REPRODUCTION – THE HUMAN LEAGUE (1979)
I’ve never quite understood it when people dismiss little-known music out of hand. Equally, I’ve never understood them dismissing well-known music out of hand either. Both equally poxed houses butt heads when the Human League are up for discussion.
Some, perhaps sincerely but perhaps through sheer wilful posturing, will countenance only The Early Stuff, made before the sundering which produced Heaven 17 and led to the arrival of The Girls, massive hits and, presumably eventually, a fair bit of cash. Others, armed with sometimes justified but often fatuous allegations of snobbery and misogyny, will maintain, with breathtaking snobbery themselves, that only geeky losers are into The Early Stuff and only The Hits matter. Most, though, are oblivious to the existence of a first incarnation and just want to hear Don’t You Want Me once again, sandwiched between Rio and Gold.
If that sounds snobbish itself, let me just say that the only distinctions I draw between the lesser-known and the well-known are that there’s far more of the former, meaning it’s a far deeper seam to mine and that, if a song gets played too often, people WILL get sick of it. Don’t get me wrong, I still have a certain regard for Don’t You Want Me but after more than 30 years of merciless overplay on radio and in public places, I could quite happily never hear it again and would now choose most of the other songs from Dare – still as smart and scintillating as the day they were minted – or from Reproduction over it every time.
And what of those songs on Reproduction? By the time of its release, the League were already being indicted for selling out after moving to Virgin (by then rapidly morphing from hippy magnet to abode of the synth) from Edinburgh-based independent Fast, where they had released the appallingly recorded but captivating Being Boiled/Circus of Death (the former’s eventual appearance on Top of the Pops was like Colombo showing up at a royal banquet) and the hypnotic, entirely instrumental Dignity of Labour EP, which not only foreshadowed the marvels of fellow Sheffielders Warp Records by a good decade and a half but also showcased the unaffected sense of magic and wonder which shaped the Human League’s universeview, as they debate, among other matters, the record’s cover star, first man in space Yuri Gagarin. As children of the 1960s, they were entranced by space travel, science fiction and spies through genuine affection and a sense of the future as a frontier to be explored, not something to be feared or, just as perniciously, taken for granted, all illustrated by Adrian Wright’s inventive slideshows at their gigs and quite unlike the puny, tiresome humour of those fixated on Back to the Future and Star Wars (if Jedi is a religion, a Jedi prayer would conclude not with Amen or even May the force be with you but with: See what I did there?). Before any of this, they’d begun by covering the Dr Who theme – an astonishing piece of music even eithout recourse to the programme, which had already been sparking youthful imaginations for nearly 20 years.
On Reproduction itself, despite Kalahari-dry production, the songs are deftly executed and often eerie, deploying space and occasional silence as an instrument – from the first sound you hear, of metronomic ticking leading into the Tudor stomp of Almost Medieval to the spoken bookends of the cryptic tale of breakdown in The World Before Last, beginning with what sounds like Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, recently ousted in the 1979 General Election amid industrial unrest, quipping “you will notice- you wil notice that, very appropriately, I’m left handed” and closing with an early assessment of his Downing Street successor, Margaret Thatcher, as “disastrous.” Slowing the classic Spector beat to cortege pace, with synths panning in equally slow motion, the song may not be directly about Callaghan but does tell of someone whose time has come and gone. As for that verdict on Thatcher – she hadn’t even got started.
Even bleaker is Morale, as subdued and closeted a song as pop has ever produced. The aged narrator reluctantly admits a visitor and ponders his trap, cursing not only his own failings but those of others – “I’ve never met anyone who used their knowledge to avoid those mistakes made again and again.” Even Samuel Beckett sometimes hinted at some kind of redemption or resolution.
Then the synths float and drift and I’ve always imagined we’re being carried across the road to another house, to hear a couple reach the end to the accompaniment of the League’s account of You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling. They play it straight but here the wall of sound is anaglypta-papered, the symphony has been taken out of the pocket, leaving only crumpled hankies, and where Bill Medley sounded wounded and bewildered, Phil Oakey sounds so resentful that there seems no hope of reconciliation.
Lyrics in other League songs have been mocked to the point of tedium for their crassness but Oakey could just as often be poetic and insightful. In the medley Austerity/Girl One, he may offer us “You thought you’d be a nurse/Just like your mother had/ But you make the patients worse/And the doctors know you’re bad” but more than compensates for it with the brilliantly robotic “you brush away a flake of zinc,” then adds: “You push into the bleak/Where all the women walk in fear,” capturing the very real terror that gripped their native county during the Yorkshire Ripper murders of the late ’70s and early ’80s.
There’s also a deadpan narration of a car crash on the closing Zero As A Limit but Reproduction does include songs as bouyant and upful as anything on Dare, just as Dare’s Kennedy documentary Seconds would fit perfectly on to Reproduction. Blind Youth leaps and somersaults as it quizzes punk on its nihilism, while single Empire State Human shares the same Low/Man Machine/Suicide genes as its companions – but could work faultlessly as a song for children. “Fetch more water, fetch more sand/Biggest person in the land” -try it with your kids/nieces/nephews.
They would become huge, in a manner which uncannily paralleled that of Adam and the Ants – both, in turn, uncannily paralleling the rise of T.Rex a decade earlier. In all three cases, seemingly insurmountable splits were overcome with significant switches in direction which still retained plenty of the original spirit. But all this lay ahead – at this stage, the Human League were throwing Roxy Music, Cabaret Voltaire and Illya Kuryakin into a steel foundry to see what they could manufacture. The result was funny, heartbreaking, thrilling, disturbing, warm and, naturally, Human (PG).