It took a near-fatal lineup overhaul, two developmental albums and a fortuitous partnership with the right producer to put the Human League in a position to create the record that would make them, for a time, the unchallenged world champs of synthesizer pop. Interestingly, the group that topped the charts in 1982 with “Don’t You Want Me” bears almost no resemblance to the dour trio that recorded “Being Boiled” for Fast Product in 1978.
The first two albums were the work of Sheffield’s Phil Oakey, Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware (all synth/vocals) and Philip Adrian Wright, who handled visual chores. Reproduction suffers from a simplistic approach — high-tech primitivism — given added monotony by Oakey’s frequently deadpan vocals. Amid all the glum sonic novelties (like “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling”), the atmospheric “Morale” and the surprisingly poppy “Empire State Human” indicated promise for the future and brought the League — at a time when such a notion seemed farfetched — some success on the British charts.
Travelogue is much better, broadening the palette to include a wide variety of subtle synthesizer shadings, from the arcane to the sublime, and introducing vastly improved material. Lyrical subjects concern science-fiction and kitsch culture. Although still emotionally ambivalent, Travelogue is warmer and more fun than its predecessor, and suggested a direction for the band to pursue.
And pursue it they did. After a schism sent Marsh and Ware off as the British Electric Foundation, Oakey and Wright revamped the Human League with four new members (Ian Burden, Susanne Sulley, Joanne Catherall and ex-Rezillo guitarist Jo Callis) and a rededication to danceable pop music. That intent, along with producer Martin Rushent — whose skills dovetailed with almost all of the band’s shortcomings (almost all — there’s no cure for Oakey’s crooning) — ultimately led to such interplanetary hits as “Don’t You Want Me” and “Love Action (I Believe in Love).” The irresistible mix of state-of-the-art technology and old-fashioned pop-single formulae set millions of toes tapping, although the Dare LP contains much headier and heavier stuff as well. With incredible ambience and subtle tension, “Seconds” — about the Kennedy assassination — is, in fact, the LP’s unheralded best track. A great record, and not just for its popular songs.
The trailblazing (for white rockers, that is) remix album, Love and Dancing, pays titular homage of sorts to Barry White and contains Rushent’s revamped versions of seven cuts from Dare, plus one extra tune. Some of the record bears listening to; other parts, however, are either repetitively dull or noisily annoying.
Subsequently proven incapable of delivering a timely follow-up to sustain their new-found mega-stardom, the Human League had to make do with stop-gap singles, two of which were compiled on the Fascination! EP. “Mirror Man” is pedestrian but catchy; “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” (which appears here in its original form and an extended remix), however, is ruined by awful sick-cow vibrato on the synthetic horns.
Three years after Dare, following a pitched battle with their commercial insecurities, the League finally came up with Hysteria. Following a traumatic split with Rushent, the band itself produced the LP with Chris Thomas and Hugh Padgham, wisely omitting the prior 45s in favor of new songs, some of which are quite good. Stretching styles to encompass a subtler, tender side, the ballads (“Louise,” “Life on Your Own”) provide the record’s most engaging moments, although they exacerbate Oakey’s vocal limitations. Taking an ill-advised political turn, “The Lebanon” offers simpleminded drama with a pop hook; “Don’t You Know I Want You” is an almost-clever attempt to acknowledge and recycle the sound (and title) of their biggest hit.
During another Human League hibernation, Oakey collaborated with Giorgio Moroder, first on a song for the Electric Dreams film soundtrack, then continued the partnership for a joint album. Giorgio wrote the music and produced; Phil added lyrics and sang; Arthur Barrow and Richie Zito provided the backing tracks on, respectively, synth and guitar. With a bouncy, upbeat sound, it’s an unchallenging bit of fun that could easily be mistaken for a jollified League record were it not for Moroder’s lighthanded, deft arrangements and percolating tunes. “Good-bye Bad Times” and a reprise of “Together in Electric Dreams” stand out, but the rest is almost as immediately enjoyable.
In a desperate maneuver to locate a functional musical personality, the Human League enlisted the stunningly successful pop-funk team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to produce and co-write the absurdly misbegotten Crash. The imprudent collaboration produced a collection of musical nightmares: preening soul ballads (“Human,” “Love Is All That Matters”) that Oakey isn’t up to singing, fraudulent funk workouts (“Swang,” “Jam,” “I Need Your Loving”) that only underscore the band’s emotional sterility and inadequate dance-rock (“Money,” “Love on the Run”) that trails the field’s cutting edge by a few years. Like the cover’s intentionally out-of-focus photograph, this halfhearted effort falls well short of nominal quality standards.
When another couple of years had passed without productive noise from the League’s camp, Greatest Hits arrived to keep the band’s name in circulation. This non-chronological assembly of a dozen singles, from 1978’s “Being Boiled” through 1986’s “Human,” is not a very compelling reminder of why anyone ever took this music seriously. Although bits and pieces stand up to the test of a few years’ time, the cream of this crop is more like crap. (The American edition deletes “Together in Electric Dreams.”)
Disproving continuing rumors of non-existence, a five-piece Human League (Oakey, Catherall and Sulley, joined by recent arrivals on guitar and keyboards) resurfaced with the labored and dull Romantic? in 1990. Half a dozen producers (including the long-missing Martin Rushent) vainly try to breathe life into the weak songs, even adding a few house elements in hopes of helping the once-futurist group catch up with the present. Five years later, the three principals popped up yet again with Octopus.
After leaving the League, Callis formed a group called SWALK; Loot! is Ian Burden’s band.