THE HUMAN LEAGUE / ONE TWO Alban Arena, St. Albans 25 November 2007

Of all the things that could tempt me south I wouldn’t normally have numbered a Human League concert amongst them; heck, I’ve passed on the opportunity to see them when they’ve played a short bus ride away from my house. This evening, however, promised to be worth the upheaval, the sold-out first night of a tour of which every show would feature a complete performance of their legendary, seminal, epochal “Dare” album. (I was sitting in Crewe station the day before, listening to “Open Your Heart”, as randomly selected by my iPod. “Wouldn’t it be brilliant if they played this?”, I thought to myself, before realising that “They’ve got to! Resulto!”)

Cranking up the 80s electronica legends quotient, opening act One-Two included in their number Claudia Brucken of Propaganda and Paul Humphreys, once of Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark. Their own material sounded pretty much like what you’d get if you joined the dots between the two bands at their commercial peak, OMD-esque synth pop (they have a song called “Signals”, surely the prototypical OMD track title) garnished with Ms Bracken’s Germanic, slightly icy elecromum glamour, like a straight edge Nico sponsored by Roland. The highlights, though, are a trio of (self-)covers: the Associates’ “Club Country”, performed as a somewhat belated tribute to the late Billy Mackenzie, OMD’s “Messages” and the perhaps inevitable closer “Duel”. Their well-received set also confirmed what a pleasant venue the Alban Arena is, with fine acoustics, a decent PA and a good view of the stage from the floor.

A blown-up backdrop of the iconic disembodied mouths familiar from the “Dare” cover reveals itself, tumbling to the floor as “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of” cracks through the auditorium. Phil Oakey assumes the centre stage, dressed in a long black overcoat and shades like he’s Richard O’Brien or sump’n, stalking through a dystopian past/present/future (choose one, or choose ‘em all, maybe) where it’s possible to fall in love without the pain and Norman Wisdom + Johnny + Joey + Dee Dee = Good Times. The next forty or so minutes are utterly fantastic: yes, you know exactly what’s coming, and deviations from the decades-old script are rare (as on the “Live At The Dome” album everybody now needs money, rather than cash, to spend during the aforementioned opener) but hearing it all put together with such awesome, piledriving precision is truly an experience to treasure. Heck, it’s a rare concert that finds me more than mouthing the lyrics to myself, but I yelled my way through all of “Dare” without a second thought. (Perhaps the pre-gig half-bottle of wine was a contributing factor, but “Dare” being part of my life for the last 26 year might’ve helped too.) Yet amidst the familiarity new insights revealed themselves, such as the realisation that “Do Or Die” is pretty much proto-Detroit techno. Throughout, projection screens above the stage commented on the music with a constant flicker of images, which, for all I know, haven’t changed in the last quarter century. And considering that this was merely the first night, the idea of a potentially even tighter performance is almost too awesome to contemplate.

“That was “Dare””, explained Phil helpfully, as he, Suzanne and Joanne left the stage in the wake of a molten “Don’t You Want Me”. In their absence the band broke into a lengthy, and in the event sadly instrumental, version of the League’s old club classic “Hard Times”, replete with all manner of rockist foot-on-the-monitor poses and extended soloing – exactly the kind of things the League’s anti-virtuosity stance was supposed to free us from. The vocalists returned following a costume change (yes, production values are through the roof!) and the ensemble launched into a “Greatest Hits”-y second set, dominated (inevitably, given what had gone before) by their rather less memorable later material, but a staggering encore of “Being Boiled” and “(Together In) Electric Dreams” redressed the balance.

As with the Deacon Blue gig I attended the week before, this was one of those evenings that almost didn’t have the right to be so enjoyable. Yet, treading familiar territory though they were, the League’s performance was mostly devastating, their hard-boiled but soft-centred electropop still as fresh, dynamic and invigorating as it was a quarter of a century ago.

THE HUMAN LEAGUE Greatest Hits (Virgin)

Essentially, this 1996 “Greatest Hits” is The Human League’s 1988 “Greatest Hits” with new cover art and booklet notes (by Paul Morley, which I’m telling you now so you don’t have to waste precious seconds and calories reading them yourself), three extra tracks and a juggled running order. “What hasn’t changed?”, you might legitimately be thinking at this point; well, the catalogue number, and the fact that it still contains at least some of the most glorious pop music of the last 30 years.

