NME 12th July 1980
LADIES, GENTS, ANDROIDS, MUTANTS & BIOTRONS
A BIG HAND FOR
SYNTHESISED WORDS & SOUNDS: CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY
THE HUMAN LEAGUE ADVENTURE IS JUST BEGINNING.
The first slide appears on the top left-hand screen. It is rapidly flanked by another:
A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY
IT BEGINS WHERE EVERYTHING ELSE ENDS
At the back of the stage, Ian Marsh activates the tape machine, the rhythm track rolls and once again, The Human League grapple uneasily with their machines and commence another performance.
In Sheffield Top Rank, a capacity audience welcomes them with that combination of warm encouragement and ferociously critical scrutiny which hallmarks the hometown audience. In Derby, a small but enthusiastic crowd of cleancut youth who seem to know them primarily from Top Of The Pops cheer them to the (digital) echo. In Hammersmith Palais, a legion of exquisitely detailed glamrockers of a demented dandyism unseen since the heyday of Enophase Roxy Music acclaim them as champions.
Dotted hither and you are youth units with the beginnings of Philip Oakey’s haircut: cropped on one side, elegantly flowing on the other. Philip, however, has been cultivating his for two years and therefore has something of a head start on them. The spectacle is reminiscent (in purely stylistic terms if not in general cultural significance) of Bob Marley asserting his chieftain status at the Lyceum in ’75: the length and splendour of his locks demonstrating his assendency even before he’d sung a single note.
Philip Oakey is the vocalist for The Human League, an aggregation of young men from Sheffield who have logically and diligently followed up a series of perverse cultural preoccupations and ended up constructing pop music exclusively through the use of throats, lungs, synthesizers, sequencers and tapes, while embellishing said music with slides and projectors. They have thus achieved a certain amount of popular recognition, though their record company would doubtless declare that The Human League could ‘do better’.
Philip Oakey clutches his microphone stand and turns his head slowly from side to side. He appears to be making an obscure visual allusion to a sequence from The Excorcist. The long portion of his hair sweeps over his shoulder in slow motion. In the audience, those who has chosen to mimic his particular tonsorial affection do likewise. In fact, Philip is neither showing off his hairstyle nor making cinematic references. He is attempting to watch the slide show, since he has been informed that Adrian Wright, the member of the band responsible for the visual aids, is currently incorporating a photograph of Oakey into his slide show.
“I wish I had wing mirrors on my mike stand,” he will declare with more than a hint of wistfulness, “or video monitors! Then I could stand perfectly still and not move at all.”
He cuts an impressive figure in performance, does Philip, which is a tribute to the painstaking care that he puts into his nigthly transformation. Do you realise what agony it is for this man to shave? He has extremely sensitive skin and active stubble as well as extremely greasy hair. Philip is, however, prepared to suffer for his art. On the top of a bus in Sheffield – a place where 7p can still take you a considerable distance – he is merely a tall bloke with a very silly haircut. On the stage, he is a friendly emissary from some wonderland of cultural deviance.
In true Human League fashion, Oakey’s stage role has emerged as a result of a disability. He declares himself unable to play a synthesizer and sing at the same time. Though he takes his turn at the keyboards along with the others in the studio – The Humies’ preferred habitat – he leaves Ian Marsh and Martin Ware to operate the devices while Adrian Wright – now elevated to a position on stage so that audiences will realise that he is actually “a member of the group rather than a glorified lights man” – makes sure that the projectors know who’s boss.
THE Human League have been called many things in their time, some of them favourable. When their first single ‘Being Boiled’ was released by Fast Product, John Rotten commented simply “trendy hippies”.
Since then they’ve been accused of being pretencious, insufficiently serious, overly serious; they’ve been called glamrock revivalists, ‘a dodgy psychedelic band’, phony futurists (ouch!), a mere rock band who cannot come to terms with their instruments, and all sort of things.
Since their original policy platform called for use of orthodox rockpop forms and structures coupled with synthesizer textures and techniques, it would be fair to say that they have fulfilled this brief almost perfectly. Their combination of the grandiose and the silly, the trivial and the significant, the trashy and the classic is as perverse and unusual as anything else in its immediate cultural vicinity. Their blending of childish glee and adult scepticism is alarmingly appealing.
In addition to Oakey – a man who specialises in saying preposterous things with the polite fervour of one who means them – the League comprises Martin Ware, a bluff, sensible, bearded sort of person who delights in reminding all and sundry that he quit a five-and-a-half-grand-a-year job in computers “for this!”; Ian Marsh, a small dapper fellow who spends most of his time eschewing verbal communication while grinning mischievously at some private and esoteric joke; and Adrian Wright.
