Music in 1980, in the wake of the earthquake precipitated by punk and its more well-mannered nephew, new wave, splintered into a number of lustrous shards. The agit-pop brigade of Gang of Four decided to soup up punk’s nihilistic messages into Marxist dancetaria; Joy Division and Siouxsie and the Banshees refined punk rock’s crude sound into beautiful textures of bleakness and alienation; [mostly] American art-rockers such as Talking Heads mined obliqueness and surrealism, laying down the pathway for the band of the 80s, REM; Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet stole from David Bowie and the rebirth of the three-minute single to become bona fide popstars; and Depeche Mode and its ilk used the DIY ethos that punk and indie spawned to give birth to the synthpop band. From that last category, none stood taller on the global stage than the Human League, and this two disc-collection, first issued last autumn, tells their story.
That story is one of a very British (north of England, in fact) and eccentric genesis, an early 80s peak, and then a gentle decline punctuated by the occasional sublime moment. The group’s apogee, which is given full rein on this collection, came in the form of their 1981 album, Dare. Produced by Martin Rushent, Dare brought together dark matter, dance attitude, musical exploration and rebellion, and an overwhelming pop sensibility. All four singles from the record (although, disappointingly, the instrumental version of “Sound of the Crowd” is included here instead of the single), plus also the swing pulse of “Love Action”’s B-side, “Hard Times”, constitute a hard core of brilliance on this album. “Don’t You Want Me”, a US and UK number one, still takes the breath away with its irresistible motorik drama of an unraveling romance.
Those unfamiliar with the League’s story might locate most enlightenment in the first few tracks, the creations of Human League Mark 1 before Phil Oakey kicked out his Sheffield mates and co-founders Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh (who went on to form Heaven 17). “Empire State Human” and “Nighclubbing” show the League starting to refine the sleek sound that Oakey, aided by the pioneer Rushent, was to go on to make his own. But the most intriguing track is their first single, “Being Boiled”, which is the birth of synthpop genre in real time; or, as David Bowie (prescient as ever) declared at the time: “the future of music”.
Sadly, Human League would not sustain that genius. The under-rated “Mirror Man”, the first single to follow “Dare”, was actually a prime slice of Motown-inspired pop. But 1984 single “The Lebanon”’s dive into a sub-guitar thrash was a sign of a band that had lost its way. It took the production of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis (and their songwriting) to conjure up the gorgeous “Human” in 1986, another US chart-topper, which featured Oakey’s finest vocal performance, as he and Joanne Catherall swapped notes about mutual infidelities. But “Human” is the second of 15 chronological tracks on the second disc, and the odd decent single thereafter can’t mask the fact that the League had lost their inspiration and the revolutionary zeal that had made them so special.
Condense the 30 tracks of this album into a single album and they would make a transcendent greatest hits album. Unfortunaetly, that place has already been taken by the 17-track Very Best Of Human League, which makes you wonder why Virgin Records bothered with this release at all. There is also a 4-disc collection (including a DVD and CD of rarities) that would be more attractive to League aficionados. Some of the music on A Very British Synthesiser Group is as good as pop music gets, but as a package, you would be better off spending your money elsewhere.