A Weekly Song: Episode 20 - The Human League
1980: Margaret Thatcher’s Britain is in full swing and she and her henchmen are engaged in their long-term monetarist plan to modernise the United Kingdom and privatise its national assets. They want to put the “great” back into Britain; give the people back their pride in the myth that Brittania ruled the waves and that Empire was tea, crumpets and cricket for everyone. Thatcher’s methods will crush union power and close down most heavy industries in the British Isles, replacing them with a service economy intended to facilitate the financial markets and the coming information revolution. This, she says, will make everyone rich and let them buy their own car. In the process, her Tory government will eviscerate most working class communities north of Watford, and the first step upon the yellow brick road to Now is taken.
In 1980, I landed in fourth form at a London comprehensive school after living in Europe for three-and-a-half years where I’d been ensconced in the American overseas school system. Returning home to London – something I’d longed for – was a culture shock, and culture was politics at that time.
The backdrop to my formative teen years in Thatcher’s Britain was the Cold War and the international Arms Race – just a couple of years previously, the Sex Pistols had warned that there’d be anarchy, that there was “no future.” Living in London meant that you became inured to a sense of the city being a target in a potential nuclear war. Watching Thatcher and Reagan play a game of chess with the USSR, and reading the regularly distributed information leaflets on what to do if the air raid siren were to sound and an atomic explosion occurred, Johnny Rotten’s predictions seemed entirely reasonable.
There was no future, not for him, not for me and not for anyone not holed up in a nuclear fallout bunker when the bomb dropped. (Whether he meant no economic future or something else entirely really didn’t matter.) I joined CND, went on local marches and pretended not to be worried. That was my true political awakening – that we were all pawns caught in a game of chance, our movements and states of mind controlled by the gods of officialdom that we watched on TV.
It was easy to feel pessimistic, even nihilistic. “It’ll never happen!” Just like climate change and pollution would never seriously damage the health of the planet, such worries were deemed childish by our teachers and overlords, and to be fair, I was quite an imaginative child. My schoolboy’s ears began to seek out music that matched my mood and the first couple of albums by The Human League did that quite well. They were a band from somewhere up north, somewhere called Sheffield, a whole city of steel where they made knives and forks. It was one of those places Thatcher didn’t want you to hear about, because there were too many unemployed people there who hoped the unions would protect them from the onslaught on their livelihoods.
The Human League made music in that maelstrom and they did it with new-fangled electronics, which sounded a bit like the music for Doctor Who made by the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop, except with an upstart, punky attitude. To my young ears, this was perfect – a fusion of something familiar and something new, mysterious and genuinely odd.
This wasn’t the later incarnation of The Human League, the cuddly Top 10 popsters who gave us Love Action and Don’t You Want Me, produced by mass market chart hit architect Martin Rushent. This was before Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall joined, when the band was still a weirder, more experimental outfit that then split and became two – The League itself and Heaven 17, themselves later known for fabulous glossy early eighties hits like the exceptional Temptation, amongst many others. The League themselves would of course go onto huge international success, and their third album Dare! would later be hailed as one of the most influential pop albums of all time.
But that was in the future, the eighties as remembered with backcombed hair and perms, as presented via MTV in day-glo colours and untouchable, unrecognisably glamorous lifestyles. In the grey present of 1980, The Human League represented to me something less bright and lustrous, more an expression of the bewildered, economically deprived here and now. To teenage schoolboys, Circus of Death was the most perfectly macabre soundtrack you could imagine.
Circus of Death was the b-side of Being Boiled, a 7” single that I bought from a market stall in Kingston-upon-Thames. I’d already heard it at a friend’s house, and was embarking upon tracking down all their earlier recorded output. It had a great pink and black picture sleeve showing little people dancing happily and I loved the narrative style of the song. Helpfully, on the first version I heard (there are two), the band’s singer Phil Oakey describes what each verse is about, but even then there’s plenty of room for interpretation.
The League’s dark sense of humour is in evidence – why use Steve McGarrett, a character from TV’s Hawaii 5-0? Who’s the clown – is it Pennywise from Stephen King’s It? (I’d read it recently.) The clown holds the whole human race in thrall through a drug called Dominion. Well, that could be a metaphor for anything… for how Thatcher’s hold over the populace of the UK seemed so absolute. It was all juicily sinister.
The original version features a sample (or sound clip as it was then called) from the cult SF film Dark Star, featuring the following exchange between two characters as they traverse the cosmos:
“Think there’s any real intelligent life out there?”
It’s missing from this version on YouTube, probably for rights reasons. If you want to hear it, you can probably search for a more complete version. In 1980, when you thought there was a possibility of your world ending because of two people – far away politicians who didn’t know you existed and showed even less inclination to consider your life worthwhile – this seemed like a pretty apt ending to the track.
These days, Circus of Death sounds like what it is – an aural artefact from a distant era when “real musicians” eschewed its like for its non-acoustic artificiality. That argument was lost (or won) long ago and electronic music has now evolved to the point that it’s everywhere (even on your phone). Nonetheless, the primitivism of Circus of Death still appeals to me. Its lurid comic book-cum-horror flavour is potent and the lyrics and mood are strangely prescient. An artefact from the past it may be, but it still sounds relevant.
I confess, after their second album Travelogue, I was less enamoured of the more mainstream direction The Human League’s output took, but now I think I was just being a teen snob. Dare! is indeed a pop masterpiece, and there are later singles very friendly to my ears. Plus, there’s a song on it that’s a tribute to Judge Dredd.
The Doctor Who connection was further reinforced when one of the League’s b-sides featured a track called Tom Baker. It’s the best piece of sinister incidental music never featured on the show itself.
LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream owes more than a fair bit to Circus of Death. It’s all but a slower cover version with a more spectacular vocal meltdown.
I found this cover version of Circus of Death by Klutae that I’d never heard before.