DOING IT FOR THE SQUIDS
Select Magazine January 1995
Prper pop groups are better remembered for their hair tha their tunes, and the Human League are no exception. Phil Oakey’s asymmetric bob towers over admittedly gargantuan hits such as “Don’t You Want Me”, “Fascination” and, er, “The Lebanon”. After the “underrated” Romantic? LP a couple of years ago comes this little bundle of perky pop songs. They look far too ordinary now to be making pop. Phil still sounds as if he’s trying to sing without moving his lips. Joanne and Susan are ever the chorusing waitresses (for, as we all know, most early ‘80s videos were shot in a café). Most tunes are in the familiar League style, songs about facying people and all that, but with a recurrent theme: time sliding inevitably by, particular “These Are The Days”, “House Full Of Nothing” and “Never Again”. Are they bitter? Are they ironic? Witness the dreadful, socially “sincere” lyrics and the song title “John Cleese; Is He Funny?”. Whatever’s going on, the few concessions to modern house music will fail to make much impact in 1995. Unmemorable, from the haircuts down.
Q Magazine January 1995
To expect a bureaucratic detail like label-hopping (Virgin to east west) to signal musical rethink is fanciful: little has altered in the world of naïve-baritone Philip Oakey and singing, dancing, non-songwriting Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley since 1990’s barely-purchaes Romantic? Smooth synth backdrops, the odd techno burp, choc-box harmonies, this hale enough run of love songs rivals M People for shallow simplicity (the “Alexandra/With her secret memoranda” couplet in Words a rare glimpse of cleverness). Too accomplished to evoke the stark glories of history-making Dare, not strange enough to flag the League to a younger audience, only the ambient-chasing Cruel Young Lover and Words that nod to to the future.
Independent January 1995
Phil and the girls are back, the trio who bought “Don’t You Want Me” and who were featured in a Viz cartoon strip saving an alian planet by satging a benefit gig. Signed to a new record label, they sing (and the still can’t sing in tune): “The past is not the place to be / Time to get contemporary”. Who are they kidding? This is the same proudly soulless robopop as before, filled with bleeping, sweeping synths and squelchy bass. But perhaps it makes no sense to call them datesd when Ninties pop is a meseum crowded with artefacts from bygone decades. Forget about fashion and concentrate on the strident tunes and clever lyrics: there’s much to enjoy.
The Times January 1995
Decreasing commercial success after Dare and songs still firmly rooted in the early ‘80s saw The Human League dropped by their last, largely-ignored album, Romantic?
Now with a new deal, Octopus is Oakey and Co attemptingto update their early electro pop sound. Ironically, since Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh were in the original League line-up. First track and former single “Tell Me When” sounds like eerily like Heaven 17. Equally poppy but much more memorable are potential future singles “Cruel Yong Lover” and the Xmas-tinged “One Man In My Heart”.
Tracks such as “These Are The Days” and “House Full Of Nothing”, however, can’t quite shake the aura of cheap TV sci fi series that so dates the Human League’s trademark synth-sound. Moreover, when the band do take their technology into the ‘90s, on “John Cleese; Is He Funny?”, for example, they simply fall into the already-overflowing, post-House pool of electronica. Ultimately, Octopus works best as a tongue-in-cheek take on frilly shirts and hair gel. Here’s hoping The Human League have finally found a sense of humour.
Februaury 1995 new
First, they refused to promote their first post-Dare! album, Hysteria with the result that the band's profile dropped and sales suffered. Then they had to throw away all the demos for their fifth album, which was to have been produced by Colin Thurston (who also produced their first, way back in 1978). The finally ignominy was inflicted on them by the production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who laid down the law during the recording of Crash and produced an album that sounded rather a lot like Janet Jackson and not very much like The Human League This had the interesting side effects of killing the band's career stone dead and setting up friction between League leader Phil Oakey (who has publicly disowned Crash) and the group's label, Virgin (who dictated the use of Jam and Lewis).
