To me, the Human League were one of those bands that were so out there and above my conceptions that to listen to them would be beyond my capacities. I'm exaggerating a bit (although that is pretty much how I felt about Talking Heads for a long time; it's still hard for me to think of them as a band like any other), but the truth is I knew the name but never listened to the band for a long time.
Then my dear sister Meredith put their song "The Black Hit of Space" on a compilation she made for me, and I was astounded. More will come on that song. Later, I learned about their two number one (US) singles, "Don't You Want Me", a fantastic duet about finding fame, and "Human", a cheesier love and forgiveness sort of ballad.
As good as "Don't You Want Me" and it's accompanying #1 album, Dare, are (and they are quite good), I've always connected a little bit more with "The Black Hit of Space" and the album it leads off, Travelogue, which I bought on vinyl about a year ago. As it turns out, Travelogue was the second and final album featuring the original line-up of the band – Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware left to form Heaven 17, while Philip Oakey found a new crew to play with and kept the name The Human League.
Artist: The Human League
Label: Virgin International
Produced by: The Human League and Richard Manwaring
01. The Black Hit of Space
02. Only After Dark [Mick Ronson cover]
03. Life Kills
04. Dreams of Leaving
05. Toyota City
06. Crow and a Baby
07. The Touchables
08. Gordon's Gin [Jeff Wayne cover]
09. Being Boiled
10. WXJL Tonight
Bonus tracks on CD versions (1988 and onward):
11. Marianne [Holiday '80 EP, 1980]
12. Dancevision [Holiday '80 EP, 1980]
13. Rock 'n' Roll / Nightclubbing [Gary Glitter cover / Iggy Pop cover] [Holiday '80 EP, 1980]
14. Tom Baker [Boys and Girls b-side, 1981]
15. Boys and Girls [Single, 1981]
16. I Don't Depend on You [Single, 1979, released as "The Men"]
17. Cruel [I Don't Depend on You b-side, 1979, released as "The Men"]
The album credits proudly proclaim, right after the title and band name, "contains synthesizers + vocals only". They aren't joking. The credits list three of the four members (the ones listed above) as playing "synthesizer + vocals", and the fourth, Philip Adrian Wright, is credited with "slides + films". Despite not even appearing on the record, he is credited nonetheless. How sharing and caring. This is synthpop at its best, no messing around.
"The Black Hit of Space" is without a doubt my favorite track. It starts with a synthetic drumbeat and weird, delayed synthesized notes. Then a thick, distorted swash of noise comes in and doesn't entirely even break once the lyrics start. A high-pitched synth and a bassline make the actual chords. The sound is so eerie and foreboding, with that certain space-age post-punk synth sound. It's great. The chorus vocals have this weird reverb and sound really warbly and weird. The lyrics are so great that I have to reproduce the chorus:
"The Black Hit of Space
It's the one without a face
It's the hit that doesn't fit
You can only see the flip
The Black Hit of Space
Sucking in the human race
How can it stay at the top
When it's swallowed all the shops?"
The next verse explains that the record has made every other record disappear until the Black Hit reaches number one and then continues into "minus figures", but "nobody could understand why". I certainly don't. Then comes a breakdown with a spoken verse, where our narrator explains that he couldn't listen anymore and thus, " I reached for the arm, which was less than one micron long but weighed more than Saturn, and time stood still / I knew I had to escape but every time I tried to flee, the record was in front of me." Genius.
"Only After Dark" is a Mick Ronson cover. Yes, Mick Ronson, who was Bowie's Ziggy Stardust-era guitarist (the one whose guitar Bowie went down on), before Bowie became the Thin White Duke and then starting jamming with Eno. I've never been able to find the original Ronson version of the song, but considering his glam rock roots, there's no way the song isn't an all-out guitar onslaught. The Human League's version is fully synthed up, more akin to something Eno would do than Ronson, only more directly poppy.
"Life Kills" and "Dreams of Leaving" are both very much anti-working-class conformity songs. "Life Kills" is all about the exhaustion of a busy business routine: "Your life is like a schedule / You run to meet the bills / No ones awake to tell you / Life kills". "Dreams of Leaving" is a bit more minimalist in sound, except for the intense synth noise that crops up right before the first verse. A melodica-esque keyboard comes in for a few lines. More layers show up after the first verse, but then fade away into what sounds like the beginning of another song. It begins to build up and then turns into a bass groove, when suddenly the bass drops and a synth wash introduces the second verse. Things get dramatic and then the nearly-six minute epic fades out. The lyrics are rather vaguely paranoid ("Someone's trying to stop us / There is someone in our party") but seem to focus on trying to get out of the mundane life ("I think I'm going North / and now's the time to leave").
