Friday, April 20, 2012

The Human League make it big: Dare and Don't You Want Me

"Sound of the Crowd" was the first fruit of Phil Oakey's songwriting partnership with Ian Burden, formerly the bassist in Graph, an experimental Sheffield band. 'I still reckon that song is one of the maddest records that's ever got in the Top 20', says Oakey. 'The whole thing runs on tom-toms, but they're synth toms, and it's got very odd screaming sounds'. There's also a foreboding dub feel of bass pressure and cold, cavernous space (Burden was a reggae fiend). "Sound of the Crowd" also featured backing vocals from tow other new recruits, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley.

"Love Action" and "Open Your Heart", the rejuvenated League's next two chartbusting singles, were practically manifestos for a new humanized-not-Numanized direction in electropop. In a weird way, "Love Action" sounds like its title: pulsing and glistening, an iridescent affirmation. Yet, for all its warmth and wetness, "Love Action" still retains something of the aberrant quality of "Sound of the Crowd", making it an unlikely candidate for a number 3 hit. 'It's not got a proper chorus', admits Oakey. It's basically two different songs bolted together: the verses, from a song called "I Believe in Love" are 'confessional nonsense, what I was feeling at the time', says Oakey, while the angular not-quite-a-chorus section is from another songs about watching Sylvia Kristel in the softcore erotic movie Emmanuelle.

Released in October 1981, Dare presented a perfect meld of tradition and innovation. "The Things that Dreams Are Made of" saw Oakey reeling off a list of life-enhancing stuff over electronicized Glitterbeat: 'Everybody needs love and adventure/Everybody needs cash to spend...Everybody needs two or three friends'.

"I Am the Law" turned The Clash's "I Fought the Law" inside out - it was a sympathetic song about authority and the police inspired by Oakey's encounter with an injured bouncer back when he was working as a hospital porter.

"Don't You Want Me", the fourth single off Dare and the Christmas number 1 for 1981, was their most sonically conventional single yet, from its perky groove to its trim verse/chorus structure. "Don't You Want Me" further underlined the importance of Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley to The Human League: their biggest hit was the one that gave the greatest prominence to their modest vocals. A duet between Oakey and Sulley, it deliciously rewrites the story of how 'the girls' were discovered and projects five years into the future. Oakey sings as the Svengali who plucks a girl from obscurity ('You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar') and turns her into 'someone new', only to be abandoned by his protégé-lover now she has the world at her feet. Defiant (if ever so slightly off key), Sulley sings the part of the provincial dreamer who always knew deep down she was destined for better things, and is now determined to make her own path in life. (In reality, it was Catherall who became Oakey's girlfriend).
The "Don't You Want Me" video added further layers of artifice. A Brechtian conundrum, it depicted the band making a promo, cutting between scenes from the video-within-a-video and action off-set or in the editing suite (the band watching their own rushes). 'I don't know where that idea came from originally, whether it was Phil's or the director Steve Barron's', says Bob Last. 'But from the band's point of view, a great deal of the appeal was that it was a film, shot on 35mm - something that was extremely unusual in those very early days of the video industry. And that was a straightforwardly aspirational thing: the idea of doing a video with high production values. If you look at the promo, there's a big film camera prominent in it. And from a marketing standpoint, it was very smart, because here were these girls in the band who really were "regular girls" now appearing in a movie. It just made perfect sense'.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Electronic Dreams: The Human League, Gary Numan, Ultravox, Visage, Spandau Ballet

A hit single continued to elude The Human League. As if to rub salt in their wounds, on the eve of the release of their second album Travelogue, pop-punkers The Undertones took the piss out of the band in their Top 10 hit "My Perfect Cousin". Kevin, the song's goody-two-shoes subject (he's got a degree 'in economics, maths, physics and bionics') starts an electronic band with some art-school boys. 'His mother bought him a synthesizer', spits singer Feargal Sharkey with disgust, 'Got The Human League in to advise her'. Now that he's in a band, Kevin has girls chasing him, 'But what a shame/It's in vain...Kevin, he's in love with himself'. This pretty much crystallized the early Human League's public image - music for narcissistic art-school poseurs and science geeks.

The Undertones - My Perfect Cousin 1980

Their first album Reproduction's big single, "Empire State Human", concerned a man who keeps on growing.  

