NME October 1979 new
EVERY TV appearance Gary Numan makes, must be like a dagger to The Human League, every radio play a bit more salt in the wound. And they’ve only themselves to blame for not striking whilst the iron was hot.
Instead of dithering around with the unnecessary pretentious ‘Dignity Of Labor’ – a blatant attempt to acquire an ‘artistic credibility’ they neither need nor deserve – and the embarrassingly half-assed ‘The Men’ debacle, they should have gone all-out for the killer single… the TOTP appearance and the teeny mags. In failing to do so, they’ve quite possibly sealed their own fate, consigned themselves to the level of Johnny-come-lately rip-off artists in the eyes of the nation’s youth.
Ah well, that’s showbiz
Y’see, The Human League never started out with any delusions of importance, either musical or gestural, unfortunately for them, they’ve been saddled with gestural significance (all that “human face of synthesizers” schtick) which, though initially useful, has come to overshadow the music so completely as to render it meaningless. They’re trapped in the strait jacket of definition, a definition moreover, which ‘Reproduction’ doesn’t live up (or down) to. Dehumanisation may be such a big word and it may, for all I know, have been around since Richard The Third, but it’s syre as hell going to take a better argument than ‘Reproduction’ to convince me it doesn’t exist. On the contrary…
Comparisions with Kraftwerk, to whom they’re apparently a reaction, are obvious and unflattering. On the purely technical side they’re nowhere near the Germans’ absolute mastery of their craft, nor are their tunes as attractively infectious.
And as for piercing Kraftwerk’s aesthetic superstructure, they haven’t got a chance. To recap: Kraftwerk reduce music to the status of metaphor – their perfect rigidity is an aural metaphor for their entire aesthetic – so their music could not be other than it is. And in choosing synthesizers they’ve deliberately discarded the dynamic perculiarities of conventional rock instruments, and made this loss a virtue in terms of their aesthetic – by exaggerating the instruments limitations and drawing attention to them they make a socio-political point.
In stressing the human side, and deliberately making simple pop, The Human League unwittingly verify Kraftwerk’s hypothesis: for that which can dance to ‘Reproduction’ is not wholly human. There’s an unavoidable flatness, blandness, and lack of emotion and dynamics because their progressions and climaxes are so obvious, so predictable, and so colourless. Pop music should be just that – fizzy, sweet, and bad for your health: ‘Reproduction’ is as flat, neutral and unappetising as a glass of Coke that’s been standing for too long.
A lot of the blame for this lamentable state of affairs has to rest on vocalist Philip Oakey’s shoulders. As the possessor of a natural singing voice, he has the ability to give their material some emotional sting, to lend a sharp cutting egde of uncertainty to the ponderous inevitability of the music. But instead of feeling the songs, he runs through them: there’s no projection in his singing, just enuclation. He remains restrained, impersonal, distanced from the subject-matter, unwilling to break the rules the way Sinatra, Crosby, Dylan, Buckley, Lydon, Beefheart, Presley, Waytt and a whole host of soul singers ded. And until he does, he won’t come near recognising hisfull potential.
The Human League Story, so far, is one of missed chances combined with unclear thinking and lack of forethought. Rather than redressing the balance, ‘Reproduction’ only serves to throw their shortcomings into sharper focus.
Sounds October 1979 new
DON’T BE a dummy…Zarki looked at the cover: naked babies trampled on by adults. A cheap shock shot masquerading as message? There’s a baby on the back and Star Trek sci-fi portraits on the inner sleeve. Play it Zarki.
Church organ explodes into a jerky fairground rhythm cut into by unattractive but strangely magnetic vocals. Synthesised Sheffield sob stories follow. High technology music for industrial man? Glimpses of tomorrow’s world? Or electronic pop fun?
Zarki preferred the latter interpretation. Although he thought of the band as basically part of a renewed head band chic for metamorphosing flower kinder he rated them miles above those grimmer, austere and morose young people painting their bleak, ice cold New Musick portraits with an intensity that couldn’t be good for their health.
Yeah, The League were Big Fun. Especially live where he’d often enjoyed the humour of their slide shows. Indeed it was the absence of the visuals that had thrown his judgement about ‘Reproduction’ to begin with. Once he’d adjusted to moving in one dimension he was easily seduced into believing that this was excellent synthesizer pop.
