Vogue May 1982

 

THE HUMAN LEAGUE

By Charles Shaar Murray

The Human League are widely acknowledged as this minute’s perfect pop group. The following is an account of their perfectly romantic rise in the charts.

The secret of perfect pop is that one finds it by becoming it. Kim Wilde and Sheena Easton are perfect pop, as are Sting and Adam Ant – instant iconography, animated posters – but their records seem to be more like soundtracks to videos and accessories to posters than the perfect pop music, which should accompany a perfect pop face.

It was instantly apparent in 1977, when punk grew through the cracks of the polite, banal music scene of the time, that rock was about to be shaken out of the doleful snooze into which it had lapsed. What took far longer to become fact was the rebirth of pop. Easton and Wilde have their roots in “family entertainement”, Sting and Adam have theirs in rock, but perfect pop is The Human League, and Philip Oakey’s warm baritone is this minute’s perfect pop voice.

The Human league are everywhere, a beguiling concoction of bitter-sweet hope, overwhelming warmth, sly wit, refreshing textures relying almost exclusively on synthesizers, solid hard dance rhythms and one final image: two young girls singing and dancing with a sweet, direct insolence, flanking a swaying youth. Their album, Dare, with a cover design inspired by Vogue graphics, was the Christmas number one alongside their single “Don’t You Want Me”, the fourth song from the album to catch the fancy of single buyers. The most perfect aspect of The Human League’s discovery and assimilation of the Higher Pop is that it represents that most heartwarming of myths: the eventual triumph of the plucky underdogs. From theirinception, The Human League seemed to struggle from calamity to disaster, weaving from mishap to mishap like a drunk navigating lamp-posts. Philip Oakey was added to the group almost as an afterthought by its original founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who eventually left the group four weeks before a major tour after violent disagreements about the nature and content of their third LP. “They asked me to join because they didn’t think two people were enough for a group,” Oakey remembers. “They could both play the synthesizer much better than I could, and I was the tallest, so they made me the singer.”

 

Oakey’s visual presentation was, and is, almost unnaturally still. “I can’t dance. I never have danced,” he admits, half shame-faced, half perservely proud. “I’ve never seen the need for it really, which is odd because we make dance music.” Since Marsh and Ware were, of necessity, tied to their synthesizers and the tape recorder on which some of the music was pre-recorded, they enlivened their act with slides and films projected and compiled by Adrian Wright, a Sheffield art student who doted on toys, comics, old film and TV stills and The Ramones. The contrast to the punk bands of the time, who concentrated on jumping around, shouting and making loud noises on guitars, and regarded even pianos and organs – let alone syntheiszers – with suspicion, could not have been greater.

They had their admirers, among those who later became known as Futurists. David Bowie saw them,and enthused and they signed to Virgin Records, releasing two LPs and having a near-fit with a revival of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Parts 1 and 2”. On stage, they seemed nervous and mistrustful of their machines, but their combination of glam revivalism and trash SF, was

 

charmingly eccentric and, at its best, quite moving. On the eve of their major tour, the differences of opinion between – on the one hand – Marsh and Ware, and – on the other – Oakey and Wright, split the group neatly in half. Marsh and Ware were wildly regarded as the brains of the outfit, since they played the synthesizers and composed most of the music, and the general impression was that Oakey and Wright had been left holding the baby – in other words, the name and the slides.

 

Ware and Marsh instantly formed themselves into The British Electric Foundation, a production company along the lines of Chic, the US funk-pop band, and their first project was to form a group called Heaven 17, with Glenn Gregory as vocalist. They moved to London and released the brilliant “We Don’t Need This Facist Groove Thang”, a rousing and impassioned funk manifesto. Oakey and Wright teemed up with Ian Burden, an accomplished funk and reggae bassist-turned-keyboard player, and set about recording backing tapes for the tour. One night at a Sheffield disco, Phil spotted Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley dancing, and invited them to join the group. The Human League completed their tour, just about pulling it off. They released a disappointing single written by Wright, who had responded to the departure of Marsh and Ware by participating in the music for the first time. They seemed to be on the verge of a total eclipse by Heaven 17, who had become so fashionable that they probably needed an appointment to talk to themselves.

 

Just as it seemed that Ware and Marsh were having the last laugh, the League released “Sound Of The Crowd”, and all the pieces fell together as if scripted. Burden had written the music, built on an irresistible funk bass line, and their new producer, Martin Rushent, had persuaded Oakey to relax the League’s strict aa-synthesizer policy to include computer drums. The song, a touching ode to the joys of dressing up and dancing, got hem on to the radio and, more important, on television. The combination of Oakey and the girls proved more than the public could withstand.

The current Human League, Oakey, Wright, Joanne, Susanne, Ian Burden and ex-Rezillos guitarist-turned-synthesist Jo Callis, is on the point of becoming an institution. The contrast between the warmth of the vocals, and the icy lushness of the synthesisers is both instantly recognisable and infinitely variable, the musical ingenuity of Callis is considerable, and their combination of slickness and vulnerability is a proven commodity. Still, Oakey is becoming restless. “I always said that there would only be tow albums with Martyn, and I’ve said to a few people that there’ll only be one more Human League album after Dare, because I don’t want it to run forever. There is something trashy about The Human league that ought to be stopped at some stage. If there is great stuff to be done after that, this hould be accomplished under another name. The work could be tainted by The Human league’s name rather than helped by it, unless there’s a very radical change for the next LP. I think the image of the group is so strong that people see the image, and not what’s really good about The Human League – the songs, and the music behind the songs.”