When thinking of the musical revolution of the mid-70s, we tend to remember the bristling, guitar-led punk coup spearheaded by the Ramones and Sex Pistols. But equally important and perhaps even more radical musically were the concurrent electronic innovators of the era, most significantly Kraftwerk. While such mechanized music would eventually lead to the synthetic pop of the ’80s that was lumped—along with punk’s stylized offspring equivalents—under the New Wave banner, by the end of the decade, there was an electronic movement afoot every bit as radical in spirit as its safety-pinned peers.
Among the leaders of this pack was The Human League. While largely remembered for the string of hits the group had in the early ’80s, chief among them “Don’t You Want Me,” The Human League began in Sheffield in 1977 as an all-male four-piece emphasizing innovation as much as pop tunesmanship and who won praise from such exalted sources as David Bowie. This lineup released two singles on the hip Scottish indie Fast Product, whose Bob Last ended up managing the band. They then put out two albums on Virgin, Reproduction and Travelogue, which had little commercial impact.
Not long after the second album’s release the band split into two camps, with keyboardists Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware leaving to eventually form Heaven 17, and singer Philip Oakey and keyboardist Philip Adrian Wright continuing on as The Human League with freshly recruited teenage singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley and bassist/keyboardist Ian Burden. After subsequently adding Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis on keys, this group released the blockbuster Dare, which featuring “Don’t You Want Me,” went to number one in the UK and as high as number three on the Billboard charts in the States and received critical praise from a wealth of sources.
The rest as they say is history. The band continued to enjoy success in the ‘80s with singles like “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” and “Human,” before drifting from the limelight. Nonetheless, they persevered through the subsequent decades, continuing to release new music instead of simply becoming another ’80s nostalgia act.
While there have been a number of greatest hits packages over the years, the recently released A Very British Synthesizer Group (Universal Music Group) is perhaps the first one to truly do the band’s legacy proud. Available as either as a two-CD or 3-LP set, this compendium traces the band’s evolution from its first single to its most recent album, 2011’s Credo, packaging 30 tracks in a box that’s particularly handsome in its vinyl form.
Such early tracks as “Being Boiled’ and “Empire State Human” show the band following in their luminaries’ footsteps, while also forging their own way towards the electro-pop renaissance they’d help establish. Meanwhile, the band’s cover of “Nightclubbing” shows they also drew inspiration from the same sources as their punk brethren. Still, the comp is at its best when fusing mechanized sounds to human emotion. That is precisely why “Don’t You Want Me” resonates. Like a Motown hit set in the future, it is what might have resulted had Philip K. Dick written pop songs. “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” (here presented in its extended version) utilizes a similar M.O. to the same effect and also glistens with genius, even if it didn’t chart as high.
The second disc begins with tracks from 1986’s Crash. While “Human” encapsulates the band’s charms in ballad form, the other cuts from the record, “I Need Your Loving” and “Love Is All That Matters” sound simply like the production products of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis that they are. The band subsequently regained its identity, and though they would never match the artistic accomplishments of its past, cuts like “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Filling Up with Heaven” are not without their selling points, while “Night People,” from Credo, is among their best.
Taken as a whole, though, A Very British Synthesizer Group is a thoroughly worthwhile compendium of this band’s work. The Human League were electronic vanguards and no doubt had an impact on much of what followed in the subsequent years. Lest anyone ever think of them as one-hit wonders, this volume encapsulates more than enough evidence of The Human League’s enduring importance.