That even if serious messages were involved in The League hung on in with a great sense of humour and made marvellous mass music that he loved to listen to in the dark with his headphones on, just like the way he used to listen to Pink Floyd.
He pointed to ‘The Word Before Last’ as the missing link between the two and at the superbly dismembered ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ and ‘Empire State Human’ as examples of their bizarre comedy. The League were easily assimilated into his tastes because they were so human. ‘Dehumanisation is such a big word/It’s easy to say/Buf if you’re not a hermit the city’s okay’
Zarki had almost been a hermit because of his secret. His secret concerned K. When K’s genitals had inexplicably exploded one evening on the tube coming home from work Zarki had been terrified. His secret was that he had coaxed the hapless K home, killed him and buried him in his garden.
Zarki’s second secret was that every Sunday he’d unbury K’s body to make sure the incident hadn’t been detected. His second secret endangered his first, so he created a third more advanced secret – he burned the body and kept the ashes under his bed in a jar.
He then had to hide it from the cleaning lady, digging it out to check after she’d gone and thus recreating his second secret on a higher level. And so the process went on.
Eventually it became so secret that even he didn’t know about it. One day Zarki came across a policeman’s helmet, wrapped up in the cleaning lady’s apron, containing two test tubes full of acid and half a dead rat.
It had bothered him for weeks. At long last he had written an angry letter of complaint to Richard Nixon and ended up a prosecution witness in the Watergate trials. Zarki wondered what the Human League would make of that….
SMASH HITS October 1979 new
With their amazing slideshow, strong melodic songs, warm good humour and intriguing all synthesizer line-up. Sheffield’s excellent Human League will certainly be among the leaders of the ‘80s. This first album suffers badly from lifeless presentation but is a grower and still a definite goodieGreatness is inevitable – be the first one on your block, etc. Best tracks: "Girl One, "Blind Youth"
NME July 1990
…A fittingly extraordinary debut album. Initially macabre (the opener “Almost Midieval” contains cheery lines about gibbets and cataracts) it alternates between the bleaky sinister and the mordantly funny. “Blind Youths” is a terse, groovy rejoinder to punk’s gratuitous nihilism whilst “Path Of Least Resistance” attacks the easy life. Inhabiting a sound world entirely on its own making, “Reproduction” is full of wicked, kitsch, off-kilter romanticism. And “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” has all the pathos of the original but with an added dimension of fear…
Q Magazine January 1995
Powerful, foreboding debut LP exploiting all-male first line-up’s love of all things sci and fi, contains at one end of sonic spectrum, thumpalong comic book-style Empire State Human and, at other, truly affectionate, irony-free cover of the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.
...The trio of Marsh, Ware, and Oakey all handled vocals and synthesizers to create a set of grim, rigid tracks that revealed a greater lack of humanity than even Kraftwerk. It's a surprise that Human League hit the British charts at all (with the single "Empire State Human"), since this could well be the most detached synth-pop record ever released.
www.brainwashed.com March 2003 new
1979's Reproduction is the first full-length LP by The Human League, following some 12" singles and EPs released the year before. The reissue treatment fully remasters and restores the sound, as well as adding loads of supplemental material, including the ultra-rare The Dignity of Labour EP and their first single Being Boiled. Reproduction finds the group in pristine form, matching dark, futuristic lyrics with mechanized beats, icy synth melodies and keyboard swooshes. Phil Oakey's lyrics elaborate on his childish, science-fiction obsession with an apocalyptic view of the future. The second track "Circus of Death" is a rambling, surreal narrative about a future holocaust perpetrated by narcotized clowns. Fans of early Gary Numan classics such as "Down in the Park" will appreciate this album. All of the elements of the latter day, chart-topping Human League are present, but the album maintains a consistently arch, clinical distance from the listener. This is only enhanced by Oakey's wry, detached wit and passionless delivery. One of Human League's best songs is here, the strangely upbeat "Empire State Human," a song about avarice and the desire to attain superhuman powers, set against a relentless proto-electro beat. By far the strangest track, "Morale," begins with some ambient synthesizer arpeggios, reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Philip Oakey pipes in with some mournful lyrics, and the song slowly segues into an absurdly overproduced cover of The Righteous Brothers' "You've Lost That Loving Feeling." I'm not sure what the League were thinking here, but it somehow works. The Dignity of Labour functions as a four-part tribute to early electronic pioneers like Morton Subotnick, Raymond Scott and Bernard Parmegiani. It's completely instrumental, and consists of a series of musique concrete soundscapes. As such, it is the most avant-garde recording that The Human League ever released. Tacked onto the end of this re-release is The Human League's first single, "Being Boiled (Fast Version)." I won't go into a description of this song as it is has popped up on at least 20 compilations in just the past year. This version has the exact same tempo as every other version of the song I've heard, so I'm not sure what makes this a "fast" version, however. Reproduction is essential listening for anyone getting into The Human League or the Sheffield post-punk scene.
www.remembertheeighties.com June 2004 new
Remastered and reissued with
bonus tracks 'Travelogue' and 'Reproduction' are without doubt essential
Human League items. Recorded in the pre-Dare years ('Reproduction' in
1979, and 'Travelogue' in 1980) this is literally the sound of electronic
musical history being made, with all the pomp and self-importance
necessary to embark on such an epic journey.
www.incendiarymag.com December 2004 new
Once upon a time, in a city called Sheffield, all was not well.
The steel industry, once the backbone of the city, was broken. The former employer of over half the population had caught a dose of recession and collapsed. Meanwhile, modern urban planning schemes had failed to provide nirvana in the high-rise housing estates after the slum clearance of the 50’s & 60’s. The city was impoverished and marginalized, caught on the cusp of a broken past and an uncertain future and to cap it all, the land had just fallen into the iron grip of an evil queen.
Against this backdrop 2 young men formed a band called The Human League.
Do you know The Human League? Surely you know 1981’s international smash, Dare? A synthpop sensation yielding a Christmas no. 1 in the UK with “Don’t You Want Me Baby” and 3 other top 20 singles (“Sound of the Crowd”, “Love Action”, “Open Your Heart”). How about 1984’s album, Hysteria (featuring “The Lebanon”); or Crash in 1986, with the US chart topping single, “Human”?
Well, forget all that shit. Yes, Dare was a great album but it was the last one they made. I want to take you back to when it all started. The Human League in 1979 was a completely different band.
Ian Craig Marsh and Martin Ware were both dedicated Kraftwerk fans. They eschewed the use of conventional instruments, making their own synthesizers, until in 1977 they bought their first Korg. Following a brief fling as The Future (also featuring Adi Newton who later left to form ClockDVA), in 1978 they enlisted the help of friend Philip Oakey to front the band because “he was tall” and they thought he would look good at the front. A single, “Being Boiled”, was released that year to underground, but significant, acclaim; leading to a support slot for The Rezillos and a tour with Siouxsie and the Banshees.
The following year the trio, who had been joined by Adrian Wright as Director of Visuals prior to the Rezillo’s gig, released an EP, The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1-4. This bombed, but major record companies were now expressing interest and The Human League ended up signing to Virgin Records and touring Europe with Iggy Pop.
Then, in July 1979, the group came together at the Workshop studio in Sheffield. Over a 3-week period they recorded an album called Reproduction that, at the risk of sounding grandiose, was to change the landscape of British music and bring the German new wave to our shores.
Like all great new things it shocked from the outset. Even the sleeve, in those sensitive days, was deemed frightening and distasteful. It featured babies (one of whom was allegedly the son of Slade’s front man Noddy Holder!) being crushed underfoot by an aloof and uncaring elite. As good a metaphor for the geographical, industrial and political landscape of Britain at that time as any. A requiem for innocence. Dystopia.
And this sentiment is amplified by the music. Which is hard to describe. To say The Human League were influenced by Kraftwerk is to state the obvious. The Human League was a band that had almost no contemporaries on the British music scene – Cabaret Voltaire, Throbbing Gristle, Brian Eno …? Theirs was an amalgam of these, the spirit of Punk and an adoption of Kraftwerk’s utopian dream which they examined and found faulty. There was no bright glorious future, just a dark uncertain path towards failure, disillusion, isolation and death.
