Wednesday, January 11, 2012

I'll Still Believe in Love

I appreciate the story of The Human League because it's one of those in which some guys pick up an instrument (in this case, a Korg synthesizer--which might be heavy, har) during a time when you could pick up an instrument you had no idea how to play (in this case, the late 70s), in a place where kids inspired to be creative but with no discernable talent or skill could within a year create a cheap demo, get signed by a small label, play prominent city clubs and support better-known bands (in this case, Sheffield, England and Siouxsie and the Banshees, respectively). And then be called "the future of pop music" by no less than Bowie.

I also appreciate that someone designed a Wikipedia-busting website detailing all this eyelined trivial goodness, because at the outset of this post I thought I was going to be writing about my favorite THL single, or at least the one that I kinda liked hearing on the radio despite the fact that it sounds like a too-produced New Wave vocals over a pedestrian, mid-80s Whitney Houston hit. No, this story is better than a bunch of photogenic Brits paving the way for Boy George and Wham!

The particular instrument picked up by the proto-THL was picked up because of its ease of play. These guys just wanted to make music and didn't want to shred their fingers on guitars or build biceps behind a kit. A proper vocalist was eventually added, one who became, ironically, the only consistent member of The Human League.

They, in fact, trumpeted their inexperience, proclaiming in a press release that the band preferred "to regard compositions as an extension of logic, inspiration and luck. Therefore, unlike conventional musicians, their influences are not so obvious." 

The Human League created a real persona, an almost theatrical presence. This was about more than lipstick and haircuts. I mean, in early photos, one of them looks like he wandered over from a 10cc photo shoot.

A few equipment upgrades and determination not to sound like Kraftwork pushed them ahead. Nevertheless, due to logistics (lots of synthesizers) and embarrassment (behind-the-bleeps-and-bloops shyness), they did not want to play their music live. When they were finally persuaded to do so, the band would place a tape recorder, loaded with the backing beat and rhythm, center stage--right where the drums would be. In 1978, this went over like an empty case of beer at a punk show in 1978. Still, they did it, even adding the voice of a "presenter" to introduce each of the pre-recorded tracks. Ever since my own most recent show, I'm all about calling out the awkwardness in what you worry are going to be awkward transitions or stage circumstances. I wish I could have been there.

Around the time of the Bowie compliments, the group also shared a bill with a very, very proto-Def Leppard. Let me say that again: The Human League and Def Leppard.

So, it sounds like your basic Nirvana story, just without dirty jeans, when actually it's more like a Uncle Tupelo tale. See, creative friction--not the good kind--grew between he two men who evolved into the core of the band, Martyn Ware and Philip Oakey. The band was already glum that they were still toiling in obscurity while Gary Numan stole their sound and thunder by releasing the really electronic "Are Friends Electric" as a follow-up to his apparently punkier stuff. I'm not surprised that Gary and Tubeway Army surpassed The Human League 1.0. Tubeway just sounds less straight out of the box, so to speak, perhaps because Gary apparently ran all of the synthesizers through guitar amps. THL's only significant hit--not even a Top 40 one--before "Don't You Want Me," "Only After Dark" clearly lacks the warmth of "live" instruments and subtle lyrics of "Electric:"

And things that I just don't understand
Like a white lie that night
Or a slight touch at times
I don't think it meant anything to you

The Human League split into two bands: Martyn and Ian Craig Marsh took off to form Heaven 17; Philip remained as The Human League. Famously, Philip promptly had to go recruit new members for a tour. In a move straight out of a meet-cute Hollywood comedy, Philip picked two teenage girls off a dancefloor in a Sheffield club because they looked cool and with-it enough to stand on a stage in a band. No, she was not working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.

Perhaps it's not so Tupelo, since one artist retained the band name, but still. Could you do as my dear friend Mikey suggested years ago with Son Volt and Wilco, load a Human League and a Heaven 17 cd into the hopper and hit random (this was the 90s)?

Not really.

Heaven 17 is, like, really super-serious and dark but not even in the effortless and real way that Gary Numan was. It's all a little much:

Once there was a day
We were together all the way
An endless path unbroken
But now there is a time
A torture less sublime
Our souls are locked and frozen 

So, it turned out that the couple-three guys that started out noodling on synthesizers in an old factory building never got to reap the benefits of those bleeps. Something tells me that without those girls, and without the simple you-done-me-wrong, no-you-done-me-wrong duets that followed, The Human League wouldn't have become so, um, human, and, I daresay, put out electronic pop that, uncharacteristically for the grim, gray, kohl-eyed British early 80s, was hopeful:

I believe, I believe what the old man said
Though I know that there’s no lord above
I believe in me, I believe in you
And you know I believe in love
I believe in truth though I lie a lot
I feel the pain from the push and shove
No matter what you put me through
I’ll still believe in love
And I say

And you tell me: when have you heard anyone sing a Heaven 17 song during at karaoke night?

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