The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Friday, January 10, 2003

Of the newish wave of electronic/industrial operatives who emerged from the North of England in the wake of punk, the Human League were always the closest to pop. Whereas Throbbing Gristle made the mechanics of the marketing of pop into a grim parallel procession, and Cabaret Voltaire (at least initially) held pop at arm’s length but engaged in some cautious dialogue with it, the Human League were keen to talk to us but also eager to please. This was proved fairly conclusively by the fact that, out of the canon of electropop/industrial singles – “TVOD,” “Nag Nag Nag,” “United” – the only one to become a hit was the first Human League single “Being Boiled.” Rush-rereleased by EMI in the wake of their triumphant 1981 Xmas #1 “Don’t You Want Me,” it ascended rapidly into the top ten, possibly the only song about the ritual slaughter of children ever to do so. It is not inaccurate to say that for those few months spanning 1981/2, the League more or less had the charts at their disposal; their former other half, Heaven 17, were selling bucketloads of their Penthouse and Pavement debut album; Kraftwerk’s four-year-old “The Model” unexpectedly succeeded the League at #1, mostly due to Phil Oakey’s endless championing of them as a crucial influence; nearly all of the League’s back catalogue taking up residence in both the single and album charts (even the Dignity of Labour EP briefly surfaced in the top 100) – and Siouxsie and the Banshees’ first singles compilation, Once Upon A Time, was selling unexpectedly well, again, it was said, as a result of being thanked on the Dare sleeve.

The story of Dare and its attendant singles, and how they facilitated the greatest and most drastic reinvention of a pop group since Tyrannosaurus Rex became T Rex, is well known, and I won’t reiterate it here. Instead I will concentrate on the work which led them up to this point. Neither do I need to repeat Simon Reynolds’ fine Blissblog summary of their very early work, recently collated on the compilation The Golden Hour of the Future (the Future being their original name – yet another inexplicable omission from my end-of-year compilation list).

The aforementioned Dignity of Labour EP was (apart from the postmodern prank of including the sleevenotes in the form of a mock-conversation on an unannounced flexidisc which came with the 12”) entirely instrumental (performed by the two synth operators, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware). The first two parts engage with the same Sheffield autobahns as the Cabs, but far less sinisterly. Part 3 is the brightest and most rhythmically purposeful of the tracks (a replication of the mindless happiness of working and living without having to think?) and one may be surprised to hear emerging halfway through a synth riff which would a decade later become the backbone of Frankie Knuckles’ House classic “Your Love.” But the picture of happy Stakhanovite labouring is of course only an illusion, as summed up by the lovely crystalline snowflakes of Part 4, which in its lo-fi poignancy surely must have been a major influence on the likes of Aphex and -zik.

A debut album, Reproduction, followed in 1979. As purposely free of guitars as Queen’s pre-1979 albums were proudly free of synthesisers (and indeed in true early Roxy style, employing a non-musician, Adrian Wright, to provide the slides and light shows), it embodies a distinct and quite deliberate contradiction in that, while the music brightly embraced the future, the lyrics were singularly bleak and backward-looking – to an old (pre-electronic?) social idyll which had just been dealt its fatal blow by the election of Thatcher the spring before this album’s release.

As a listening experience, the album stands up remarkably well; the beats are propulsive and sparky, the ‘70s synths very powerful. Indeed, the opening track “Almost Medieval” kicks off with a brutal breakbeat which would scarcely be out of place behind Britney. The lyric, though, was 1979-par dissatisfaction with the modern world (“There’s less of me now and more of me then/I’m moving back to the age of men”) and in its chorus almost approaches TG-type horror (“Jump off the tarmac, there’s no stagecoach speed limit/Outside the office swings the man on the gibbet”).

Some commentators have chosen to interpret the song “Circus of Death” (which also appeared in its original form on the B-side of “Being Boiled” complete with introductory explanation of the lyrics by Oakey) as being an anti-Communist tirade, mainly due to the line “Its pathway is painted in red,” though this is clearly a reference to blood. The song seems to be about the expansion of the drug trade and the deaths it leaves in its wake – or it could just as easily be about capitalism, the League being decidedly Left of centre; the track “The Word Before Last” is essentially a requiem for Callaghan/Labour, about to be extinguished by Thatcher (though still retaining an element of camp via the references to Steve McGarrett from Hawaii Five-O). In my view “Circus of Death” works better and cuts deeper in the greater eeriness of its original lo-fi version; big budgets didn’t necessarily suit the League well all of the time.

The early League were in close touch with pop but hadn’t as yet become it. The only song on Reproduction which could conceivably have been a hit (and it was desperately unlucky, when released as a single, not to be) was the still fantastic “Empire State Human,” a sort of electropop update of the Bonzo’s “Mr Apollo,” where Oakey is clearly aware of the futile silliness of wanting to grow 14 stories high (“at least”) but goes for it anyway because the alternative (“I avoid the crowds and traffic jams/They just remind me of how small I am”) is so much worse. Surely a number one were anyone to reissue/cover it now?