Despite the unmitigated musical catastrophe that was Crash, 1988's Greatest Hits collection did well, containing as it did the cream of the band's 80s material. This was followed in 1990 by Romantic?, their final album for Virgin. This disc saw them struggling to recapture past glories and unsure as to whether they should try to sound like they did back in 1982 or update their sound for the nineties. They tried a bit of both with only limited success, and after Romantic? shot into bargain bins with record speed, Virgin and The Human League parted company.
Octopus is The Human League's first album on East-West, who signed them back in 1993. It is also the group's eighth album (sort of - if you include the Love & Dancing instrumental remix album that they released as the League Unlimited Orchestra, it's their ninth), hence the title. As the latest in a long-line of albums attempting to recapture the success of Dare!, it manages reasonably well. It isn't the equal of that album - Dare! was definitely a one-off - but it does get closer to this goal than anything they have released so far. It's streets ahead of Crash, appreciably better than Romantic? and I'd even go so far as to say that it is a stronger album overall than Hysteria.
Where Octopus scores most strongly over Romantic? is in its successful fusion of a contemporary club sound with the group's own distinctive flavour. The last time they tried this, on Romantic?, the material either came across as strong but anachronistic (the Martin Rushent produced tracks) or up-to- date but second-rate (the several weak attempts at adopting a house- influenced sound).
The rather more successful updated sound of Octopus is doubtless due in part to the current commercial techno sound. The synth- pop that the League plied back in the early 80s is rather more directly ancestral to this genre than it was to the house music that dominated five years ago, so the rhythms and sounds used aren't quite so distant. In fact, this album's attempts at a contemporary techno feel are often as strongly reminiscent of the experimental electronics of the League's early Marsh/Ware/Oakey lineup as they are of the sounds of today. The first track on the album, "Tell Me When", is a bright and classy piece of up-tempo dance pop that's a reasonable stab at updating the feel of Dare! to the 90s. It took a while to grow on me, and it is certainly no "Don't You Want Me", but it's a pretty decent track nonetheless.
The second song, "These Are The Days", is a direct reaction to press criticism of their previous album for not sounding enough like Dare!. Oakey's lyrics attempt to shatter the rose- coloured spectacles through which many (myself included) view the early 80s. I can't help but think that it'd have been rather more effective had not this track been the must unashamedly retro piece of early 80s synth-pop on the album. This one would have been right at home on Dare!. Intentional, perhaps, to illustrate that the League can sound exactly like they did on Dare! when they want to, but choose not to live in the past? Hmm.
"One Man In My Heart" is a rather saccharine (yet still enjoyable) song with Suzanne Sulley and Phil Oakey temporarily changing places on lead and backing vocals. This, apparently, is to be the second single from the album and I think that's a mistake. It's a decent enough song, but it lacks the League identity and although Suzanne's voice has improved drastically since the vaguely out-of-tune backing vocals of such songs as "Mirror Man", she's still not exactly what you would call one of the world's greatest singers.
The next track, "Words", surprised me at first since, both musically and vocally, it wouldn't be out of place on Travelogue, never mind Dare!. Oakey hasn't used this particular vocal style in ages. Off the top of my head, I'd say the last time it cropped up was "I Am The Law" on Dare!.
"Filling Up With Heaven" is another decent up-tempo dance track although the synth lead is more suggestive of old Vangelis than The Human League (old or new). It'd make a good single. It's followed by the fun yet decidedly odd "Houseful Of Nothing" in which Oakey rumbles along in a bass monotone over a dub-style beat.
Continuing in unexpected vein, "John Cleese; Is He Funny?" is an instrumental dance track that, to my ear at least, suggests old YMO material as much as anything else. It's completely unrecognizable as being a Human League track but is good stuff nonetheless.
