NEWICK 2004 REVIEWS June 2004

Graham Reed  

Electro Clash. Electro Pop.When Decades collide....

That is the sound of the Human League. The English Kraftwerk, if you like ; though criminally ignored.  And now playing a provincial free festival in a small market town to 10,000 locals.

There’s very little to do in Newark except well, get drunk, fall over and throw racist abuse in the local kebab house; no disrespect to Newark, its just one of those small local towns where nothing happens. (And yes, the one thing I did see in the local kebab house was the guy who served me giving an interview to the Police about having racist abuse thrown at him).

Until once a year, they throw on the Newark on Water Festival. Tonight Matthew, I will be the Human League. Supported by a mildly entertaining tribute band playing Darkness and Robbie Williams tunes. And then they do “Hey Ya” by Outkast.

First thing we see is a pierced guitar player in a Peaches shirt, and a bob. Looks like Placebo have wandered on stage by mistake. This is not the Human League I expect – a washed up retro 80’s act. Oh no – this is something else. Something not content to relive the glory days of retro ; but still paying attention to the new stuff. And then Phil Oakey comes on stage. Big Black Coat, sunglasses. Looks like Darth Vader, mixed with Judge Dredd, clothed by Gaultier. And then the music starts.

Big chunky electro riffs. Oh no, this looks like it’s going to be terrible. But sounds brilliant.  It’s reminding me it’s going to be an interesting evening, filled with an audience of bored locals and their kids, and deck chairs and packed lunches, drunk men in England shirts and baseball caps…and some of the finest electropop every written.

“Hard Times” segues into “Love Action” . Oh YES. Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. This is gonna be good. Darth Vader disappears, replaced by Phil Oakey as Gordon Gecko, skinhead style.  And every song sounds like now. Right now. Not the now of 20 odd years ago, when most of them were written, but the right now of Electro Clash. Of Fischerspooner. Of a world looking so far forward we’ve gone into reverse, and now they've shown themseleves to be ahead of the times - and still are. After 20 years, every song sounds like it could have been written yesterday. Perfect melodic pop songs, bittersweet lyrics, and girls singing. And it doesn’t sound like yesterday at all.

With a greatest hits set through and through, concentrating heavily on their seminal 1982  “Dare” album (5 tracks) and pretty much every major hit, it’s a surefire crowdpleaser of a set. Unlike say, the Pet Shop Boys who remix every song extensively for every tour, the League don’t. They don’t need to. They sound as relevant now as they  did then. And then some. Though Phil Oakey’s obsession with American Geopolitics is kept well hidden – (“Seconds” is revealed to be about the Kennedy Assasination, and “Heart Like a Wheel” he once admitted was about US international relations), the fact of the matter is, even with this being a trip down memory lane to a time of trimmer waistlines for most people here, it sounds now - and not as in the “Here and Now” tour, I might add.

Even if Phil does mention that “Human” was a song written from them by Jam & Lewis (who? Asked 99% of the crowd, unaware of such mid 80’s RN’B production teams), and the last song is courtesy of Giorgio Moroder – another name lost on the crowd here – it means one thing to me. That the League know the right names to work with. And haven't forgotten the credit neither. No ego's here. When Phil introduces the entire band, he forgets to introduce himself.

If Kraftwerk get the plaudits they deserve, the Human League don’t.  Widely acknowledged as influential, its because the new stuff – such as “All I Ever Wanted” sounds fresh and new, not the work of people who’ve been making records for 25 years. And also, “One Man in My Heart” showed where the electro-pop template so commonly favoured has been stolen from – especially by the criminally ignored and forgotten Dubstar, who seemed to nick their entire sound from this song. And “Tell Me When” sounds like a song ten days old, not ten years.

“Don’t You Want Me” – you know this one. Everyone knows this one. It’s impossible not to play it. There’s a reason why people don’t cover Human League songs – you can’t improve on perfection. Sample them to hell maybe, but cover them? No need. Every one of these songs is known inside out. And everybody knows every word, shouting them out madly. It’s a joyous moment.

They disappear off stage and do the encore. Empire State Human” is the only dated song of the night, from the debut album, and comes across as Naïve and simplistic. But then…

Then It’s my favourite moment. Forever tied to a computer named Edgar.

Now, it’s a weird noise. It’s a guitar trying to sound like a keyboard that was trying to sound like a guitar. It’s “Together in Electric Dreams” – quite possibly the finest lovesong of the 80’s about a boy, a girl and a jealous computer. And simply perfection. Though again, seeing  a guitar solo from the League is something I never thought would happen – to me it’s up there with an acoustic set from Kraftwerk, but hey, that’s just me.

I didn't know what to expect. But I know what I came away with. Anyone who's written off the Human League as hasbeens needs to know two things - firstly, when you write songs this good, you aren't ever going to be in that catergory. And secondly, when you sound this good, you aren't going to be in that catergory. Sure you can write them off if you like because they aren't overhyped 19 year olds on too much sugar who play songs written by other people, but you don't last 25 years in this without talent - or professionalism. And that's something they have in oodles. Even when it comes to playing a free festival ina  provincial town, they don't miss a beat and it's as good a gig as any I've seen in a long time.

Quite simply, classic. Retro? maybe. They did play all the hits. But did they sound dated? no. Did they sound timeless? yes. They may be ignored by the charts, but lets face it, it's the charts loss. What do the charts matter for the rubbish in there nowadays? not much. For gods sake, they've still got it. And thats all matters.That and the sound of the crowd.

They once wrote a song called "soundtrack to a generation". They were. They still are. And will be again, with any justice in this world. For the League, they've got a great future behind them. Nevermind, it's just a matter of time before the rest of the world catches up with their future. The League will be waiting...