The Human League - Empire State Human 1979

Travelogue's "The Black Hit of Space" imagines a record so monstrously bland it turns into a kind of predatory cultural void sucking up everything in its path. As it climbs the charts, the rest of the Top 40 disappears 'until there was nothing but it left to buy'. But all the clever astrophysical details (gravity being so multiplied in proximity to the disc that your record player's tone arm weighs 'more than Saturn', etc.) only confirmed the band's nerdy image.

The Human League - The Black Hit of Space 1980

Gary Numan's music rocked, and even when it didn't, it possessed an almost symphonic grandeur - just listen to his most chillingly beautiful song, "Down in the Park", a sort of dystopian power ballad.

Gary Numan and Tubeway Army - Down in the Park 1979

Gary's sullen pout and wounded eyes made for a perfect pin-up in the classic teenybop tradition, with transgender appeal: girls dreamed of thawing the iceman, bringing him back to life; boys identified with his loneliness, allegorized in songs like "M.E.". Here Numan sang from the point of view of 'the last living machine' on an earth where all the people have died. 'Its own power source is running down. I used to have a picture in my mind of this sad and desperately alone machine standing in a desert-like wasteland, just waiting to die', he said.

Gary Numan - M.E. 1979

As for the atmosphere of numb anomie and alienated sexuality, Ultravox laid it all on the table with the debut's manifesto-like "I Want to be a Machine" and Ballard-damaged "My Sex". 'My Sex is a spark of electro flesh', sings John Foxx. 'A neon outline on a high-rise overspill...skyscraper shadows on a car-crash overpass...It wears no future faces, owns just random gender'.

Ultravox - I Want to be a Machine 1977

Ultravox - My Sex 1977

Visage songs like "Fade to Grey" and "The Damned Don't Cry" conjured what Mark Fisher called 'the Euro-aesthete's "exhaustion from life"', especially in tandem with the videos, which evoked pre-war desolation derived from Cabaret and Fritz Lang.

Visage - Fade to Grey 1980

Visage - The Damned Don't Cry 1982

With impeccable timing, the late summer of 1980 saw David Bowie staging his comeback with a number 1 hit, "Ashes to Ashes", which tapped into the same effete, melancholy mood and European electronic sound, as if to remind everybody that he'd done it first with side two of Low. Visage's frontman Steve Strange, dressed as a pierrot, made an appearance in the "Ashes" video.

David Bowie - Ashes to Ashes 1980

Instead of looking westwards for inspiration, the New Romantics pointedly turned their gaze to the east - Germany, obviously, but also Russia. Visage recorded a song called "Moon over Moscow", while Spandau Ballet, the other major group of the scene, plunged into Cossack/Constructivist kitsch with their single "Musclebound".

Visage - Moon Over Moscow 1980

Spandau Ballet - Musclebound 1981

Singer Tony Hadley's operatic vocals bore scant relation to black music. Picking up on the reference to Spandau - site of a purpose-built prison in western Berlin, where Nazi leaders such as Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer were incarcerated - and the neo-classical marble torso on the cover of their debut album Journeys to Glory, neo-fascist magazine Bulldog hailed Spandau as fine exponents of 'musclebound, Nordic' art. New Romanticism, for them, represented a natural aristocracy: the collective narcissism of a self-chosen few. 'I am beautiful and clean and so very, very young' as Hadley crooned on their first hit, "To Cut a Long Story Short".

Spandau Ballet - To Cut a Long Story Short 1980

Meanwhite Ultravox - reformed by keyboardist Billy Currie when he sensed that the pop weather had finally changed in their favour, and with Midge Ure as its new singer - plunged into full-blown Teutonica with the quasi-classical "Vienna". Wreathed in the sonic equivalent of dry ice, this ludicrously portentous ballad, inspired by a vague notion of a past-its-prime Habsburg Empire sliding into decadence, reached number 2 in the charts in the first weeks of 1981 and hovered there for what seemed like an eternity.

Ultravox - Vienna 1980

The sound Martin Rushent and Buzzock frontman Pete Shelley developed was a transitional hybrid of guitar-based New Wave and electropop, heard at its best on the superb single "Homo Sapien". Released in August 1981, "Homo Sapien" was a coded coming-out for Shelley, but the single's innuendoes (the fruity way Shelley enunciates 'homo sapien', plus couplets like 'homo superior/my interior') provoked an unofficial ban from Radio One, and this fatally thwarted its chart prospects.

Pete Shelley - Homo Sapien 1981