Up until this point the album is easily heading for first position in `the best Human League album since Dare!' stakes. If falters a little near the last hurdle though with "Never Again". With the exception of the decidedly New Musik-like intro, this track is just plain dull. I was somewhat surprised by this, since it's the only song in this album penned by Oakey & Jo Callis, who wrote much of the League's best material back in the early 80s. Callis, by the way, seems to be back in the League again, although his songwriting contribution here seems minimal. The final track, "Cruel Young Lover", is a somewhat misguided attempt at fusing the League sound with an all-out dance track. It doesn't work. All-in-all, Octopus is a pretty good album. Had the last two tracks not let things down a bit, it would have easily been the most consistently enjoyable Human League album since Dare!. As it is, it's only a little ahead of Hysteria as far as quality goes. However, fans of the League shouldn't let this put them off, and those who've heard little of the band since the days of Dare! might even want to give this a listen, just to hear how they've changed.
Sandwiched in between East 17 and Slade, 'Tell Me When', a catchy little ditty, was like a breath of fresh air in the quagmire of novelty festivities. And so, Christmas 1994 saw the return of that dodgy Sheffield band whose fringe reputation precedes them. So, how did this remarkable turnabout transpire?
The answer is probably in the head of Ian Stanley - the man responsible for the freshly remodelled Human League. Stanley - writer, producer, arranger and all round nice bloke has a resume to die for - he started out as keyboard programmer for Tears For Fears on their "The Hurting" album, soon became an integral member, sharing the writing credit for "Shout" as well as half the "Songs From The Big Chair", smash hit album. Stanley learned how to produce on TFF B-sides and went on to be the man behind the control desk for The Sisters Of Mercy and The Pretenders before assigning himself to The Human League as head of A&R at East West .
By recognising the potential that a correctly managed League held, Stanley set himself the task of arranging the songs that would eventually become "Octopus". During this paced, well thought out endeavour, Stanley co-wrote three songs ("These Are The Days", "Filling Up With Heaven" and "Houseful Of Nothing") and ended up producing the project.
23rd of January, 1995 - Octopus was released to a staggering response from critics and fans alike. A musical smack in the face to those who branded The Human League as has-beens.
The album itself, well…
While "One Man In My Heart" opens with a Strawberry Switchblade (remember them?) impersonation from Susan, the relegation of Oakey's baritone to backing vocals doesn't undermine his position as front man it is simply logical to do it that way. Susan's loyalty to her 'man' is conveyed with absolute sincerity whilst classic League chord structures play out almost unsubstantially in comparison.
"Words", a hypothetically disturbing composition about childhood affecting adult psychology, is replete with Depeche Mode (circa '81) primitive percussion and effects work that would not seem out of place on Travelogue. The resurrection of the barely accompanied Oakey vocal, in the first few bars at least, is a welcome return to the atmospherically charged Marsh and Ware days.
DJ's would certainly lap up "Filling Up with Heaven" with a beatific analogue synth solo so amazingly Erasure-esque as to be positively Vince Clarketastic in a sort of restrained non-Andy Bell type way. A chorus so divine as to render depressives helplessly happy descends from upon high.
"Houseful Of Nothing" casts a critical eye on materialism and the value of people compared to possessions. It's a melodic reminder to seize the day and not let chances or relationships escape you.
There was a time when the B-sides of League singles often slipped into comedy, "Non Stop" for example, but "John Cleese; Is He Funny?" is seriously dreamy in the mould of Kraftwerk's "Electric Cafe". Simple, varyingly modulated sequences merge most pleasurably while restrained drum programs synchronise subtle harmonics and effects.
"Never Again" depicts a relationship past the point of return and is a throwback to the days of "Human". It's the slowest masterpiece in this gallery and not the best, for that is yet to come.
Ninth on "Octopus" is "Cruel Young Lover", a techno triumph totally typical as a last track funk out. Comparable to "Rock Me Again(six times)" the closing offering on "Hysteria" on steroids. After a deliciously sinister synthetic introduction, Phil expresses lust, love and anger simultaneously.
