The Human League? When’s the last time you thought about them?
It must be incredibly galling to have recorded one of the top-selling pop singles of all time and then just a few years later, no ones cares about you anymore or has much interest in your new thing. No matter how good it is!
I’ve always been a Human League fan since I was a kid, but I wasn’t like a “fanatic” for them. I owned all of their albums up to and including 1986’s disappointing Crash but after that they fell off my radar. When 1990’s comeback album Romantic? flopped, it sold for $1 in the cut out bins and even then, I didn’t bother buying it. I still listened to them, but it tended to be the earlier “Being Boiled” or Dignity of Labour-era material that I liked the best, the pre-Dare stuff.
About fifteen years ago I picked up a bootleg of “The Jason Taverner Tape,” or just “The Taverner Tape” at the Pasadena Flea Market. This was a name from a Philip K. Dick novel, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. In the book there is a television personality named Jason Taverner. “The Taverner Tape” is a demo that the Human League made and circulated to record companies, as The Same Mistakes blog explains:
The trio gathered homemade demos of several of the tracks they had been playing live, in support of bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Stranglers, and asked local network television personality Jason Taverner to introduce them on a tape to be sent round to the labels. Taverner was an avuncular figure; when they appeared on his show, he liked to call Ian, Martyn, and Phil, “the lads,” and praised their youthful optimism when other bands “were just trying to shock people.” In return, the band had recorded a hit album, “There’ll Be A Good Time With Taverner Tonight.” This was sure to get the attention of the A&R men.
Of course there was no Jason Taverner. The League had never been on TV, let alone recorded a hit album. It was all an elaborate ruse, somewhere between Situationist prank and Monty Python skit, with Phil playing the part of the regional television personality to a tee. To further confound matters, they inserted the same fifteen second theme, the so-called “Dominion Jingle,” after each song. An obscure reference to a fictional drug, and sounding like a lost sound cue from a low budget horror movie set in an abandoned amusement park, the jingle cast an ominous shadow over the demo’s collection of pop songs and futuristic instrumentals, reminding listeners that the League were as much descendants of Delia Derbyshire as Donna Summer.
Sounds good, right?
It is. Similar early Human League material was released as The Golden Hour of the Future in 2002 which is also highly recommended. Then one day I saw dozens and dozens of $1 cutout CDs of their 2001 album Secrets (it turns out that the label that released it had gone bankrupt and their offices were down the street from this record store) and so I bought it. To my surprise I guess, it was really, really good. I picked up both Romantic? and their little-heard 1995 album Octopus, in short order.
All three of them, I reckon, are quite good. If you look into it, the reasons these three excellent albums failed to get noticed can probably best be chalked up to bad luck and having not one, but two, record labels going tits up in row for consecutive releases!
If timing is everything, the baffling lack of success in the instances of both Octopus and Secrets cannot be blamed on the music. Phil Oakey must want to bash his head against the wall sometimes at what shitty fate the worthy music that he’s made during the latter part of his career has had. On the other hand, time is a great equalizer and I’m sure that at some point in the future some of the Human League’s “lost” songs will be rediscovered and perhaps adopted as a soundtrack by a new generation. It seems inevitable.
Here then, are some of the “lost” (at least in the US, if not Britain) songs of The Human League:
“Soundtrack To A Generation” from 1990’s Romantic? How is it possible that a song this freakin’ catchy wasn’t snapped up by Coca Cola, Nike or some evil fast food chain for an ad campaign? Only a complete cynic could hate this tune, it should have been a monster hit across the globe. When the single flopped, Virgin Records dropped one of their biggest acts, ever. Listen to it twice and you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Ever.
“The Stars Are Going Out” on Later with Jools Holland.
The gorgeous ballad, “One Man in My Heart.” Again, I ask you, how did this great song fail to top the pop charts? Again, blame bad luck. From 1995’s ill-fated Octopus album. Its release was stalled by the record label’s reorganization and the band were soon dropped.
“Tell Me When” from Octopus.
“All I Ever Wanted,” the lead single from 2001’s Secrets album. Another song that a deserved better fate, I gotta say. It comes from a great album, too.
After many years of touring, but no new music, the Human League came out with the excellent Credo in 2011. Thirty years on from Dare, the Human League proved that they still knew how to make a great fucking pop song. Sadly, they’ve put out no new studio recordings since then—who can blame them?—although they do still frequently perform live.
“Never Let Me Go” from 2011’s Credo.
“Night People” from Credo.
And last, but not least, have a listen to the one that started it all, “The Jason Taverner Tape”: