What does it sound like?:
I often wonder what went through Mr and Mrs Sulley’s minds when Phil Oakey, with his lop-sided hair and biker boots, sat on their sofa with Philip Adrian Wright and asked if their daughter would give up college and join a virtually unknown pop band. In the event, they said yes and I don’t think they regret it.
Phil Oakey is probably the pop star I admire the most. There was a time, when he faced nothing but adversity. He was staring at bankruptcy, two weeks away from a European tour, lacking any real musical ability with only a slide projectionist for company. He remained steadfast. He kept the faith. He continued to believe in his dream. And, his dream came true.
The Human League started as a duo. In 1977, two computer operators took advantage of the falling price of electronic components and bought a synthesiser. They were Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. The synthesiser was a Korg 700S. They played Tamla Motown in the style of electronic art rock. They soon made a name for themselves at student parties and could afford a second synthesiser. Before long, they decided they needed a singer. Oakey had the style but, even he, wasn’t sure he could sing.
They signed for a major label (Virgin), released a few singles and a couple of albums that crept into the bottom of the charts, just as Gary Numan stole their thunder and took the synth art rock sound to the very top. Ware and Marsh left to form Heaven 17. Oakey and the visuals projector retained The Human League name. It was at this crossroads that Oakey bumped into Sally Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherill. Put Martin Rushent in the producer’s chair and add a proper musician to the mix (Ian Burden) and everything fell into place almost immediately. 1981 was their peak with four smash hit singles, one of which was a global Christmas number one, and an album of absolute pop perfection, Dare!. They never hit those dizzy heights again, especially album-wise, but they continued to release intoxicating singles right through to today, all with an eye for the bizarre in the mundane, cleverly mixing Motown, Spandau Ballet and Abba using synthesisers.
A Very British Synthesiser Group focusses on the singles, starting with Gary Gilmore’s famous last words, “OK. Ready. Let’s do it.” Being Boiled, The Dignity Of Labour and Empire State Human all have a dynamic crunch that deserved better chart action at the time. By The Sound Of The Crowd and the other singles from Dare! their noise was bass-heavy smooth with shards of Sheffield steel. Fascination vies with Love Action for my favourite, each member allowed a crack at singing lead, it sounds good anywhere; in a club, on the radio, in the car, at a banquet for a queen. Louise is a poignant update of Don’t You Want Me, Human hit number one in the US, Tell Me When gate-crashed Pulp’s top-band-from-Sheffield party in 1995 and the pulsating Night People of 2014 shows all those young eighties synth revivalists how it’s done. The thirty tracks on 2 CDs amount to the best Best Of The Human League have released.
If you are a real fan, you buy a deluxe box with an extra disc and a DVD. Disc three is definitely of interest to collectors and completists, consisting of early takes of various tracks. The music isn’t that different. After all, they glorified in their simple synthesised sound. However, the vocals are just guides and the absence of the backing from Sally Ann and Jo illustrates the sense of joy they bring to the final, polished records. I haven’t seen the DVD but it must be good. All the ‘official’ videos are on there and twenty one performances from a variety of BBC programmes, notably Top Of The Pops. There is a glossy booklet too.
What does it all *mean*?
The value is in the 2CD version, a superb Best Of a superb band. The 4 disc set will please the ardent fan prepared to stump up substantially more cash.
Goes well with…
Eyeliner, peacock shirts and glitter balls.
Might suit people who like…