The image on the cover of The Human League’s debut album Reproduction, anticipates their definitive line-up.
Before the mainstream success of ‘Don’t You Want Me’, one of the most enduringly popular songs of the 80s, and before the twin sultry tones of vocalists Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall, British synth-pop group The Human League began life as a male-dominated, experimental electronic four-piece.
Formed in Sheffield, England in 1977 by Ian Craig Marsh (synthesizer) and Martyn Ware (synthesizer) as Dead Daughters, the duo quickly enlisted film technician Adrian Wright and finally Phil Oakey (vocals/synthesizer) to become The Human League.
With the release of their undoubtedly impressive debut album Reproduction (1979) on Virgin Records, The Human League quickly gained a considerable cult following in England, including the likes of David Bowie, via visually impressive live performances and strong original material.
Early pioneers of the UK electronic scene, Reproduction was considered both avant-garde (Empire State Human), cutting edge (Blind Youth), and a natural progression of the detached, icy, windswept and austere work of Kraftwerk from earlier in the decade (The World Before Last). The dystopian material has threads of melody that weave their way over robotic synth beats, with tunes delivered either via Phil Oakey’s vocals, at times still finding his voice, or through simple synth motifs.
Coincidentally, the Reproduction album cover anticipates the band we now know and love – one guy and two girls, even though they were a blokey four-piece at the time.
“We said we wanted an image of a glass dance floor in a discotheque which people were dancing on and beneath this, a lit room full of babies. It was meant to look like a still from a film – like some kind of dystopian vision of the future – but it just looks like they’re treading on babies. We were quite upset but at that time, it was too late to change it.” – Martyn Ware
Strangely, the inner sleeve more than echoes General Zod and chums in their flying mirror thingies in Christopher Reeve’s Superman II (1980) for reasons that aren’t clear.
Reproduction was produced by Colin Thurston who had just completed co-engineering work on Bowie’s “Heroes” and Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life (both 1977), as well as production work on Magazine’s excellent second album Secondhand Daylight (1979). Thurston would go on to produce some major 80s albums such as Duran Duran’s debut and their follow up, Rio, in part defining the sound of the 80s.
With drums made entirely with the Roland System-100 synthesizer, Reproduction has a brilliant Side One, and a Side Two that consists of two long medleys, including a weird cover of the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling which manages to be truly heartfelt and warm through the icy glitter of its instrumentation.
The band quickly delivered the very good follow up Travelogue (1980), however the experimental line-up soon split in half, both moving in a more self-consciously poppy direction – one half Oakey/Wright’s The Human League, the other Ware/Marsh as Heaven 17.
This left Oakey without a band or players, and with Wright promoted to synth, he recruited teenagers Catherall and Sulley (both vocals) in a last ditch attempt to continue the band. With the addition of Ian Burden (synthesizer/bass) and Jo Callis (guitar/synthesizer) the definitive line-up was complete. Their next album, Dare (1981), ushered in global success for the new look Human League, proving to be one of the most successful and best-loved British pop albums of all time.
Although Reproduction was met with limited commercial success upon its original release in 1979, it fared better after the group became commercially successful, and has since been hailed as a milestone in the development of popular electronic music. For those who like the experimental wing of New Wave music, such as Magazine and Kraftwerk, should lend an ear to The Human League’s underrated debut.
The Human League – Reproduction mp3
- Almost Medieval – 4:43
- Circus of Death – 3:55
- The Path of Least Resistance – 3:33
- Blind Youth – 3:25
- The Word Before Last – 4:04
- Empire State Human – 3:17
- Morale…You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling – 9:39
- Austerity/Girl One (Medley) – 6:44
- Zero as a Limit – 4:13