"Toyota City" is an instrumental, and I suppose the title just fits with the whole sort of "we're synthy and futuristic, like the Japanese" things that occasionally crops up in synthpop. Well, actually, I think I made that up, except for Air, who loves their occasional Japanese reference. And Beck. After the weird "Crow and a Baby" ("A crow and a baby / Had an affair / The result was a landslide") comes the slightly poppy "The Touchables", a declaration that "People will hide indifference / Just to be touchable", that is, that people just want to be loved. I feel like the song is another voice-of-the-worker's-party sort of thing, just in tone, vocabulary, and topic, which is so very 80s and wonderful. Heaven 17 would follow up on this quite a bit, which might be apparent from their Penthouse and Pavement (1981) album cover, one of my favorites:
God, I love that cover. Look at how successful and happy the bandmembers are! Anyway, side two of Travelogue opens with "Gordon's Gin", an instrumental synth version of a jingle written by Jeff Wayne for a brand of gin. I don't claim to understand, since I haven't heard the original jingle, but most jingles are under thirty seconds and mostly vocal. This song is thee minutes of a fast drumbeat and some synth interplay. It sounds darker than any jingle for gin should be, but I'm not complaining.
"Being Boiled" is a re-recording of the band's first single (from 1978), with a dancy feel that seemingly indicted religious violence: "Listen to the voice of Buddha / He'll say carry on your slaughter". This is weird, however, since Buddha is about the least violent religious figure I've heard of. The song is followed by the warm, spacy closer "WXJL Tonight". I honestly can't figure out if there is a station with that call sign or not, but the song is a great lament for the passing of worthwhile radio DJs: "The way it was in the past / A long, long time ago / Before staff levels dropped / They used to listen to the radio / And listen to the DJ's talk". But now, "Automatic stations came / And sent them all away / And now I'm left alone". Makes me want to weep. But the music is so good! So many synthesizers!
Then we come to the bonus tracks on CD versions of the album. The first is the trio of tracks from the Holiday '80 EP. "Marianne" is straight synth-pop, but "Dancevision" is a dancy instrumental recorded in 1977 when just Marsh and Ware made music together as The Future. (Note that these are the same two members who later split from the Human League to form Heaven 17). Then comes a medley of Gary Glitter's (!) "Rock 'n' Roll" with Iggy Pop's "Nightclubbing". Now, Gary Glitter is about the cheesiest glam rocker ever (I mean, look at his name), and also the sleaziest (he's in jail in Vietnam for child sexual abuse). Nonetheless, my favorite 80s bands seem to love him: Bauhaus would sometimes slip parts of "Do You Want to Touch Me? (Oh Yeah!)" into their cover of T. Rex's "Telegram Sam"; The Cure covered the same wonderfully-titled Glitter song every now and then; and the Sisters of Mercy covered "I Didn't Know I Loved You ('Til I Saw You Rock 'n' Roll)" (another great title) as late as 2001. Anyway, the medley also includes the world's second favorite proto-punker (after Lou Reed), Iggy Pop, who cowrote "Nightclubbing" with Bowie. (Pop is another favorite of the 80s crowd.) Hence, this medley is like a sort of 70s cover wonderland. It's so cheesy it hurts, but it hurts so right.
Anyway. Then comes both sides of the "Boys and Girls" single, which is post-split, so it only features one (not counting the projectionist) common member with the rest of the album, but sound-wise it still fits. The a-side isn't great, but it's fairly good. It seems to deal with youthful maturity, but it feels like the band is finding their direction post-split. The b-side, "Tom Baker" is a great instrumental synth exploration.
The "I Don't Depend on You" single, released in 1979 as "The Men", feels like a pop experiment, since the band was nowhere near as dance-poppy as this single is at that point in time. The title captures the lyrics, which actually kind of predict some of the feel of "Don't You Want Me" from two years later. It's not bad but just unabashedly poppy. The b-side, "Cruel", is just an instrumental dub sort of version. Nothing special.
The Human League are a quintessential synthpop band. You could call them New Wave or Post-Punk if you want, but they were self-declared electronic and pop music lovers, and to me that reads synth-pop. Travelogue is a straight ten-song wonder, with a broad range of topics (DJs, science-fiction weirdness, working class troubles, religion, sex, more weirdness), just like any good synth band should, and the sound of the synthesizer never grows old. This is perhaps why I (and so many 80s bands) love the synthesizer: it can do anything. Bass, drums, strings, noise, whatever, it's there. The Human League know how to use their synths to perfection, which is good, since that's the only instrumentation on the album. It also helps that the band writes well (although both covers work well after the band thoroughly rearranged them).
"The Black Hit of Space" warrants its own review for how awesome it is, and it's a pity it wasn't released as a single (the less interesting "Only After Dark" was the only real single from the album), since it is the one Human League song I'm most likely to play to friends. The song is so futuristic and paranoid, and the subject matter is just so weird yet captivatingly hilarious. If you can't take synthpop as well as I can, you should at least be able to marvel at the wonder of this song. I mean, there are great songs elsewhere on the album, like the also-weird-and-spacey "WXJL Tonight", but none take the cake so well as the Black Hit. (If only it actually was a hit...)
Original release: A
Bonus tracks: C+
"The Black Hit of Space": A+