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..