburgh’s contribution is possibly even less impressive: the Bay City Rollers (!). The underrated Pilot hardly balance the scales, though more recently the city has been able to lay tenuous claim to The Rezillos and The Headboys. Even this, however, has been due more to coincidental use as a meeting place rather than any flowering of local talent.
The one person who has done most to salvage Edinburgh’s credibility is yet another incomer. Take a bow Bob Last, leading light of the “interventionist” independents and establisher of Fast Product. In the early summer of 1978 I sat in Fast’s bizarre, but practical, office while Bob Last previewed the label’s third and fourth singles.
One tape- suitably abrasive but surprisingly melodic after the unlistenable Mekons and the enigmatic 2.3 – turned out to be The Gang Of Four. The other was quite different. It was simply and tuneful, and contained no dole queue rants or buzzsaw guitars. In fact it contained no guitars whatsoever, only polite synthesizers at a time when that much-abused instrument was unheard of in the new wave sphere of activity.
All in all this second tape was really quite friendly and likeable, though I was a little puzzled by the appearance of Hawaii Five-O’s Steve McGarrett in the middle of what was otherwise an imposing scenario about a circus of death. The musicians were the Human league but you’ll have guessed that already.
THE ORIGINS of The Human League can be traced back as far as 1972, to the impeccably working class city of Sheffield where 16-year old Ian Marsh had got himself involved in a youth theatre project (score zero on the street credibility index) called Meatwhistle. Fresh from being chucked out of school, Ian was notable for the synthesizers he constructed himself, and for playing alone at one end of the theatre workroom.
It was there that he met Martyn Ware, the League’s second synthesizer player, who was easily impressed. “I remember being quite amazed by all these rows of switches. Only 10% of them ever did anything.”
The pair eventually ended up together in an electronic band called The Future. (One number recording during this period on a two-track Sony appeared as “Dancevision” on the League’s recent “Holiday ‘80” double single.)
Inspired by the spontaneous combustion of the new wave, Marsh and Ware next found themselves in the company of apprentice vocalist Phil Oakey, a schoolfriend of Martyn’s, and formed The Human League.
“Being Boiled” was one of their earliest recordings, this at the close of 1977. It subsequently surfaced along with “Circus Of Death” on Fast Product, though band and label had only ever communicated by telephone. The initial contact had been provided by 2.3.
Why the all-synthesizer line-up?
“Much easier to play,” say Marsh and Ware, “they’re also quite cheap.”
Ian: “You can’t make much sense of guitars. They seem a fairly strange instrument. I mean, the idea of six strings, four fingers, one thumb – it makes no sense. You have to strain to get a note.”
Martyn: “You have to soak your fingers in alcohol to stop them bleeding. We’re not into things like that.”
Their comments may not be totally serious but their commitment is. The only acoustic instruments they considered was drums, and that idea was rejected in favour of synthesizer dominance at a very early stage of development.
THE LEAGUE’S first gig was at an art college when they made use of video equipment brought along, by chance, by an acquaintance. It wasn’t preplanned and subsequent gigs were performed unaided by visiual back-up.
“I suppose we saw the potential then,” observes Ian Marsh, “but the next two dates we didn’t have anything like that and we thought it was a bit tedious, three people stood around on stage…”
“Especially when you do as little as we do,” says Phil Oakey.
Adrian Wright was an observer at that first gig. When they later started to rehearse in the building in which Wright was living he found out that he became drawn into the group. As the League’s photographer and projectionist he is responsible for their remarkable use of striking visual images.
Quietly spoken and mild by nature, Wright’s fascination with toys, comics, and trash in general. At first seems totally at odds with the sharpness and banter of the other three. His choice of illustrative slides, however, ranging across science fiction, American politics, advertising and death, shows an astute mind at work. Using up to four screens simultaneously (these are located behind the band) he gets through some 400 slides at a show and has a collection which now extends to more than 1200.
Lightshow and slideshows are nothing new but in The Human League’s hands the visuals become an integral part of the show, though not of the music.
Phil Oakey: “I was very scared of ever doing a concert in the first place. If it weren’t for the slides I wouldn’t be on stage, I’d be embarrassed to death.”
Coming from someone who possesses not just one of the great voices of our time but also one of the great hairstyles (“The mpre people who talk about it the better”), this seems a strange claim.
