Out-of-print records, suddenly reissued, can serve as a kind of secret history. The paradigmatic example is the Nuggets garage-rock compilation, originally released in the 1970s and recently expanded into a four-CD boxed set, with an equally large follow-up set documenting European acts (the original limited itself to American music). These discs illuminated a whole world of primitive, homegrown rock ‘n’ roll, a living music being hammered out, one single at a time, in the mid-1960s, by dozens of short-lived and obscure bands. Most of them probably didn’t have more than one great song in them, but that one great song deserved a spot in the collective memory of rock ‘n’ roll.
But what about bands with a career longer than a single? The Human League, in America at least, are defined by one song: 1982’s “Don’t You Want Me,” one of the first entirely synthesizer-driven pieces of music to succeed on the pop charts. In the world of 1980s-themed anthologies and frothy pop-culture “remember when” shows, this will forever be their legacy. What the recent reissue of the Human League’s first three albums demonstrates, though, is that this vision of the band is ignorant and reductive, and in many ways false.
The band’s first album, 1979’s Reproduction, shows the Human League to be, in many ways, pioneers. From the first, they built their music entirely from synthesizers, employing no organic instruments of any sort—no guitars, no drums, only the human voice and a few primitive keyboards. The music they made on Reproduction was as far from pop as it was possible to go without descending entirely into atonality. The beats are almost painfully slow, lurching forward mechanistically like a car with four square, steel wheels. By limiting themselves to keyboards, the group’s melodic range is also constricted; crescendos mostly arise through tempo changes, rather than the anthemic crashing possible in hard rock. This keeps the music grounded, in line with the lyrics, which are chanted in a mournful singsong which owes much to the then-new goth style, and which are filled with images of death, consumerism and bleak post-industrial anonymity. Group leader Phil Oakey’s voice travels from depression to the edge of frenzy. Reproduction is as persuasive an argument against living in late-70s England as anyone could want. The album’s only unsuccessful track is a cover of the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.” As a synth-driven dirge, sung by one voice rather than two, it holds none of the gleefully destructive power of, say, Devo’s version of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” It just sounds like they didn’t have the budget, or the personnel, to really do the song up right. But in context, this seems part of an overall strategy to crush the listener’s spirit. Reproduction is just no fun, but in 1979, as the logical step after punk’s insistence on rebooting pop music, fun might well have seemed out of the question.
The follow-up, 1980’s Travelogue, suffers slightly from being the second album by a band who might well have let Reproduction stand as a kind of one-shot epitaph for pop. The gloom of the first album remains, augmented by an occasionally more explicitly political paranoia, particularly in the song “Dreams Of Leaving,” which is a collage of fleeing-by-night images similar to Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime.” The consumer critique is more muted, though; tracks titled “Gordon’s Gin” and “Toyota City” are both instrumentals. And in a few important, if subtle ways, Travelogue is more enjoyable than the debut album. It’s got synthetic horn riffs accenting the simplistic melodies, and occasional female background vocals. Indeed, “Being Boiled,” despite its title, is at least as funky as some contemporaneous hip-hop tracks. Overall, the album is less of a statement, or a line in the sand, and more of a batch of music intended for listener pleasure. Again, there’s a somewhat ill-advised cover version on the disc: this time, it’s a bonus track, a medley of Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll” and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.” The former is so clearly antithetical to everything the Human League have set themselves up as standing for that it’s obviously intended as satire, or at least a vituperative rejection of Glitter and 1970s glam-rock–more of the “fun has no place in our Brave New World” attitude so dominant on Reproduction. “Nightclubbing,” though, was already a soul-crushing piece of anti-pop when it appeared on Iggy’s 1977 album The Idiot. His deadpan baritone was like a spotlight glaring through the world of late-night dancing, revealing the sweaty desperation of the mating ritual and the panicked attempts to camouflage inferiority complexes with new dances and new clothes. The Human League seem to share this view, so little is added; they’re just paying tribute to a song they like, not subverting one whose politics they oppose.
Dare, the third Human League album, is from its first notes a vastly more pop record than either of its two predecessors. (Love and Dancing, the second half of the CD, was an album of instrumental versions of the group’s songs, credited to the League Unlimited Orchestra.) The most important additions to the group’s sound are two female vocalists, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, who balance Phil Oakey’s wail with counterpoint shouts and take the occasional lead (as on “Don’t You Want Me”). The album is often much more danceable than Reproduction or Travelogue, but at the same time, “Don’t You Want Me” is the only obvious single. A song like “The Sound Of The Crowd,” with its almost martial beat, chanted vocals and mounting screams on the chorus, would never have crossed over to mass success. Indeed, “Don’t You Want Me” is almost the antithesis of the rest of the record. The other nine songs almost uniformly maintain Oakey’s dark, cold vision of the band, society and life in general. Even the potential for individualism, the heart of rock ‘n’ roll, is dispensed with on “The Sound Of The Crowd” with the lyrics “Get around town/No need to stand proud/Add your voice to the sound of the crowd.”
While each of the first three Human League records contains good music, well made, and is therefore worth owning on its own merits, these reissues are also a fascinating reminder that pop groups are sometimes much more complex than one hit makes them seem. The late rock critic Lester Bangs once wrote a lengthy essay on the Count Five, a one-hit garage-rock band (their single, “Psychotic Reaction,” was anthologized on Nuggets). He created a fictional multi-album career for them, which contained numerous surprise musical tangents, and managed to make this minimally important group seem vastly interesting. The reader came away actually wanting to hear the albums he was describing, and seeing the Count Five in a whole new light. These reissues could do the same for the Human League, only the evidence is not fictional; it’s right here on CD.