Adrian is picked on mercilessly at all times, though slightly less virulently when he isn’t there. An obsessive devotee of The Ramones, Adrian has followed da brudders through entire tours – “When I first met Joey,” recalls Philip, “he said, ‘oh, you’re the guy who sings on Adrian’s album” – and still corresponds fervently with Johnny Ramones, trading Alien bubblegum cards for John Wayne movie stills. Adrian, too, has known pain and sorrow: recently his collection of Star Wars toys outgrew his corridor and he had nowhere to put them.
It would be unfair to pick on Adrian for being an overgrown 10-year old: all The Human League are overgrown 10-year olds, but the other three are slightly more urbane about it. In the van en route from Sheffield to Derby, a ludicrous scene ensued when it was discovered that out of three copies of an Empire Strikes Back comic purchased by the band, one copy had somehow lost its set of free Empire transfers. Instead of utilising the economic advantage that they have over other 10-year olds and simply purchasing one more copy, the band proceeded to squabble for five minutes over the excisting transfers. It was not a pretty sight.
To console himself, Oakey leafed through a prized recent acquisition; a model directory. Not the glossy soft-porn ones sold in newsagents, but the genuine article as circulated by model agencies to bona fide clients. Models fascinate Philip: he follows them from ad to ad and transformation to transformation. It is the transformations that fascinate him rather than the models themselves, the techniques they use for modifying their appearances to suit each assignment. Sometimes they portray ‘real people’; these roles fascinate Oakey most of all. He is himself, however, reluctant to be photographed in his untransformed state, thereby depriving others of the chance to see ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures.
ELSEWHEN, a conversation is taking place. Martin is in the middle of an explanation of the origin of the group’s name: “We got it from this science fiction game called Star Force. There were all these scenarios in the back for various wars in the future, and one of these for a stage round about 2180 where there were two main empires: The Pansentient Hegemony…”
An explosion of mirth and bellows of “It’s that word again!”
“…And The Human League. The Human League were centred around Earth and the scenario was called ‘The Rise Of The Human League’. So we stole it.”
The Trash Aesthetic is briefly debated. Philip points out that Bryan Ferry “does exactly the same thing in a subtler way, because all his lyrics are clichés. I don’t think we’re all that thrashy, anyway. We are live because of Adrian’s slides” (uproar) “because in the slides there is an element of Adrian’s preference for trash…” More uproar. Adrian bellows. “Only in the trashy songs! Only in the trashy songs!”
We discuss their stage set up and what they’d like to do with it next. A brief conflagration breaks out when a disagreement is reached over the use of film and videos as well as stills and slides.
“This hits on a pretty central problem,” says Philip. “Everybody else thinks we should play live and I don’t at all.”
So why do you play live?
“I think it’s useful for getting songs licked into shape when you start out.”
Martin: “When people see us live, they realise that we are an entirely different kettle of fish from all the groups who get rather superficially catagorised with us. Also, it influences a lot of people, and people are only going to remember you for a long time if they see you in the flesh.”
Philip: “To me a live show is what you do because you can’t get on TV.”
Martin: “No, that’s something entirely different. TV is a far more effective means of promoting something, but a live show is an entirely different thing. I’d rather do two solid weeks of TV than two solid weeks of touring, but it’s just not practical. We’re all very nervous and very shy, when it comes down to it. We’re not natural performers. It’s taken God knows how many concerts for us to be able to relax even a little bit. We’re not your outgoing, ebullient types.”
Iantervenes: “It’s different for other groups because at least they’re leaping about. We’re just not very moveable.”
Martin: “Action Man – fully poseable!”
When the League first got going, their initial imperative was to begin making tapes. Performing was an afterthought. “Even before we thought of performing, “ asserts Martin. “We were sticking things down on tape. Tape has always been essential to our mode of composition and operation. It’s essential.”
Philip: “Even more essential than synthesizers. Other groups get together with two guitars and a drummer and a singer and they’ll thrash out a song and learn to play it and then they’ll go out and play it live and then maybe get to make a record of it. The first thing we do when we get anything we like is to put it down on tape and then we see about adding to it, which is a very different set-up.”
THE Human League was an outgrowth of a previous band called The Future, which was Ian, Martin and a person called Addy who is now in ClockDVA.
“Instrumentals, basically,” recollects Marsh. “We wrote off to record companies in London saying, ‘We are going to be huge and you should sign us. We are going to be in London for two days and you can make appointments to see us and out demo tapes.’ We went round loads of of people like CBS and Island. Virgin was on the list but we opted out of seeing them because we were having such a good time round at Island. They all thought we were total crap and said ‘Keep in touch, boys.’ Island and Pye were quite enthusiastic, actually. But then we got rid of Addy and for reasons best known to ourselves we got Philip in.”