“I don’t do anything,” he says in explanation. “I don’t want to do anything. I don’t see the point in going out and jumping around and looking dead emotional. It’s only a song anyway. It’s not as if you were in a play or something. It’s a song, you’re singing a song. It’s really good to have the slides there, makes all the difference.
“It’s funny though. I’d always assumed we’d succeed on record and completely bomb out live. And suddenly the live (show) is very important.”
A FEW misconceptions can be shattered here: that all synthesizer bands are pretencious, po-faced posers; that the musicians are one step removed from hippies. In conversation the League dispense a large measure of self-deflating good humour, and they cite the same influences as many punk bands – T.Rex, for instance, and of course Gary Glitter whose “Rock’n’Roll” gave them their first sniff of chart action. According to their Virgin biography, Ian Marsh was the first person in Sheffield to buy a Ramones album.
When I met them for the interview section of this piece they were esconced in a twin-bedded room on the second floor of a London hotel. The night before had been widespread consumption of alcohol, dancing to the fading batteries of a cassette recorder in the hotel’s pool room, a game of cricket using hotel cups, pool cue and radiator, and an incident at 5am involving shaving cream.
The curtains were still drawn against the glare of Saturday morning. Ian Marsh was one in bed, still trying to doze despite the banter of Martyn Ware and Phil Oakey. Adrian Wright sat on the floor, trying to watch TV.
Any encounter with these likeable non-comformists is likely to to be an entertaining if slightly confusing one. On stage their brilliant presentation of slides and films to complement what might be called their “meaningful pop” is laced with a sly sense of humour that confuses the less flexible of their followers.
Off stage, an interview provides an interesting cocktail of facts and opinios, uncontaminated by notions of hipness and frequently punctuated by wide ranging but largely irrelevant discussions (“What’s happened to Tiswas? That’s the question.”) They also tend to talk at once.
The League’s short, tuneful songs are co-operative efforts between three musicians who are content to put restraints on themselves to make their music more accessible for public consumption. They’re quite honest about that.
“If you have the facility for writing what we hope are going to be commercially acceptable modes of music,” Martyn Ware offers, “then I don’t see why we
shouldn’t use that ability, to make some money so that in the future we can do some slightly more outrageous things that will appeal to a narrower public. We want to appeal to as many as possible. Who doesn’t?”
As for electronic musical influences, though the band will confess to a deep seated love of electronic music and weird noises, the likes of Tangerine Dream do not go down well.
“None of those people, as far as I know,” says Ian heatedly, “have ever listened to Tangerine Dream. I heard Tangerine Dream when I was about 16. I saw one of their concerts. I didn’t like them. I thought they were really tedious. I bought one album by Edgar Froese called ‘Aqua’ which I quite liked as an entertaining background noise. It wasn’t a big influence. It was no influence, in fact, I hate that type of electronic music.”
Phil Oakey: “We got all Tangerine Dream’s albums – off Virgin.”
Martyn: “The problem is, we can’t sell some of them.”
Phil: “No, I wouldn’t sell them, but as far as I can see there’s only one good one there and that’s ‘Phaedra’ which is quite nice. I mean, I’ve listened to them! I’ve sat in a room and listened to them all the way through – three double LPs and six single LPs. There’s nothing worse than the bloody flu, I tell you!”
Kraftwerk are another matter altogether, winning the Human League Gold Star Of Approval and possibly a tick in the margin as well.
“That’s the only one you can compare us with,” says Phil. “And maybe The Normal.”
“They have rhythms,” Ian adds, “They don’t just meander along.”
“It’s more exciting,” Martyn agrees, “It’s more alive. It’s not for some dumb stoned hippy who’s trying to get off on some future trip.”
ANOTHER name that inevitably crops up in such musical territory is that of David Bowie, not least because he has turned up at Human League gigs and expressed interest in furthering their career. So what was he like?
“Seems all right,” nods Phil. “Seems a very friendly bloke. Just not what everybody says about him. I thought he ‘d come in and be moody and hum selections from ‘Low’ and try and depress you. And in fact he comes in, he’s very nice, very friendly, very complimentary bloke. Really enjoyable to talk to.”
Opinion is divided, however, over Bowie’s more recent work. Ian is the only one who likes anything after “Station To Station.”
“For me,” says Phil, “his best work is with Iggy Pop. The two LPs he did with Iggy Pop are fantastic, landmarks, especially ‘The Idiot’.”
One of the Bowie/pop collaborations, “Nightclubbing”, is another stage favourite, and Adrian’s slide of Iggy never fails to raise a cheer from the audience.
