'Congratulations, you've just bought our worst album!'
Elvis Costello's sleevenotes to the first CD reissue of his (and The Attractions), messy and uninspiring 'Goodbye Cruel World' album (1984), didn't pull any punches. He admitted that, due to a number of personal issues, he wasn't too focused on making a decent record and, in order to compensate the buyer, apologised and dug out some half-decent demos for the extra track. Sorry, Costello completists (and yes, I am one), you're just going to have to live with that. Even Elvis is allowed to have an off day.
Unfortunately, there are no such wise and retrospective sleevenotes with the five-disc 'The Virgin Years', no space for the remaining members of The Human League to reminisce about their most popular and inspirational moments (included here), or to offer up some explanation for how it all went so catastrophically wrong (also included here - 'Congratulations, you've just bought our two worst albums as part of an eyewateringly expensive and multicoloured vinyl box set...'), and no space for them to talk about how their post-Virgin life panned out. There are no demos, outtakes, or previously shelved gems, a cynical person may assume that the artist had zero involvement in the project.
The first flaw with 'The Virgin Years' is that it's not complete. I may be in a minority here but I would have loved the inclusion of the albums by the original lineup ('Reproduction' from 1979 and 'Travelogue' from 1980). This was the period when The Human League mixed post-punk ideals with cheap synths, and made references to JG Ballard, sci-fi, sericulture, and James Burke. This was the version of The Human League that David Bowie once described as showing us a glimpse into the future of music. But, I understand, 'The Virgin Years' chooses to dive straight to the hits. I won't mention it again.
'The Virgin Years' opens with the audacious 'Dare' (1981), a record that achieves what great art does - of being both of its time and of all time. New songwriters, musicians, those dancers/singers (Joanne Catheral and Suzanne Sulley - still part of the lineup), and most importantly, producer Martin Rushent fashioned the League into the chart-friendly act that their label was anxious for. It helped to define a period in popular culture and was an example of the smart 'new pop' that writer Paul Morley would be so enthralled by throughout the early Eighties. It's also worth noting that the fourth and final single from the album became the biggest seller of 1981 in the UK and also topped the charts in the US. You may have heard 'Don't You Want Me?'
And then they stalled. Maybe it was the fear of having to capitalise on the success that they had achieved which shook them. Where exactly do you go after that? Where can you go after that? The subsequent popsmart singles ('Mirror Man' and 'Fascination!') maintained that wonky charm of previous hits (the singles are included here with their splendid b-sides as part of the 'Fascination EP'from 1983). Listening to these singles now is to wonder what could have happened if they hadn't panicked.
Key songwriter Jo Callis later described the process of making the proper follow-up to 'Dare' as a 'fucking painful.' experience. It dragged. Producer Martin Rushent (best known for his work with The Stranglers, Generation X, and The Buzzcocks) left and handed over production duties to Hugh Padgham - who would become best known for his work with Sting, Phil Collins, and Genesis. Do I need to explain the disparity in that?
Despite a handful of pleasing singles ('The Lebanon', 'Louise', 'Life On Your Own') 'Hysteria'is an arid, unengaging album. The cover of James Brown's 'Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again, no longer had that novelty value of being a traditional pop song reimagined by synthpop experimenters and Oakey's decision to tackle political concerns ('Betrayed', 'The Sign' and the aforementioned 'The Lebanon') was a little ill-judged, it really wasn't his forte.
What happened next still beggars belief, after the moderate sales of 'Hysteria' the departure of Jo Callis and those production issues, Virgin suggested that they relocate to Minneapolis to record with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, better known for R&B and who had just completed working with Janet Jackson. It seemed like a very poorly conceived mismatch.
The sleek Jam and Lewis penned single 'Human' suggested that the subsequent album may be a promising venture but when 'Crash' (1886)arrived it told another story entirely. The lack of compatibility between artist and producer is evident everywhere, 'I Need Your Loving' shows the band battling to be heard against a production more suited to Janet Jackson. 'The Real Thing' seems to borrow the horn section from that infamous 1999 pastiche 'Sussudio,' and 'Jam' ('Jam, gonna get some jam...') feels like it was written by the band in order to appease their new hosts. But nothing can prepare the listener for the humiliation of 'Swang' - which has Oakey singing, possibly even trying to rap, a lyric written for him that has slang references that someone from Sheffield could not possibly comprehend. The album was finished without the involvement of the band and, as a result, it bares little resemblance to what anyone would expect from The Human League.
By 'Romantic?' (1990)the band still seemed haunted by their time in the US four years before. Two further members from the classic lineup had departed and the new recruits and co-writers don't seem to be able to revive the lost magic. Only the wonderful 'Heart Like A Wheel' and 'Get It Right This Time' (both co-written with Jo Callis and produced by Martin Rushent) act as reminders of how great The Human League could be.
The accompanying PR for 'The Virgin Years' now describes 'Romantic?' as the band's 'mature late classic' and it's probably this warped nostalgia that is most jarring about the whole project. The appeal to the exclusive vinyl collector, the revision of opinion necessary in order to make this an attractive purchase.
The Human League would, eventually, go on to make some more great records after leaving Virgin. Maybe the lack of external interference allowed for the superb 'Secrets' (2001) to be their most 'natural' (for an electronic band anyway), sounding record in decades. Better still, their work with Sheffield's I Monster on 'Credo' (2011), enabled them to sound so reinvigorated. It's best to seek out these actual 'late classics' or even see how joyous they are live than to bother with re-buying their worst albums.
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