Octopus has fully synthetic backing for the now experienced laryngeal tones of Mr Oakey and company. This is not surprising as the not-so-brief flirtation with bass and lead guitars had led to the debasement of the Human League sound during the Hysteria, Crash and Romantic? albums.
Now, halfway through the nineties The Human League have, unlike so many of their counterparts since the dawn of the electronic age, bounced back into fashion. Whether this is a temporary arrangement or not remains to be seen but undeniably Octopus is a triumph in the unspoken, on-going synthesiser versus guitar war.
OK, so the theory that if a band sticks around long enough then they will eventually come up with a hit seems to hold water but… from pathetic to prolific despite a five year holiday?
Stanley's production is as tight as one would expect from the man who practically made Tears For Fears. But it's Oakey's intelligent lyrics which have always shone above the fussy, over-complicated multi-directional production, especially on "Romantic?". Now replaced by a nineties equivalent to the bare minimalism of "Dare" The Human League again have a formula for success. The acidic clicks and no-nonsense bass synthesis that is Kraftwerkian in the extreme is an obvious rebirth of the very conceptual foundations of The Human League Mark I, but who would have thought that sixteen years on it would still work so well?
Having realised that Janet Jackson they most certainly are not and having Virgin axe them would also not, you might think, put a pop group in a very positive frame of mind. Oakey and co. have ignored, with ease, the critical backlash from failure after failure. They have endured their virtual non-existence in the eye of the media and have gone on to produce a positive tour de force with which to fend off the hordes of clumsy imitators chart-wide…
The Human League hadn't learned any new tricks in the four-plus years it took to craft another one of their synth-pop collections. The best track was the most unusual, when Philip Oakey took a backseat and let one of his fellow vocalists — probably Joanne Catherall, though her singing is interchangeable with Susan Ann Sulley's — handle a delicately arranged love song, "One Man in My Heart." But more typical was the song that followed it, "Words," in which Oakey whined at considerable length about undetailed wrongs done to him in childhood. Even with a good dance beat, such stuff was hard to stomach, and most of the blips and blats that filled up the tracks had been used to better purpose on earlier recordings.
Following the commercial failure of "Romantic?", The Human League were dropped by Virgin. It was four years until they were signed by EastWest, who released their sixth full studio album. 'Octopus' was hailed as something of a return to form, spawning three UK Top 40 singles and hitting the top 10 itself.
The most recognised track is leadoff single "Tell Me When", which became their biggest UK hit since "(Keep Feeling) Fascination". It's one of their best tracks too, with a catchy chorus and an uplifting arrangement, with the three vocalists perfectly balanced. Aside from that, some other tracks are worth particular note - the Susan Sulley-led "One Man in My Heart" is an affecting downbeat ballad which doesn't sacrifice the band's unique sound (for a start, Oakey's wonderfully awkward backing vocals put the Human League stamp all over it), which "These are the Days" is a remarkably well-constructed song, with the lyric sounding emotional while retaining some distance, and thus not making Oakey sound as uncomfortable as he did on, say, 'Crash'.
Overall, it's the group's most consistent album since 'Dare'. While the other tracks blend into one a little, there's nothing bad here - something which can't be said for their three previous albums. Only the instrumental, "John Cleese; Is He Funny?" (a title which makes this rather faceless instrumental sound more enthralling than it is, sadly) outstays its' welcome, but lots of it is very same-y. Perfectly competent, well performed, well-written, but just that little bit repetitive. The group play to their strengths, and this means that the album is always listenable, mixing their electronic roots with pop sensibilities.
Like the last three albums, this is fans-only territory. There's little here that will convert you if 'Dare' hasn't. For your money you will get a comfortable band happy with their sound - this is what the post-'Travelogue' Human League should sound like, it would just be nice if there were a few more surprises up the group's sleeve.