“I think he’s the best male singer and one of the top lyricists,” Phil offers again. “I think his lyrics are fantastically sensitive and intelligent and people miss it about him because he throws himself about and acts like a prat on stage.”
“Thinking about him and Lou Reed,” Phil continues pointedly, “it’s Lou Reed that people really look up to, but go through a Lou Reed LP and there’s maybe 25% of good stuff but on Iggy Pop’s LPs it’s 90% good.”
UNLIKE most electronic bands The Human League paly their synthesisers and don’t let their synthesisers play them. And whereas most electronic music writers seem to have some kind of fixation for being European and/or a machine, or with oldfashioned science fiction “futuristic” films, the songs the League write are much closer to home, at once imaginative and powerful.
Their latest album “travelogue”, for instance contains pointed songs about a father/daughter relationship (“Crow And A Baby”), nightmares with political overtones (“Dreams Of Leaving”), humour (“The Black Hit Of Space”) and a failing all-automatic radio station of the, er, future (“Radio WXJL Tonight”).
Endless examples offer themselves for quotation but the following snippet from their earlier optimistic anthem “Blind Youth” neatly combines The Human League’s sense of humour and their independence of mind:
“Dehumanisation is such a big word/It’s been around since Richard The Third/Dehumanisation, it’s easy to say/But if you’re not a hermit, well the city’s OK.”
A lot of this independence of thought and firm grasp of real life stems from the fact that, unlike most of the dole queue chic contemporaries, The Human League have actually worked for a living. (Marsh and Ware were computer shift leaders, Phil Oakey was a plastic surgery porter.) Their synthesisers were initially obtained on hire purchase.
Having to work their way through this world has clearly left its mark on the League’s non-conformists attitudes. While hardly right wingers, their views on the political leanings of former Fast Product stablemates The Gang Of Four reveal the effects of a working class upbringing.
“There’s a hell of a lot of people who haven’t done any work that have these political leanings, “Phil says almost sternly. “We’ve all worked, I mean, there’s a lot of people who went to college…”
“My father’s a trade unionist, right?” Ian interrupts. “He tells these stories of going to branch meetings where you get really left wing ideas coming across from people and all this talk about working hard. And you get the old trade unionists walking across to have a chat with them and they’re all straight out of university, haven’t done a day’s work in their life.
I really resent middle class kiddies out of university really feeling bad about it, having a guilt complex and feel that they have to play at being working class. It gets right up my nose.”
“Yeah, absolutely,” agrees Phil, and goes on to attack the notion – compound by The Undertones amongst others in their “My Perfect Cousin” – that The Human League are simply art school poseurs.
“That is what I love,” says Phil with heavy irony, “when they say that we’re artsy-fartsy. I think that’s great. We’re working to get out of having to work. Really working to get out of doing jobs.”
Having listened to silently to this tirade against students, Adrian is finally provoked into reply.
“I don’t think there’s something wrong with going to art college without working.” Phil retorts. “I don’t think people should be allowed to go straight from school.”
“I agree”, Ian joins in. “I think at 18 they should be kicked out and just do a job for a few years.”
“There are students who are all right,” Phil concedes when it looks as if things might get uncomfortably heavy, “but they’re the ones who go out in summer and get a job and work hard.”
“I used to work every summer,” Adrian points out. “Used to work in a holiday camp.”
“Well,” says Phil, “I’ll let you off then.”
THERE are those who might argue that an all synthesiser line-up is a little, er, unnatural, but The Human League will counter that it’s definitely the easiest mode of working, and they intend to keep it that way.
“Again, it’s easier – it’s more efficient,” Phil points out. “The point is, you’ve never quite sure what you’re going to come up with. If we want to sound like a bass guitar in the studio, it’ll take maybe 30 seconds – it’ll take Ian 30 days, it’ll take Martyn somewhat less,” he grins. “If we want a string section, we’ll just do one like that, very quickly.”
“Apart from that,” Martyn contends, “It is more interesting to listen to pure electronic music, I think. It’s virtually untouched. There are some things you can’t do with synthesisers…”
“…So far” Phil adds.
“So far,” Martyn echoes. “You can’t accurately imitate a saxophone, or an organic guitar. But that will come, and prices are getting so cheap.”
“Apart from that,” Ina points out, “they make a lot of interesting sounds that are unique anyway. It’s not just about imitation.”