The problematics of their relationship with pop at that time were evident whenever they tried cover versions. The lengthy segue “Morale/You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” which occupies the first half of side two is a valiant try to approach pop directly, but – and this is a foretaste of why Marsh and Ware’s 1982 BEF album of celebrity cover versions Music Of Quality And Distinction Vol 1 never really caught on; despite typically epic contributions from Billy McKenzie and Tina Turner (incidentally kick-starting the latter’s career revival) and less distinguished contributions from Paula Yates and Gary Glitter - nowhere in its ten minutes do you get the feeling that any of it is pop, rather than just commenting on it. The “Morale” part is a Beckettian fantasy of an aged man “stuck here in this poor little room with a view of the corner,” Krapp waiting for death, while his tape recorder plays a memory of a life now spent. “Loving Feeling” here is approached as though the old man were absently singing along with it; Oakey’s delivery is deliberately deadpan and the synths deathly in their mid-range growls. A bereaved man waiting for rebirth while realising that he has left it too late; I wish this track worked as well as it sounds – it so nearly, nearly gets there, but…perhaps they should have brought in Robert Wyatt on vocals; Oakey’s Sheffield baritone is slightly too full to suggest vulnerability. The other song on side two which deserves a mention is the closer “Zero As A Limit” which depicts someone driving to their Ballardesque suburban death; it ticks along minimally for about 90 seconds, and then a Prince-type cascade of utopian synths comes in and elevates the music, all the while preparing for the end, a frantic “Day In The Life” crescendo (though played at a thousand times the speed) compressing itself into a sudden but definite close.

The Holiday ’80 EP got them onto TOTP for the first time by means of its medley of Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Part 1” and Iggy’s “Nightclubbing,” though this remains clumsily assembled and illustrated there still to be a reluctance to embrace pop full-on. “Marianne” is better, a great curve of electro-thrash; a big budget reworking of “Being Boiled” was overstuffed with unnecessary detail and proved again that less was more; but “Dancevision” was a nugget of proto-idylltronica from 1977. And yet at the same time, under the guise of “The Men” they put out a fantastic single, “I Don’t Depend On You” (originally intended for the Hot Gossip dance troupe) which uses a full band and female backing vocals. It’s terrific in the way that Talking Heads’ “Cities” is terrific and clearly paves the way ahead for the wonderful electrofunk marriage that was side one of Penthouse And Pavement.

Their second album, Travelogue, also appeared in 1980. To these ears it hasn’t aged quite as well as Reproduction, but when it’s loud it gets exceptionally brutal. Hear, for instance, the now more prescient than ever opening track “The Black Hit Of Space” a quite savage assault, 20 years ahead of its time, on the increasing commodification of pop and the charts (“As the song climbed the charts/The others disappeared/’Til there was nothing but it left to buy”) – the same charts with which, barely a year later, at least half of the Human League would be engaging directly, and briefly taking over. It is clearly a transitional record, and one which showed that the different approaches of Oakey and Marsh/Ware were growing steadily apart. There are two curious cover versions – one of Mick Ronson’s “Only After Dark,” the other a straight runthrough of Jeff Wayne’s “Gordon’s Gin” ad jingle. “Dreams Of Leaving” is the doubtless intended big epic, a two-parter in which a refuge flees from the East to the West to find “freedom,” only to find that nobody wants him here either, and ending with him moving North. The music is unremarkable, but the theme pops up strangely elsewhere in the League’s canon; much later on in 1984’s “Louise” where Oakey’s protagonist has indeed moved up North; and earlier in the abovementioned “Morale” where he slowly freezes to death, realising that he can never “be just like someone’s neighbour.”

There are a couple of tracks which presage what the League of Dare would achieve; “Crow And A Baby” has an obscure sexual metaphor at the core of its confused lyric, but musically sounds like a dummy run for “The Sound of the Crowd” despite the descending off-key synths still lending some avant-garde kudos at the fadeout. And in “The Touchables” we hear very distinctly the chords of the chorus of 1982’s “Mirror Man.” Perhaps the most affecting track on the album is the closer “W.K.J.L. Tonight” where, against a hallucinatory orchestra of distant electronica, Oakey portrays a fading DJ, pleading for his listeners not to desert him for the better music mix of automatic stations, but in the very precisely cutting lyric realises how redundant the “DJ” was anyway (“The DJ’s role was only there/To fill in space between the songs/That talk of love and other things/As if they don’t matter”). It stands beside Harry Chapin’s “W.O.L.D.” (which is subtly referred to in the closing backing vocals). A plea for humanity not to be extinguished?

Whatever the reasons, the League then imploded. Marsh recently opined that the departure of himself and Ware was a direct result of Virgin putting pressure on Oakey to become a solo artist, but as stated above, I feel they would have split anyway. The deliberately undistinguished (almost inhuman) voice of Glenn Gregory suited the harsh metallics of Heaven 17’s metapop far better, while the initial BEF umbrella gave them the opportunity to develop their electronica – 1981’s pioneering cassette-only Music For Stowaways is the real sequel to The Dignity Of Labour (a very Heaven 17 cover, the latter; the press photo of a solitary Yuri Gagarin marching before, but at a very considerable distance from, a massive crowd).

What was to happen with the remnants of the Human League – the singer and the guy who did the slides? The two did release one tentative single in early 1981 – “Boys And Girls,” which was quickly forgotten and remains a rather curious record, the lyrics of which appear positively anti-pop (the chorus goes “Boys and girls, I love you dearly, but I hate to have you need me”). There is also a beyond-bizarre melange of church bells and, er, sounds of the crowd in the instrumental break. I see that in the sleevenotes to last year’s 21st anniversary CD reissue of Dare, Oakey comments that, far from embracing pop, “I had a pretty clear idea of the instrumental palette we should stick to. The idea was that although pure synthesiser records weren’t popular they had a fanatical following and there wasn’t much competition. And I loved them.” Nevertheless producer Martin Rushent prevailed upon him to become pop, and indeed “used his hard-won pop skills to fill and warm the sound, taking it away from my icy vision” – although the quite brilliant recruitments of ex-Rezillo Jo Callis, not to mention the dual puncta of Susanne and Joanne from the local Sheffield disco, certainly helped to melt the ice. In the end, the Human League won, briefly but brilliantly.

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