When on form, the asymmetrically-coiffeured Phil Oakey and his cohorts wrapped their futuristic synth-pop around domestic dramas worthy of Abba at their soapiest. Consequently, “Don’t You Want Me” hasn’t aged a second in a quarter of a century; “Love Action (I Believe In Love)”’s clanky crudity sowed the seeds of techno, and also contained the immortal line “But this is Phil talking” that immediately ensured it could only be covered by singers called Phil, a tactic later snaffled by ABC on “The Look Of Love”; “Open Your Heart”’s staggering sheer cliff face of melody sounds like Elgar’s “Nimrod” arranged for Casio; “The Sound Of The Crowd” remains staggeringly weird for a top 20 single, like a hotwired Kraftwerk with lyrics randomly cut up from a copy of The Face.

What the aforementioned four have in common, of course, is that they are all from the band’s groundbreaking “Dare” album, recently revisited in concert to astonishingly potent effect. Outside of these safe harbours the pickings are more variable. “Being Boiled” will surely forever remain the only top ten hit on the subject of sericulture, and “Together In Electric Dreams” (not strictly a Human League track, as it originally charted credited to Oakey and Giorgio Moroder) surely catalysed the Pet Shop Boys’ entire career. The selections from the “Hysteria” era are less successful: the glorious folly of “The Lebanon” plays like a dumbed-down disco diva U2 (somewhat ironically, something that band had a bash at years later on their “Pop” album), and “Life On Your Own” sounds like a Top Shop New Order, its synthesised melancholia well-meaning but a little graceless. A couple of tracks from 1986’s “Crash”, wherein the band were pretty much reduced to puppets on the Jam & Lewis soul-pop production line, aren’t great, and the scant later material can’t disguise its diminishing returns with its glitzier synth sounds. A Snap remix (my, how that dates it!) of “Don’t You Want Me” is horrendous and charmless; happily, as it’s the last track it can be easily avoided.

In reincarnated form “Greatest Hits” is an efficient overview of the band’s career, and with only one subsequent studio album to their name it doesn’t miss out on a whole lot else. But why not go straight for the jugular and buy “Dare” instead?

THE HUMAN LEAGUE / PERFORMANCE Manchester Academy 15 December 2010

 

Performance are a Manchester trio (from Rusholme, home of many fine restaurants, they inform us). They remind me a bit of Cherry Ghost…if Cherry Ghost had scored their equipment, outfits (the singer’s long, dark raincoat in particular) and songs at a jumble sale held by Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark circa 1984. They are, nevertheless, pretty good, and in no way a mismatch with a Human League audience.  

               

The League, meanwhile, put on another astonishing performance using only the retro tools at their disposal. Their all-white armoury of instrumentation looks as though it was industrial designed by Bang & Olufsen, and the video images above the stage are sufficiently pixelated to suggest they’re showing a vision of the future projected from the past rather than some hi-def reinforcement of the present, not unlike the looped films Godspeed You! Black Emperor were projecting here last week.

               

And what do they play? Well, the hits, mostly. Although a new album, “Credo”, is imminent, it won’t be released until March, so new material is limited to opener “Electric Shock” and current single “Night People”. The former is full of spectacularly dumb devil-may-care lyrical attitude (“Electric shock/I just can’t stop/From toe to top/From head to sock”), the latter cribs its visuals from the neon smudged skyscapes of Gaspar No’s magnificently queasy film “Into The Void”. Both bode well for what will be the band’s first studio album in a decade, stripping their sound back to the unreconstructed New Romantic electro-thwack of the “Dare” period…not that they’ve deviated much from that template in the last 30 years or so.

               

The remainder of the set, though, is pretty much a singles-fest, save for the welcome appearance of “Seconds” during the encore. “Heart Like A Wheel” is illustrated with footage from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”, and the “Being Boiled” visuals feature Hitler in speechifying mode. The welcome inclusion of the stomping “Empire State Human” is perhaps the night’s biggest surprise, the presence of half of “Dare” more predictable but even more appreciated.

               

For sheer euphoric entertainment value, I don’t think I’ve been to a more exciting gig this year. Of course, not everybody wants to be entertained all the time, as opposed to, say, being dragged through some kind of sonic apocalypse at a concert (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, yes?), but if and when you do I can’t think of better purveyors of shoutalong nostalgia than the League. It’s almost a bonus that Phil Oakey takes to the stage in a black hoodie that makes him look like a sinister extra from the cantina scene in “Star Wars”. And he dances like a Weeble.