And this theme runs throughout Reproduction, which at worst is bleak and full of stumbling despair and at best draws a wry, pain-wrought smile, clambers to its feet, throws back it’s shoulders and resolves to go on. Except when it doesn’t. Except when it aggressively jumps up and cries: “Fuck You, we’re gonna make it!” And along the way there’s beauty, melancholy, originality and indecipherability…
The album opens with “Almost Medieval”, which is tight, punchy and aggressive and has a throbbing electronic bark reminiscent of The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette”, the b-side to Mute record’s first release in 1978. This is followed by “Circus Of Death”, which was on the flipside of the first single “Being Boiled”. Re-recorded for inclusion on Reproduction, it’s serious and unselfconscious, with its chilling tale of an evil clown and his drug crazed followers; backed by a simple, chugging baseline, warbling theremin-like noise and descending glissando sequences.
“The Path Of Least Resistance” pre-empts the same electronic beats and handclap rhythms used by Depeche Mode on Speak and Spell in 1981. A tight, bleak song the lyrics speak of apathy, asceticism and an early grave. In contrast to this, hope shines out on “Blind Youth”. With it’s aggressive bounce it embraces the high-rises and the city and promises that things will work out in the end. Fitting then that in its original demo incarnation the track was called Optimistic Anthem.
The same emotional pairing is found with “The Word Before Last” and “Empire State Human”. I’m listening to this album on a grey, windy Monday morning and “The Word Before Last” makes a perfect soundtrack. It’d also be great for kiddies parties. Sample lyric: “the eternal moment laid bare / no time to heal / continual pain / continual pain”. But before you lose the will to live the joyful “Empire State Human” kicks in. Uplifting and infectious with sci-fi sound effects from a BBC Radiophonic Workshop loved up on E and bizarre lyrics about a driving desire to be tall, this was the only single off Reproduction and it undeservedly sank without a trace (although a reissue in 1980 saw it ascend to the heady position of no. 62 in the UK charts).
Morale… sounds more like Phillip Glass than anything else. Yet it’s chiming melody holds no hope. This is as dark and grim as it could get in Sheffield in 1979 but still Oakey’s voice holds a power and a poignancy that elevates the spirit and holds back the knife, before the music sweeps you into the Spector penned, Righteous Brothers classic, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. Here Marsh and Ware’s textured electronic discordance make a perfect backing rhythm to this song and the bass synth has never sounded better as it threatens the integrity of your internal organs. Against this Oakey’s occasionally monotone voice shines like a mirror on black velvet.
With “Austerity/Girl One” (medley), hope again springs eternal. The music lifts and bucks, straining against the dark yoke of the lyrics, and then the reverse is true as the song switches and the music takes an emotional dive. Then we find Philip Oakey’s vocals to be the key to escape, as they are in so many Human League songs. From a monotone, half spoken delivery that can drive you to depression he suddenly lifts and hits a note like sunshine inside.
The original album closes with “Zero As A Limit” which is a slowly accelerating machine. Gaining velocity with every move forward, both lyrically and musically it reaches a full head of steam before, pistons pounding, the track derails and the album literally comes crashing to a halt.
Fittingly enough, “Introducing”, the first of the extra tracks and originally the b-side to “Empire State Human”, picks up where the album and “Zero As A Limit” left off. Sifting through the wreckage to the wail of sirens, pulling aside the tortured lumps of steel, we find a beautiful harmony of metal on metal - a rhythm that Depeche Mode finally achieved circa 1984 with Something To Do (metal mix). This is Metal Music from Steel Town.
The EP, “The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1-4”, follows. As Kraftwerk as a Dorset pottery shop featuring handmade candles and small woodland creatures made from forest debris, this EP proceeds to deliver an uplifting, repetitive and slightly atonal instrumental as if the utopian dream was still intact. Part 2 degrades into an abstract mix of beats and bleeps that 1988’s LFO and any other acid house progenitors would have been proud of. Part 3 continues with a collection of throbbing metal beats that predict the arrival of bands like Skinny Puppy, KMFDM and Frontline Assembly before suddenly throwing on the handbrake and performing a rotating U-turn that sends it heading for the clouds and a krautrock crystal landscape. Very Tangerine Dream. Then Part 4 comes on like a lesson in “How To Play Your Yamaha Home Organ - Krautrock Style” (or maybe it’s your Stylophone); meets the Eraserhead Soundtrack.
