Posts from 20th September 1999

Sep 99

Spacemen Two

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The Human League – Reproduction and Travelogue

One thing we know about men who go into space: they come back changed. Quatermass’ astronauts return carrying a cold-war plague; Philip K Dick’s Palmer Eldritch comes back a hallucinopathic God; Alan Moore’s cosmonaut “Spaceman” falls to earth with telepathic powers, to find his ideologies and beliefs a bad joke. And in the All Seeing I’s 1st Man In Space, Phil Oakey plays himself, far-out voyager touched down as seventies throwback, lonely and bewildered, literally alienated by a wired-up,wised-up world. It’s poignant because, of course, Phil really was the first man in space on his street: the original Human League line-up picked up on something, some hard technological buzz, in the air in ’78 and let it carry them into pop’s orbit. And now their first two records, the ones that soundtrack their journey, are bargain bin obscurities. How come no-one wants to know what they saw?

Reproduction and Travelogue are true sci-fi records: any time but the present, any scale but the human. The League were synthesiser evangelist/terrorists, and their songs are shock disassociation tactics designed to break traditional form (instrumentation) by annihilating traditional context. So you get crypto-Burroughsian vignettes like “Circus Of Death”, you get the staccato brutality of “Almost Medieval”, you get a first single which starts “Listen to the voice of Buddha / Saying stop your sericulture” (uh, OK then), and a second one which is a terrace glitter-stomp about growing to planetary size. You get the uber-catchy call-to-android-arms of “Blind Youth”, the complete nonsense of “Crow And A Baby” and a version of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” which would make novelty records blush. And, oh God, the brilliant titles! “Zero As A Limit”; “Being Boiled”; “The Black Hit Of Space”, these punched into your quivering forebrain and said more about what the band was about, what it was trying to achieve, than a hundred manifestos or crappy interviews would have.

It’s hard to deny that these albums can be tough listening – the sounds involved are primitive, the songwriting occasionally unformed, But play them next to Cabaret Voltaire or even Throbbing Gristle and if they lack those bands’ uncompromising conceptualism, they sound much more fun and fertile now. That’s because, even in 1978, the Human League were trying to make pop music: a raw, unrock kind of pop music, but nevertheless their object was to chart. That’s why the rhythms fizz so much, why even the most jagged melodies are still recognisably melodies. Like the sci-fi writers of the 1950s, the passionate pop-punk-funk futurists of ’78 were doggedly exploratory and desperately naive, to be pushing outwards so hard and still trying to shape what they were doing into something you’d want to hear down the disco.

If you’ve never heard any pre-fame Human League, the one track you need to own is “The Black Hit Of Space”, the song which kicks off Travelogue. It starts with ear-scouring brake-pad synths and lunges into a drum machine hammerbeat while Oakey tells his phantasmagoric tale of how the hole in the centre of his record is a black hole, how his single turns into a singularity. It’s the craziest, freshest song, and Oakey sings-recites it with such absolute conviction that what starts out goofy ends up almost chilling, especially as the snythesised drones are laid on so heavy and treacle-thick you can believe the League know what they’re talking about. And it’s still pop.

The Human League did indeed come back from commercial outer space changed – two of them left leaving the singer and the projectionist (this was an era when bands were unafraid to list the bloke who did the slideshow as a member, and rightly so), who bumped into two girls dancing in a club, and the rest is history. Like a lot of the very best pop stars, the band that made Dare could play cutting-edge commercial music with absolute conviction because they’d tried it the other way. “No guitars” announced the sleeve of Dare, and that record, with Oakey’s non-voice and the remorselessly effective, sleek, exciting music, still feels like a beautiful slap in the face to rock-as-she-was. For me it’s a rare example of a band fulfilling and filling in its early promise completely – but Reproduction and Travelogue are where the story starts, and are as intriguing a pair of records as British pop has ever produced..

68. COOLIO ft LV – “Gangsta’s Paradise”

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Tom Ewing’s Top 100 Singles Of The 90s

Lyrically this seems negligible, even laughable: the first big gangsta piety hit, wherein Coolio delivers a stern message to the youth, to mend their ways and not follow his path of violence and bloodshed. He does this by going on about what a hard bastard he used to be, obviously. This kind of O-Lord-I-have-sinned-but-hey-check-out-the-sins-dude repentance-rap ended up with the multiplatinum sobfest of “I’ll Be Missing You”, a continent-straddling tower of limply-rapped schlock, one of the few big 90s hits as bad as the hip kids claimed it was, and redeemable only for unwittingly exposing how mealy-mouthed Sting’s original was.

But that’s the other thing Puffy’s monsterpiece shares with “Gangsta’s Paradise”, the wholesale kidnap and dusting-up of a hallowed tune. Stevie Wonder’s “Pastime Paradise” found him at his most easygoing and homilitic, but it also found him in possession of an absolutely spine-shuddering string arrangement that Coolio and cohorts are happy to seize on, burnish and darken. So even though it’s weapons-grade hokum, when you hear Coolio rap “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” with those great keening strings at his heels, you sit up and pay attention. It’s an opening in a thousand, 24-carat melodramatic cool, and the song goes on to deliver on it, playing you as slickly as the sampled crescendoes. By the finale, when digital-lunged fallen angels are left to bathe the beat in a swirling, inhuman, lament, you stand humbled in the presence of calculated, complete pop greatness.