THE HUMAN LEAGUE Hysteria (Virgin) 

After attaining hard-won synth-pop perfection with their third album, “Dare”, the road to The Human League’s next album was fraught with difficulty. Stopgap releases such as the terrific League Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love And Dancing” (“Dare” remixed, basically) and the “Mirror Man” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” singles kept momentum bubbling whilst multiple producers peeled out of the sessions for the follow-up. Eventually emerging thirty months after “Dare”, a barely conceivable gap between albums at the time, “Hysteria” almost inevitably proved to be an anti-climax.

The good bits first: it contains three excellent singles. “Louise” is pretty much yer definitive synth-pop ballad, almost as a bonus suggesting itself as a covert extension of the “Don’t You Want Me“ storyline. The clunky but propulsive politicking of “The Lebanon” is the one place where the electric guitars that bristle the album actually work, despite Phil Oakey’s vocals lapsing into a kind of Dalek drone at times. “Life On Your Own”’s grey day melancholia is one step ahead of New Order’s complete transformation into the synth-pop symphonists of the “Low-Life” album.

If only the other seven tracks were similarly built to last. Instead, we have “Betrayed”, painfully portentous from its juddering beats to stentorian vocals, and “Don’t You Know I Want You”, whose near- anagrammatic relationship with the band’s greatest hit is its only talking point. As for the cover of James Brown’s “Rock Me Again And Again And Again And Again And Again And Again (Six Times)”, really, what were they thinking? Who says a synth band can’t play funk? Uh, most people with ears, I suspect. 

THE HUMAN LEAGUE Crash (Virgin) 

As disappointing as “Hysteria” was, worse was to come with the band’s next album, the prophetically titled “Crash”. Produced and partly written by mixmasters-of-the-moment Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis , famed for their work with Janet Jackson and Alexander O’Neal, it sees the League reduced to the status of guests on their own record. It’s perhaps telling that, on their recent tour, “Crash” was the only one of the band’s albums that failed to contribute to the setlist.                

There’s some terrible music here, chief among the offenders being openers “Money” and “Swang”, whatever that may be. “Jam” is possibly not about berry-based condiments; equally “Party” (“Don’t delay/Today/You’ve got to join the party/There’s no choice”) is unlikely to be the ode to totalitarianism the pre-“Dare” League would have made of it. Equally, the risible rapping on “I Need Your Loving” seems an awfully long way from “But this is Phil talking”. Amidst such dreck, the “There are no sequencers on this record” sleevenote, akin to the “no synthesizers” boasts that peppered Queen albums until, with “The Game”, they discovered how much they really liked synthesizers, seems like a desperate declaration of independence.                

Improbably, as with “Hysteria”, three good songs have somehow found their way onto the album. The weepy infidelity ballad “Human” has actually grown in stature over the years, although that might be due to the context: it certainly sounds better amidst the dross on “Crash” than the greater greatest hits it sits alongside on Human League compilations. The thumping glam rock stomp of “Love On The Run” is surprisingly acceptable, albeit tarnished by some terribly dated vocal effects. Again maybe context is everything, but in this one “Love Is All That Matters” is a minor masterpiece despite some honking mid-80s synth noises, elements of its arrangement seemingly anticipating the Pet Shop Boys’ cover of Sterling Void’s “It’s Alright”.                

Where “Hysteria” was merely lazy, uninspired and derivative, “Crash” is just plain bad. Whatever next?

THE HUMAN LEAGUE Romantic? (Virgin)

Recorded with at least the partial assistance of “Dare” producer Martin Rushent, William Orbit and future Moloko member Mark Brydon, 1990’s “Romantic?”, although not quite the victim of circumstances the band’s previous two albums had been, is no masterpiece. In fact, its stark lack of commercial success saw the band’s decade-long contract with Virgin terminated.                

Low on memorable tunes and long on plastic Italian house piano and tacky sampling gimmickry (opener “Kiss The Future”, which transitions somewhat clunkingly into the following track “A Doorway?”, being especially plagued), these songs sound cluttered where the League’s best work is usually sparse, streamlined and focussed. “Soundtrack To A Generation” somewhat overstates its own importance, unless the generation in question is one of washed-up Sheffield synthpop has-beens, and “Get It Right This Time” wears a rictus grin of desperation amidst the tinsel and streamers. “Heart Like A Wheel” at least manages to transcend the production and reach some kind of escape velocity. “Let’s Get Together Again” embraces the robotic thud of the band’s classic sound, but really, when one of the best tracks on an album turns out to be a Glitter Band cover it’s surely time to move on.

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