THE FUTURE & THE HUMAN LEAGUE
The Golden Hour of the Future
by Simon Reynolds
It began with musical vomit in the meatwhistle.
That sounds gross, and possibly perverse: let me elaborate.
Musical Vomit, a noise/Dada/proto-punk ensemble, was Ian Craig Marsh's first group, and it was spawned and nurtured at Sheffield's Meatwhistle, a Council-funded arts laboratory/performance space for bright teenagers. Post-Vomit, Marsh teamed up with fellow electronics enthusiast Martyn Ware as The Future. Then, with a haircut called Philip Oakey displacing original singer Adi 'Clock DVA' Newton, the Future evolved into The Human League: the first post-punk group to loudly talk up Pop as a Better Way, only to spend three years of thwarted agony as an, ugh, "cult band" (a dirty word in League lingo), all the while watching synthpop peers like Numan and OMD and even John bloody Foxx beat them to the charts. In the face of internal acrimony and creative deadlock, it took an inspired management suggestion (by Bob Last, whose Fast Product label had released the debut single "Being Boiled") to transform one quasi-pop failure into two massive, fully bona fide pop successes: the Human League of "Don't You Want Me", the Heaven 17 of "Temptation".
These 1977 basement tapes, dating from before Marsh/Ware/Oakey even had a record deal, are fascinating because they show how post-punk was in large part simply the resumption of progressive and art-rock, after the brief back-to-basics blip of ramalalama three-chord rock that was punk. It's not insignificant that the League were signed by Virgin (alongside Charisma and Harvest one of the premier prog-rock imprints, home of Henry Cow and Tangerine Dream). By 1979 Virgin had smoothly repositioned itself as a premier label for "modern": basically, prog with better hair, streamlined sonic aesthetics, and a less-is-more attitude to musical chops. So the title of one tune on this CD, "New Pink Floyd", isn't entirely ironic.
What decisively shifted them pop-wards was hearing Giorgio Moroder. Opening track "Dance Like A Star" resembles a homespun "I Feel Love", cobbled together in a garden shed. "This is a song for all you bigheads who think disco music is lower than the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with", announces Oakey, "We're the Human League, we're much cleverer than you." His sneer makes plain the streak of hipster one-upmanship behind pro-pop proselytizing: basically, highbrows aligning themselves with lowbrow pulp and against middlebrow student notions of "cool" and profundity. Driven by an idea of pop, The Human League only reached it when they found their own Moroder in Martin Rushent.
In these spindly song-sketches and buzzing lo-fi instrumentals from 1977---half-a-decade before "Love Action" and "Fascist Groove Thang"---what you hear is a group that has as much in common with Faust and Heldon as with Abba and Chic (the reference points circa Dare and Penthouse and Pavement). Much of Golden Hour is brilliant; the remainder is either charming or, at bare minimum, interesting. Standouts include the early Cabaret Voltaire-like pulse-maze of "Daz"; the doomy, tenebrous 23rd Century Gothick of "Future Religion"; an instrumental version of the Four Tops "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" that's like Joe Meek at his most ethereal; "Blank Clocks", an experiment in automatic lyric-writing, in which a restricted number of nouns ("blank", "time", "heart", "face", "clock", "talk", etc) and qualifiers ("my", "your", "the", "a") reshuffle in endless combinations.
Best of all is the closing "Last Man on Earth": ten minutes of cold electronic beauty that fully lives up to the poignancy and desolation of its title. Overall, Golden Hour shows how under-rated both Human League and Heaven 17 (just check Side Two of Penthouse, essentially an extension of Reproduction/Travelogue) have been as electronic pioneers. "We are the Human League, there are no guitars…"