The Human League
(Wall Of Sound)
Think of the buildings that built pop, and you think of Abbey Road studios in north London or maybe the songsmiths' nexus that was the Brill Building on Broadway. It might be a lot less glamorous, but the Crazy Daisy nightclub in Sheffield, England, is also a pop landmark. In 1980 it was there that the Human League frontman Phil Oakey invited Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley to join his band after the group's other founding members quit before an international tour. Catherall and Sulley were just 17, and Oakey had to assure their parents of his good character before taking the girls on the road.
By 1981, this happenstance trio had made their defining album, Dare. Buoyed by the hits Open Your Heart and Don't You Want Me (the latter reached No 1 in the UK), it saw The Human League ditch most of the more left field aspects of their sound and embrace commercial pop. Together with contemporaries such as Heaven 17 and OMD, The Human League proved that, with a little glamour and imagination, DIY-minded folk could forge a lucrative pop career with drum machines and synthesisers. Oakey wrote the songs, but it was Catherall and Sulley who set THL apart. Ordinary yet alluring, untrained but not unmusical, their voices were music to the ears of factory girls (and boys) with dreams.
Thirty years on, the trio's core sound is virtually unchanged save for some Auto-tune tweaks and some contemporising bangs and whistles courtesy of the producers Dean Honer and Jarrod Gosling, better known as I Monster.
Oakey's melodramatic baritone rides a Giorgio Moroder-style synthesiser on Into The Night, while on Night People, Catherall and Sulley uphold the valid theory that a night's gung-ho dancing can be a useful salve for life's travails: "Gather up your skirts and trousers / put on your best frocks and blouses," runs their blatant call to frivolity. Shakespeare it ain't, but it is tremendous fun.
Such nocturnal themes are a staple on the band's ninth studio album Credo. You suspect - or at least hope - that the air of wee-small-hours danger Oakey's words target is partly tongue-in-cheek - especially as the effect is often mildly comedic, rather than ominous. That this is 1980s-rooted pop music - escapist, disposable, frothy - makes the record's odd duff rhyming-couplet style, à la ABC's Martin Fry, just about forgivable, but it would have been nice to welcome back The Human League with a slightly stronger set of tunes and a bit more daring.
Though the suitably invigorating Electric Shock and vocoder-infused Single Minded have a firm grasp on the kind of tuneful immediacy that made classic-era Human League a force to be reckoned with, the confused-sounding album closer When the Stars Start to Shine prevents this otherwise decent return reaching a proper crescendo. There's also a little too much gloom afoot, Oakey's night people not always the kind of happy-go-lucky folk with whom you'd like to go dancing.