“Flexi Disc”, a give-away with “The Dignity Of Labour”, is a tenebrous discussion on the merits of releasing a flexi disc and the function that flexi disc, as art form, should fulfil. Oh, and an interesting anecdote about Yuri Gagarin and a cup of tea.
The last two tracks on this reissue are the original version of songs released on the League’s first record label, Fast Product. The bass on “Being Boiled” trembles your earballs, big style. Rougher and readier than the version that appeared on their second album “Travelogue”, this is lo-fi pop at its best and most influential. Disappointed to find that Buddhism wasn’t the religion he thought it was (he was after something on Hinduism and bought the wrong book), Philip Oakey penned this vitriolic attack on a religion that condoned the boiling of live grubs for the silk trade.
The original version of “Circus Of Death” differs from the album version both in terms of treatment (like “Being Boiled” the track was “glossed up” for inclusion on an album) and in the opening verbal introduction. The album version is introduced by a TV presenter announcing another episode of Hawaii 5-0. The single version opens with the following lines:
“This is a song called the Circus Of Death.
It tells the true story of a circus we met.
The first two verses concern the actual arrival at Heathrow Airport of Commissioner Steve McGarrett.
The third emotionally describes a map showing the range of the circus.
The fourth and fifth were extracted from an article in the Guardian of March the 19th, 1962.
The last is a short wave radio message from the last man on Earth”.
I played this to a friend from Sheffield and made the comment that “they took themselves very seriously”. “Well”, he exclaimed indignantly “they ‘ad to, they were from Sheffield”.
And he’s probably right. They did take themselves seriously because they believed in themselves and what they were doing. The Human League came from a difficult time and place and they had the faith and the courage to make New Music. New Influential Music.
Q Special Editon January 2005 new
…There had never been pop music like this before, and there hasn’t been much since. Yes, Tangerine Dream and David Bowie had used synthesizers and, yes, Kraftwerk had mastered Teutonic deadpan. But Reproduction combines existentialism, the cult sensibility of Roxy Music, and a kind of pop sci-fi into an aesthetic all of their own. Heard in the gleeful chaos of the post-punk era, it was steely, Northern, intellectual, witty and literate, but also marinaded in disco, glam and pop.
Almost Medival begins with a droning Elizabethan fanfare for mini-Moog and then crashes into a nightmarish cybernetic Glitterband stomp with a perplexing, unforgettable lyric, “Jump off the tarmac/There’s no stagecoach speed limit/Outside the office hangs the man on the gibbet/Soft lenses grow to glasses/Small world dimly seen through cataracts”.
Circus Of Death is just as creepy. A mad clown is enslaving the world with a drug called Dominion. Humanity’s last hope rests with – wait for it – Steve McGarret of ‘70s TV cop show Hawaii Five-O; a touch that displays the League’s oblique wit. Behind the narrative we hear demented electronic fairground and callilope sounds. The Path Of Least Resistance features a sample of Prime Minister James Callaghan. Blind Youth, originally called Optimistic Anthem, contains the word “dehumanisation”, but is essentially a song telling Britain’s whinging punks to cheer up and pull themselves together. Empire State Human is a Weimar cabaret nursery rhyme about a boy who grows to giant size by sheer force of will, as one does.
There is no cringing futuristic guff here. They liked some of Kraftwerk’s music, but declared in an early interview that the Man Machine “sucked” for its hackneyed posture. The centrepiece of Reproduction is an astonishing seven minutes proving that electronic music need not be desiccated and impersonal. Morale – covered, bizarrely, by Hot Gossip – is a cracked, agonised interior monologue from an old man at the end of his tether. Oakey’s voice, by turns raging and defeated (“I’ll always be stuck here in this foul little room with a view of the curtains”) soaring above the crystalline arpeggios, which mutate into white noise from which in turn emerges the most beautifully tender and moving version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling you will ever hear. It’s a long way from the kitsch sausage machine approach of Erasure’s Abba-Esque.
