Music

The Human League: A Very British Synthesiser Group

Some of the pop music on this collection ranks among the best, but fans and the curious of nature might be better off with acquiring the four-disc anthology than another greatest hits package.


The Human League

A Very British Synthesiser Group

Label: Virgin
US Release Date: 2016-11-18
UK Release Date: 2016-11-18
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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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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