Back in 1981, The Human League, armed with little but banks of synthesisers, achieved Full Spectrum Dominance over the Top 40, much to the alarm of the army of “rockists” who believed that the electric guitar carried it with it an eternal certificate of meaningful authenticity. Phil Oakey became the kind of singer whose name was to be found scrawled on young girls’ schoolbags.
It was not always thus. The Human League appeared from the art-house left field as The Future, before releasing their initial public offering: a dark, futurist dancefloor classic, to cacophonous silence in 1978. Being Boiled, still famously the only hit single about the breeding of silkworms, was all paranoid synths and proto hip-hop beats, informed as much by the robo-funk of Kraftwerk as it was by disco-pioneer Giorgio Moroder.
Despite this epiphany, it was commercial death in 1978. Two albums’ worth of similar material followed, before band members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to re-launch Tina Turner‘s career (they’re to blame) and become Heaven 17.
Left alone with nothing but his synths and Doctor Who repeats for company, Oakey ditched the songs about crows, babies, and growing “tall, tall, big as a wall”. He recruited two girl singers who specialised in the kind of arm-dancing that then passed for choreography, and began to write serious pop songs in the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-grows-hair-down-one-side-of-his-head mould.
With this surety of purpose, Oakey and his premiership Human League released three hit singles, steadily getting closer to that precious numero uno. Then, on the eve of the album Dare, they let Don’t You Want Me out of the traps, a simple hymn of lost love and cocktail bars in Sheffield that would have got to the top spot with or without a bullet. Dare followed, shifting the level of units that were still just a pre-programmed twinkle in Duran Duran‘s eye.
All the hits are here. Don’t You Want Me kicks off the collection, but is outshone by the perfect shiny prism of Open Your Heart. Love Action and Sound Of The Crowd sound as oddly immediate as they did then.
There was life post-Dare. Mirror Man acknowledges the Motown beat that was thrilling the kids of the day. The Lebanon suffers from some desperate sub-Big Country guitar, while Together in Electric Dreams (recorded with Moroder) has lasted the course better than the film it was written for. The Jam & Lewis-produced Human ranks amongst the best that the band ever recorded while the pretty recent All I Ever Wanted features the kind of squelchy bass-line that Peaches might envy.
The second CD is a set of remixes, and not the heinous desecration of source material you might expect. After all, recording as The League Unlimited Orchestra, producer Martin Rushent and the band were amongst the first to offer fully realised dancefloor / dub versions of their records as a commercial proposition.
The scary tech-house of Trisco’s PopClash Sound Of The Crowd works well, and the two-step approach of the Riton Re-Dub is pleasingly off-the-wall. Keeping the vocal central (this is Phil talking after all), the rumbling mix of Love Action offers a new perspective without dismantling the polish of the original. Bizarrely though, the simple, clean synth lines of original prime-time League actually sound more contemporary than most of the mixes.
But do they really need updating? If you were looking for immortality back in ’81, all you needed was your legend ascribed in thick black marker on the bag of a schoolgirl.