Classic synth-pop albums come home…
The first two Human League albums (Reproduction from 1979 and Travelogue from 1980) have, for some time, been hugely inspiring for me – they still sound like music of the future even now. There’s a certain stark angst mixed with a certain pop sensibility that is utterly unique. When Heaven 17 announced these two albums were to be performed in their entirety for the first time, I was decidedly excited.
Thankfully, through the wonders of science and vaccination, the event finally went ahead at Sheffield City Hall on 4th September 2021. Being double-vaccinated myself I decided it was finally safe enough to venture out once more, tempted hugely by it being such a special event – many of these songs haven’t been heard live in around 41 years. Excitement was added to by the announcement of using some of the original models of synthesisers on stage as was done in those early years. Heaven 17 gigs tend to rely solely on a laptop, so for those of us who love electronic music this was a very special element, just as it was when Jean-Michel Jarre did such a thing with his In-doors and Oxygène revival tours. Yes indeed, for the first time in a very long time a Roland Jupiter 4 and System 100 were there to bleep buzz and er… boing (or something). There was something else there too but diligence as to what it was is entirely unimportant to me right now. (Probably a Korg Mini 700 by the looks of things – Synth Ed)
This wasn’t The Human League of old though, this was still very much Heaven 17, replete with two backing singers and extra keyboard players. And of course, Glenn Gregory on vocals. Nevertheless, much effort was made to at least give some of the atmosphere of the early years as Martyn had the rectangular box frame supporting a synth and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. While early ‘League used these for the backing tracks for sets, here it’s merely a prop and runs out well before they finish. Such a setup can be seen in many a TV performance from those early years on YouTube. Four projections screens were used to emulate that vintage style of projections done by Philip Adrian Wright. Much easier to do digitally rather than the physical slides he used in the day. These would (as is quite obvious really) display image relating to the subject or concepts of the songs.
The event was started by the bizarre and decidedly unmusical instrumental track ‘Introducing’ which we were told introduced all Human League gigs of old. It mostly consists of siren and clanging bell sounds that bring to mind emergency vehicles. It must have been a challenging start for the audiences of the time, but now, of course, lapped up by a decidedly eager and packed-out auditorium. Euphoria engulfed, replacing the anticipatory, as the first track ‘Almost Medieval’ hit and the audience knew everything was going to be sounding just fine.
Many a tidbit of background information was dropped during the set such as how Glenn would have been the singer of the Human League had he not gone to London to be a photographer. How Phil was asked to join the band just because he had a cool haircut – they didn’t even know if he could sing. Tales of touring with Siouxsie and the Banshees (another personal favourite), Iggy Pop (“That was an education” Martyn remarked). We heard of tracks having been recorded a couple of streets away and confusion as to what on earth Phil’s lyrics were about.
Glenn was clearly ecstatic to be performing these songs as he was a fan of this early form of Human League and took many promotional photos of them in those years. He even found himself overcome after performing ‘Empire State Human’ – the sixth track of the first album, and tears of joy could not be held back.
Particular stand out moments for the audience were undoubtedly the haunting ‘Word Before Last’ and the moment in ‘Morale/You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ where Martin comes out from behind the synths to sing alongside Glenn (as apparently often happened in ye olden days. Possibly. Unless I’m wrong. Which I probably am). ‘Dreams of Leaving’ also had a particularly affecting quality and is dedicated to all the refugees of the world by Martyn (and indeed projections throughout the song display war torn devastation). ‘WXJL’ Tonight sounded a lot more banging than the slightly dreamy nature on the album.
Surprisingly there was no break between the two albums and it was all done in one marathon session of around two and a half hours. A very desperate for the loo futurist had to dash off after ‘Zero as a Limit’ though, expecting to have breathing space before ‘Black Hit of Space’. Tsk. How very dare they? Anyway…
Another thing that struck is that perhaps Phil was of a more intellectually arty disposition than the rest of the band as Martyn asked if the audience could figure out what on earth ‘Crow and a Baby’ was all about. Obviously your reporting FUTURIST here KNOWS, but I’m going to keep feeling special that you don’t (You absolutely don’t do you? – Ed)
For me, while Glenn obviously cared, I still feel that he can’t quite deliver that certain X factor that Phil does on those original recordings. There’s a certain attitude that comes along with Phil, probably because he wrote the lyrics, that is irreplaceable. But who knows, maybe this day and age it would similarly not work.
Glenn is a showman, for better or worse, and did provide a very animated performance, in contrast to the rather static early years and of course the two backing singers add a more Human League pop element despite their attempts to look serious.
The whole aesthetic worked better in the final two tracks of the evening when a couple of Heaven 17 classics were performed: ‘(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang’ and ‘Temptation’ (with, to my mind, unnecessary extra vocal screeching, but then I’ve never cared much for that track). There was the occasional mistake – a mis-keying on a synth or a lyric forgotten here and there considering this was a set of over 2 hours of songs not performed in such a long time, it’s excusable.
But it was Heaven 17 does the albums, so it seems churlish to moan of such things. It was, after all, a wonderful celebration of two incredible pioneering albums. After all, Phil had been asked if he would consider returning for it but refused. It clearly meant a huge amount to an audience that early lapped up every second of this event they’d waited most of their lives to happen.
Photos and video footage: Derek Anthony Williams