Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 4]

The Human League in 1981: the inflection point of modern synthpop

The Human League in 1981: the inflection point of modern synthpop

The Human League entered 1981 with a handicap. Manager Bob Last had engineered a split between the actual musical portions of the group [who went on to form the British Electric Foundation and Heaven 17] and its singer and visual artist [Phil Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright]. Virgin and Last had enough faith in them to issue a single in the early weeks of 1981 that was made under the aegis of Richard Manwaring, who had produced their earlier music. To these ears, it sounded not terribly different from the material on the first two Human League albums. Stark electronic pop with darkly foreboding lyrics about… I’m not sure what, actually.

human league - boys+girlsUK7BTellingly, the song’s B-side was a full on geek-fest with the instrumental track “Tom Baker.” Philip Adrian Wright made slides for the band’s shows and curated the A/V aspect of their stage presence. He was their visual designer who was obsessed with Doctor Who… is there anything more geeky than that? The B-side was a very fair pastiche/homage to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop sounds that could be heard on the soundtrack to the infinitely long running sci-fi program. It would be the last time that their roots were showing in public quite so boldly. It failed to trouble the charts.

martin rushentEverything changed for the band when the decision was made to work with noted producer Martin Rushent. He had come up the studio system and had quite a number of successful jobs on his CV by 1981. He was particularly known for a run of fine singles/albums by The Stranglers and The Buzzcocks in the early phases of their careers. For reasons we’ll see later, he crucially produced last single by The Rezillos [“Destination Venus”] before their breakup and re-emergence as The Revillos.  All of this was guitar based New Wave, more or less. But by 1980, he had fallen in with the Blitz house band, Visage, and he had given them a boost by giving them studio space and helping them to issue their 1979 debut 7″ “Tar.” He was struck by the new electronic toys that the band and Midge Ure had brought with them to play with.

human league - thesoundofthecrowdCAN12AThe next year, he found himself working with Jo Callis’ new band he was in after leaving The Rezillos. Both bands were managed by Bob Last and Bob thought that Jo’s songwriting might be handy in a group now consisting of a singer and visual artist. Callis became an important contributor to The Human League Mk II that issued their follow up single to the d.o.a. “Boys + Girls” single just two months later. The difference in the records was noticeable. Much of the sonic palette was similar, but the track was a much poppier dance track. Almost funky, albeit stiffly so. It had a hard beat but featured a much more comprehensible lyric that at least had a chorus one could sing along to about the inclusionary aspects of youth cults… or some such. The verses were more typical of The League in that I’m not sure exactly what they are about. But the difference was enough to give the band their first top 20 chart hit in the year that everyone was ready for them, finally.

What happened next was nothing less than a blueprint for all modern pop music production. After producing that single, Rushent latched onto the recently released Linn Drum computer and rhythm tracks, up until now, the bane of The Human League’s existence, were summarily conquered while still [technically] hewing to their “synthesizers and voices only” manifesto, which would soon get tossed out of the window, for what’s it’s worth. Thusly armed with this drum machine full of digital percussion samples and his trusty Roland Microcomposer MC-4, Mr. Rushent could now construct the band’s music programmatically. The Linn kept the beat and the MC-4, which was designed by Roland as a composing tool, sequenced all of the spidery synth lines that came together to make the mega-selling “Dare” album.

human league - dontyouwantmeUK12AThe sound was fresh at the time and all of the three remaining singles from the album were hits, with “Don’t You Want Me” becoming their signature tune. It was the fourth single from the album, yet a month-long Christmas #1 smash in the UK and, six months later, number one in America for three weeks in a row. This single, more than anything, was the harbinger of things to come for synthpop. The transformation of The Human League from cult electronic weirdos [barely] slumming in pop to Smash Hits heroes on walls everywhere for a few years, had everything to do with the excising of their underground element [Ware and Marsh] by their manager, and the subsequent surrounding of singer Oakey with experienced musicians like Ian Burden and especially Jo Callis. With Rushent in the producer’s chair, the left-field technopop beast was by now yoked and domesticated down to the more commercially acceptable synthpop variety. With that, The Human League had the rare distinction of being both an example of Generation A and the leading edge of Generation B of the emergent synthpop genre. At the end of 1981, they were set to rule the roost but they had some younger, hungrier competition.

Next: …Generation B Strikes Back!

