THE HUMAN LEAGUE2012-05-09 at 02:13 pm Blog RSS
The fact that The Human League is still around after thirty four years is nothing short of miraculous. It has never been easy for Phil Oakey and co. When the band formed in 1977, there were three men (the fourth man joined the band in 1978). They originally called themselves The Future. Inspired by Kraftwerk, they experimented with synthesizers – with mixed results. The first album (Reproduction) was a commercial flop. Surprisingly, Virgin Records signed The Human League. The next album (Travelogue) was an improvement, but was only moderately successful. Internal conflicts within the band led to a complete change.
Founding members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh formed a new band (Heaven 17). Just two weeks before The Human League’s tour of the UK and Europe, Phil Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright scrambled to find replacement members. They chose Ian Burden, who was a ‘proper’ musician (he would be able to learn the songs quickly). Oakey then decided to recruit just one female singer. He went out clubbing and ended up with two girls (he saw the friends together on the dancefloor and thought they would make a good pair). Three decades and eight albums later, Oakey and the ‘girls’ are still together (The Human League has officially been a trio since the mid-nineties, although Neil Sutton has worked with the band since 1986).
There were problems from the start though. That first tour did not run smoothly. The band met with hostility. Many fans were not pleased with the new line-up. Some people even threw bottles at the teenage girls! Aside from that, there were financial concerns. There was also mounting pressure from Virgin to produce a better album. Oakey and his new team didn’t disappoint them. Towards the end of 1981, Dare appeared (following three successful singles). It was a huge global success. Further singles were released and the album stayed in the chart for months. The Human League and Martin Rushent had made an era-defining synth-pop album.
Following an album like that was never going to be easy. Hysteria was fairly successful, but The Human League did lose some fans. The lead single, The Lebanon, was a half-hearted stab at rock music. Most of the songs are essentially synth-pop (they just don’t quite have that epic quality which runs through most of Dare). Hysteria has its moments, but it lacks consistency. There was another three year gap before the next album appeared. Crash sounds very different, compared with the previous two albums. Phil Oakey had writer’s block and reluctantly handed everything over to the production duo Jam & Lewis. Meeting the album deadline came at a price. The Human League lost fans – and confidence.
Following the Greatest Hits collection, the remaining fans had to wait another couple of years before The Human League resurfaced – with a very weak album (and the last one with Virgin). It took the remaining trio five years to recover. Fortunately they were back on form when they returned. Octopus sounds far more focused, compared with everything The Human League released since Dare. There is variety too (Words is a very minimal piece – in stark contrast with Cruel Young Lover which is a dance stomper). An updated hits collection was released and the band took the longest break yet. It seemed The Human League was finished.
Secrets can be considered a comeback album – with a gap of almost seven years. It was critically acclaimed, but hardly noticed. It is a shame because Secrets is a good album (better than Octopus but not quite as good as Dare). 2001 was a good year for comebacks, with New Order and Soft Cell likewise producing some of their best material – while relatively prolific bands such as Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys were showing signs of fatigue. All bands have good and bad phases though. Depeche Mode and Pet Shop Boys were back on form in 2005, while The Human League was reduced to doing annual ‘greatest hits’ tours around the UK. Yet another singles collection was released in 2003 (The Very Best Of The Human League). The remixes on the bonus disc are appalling!
The Human League’s tenth album was released last year. With Oakey well into his fifties and the ‘girls’ both on the half-century mark, it’s their turn to feel tired. That feeling comes across from start to finish on Credo. Perhaps there will be another spurt of energy from the tenacious trio. They’ve done it before. They may do it again. Stranger things have happened.
Useless fact: All of The Human League’s albums have just one word in the title. Peter Gabriel and Pet Shop Boys later applied the same rule (Bjork and Portishead also followed suit).
Five more essential songs by The Human League
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