Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Human League

Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were computer operators in Sheffield who shared their passion for German electronica pioneers Kraftwerk. Armed with a few months' savings, Ware bought a Korg 770S synthesizer. Despite having never played a single note, Marsh and Craig set themselves the task of understanding the art of sound synthesis and it wasn't long before their combined enthusiasm began to exceed the limits of the cheap synth. The Dead Daughters were formed for a single gig at a friends 21st birthday party in 1977 and Ware put the Korg to the test with a rendition of Dr Who. Marsh and Craig, together with Adi Newton decided to form a band called The Future where they would concentrate purely on electronic music. Progressive bands like Yes and ELP had laid claim to the keyboard and synth, and Pink Floyd, of course, had exploited sound to the nth degree, but bands devoted purely to electronica were something quite unheard of at the time. 

The Future set about recording experimental demos including the hypnotic track "Pulse Lovers" that hinted at things to come. The demos sounded quite unlike anything produced at the time, and the band, demos in hand, traveled to London in the hope of getting signed. Record Labels, though, were predictably bemused by the band's lack of guitars. Despite the pioneering sound of The Future, Adi Newton left the band to form Clock DNA. 

Convinced they were on the right path  musically, both Ware and Marsh felt they needed a  vocalist rather than another musician to replace Newton. Martyn decided that old school chum Phil Oakey would be ideal to front the band because Oakey already looked like a pop star with his long fringe haircut and left of center fashion sense. The invitation came in the form of a note stuck on Phil's front door. Oakey was working as a hospital porter at the time and had never considered performing in front of an audience. Things quickly fell into place however when Phil presented the band the his first penned tune, "Being Boiled." Ian and Martyn were impressed by the lyrics and Oakey's distinctive vocal delivery.

With a new musical blueprint in place, the trio set about finding a new band name briefly considering ABCD (bizarre as fellow Sheffield musician Martin Fry would find worldwide success with ABC just 3 years later). Finally, they decided to take a memorable phrase "The Human League" from a sci-fi board game called Star Force and set about recording three new  tracks on a two-track tape recorder. The very first Human League demo contained "Being Boiled," "Circus of Death" and "Toyota City" (recorded in mono) that caught the attention of Bob Last who ran a tiny record label in Scotland called Fast Records.

Although the single had a limited number of copies pressed, the song succeeded in attracting the admiration of NME, while guest reviewer Johnny Rotten described the group as "trendy hippies." "Being Boiled" was completely at odds with the prevailing punk movement; the track a stark slab of electronica that would influence many in years to come, memorable also for its esoteric lyrics that linked silk worms with Buddhism. Encouraged by the critical praise that followed the release of the debut single, the group were convinced to play live; their first gig June 12, 1978 at Bar 2 in Sheffield with the help of backing tapes (unheard of at the time). With all three band members reluctant to play live, there were worries that they would appear static on stage and Adrian Wright, who was in the audience, agreed to become the League's "Director of Visuals." Sharing the band's love of Sci Fi and pop culture, Adrian introduced four large screens where he could project slides from cult TV shows like Dr Who and Captain Scarlet, as well as images that fit perfectly with the League's lyrics, visuals a la Andy Warhol and Pink Floyd.

Fast records released the second Human League single in April 1979 in the form of a 4 track EP of instrumentals collectively called The Dignity of Labour. Extremely experimental if ground breaking, the single unsurprisingly failed to dent the top 75. Despite the poor chart performance, the League began to get approached by major record companies including Polydor, but it was the promise of creative freedom from Virgin's Simon Draper that finally tempted the League away from Fast Records. Pleased with the support that Fast Records supremo Bob Last had provided, the band offered him the job of Manager and signed a recording contract with Richard Branson's innovative Virgin label whose artists already included The Sex Pistols. Reproduction, with its unique electronic sound, was finally released in October followed by a taster single in the form of the quirky and irresistible "Empire State Human."

Despite the album’s innovation in techno, Reproduction found sales sluggish at best and Virgin Records cancelled the supporting tour, favoring instead the League opening for the Talking Heads world tour. Talking Heads dropped the band from the tour based on comments by Oakey and, were it not for import sales from the U.S., The Human League would have met its demise before the end of the 70s.

The League forged on in the new decade despite the disappointments of the previous year with the release of the Holiday 80 EP that included covers of "Rock 'n' Roll" and the Bowie penned "Night Clubbing," as well as a new composition called "Marianne." A superior version of Marianne was recorded and Virgin was quick to release a single 7 inch of "Holiday 80," which reached an unimpressive 56 in the UK charts, but securing their first appearance on Top of The Pops.

May 1980 saw the release of the second studio album Travelogue, which debuted at 16 on the UK album charts. Still retaining a distinctive experimental feel, Travelogue sounded more like a complete album than its predecessor with a hint of early synth pop. Overall, the album was a creative success featuring adventurous drum patterns and catchy melodies. The technology used was simplistic and hard to manipulate by today's digital standards, sounds had to be created from scratch as pre-set manufactured samples were nonexistent. The analogue systems were pushed beyond the known limits and the League was dubbed as "boffins," British slang for electronic pioneers. The album pointed the way for future UK and world artists who viewed Travelogue as a brand new form of music.