The Future lasted from June until October of ’77. ‘Dancevision’ (on the original now-deleted-highly-collectable-blah-blah ‘Holiday 80’ double single) was done by Ian and Martin during this era. The Future never ventured into live performance, however. Philip had never sung. But…
Philip: “I was at school with Martin and I’d been watching with increased admiration as all these things happened to The Future with them trotting odd to London to see record companies, which seemed a fairly insane thing to do. Everybody used to laugh at them except me. They used to practice in a room with 2.3, who were a sort of semi-punk band and when they’d walk past with their synthesizers it was all ‘Going to play yer Tangerine Dream music then? Ho ho ho’, but I was fairly enthusiastic because I really like it. I thought it was great.
“Then they had a bit of a bust-up with Addy Newton – known to his friends as Garry pr Gazza – and I…
Ian: I remember sitting in Martin’s room thinking, “We need another keyboard player.’ We never thought about getting a singer. We weren’t specifically looking for another musician, just someone with the right attitude. I didn’t know Philip at all. I’d just met him a couple of times and thought he was totally obnoxious. I thought he was an A-1 git.”
“I don’t know how you got this impression of me!” protests Oakey.
“Well, you insulted me several times when you didn’t know me at all. We met in a club once during the heyday of punk when I was looking fairly absurd in a pair of women’s tights as a top just dragged over me head and ripped… and a 13 amp plug round me neck and a baked bean can on me head. You came up to me and said, ‘What happens if I plug you into the mains? Does yer head light up?”
“I’m always very polite to people,” Oakey splutters. The only time I remembered meeting you was when we both went for the same job at the computer place and you came in dressed totally in black with gloves and an umbrella on a sunny day. I didn’t mean to insult you, I’m really sorry about that.”
“Salright, Phil,” replies Marsh pleasantly. I’ll never forgive you. You used to come to rehearsels and do absolutely nothing, and then you showed up with this saxophone that you couldn’t play…”
“But it cost me £165!”
“And then finally you wrote your first lyric, which was ‘Being Boiled’. You came in and sang ‘listen to the voice of Buddha saying stop your sericulture’… I thought you were completely fucking crackers! We wouldn’t let him (Philip has now been moved into the third person) play our syntheiszers because we were too busy playing them ourselves.”
Philip: “I felt a vast disadvantage until I conned the money out of me dad to buy a synthesizer. I still can’t play it…”
Martin: “And it’s broken!”
They commenced rehearsels in Devonshire Lane (a must for all visitors to Sheffield) and Adrian became involved when Addy Newton came and removed all the doors – “I thought what’s this prat doing taking my door away?” – including Ian’s pride and joy: his ‘detective door’.
“He had an office in 1930 with ‘I. Marsh, Private Investigator’ lettered on the door…”
“I spent hours working on that office. I japanned the furniture and had an artist letter the sign, and then I sat around inside in me pin-stripe…waiting for cases.”
Martin explains: “Ian’s the quiet one who sits in the corner not talking, but he was the one who packed in his job with computers and ran away to Cornwall to be a fisherman. That was with Addy – the famous crazy person – and they were under the impression that they could just live off the land there. Ludicrous! The he set himself up as a french polisher by reading one book on it. Then he ruined this oak table that belonged to his girlfriend’s parents…”
The protagonist resumes the tale: “I arrived with my little briefcase and said, ‘All right, where is it?’ Then as soon as they left the room I got me book out and started work. It turned out not to be solid when I took it down to this really crap wood and I had to fake it up with pin-holes to get the dye in. It took me two weeks.”
The highlight of Ian Marsh’s career was his entry into the astrology business. “I started up a business called Aurora Astrological Analysis. I’d figured that they were 55 million people in Britain and if they all gave me a quid I could retire. So how could I get everybody to give me a quid? I decided that people would pay a quid for a genuine personalised horoscope but not making them personalised at all, just wording the ad very carefully, getting a solicitor to check it all out and just having the dozen very basic standardised ones. I just booked ads in various magazines like Prediction…I think I made about thirty quid. I still get some very weird letters Nigeria, like the ones I used to get from women asking for very detailed advice about their personal lives. I used to write back and give them advice…I was about 17 at the time.
BACK in real life, the League consider their future.
“I don’t think we’re really interested in rock as a career. What we really want to do is to get into films, and I think that between the four of us we have the ideas and the contacts to do something, but we need some money. Now, to make money we have to sell albums, and to sell albums we have to sell singles…so here we are.”
And back on stage, the last shots of Gary Glitter and stills from Land Of The Giants are replaced by three more slides, from different films and TV shows. They all spell out – in different colours and styles of calligraphy – the same thing. They say