Sounds 12th August 1978
PLASTER DUCKS plunge at rakish angles down one wall of a room in a quiet house in Sheffield’s suburbs. Bizarre glass figures dot the furniture, jostling for space with broken clockwork tin cars and spaceships, battered sci-fi annuals, strange funfair-cum-laboratory ‘sculptures’ and pieces of Seventies technology, such as bits of a dismembered synthesizer and a pair of large radio-cassettes with built-in miniaturised televisions. They say you can discern personality from the environments people construct, and this room is a good backdrop/introduction to (in particular, asit’s his room) Ian Marsh and, generally, The Human League of which he comprises one fourth.
Draped sleepily – it’s 2.30 am – around the room are Ian (synthesiser, devices), Martin Ware (synthesiser, devices and infrequent voice), Phil Oakey (vocals, occasional electronix and asymmetrical hairdo) and their fourth member, Adrian Wright, who puts together their film-and-slides visuals.
The main reason I’m propping my eyelids in the sleeping suburbs of Sheffield is the Human League’s debut single on the Fast label ‘Being Boiled’.
Non-musicians to a man, they used taped electronic rhythms as a basis for disquiently evocative synthesiser lines that syncopate brilliantly against each other. If I were trying to nutshell them I’d say they lie midway between Suicide and Kraftwerk (a loud thundering as hordes of cybernetic pseuds descend upon Sheffield). But that only gives the idiom, it says nothing about them or their music.
‘Being Boiled’ compares senseless genocide – Vietnam-style – with Sericulture, the culture of silk-worms (who are dropped in boiling water to remove their skins). The moral irresponsibility is laterally connected with Buddhism. Over to you Phil…
“It’s about Buddhism not being about anything. I was very interested until I got an Indian guy to lend me a book about Buddhism. I read it and realised I was actually interested in Hinduism. I didn’t like Buddhism after that.
“Basically, Buddha would say one thing abd people would think, ‘Great!’, then he’d say the complete reverse and people would say ‘Great!’.”
The B-side, ‘Circus Of Death’, documents the arrival of a nightmarish circus in this country. The circus is run by an evil clown who secretly administers the drug Dominion to the population, rendering everyone under his power. The extent of his power spreads across the country and, er, Steve McGarett flies into Heathrow from Hawaii to try and stop the clown…
“It’s like a subliminal trip through all the very thrashiest films,” says Martin.
Phil, goes further; “ ‘Circus Of Horrors’ (wherein fiendish plastic-surgeon Anton Diffring does things to ladies with large busts) had just been on television. The music sounded like a circus to me. The other part is because I happen to think Steve McGarett’s a very good-looking guy. I wish I looked like him.”
He asked for it and, sure enough, Martin starts guffawing, “We were trying to get Phil to say ‘One, Two, Three, book him, Chin’ at the beginning of the song.”
His desire to stand apart from synthesiser-oriented fads also extends to the pretentious gab being flung this/that way regarding robotics, androids and cybernetics.
“We are not robots,” Martin stresses, “we are human beings. We are totally opposed to that. I couldn’t believe how bad Kraftwerk’s last LP was. Technically and musically it was okay, but the lyrical and conceptual content was an acute embarrassment.”
Compounding his/their iconoclastic nature, Phil avers; “I thought the music sucked”.
“If anything,” Martin continues, “ we are the complete opposite. Our lyrics are often about how contended you can be living today, and how much worse you could be. It’s very fashionable to moan about the modern world. It’s my personal theory that we’re more human than ever before. There are many more possibilities for humanity.
“I think people believe what they are told to believe. It’s fashionable to believe you’re being dehumanised by the modern world, then people will believe it.”
ONE ABIDING interest they have in the modern world is computers. Both
Martin and Ian have computer op. day jobs (Phil is a hospital porter) and their interest in electronic music is a ‘symptom’ of their work. But, far from living in
the heart of the machine (to plagiarise someone or other), their music is very
human. Normal, even.
“I don’t think our music is un-normal,” Phil says, “We go through un-normal processes to produce it, but we end up with fairly normal stuff.”
A sign of their human-ness is the cover version of the Righteous Brothers’ ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ that they include in their set. It’s an electronic replica, complete with the deep bass line, sweet melody and counter-harmonies (sung by Phil and Martin).
“We play it,” explains Martin, “because it’s an opposition of ideas. How can an electronic band, both humourless and and non-human, come up with something that is so ostensibly so emotive?”
How indeed? The main thing is that they do. The ‘League gig I caught while in Sheffield included a haunting, quite beautiful version of the song. In fact, all of their songs are strangely human for a band using nowt but so-called inhuman instruments. Their secrets is their highly positive attitude towards the hardware. They’re not afraid of it either, as their future plans clearly show.
“One of the ideas we’ve got for the future, ‘Ian says, ‘is to dispense with the backing tape and start using a computer. We’d use it initially as a glorified sequencer, rather than having things on tapes we’d have entire programmes to run through.”
“But, Martin adds, “it’s not just a gimmick. It would be purely as an organisational aid, not as a creative aid.”
“This is true futurism as far as I can see it. This is how it should be evolving. You use technology, it’s pointless being frightened of it.”
THEY’LL admit the technology might swamp the emotion of a song, but deny that machines could actually overthrow them. However, one dark night a short while ago…
“We did a track called ‘Dada Dada Duchamp Vortex’ (a spoof, they assure me) that had a really strange thing occurring that wasn’t put on (the tape) by either of us. It was on my machine, a random thing like a guitar that kept coming in and out. It was really emotive , the most emotive thing on the tape. But it wasn’t anything to do with what I was playing at all,” Ian recounts. Shades of Can and self-operating studio equipment.
Undeterred by such spooking, their dalliance with machine-brains goes beyond music. Say hello to CARLOS.
“We came up with this system for writing lyrics, “Ian explains, “called CARLOS – Cyclic And Random Lyric Organisation System. It’s quite similar to the cut-up system, except it’s more mechanical.”
CARLOS would take another page to explain, so I’ll try to summarise. Basically, it’s a computerised version of a fruit machine, where the fruit/stars/whatever are replaced with words or phrases. With a fruit machine, the permutations are considerable, but with CARLOS astromical numbers of sentence are possible, depending on how many words/phrases the operator cares to feed in.
They wrote a song about James Williamson using CARLOS, in which says Ian, ‘The first twelve phrases that came up were quite good’. “You come up with some amazing lyrics,” Martin adds, “It’s a very interesting process, a very logical extension of mathematics.”
IT’S NOW 6 AM and the conversation is drifting drowsily into an area of interest to you, dear reader, if your name is Noam Chomsky. Adrian is fast asleep, no doubt dreaming in Cinerama. Phil is due at work in an hour or so but can hardly stay awake. Martin departs his maisonette and I stagger off through the rain in search of the station.
With their healthy and positive approach to technology, their underivative and personable form of electronics and their friendly, humorous personality, The Human League have the makings of Britain’s premiere electronic group. They’re the only band to have resolved the rift between Man and Machine in a positive manner, and are the only synthesiser group playing live gigs in this country. Their London debut is supporting the Rezillos at the Music Machine, August 17, and considering all the above factors, I don’t think you can really afford to miss it.