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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8 Responses to Scarcity vs. Ubiquity: The Rise And Fall Of Synthpop [part 4]

  1. Echorich says:

    The 12″ of Sound Of The Crowd had “still synthesizer and vocals only” etched in the inner groove…technically not exactly true…
    And if we are working with the idea of technically…Boys + Girls is really a Travelogue era song that HL Mk1 performed on the tour of that album but didn’t record until the split – and without “the girls” who were back in school full time. It shows that Oakey and ever Wright had some of that HL Mk 1 DNA and understood what it was that Ware and Marsh were creating in the original band.
    Sound Of The Crowd again has lots of Ware/Marsh influence on it (some might say it has a bit more of their imprint on it than might ever be known) and when I first heard it I remember being quite excited that the “new” Human League was taking off from where the Holiday 80 EP had left off. I think the 12″ mix is possibly the best thing HL Mk 2 ever released.
    But that bubble was burst by the much more Pop sounding Love Action. It took me some time to admit to myself that I enjoyed the track, but it was a great leap across to the Pop side of music for the band. Jo Callis is definitely the main protagonist hear. It’s really a perfect pop record utilizing synth and rhythm tracks in an orgy of bright, shiny sounds. To be honest, you can’t really dislike this song no matter how much you try…it’s infectious.
    Now as for Don’t You Want Me…I never really rated it as the best song on the album, far from it. In fact when the album as a whole is considered, it screams of last minute addition and is kind of throw away when compared to the rest of the album’s depth.
    Human League has an odd distinction as a “One Hit Wonder” that didn’t find that hit until the signed a pact with the devil pop music and released a third album. They helped to change the sound of pop for a generation, but like all the great One Hit Wonders, they NEVER came close to repeating the feat and spent the next couple decades trading on and embarrassing that success. Just the memory of Oakey with a mullet fronting a band with guitars and bass in The Lebanon video says volumes…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Let me say that I spent much of 1981 with my ear on college radio, who jumped on Human League imports that year. I vividly recall when I heard “Don’t You Want Me” because I airchecked WPRK-FM on cassette and after DYWM was played, I listened to it for at least an hour solid. What did it offer me? Mostly the novelty of a female singer on a synthpop record. At the time, its clean, programmed sound was a novelty, at least at that time.

      It’s not for nothing that Roland built the Microcomposer series as compositional tools, not necessarily as instruments. When Rushent and Pete Shelley made demos for what was to be the next Buzzcocks album, only to have the group dissolve in a welter of financial chaos, Shelley and Rushent found that Arista liked the demos as they were and offered a solo deal and moved to record an album’s worth of the material.

      Now you can record songs with your smartphone. In a larger sense, this can be seen as progress, but I’m an elitist in one sense: I’d much rather not wade through the tidal wave of mediocrity that accompanies a technological paradigm shift on the creative arts. You’ve seen it happen with photography. I’ve seen it occur with graphic design, and both of our ears deal with it each day as we continue to listen to music. The emergence of the sample/loop based DAW environment in the 90s took music down another path of [in my opinion] diminishing return.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Echorich – Oh, you’re right! I had forgotten that the mullet came to roost on Oakey as well! Sooner or later, they all paid Satan’s price for fame… At the very least with their hair!

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  2. I read in Simon Reynold’s superb ‘Rip It Up’ book that the League were mortified when Virgin wanted to release ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as a single. Placing the track at the end of the album kind of shows what the band really thought of the song…

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      movingtheriver – Welcome to the comments! It may be that with material short at hand, Oakey trotted out “I Don’t Depend On You” [recorded pseudonymously by The Human League as ‘The Men’ previous to their first album in 1979] as possible filler material for their new album. I maintain that the songs are very similar. They both say the exact same thing in similar ways. The Canadian 7″ was actually credited to The Human League [a.k.a. The Men].

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      • Echorich says:

        I have to agree Monk, I Don’t Depend On You has EVERYTHING to do with Don’t You Want Me….the latter is just filled with the influence of Callis and Rushent to give it that pop sheen.

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      • Echorich says:

        This may possibly be more of a stretch… Oakey obviously felt an affinity for this sound replacing Katie Kissoon and Lisa Strike with Sulley and Catherall but it was Martyn and Marsh, as Heaven 17 that would re-write the manifesto of HL Mk1 by adding the white hot brilliance of John Wilson’s funk guitar and bass to their sound. Yes, HL Mk1 kept to the tenent of their manifesto, keeping conventional instruments out of their recordings, but once they found their way into both band’s sound it opened so many doors.

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