LIVE REPORT: The Human League
, December 16th, 2016 14:43
Touring in support of the kind of retrospective that the band, and their fans, truly deserve, Ian Wade finds the Human League showcasing their versatility and their steadfast commitment to being — as the record says — "a very British synthesizer group." (Photos by Maria Jefferis.)
Since the age of ten, when I'd read about this wonky looking group, featuring some bloke with a lopsided haircut. To me they seemed like the ideal band: synthesizers! Slides! Songs about crows, Toyotas and a record that swallowed the universe! They were ideal. By the time they had appeared on Top of the Pops again in 1981, with a shuffled around line-up featuring two girls who looked like they could be at sixth form with my sister, that sealed the deal. By the time Dare arrived - which still is the greatest album ever made, should you have forgotten - they had bypassed the likes of Madness, Specials and Adam & The Ants to become my first proper love. My new favourite band. A slight obsession, even. Yet all through the years of our paths almost crossing, I'd never actually seen them live. I did see them have a short sing at a Pride at Finsbury Park once, but have been informed that that doesn't count. It was basically them and Saint Etienne stopping me from doing all of the drugs and then getting lost in the Fist tent that day. Such is the effect an event headlined by Steps can have. So all through these years, I've neither had the money or just plain remembered too late, or some other dog-ate-homework reason. Stupid really. They'd done tours of just Dare, and even a triple bill alongside ABC and Heaven 17. I know.
But now, the best part of a lifetime on, I'm finally seeing them. And... Oh my God.
Touring in support of the fantastic new compilation, A Very British Synthesizer Group, which lovingly collects together literally everything, finding room for The Dignity of Labour, demos called 'Happening Woman' and a DVD featuring all their BBC TV appearances - most of which have been denied in the TOTP re-runs due to nonce attachment. It's a welcoming addition, after a lifetime of shonky looking Best Of packages with half-arsed attempts at the Dare typeface and bonus remixes, and a latter period of label-hopping, it's the retrospective the band deserve.
Naturally, when the album any band is touring contains all of the hits, you are going to get the hits. Fortunately, The Human League have a fair few: these simple, brilliant life-affirming pop songs, originally made for next-to-nothing by people who can't particularly sing and weren't particularly musical, still sound incredible. The one-time scourge of the Keep Music Live bores, who were up in arms about synthesizers, has outlasted plenty of supposedly 'real' and 'authentic' music, and fresher than any acoustic arsehole in a hat.
The three of them still remain the most unlikely popstars on the planet. Oakey stalking the stage Matrix-ly in his futuristic leathery tabard. He still has that voice - and having heard he'd been under the doctor earlier due to his throat, there was no sign of any weakness. Still sounding much like the voice that originally recorded opener 'Being Boiled' almost 40 years ago.
One's resistance crumbles when faced with the goddesses Susan and Joanne, whose sheer presence on the stage warrants screaming. Managing to make you feel they're part of the crowd that's scrambled up to join the band up on the stage, yet emanating Northern Chic glamour. They may not dance like they're carrying heavy shopping anymore, but they still command the stage - serving elegant pop realness while Phil stalks up and down the stage in increasingly wearable clothing.
The visuals too, were pretty amazing. Either Pac Man for 'Open Your Heart' or jellyfish during a sumptuous 'Human', it was far from anything "revival circuit." Also evoking their original reliance on images in the early days, with impressive world-leaders-morphing-into-animals for 'The Sound of the Crowd'. Eventually opening up to reveal a backing band, tooled up with keytars and syndrums for any eventuality, should they want to perform any rarities such as 'I Don't Depend On You' (which they didn't, so we'll scream louder next time). Showcasing a band that can play Sonar in Barcelona or an 80s weekender at a racecourse with the likes of Bananarama, Jimmy Somerville, and if especially unlucky, Toyah.
A set not exactly for any pre-Dare fans, it's populated with singles from each phase, with bonuses of 'Things That Dreams Are Made Of' and 'Seconds', which sound better than most other 35 year old album tracks really should. Romantic?'s 'Soundtrack For A Generation' and 'Heart Like A Wheel' get a look in too, plus their mid-nineties comeback hits 'Tell Me When', 'Filling Up With Heaven' and 'One Man In My Heart' get aired, as does the most recent single here, 'Sky'. Of course, the crowd go batshit for the imperial phase, with Love Action and the inevitable Don't You Want Me getting the biggest reaction, although 'Mirror Man', '(Keep Feeling) Fascination', 'Louise' and even 'The Lebanon' all are greeted as enthusiastically. In fact, the pure League-only diehard could even forgive them ending on a beyond-joyous 'Together In Electric Dreams'.
Basically, it was completely amazing. It was that kind of night. And judging by what friends who've also seen them around the country have said, it's been that kind of tour. The Human League. They are a very British synthesizer group and we should bloody well cherish them.