TODAY, REPRODUCTION SOUNDS like nothing else from its era, perhaps explaining why the response at the time was oddly muted. Or perhaps it was the distressing cover of some babies being danced on, one which is said to be the Noddy Holder of Slade’s son. Garry Bushell wrote a baffled review fro Sounds in which he pretended to be an alien called Zardii. What a card, eh?
The CD re-issue is unmissable, containing bonuses such as the Electronically Yours single. The Dignity Of Labour EP, a four-part suite of eerie electronica, and even the Flexi-Disc which accompanied the EP, in which the band argue at length about wheter to bother with the Flexi at all before a brief, bonkers explanatory statement by Oakey. Finally comes a comment from Adrian Wright who is leafing through a magazine in the background: “Kid here wants to swap a fishing rod for a Dr Feelgood album.“ Something of The Human League’s greatness is in these few hilarious and strange minutes. But what happened next, of course, is even stranger.
The Human League are, of course, famed for the "Dare" album and THAT song, but less well know about them is that "Dare" was preceded by two albums in their own way as important as that synthpop masterpiece. Virgin have rereleased these two classics with a host of added rarities and extras to rectify that.
Developing out of their earliest days as The Future, The Human League Mark I had more in common with their fellow Sheffield band Cabaret Voltaire and the Industrial Records bands than with polished synthpop Phil Oakey came to pioneer when the band split into Heaven 17 and The Human League Mark II. Even in the early days, though, the League had a stronger sense of melody than any of their contemporaries at the time and showed far more of a Kraftwerk influence than the likes of SPK or Throbbing Gristle. However, their sound was certainly not pop music, harsh minimal electronics with Oakey's voice far more droning than it would become.
Through both albums there's a strong thread of humour, whether it be the futurist nightmare about a new record (the now even more humorously out-dated 'The Black hit of space') on "Travelogue" or 'Empire state human' on "Reproduction", the classic track about wanting to be tall, tall, tall that's still regularly played in alternative clubs.
"Reproduction" is the more varied of the two as they had begun to experiment with numerous different styles and Phil's voice as shown on the version of 'You've lost that loving feeling', which is backed, in proper industrial style, with a sparse discordant sound that contrasts with the singing.
Much has been written about how influential these albums were, basically writing much of the template for the emergence of the various forms of dance music in early '80s Detroit. They're continued influence was most recently shown when Liberty X samples 'Being boiled' from "Travelogue" on 'Being nobody'. These two albums are, simply put, essential, so much so that I now have them on CD and vinyl.
www.adriandenning.co.uk 2007 new
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh
were two computer operators in Sheffield. They bought a cheap synth or two,
invited Adrian Wright in to sort the visuals out for live performance and
Philip Oakey to work the microphone. A fairly pioneering bunch they were at
the time. 'Reproduction' is an album exploring the melodic potential of the
keyboards and synths they had, which were brand new things at the time.
Firmly influenced by Kraftwerk they went for a detached, icy feel - a
windswept and austere european emotion. 'Reproduction' is often criticized
for its lack of actual melody but that's slightly unfair. True, it's not
bursting at the seams with the stuff but Phil Oakeys lyrics and voice keep
the project grounded. Indeed, his lyrics are actually really interesting at
this stage in his career. The album is something of a mixed bag though it
must be said. It does go from the ridiculous to the sublime. The ridiculous
arrives with a cover version of 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling'. Played on
a monophonic synth, something like a two note backing track amidst assorted
beeps, noises and created samples. Overall, it's a comically bad cover
version and if they were playing stuff like this live it's no wonder the
punks threw stuff at them. On the sublime side we have 'Empire State Human',
very much in the mould of the single 'Being Boiled' ( a bonus track here )
and a genuinely fresh sound, even when listened to today. Thankfully, there
are other strong tracks too. These strong tracks aren't melodic as such in
the way 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' by The Beach Boys is melodic. Take a track
like 'Almost Medieval' and give Martyn and Ian credit for creating such a
sound with minimal resources. Squelchy sounds, a snare sound and a very
simple melodic strand for Oakey to sing his lyrics over and fine lyrics they
are too. It's an album opener full of drama and it rewards repeated
listenings because there's more going on than first meets the eye.