Artist: The Human League
Title: Being Boiled
Description: EP track, Holiday ’80; album track, Travelogue
Release date: 1980
First heard: 1980
In 1980, I heard the future and it was The Human League. I suspect I read about them in the NME before I heard them, but when I did hear them – inevitably on the recommendation of a much more electronically advanced friend from another school whose real name was David Freak – I was overjoyed to discover that they sounded as remote, stark, serious and yet instantly cherishable as they looked with their stares and their jackets and their science-fiction board game and slide show and just the one pioneering haircut between the four of them. Although it wasn’t called that, post-punk was starting to really form shapes for the still malleable pig iron of my teenage brain.
OK, ready, let’s do it.
Now, as scholars of the Sheffield sound will know, there are two distinct versions of Being Boiled. The original and therefore some would say best, released on key Edinburgh indie Fast Product in 1978 and reissued in the same dispassionate pastel sleeve in 1980 on EMI (and again, in “stereo”, in 1982 when it went Top 10); and the comprehensively re-recorded and beefed up 1980 version, released by Virgin as the third track on the Holiday ’80 EP (from whence they made Top Of The Pops with the more “commercial” Gary Glitter cover Rock ’N’ Roll Pt 1) and included on the band’s magnificent second album Travelogue, which is where, in that year, I first heard it. I subsequently bought the Fast reissue, and have great affection for both. The earlier incarnation is tinny and hissy and opens with that gorgeous “OK, ready, let’s do it” call to arms by a callow-sounding Phil Oakey. But I’m going to seriously test the weight-bearing capacity of this limb and vote for the John Leckie re-record, or Album Version.
It’s longer, and rather than languidly emerge from the white noise of what sounds like machines being switched on and valves being warmed up, it explodes in an insect frenzy of rhythmic pulse and floating bleeps and bloops. The confidence of its totally synthesised modus operandi is almost overwhelming, a new sound indeed from the still-industrial north, hinting at space-age portent and totalitarian dance. The intro takes it time, then crashes into life with a terrifying cathedral riff. The voice that issued forth out of this crackling telex from another dimension was always going to be deep and booming, and Oakey slaps down his orders with the authority of a less genial Tharg, albeit not until a glam rock handclap beat has got the party started.
We are implored to “listen to the voice of Buddha” as the sound drops out, a spiritual entreaty at odds with the dictatorship of the delivery. A new button is pressed and a sort of squelchy horn section is summoned. At which point a truly pivotal moment in pop music is born: a singer uses the word “sericulture”, which even a 19-year-old Will Self wouldn’t have been able to provide a definition for. It means the agricultural rearing of silkworms for silk, although it was years before I found that out. The way the word sounds was exotica enough for provincial me. The eventual meaning doesn’t rob it of any mystery.
All I knew in 1980, aged 15, is that I had embarked upon a journey uncharted and intellectually and sonically demanding, very different from the fraught bike ride to Dave’s house in Trinity on the other side of town to swap seven-inches. A diary entry for 4 October, 1980, records my reaction to hearing and then borrowing Dave’s copy of Rock ’N’ Roll: “I’m into it, man. I wanna side-part my hair and wear thin black ties and button-down collar black shirts and black baggies.” It was about more than the way Phil Oakey looked, but that was a part of the allure. Dave picked up for me my seven-inch copy of the brand new, still-wet Boys and Girls – what would be the last Human League single pre-Crazy Daisy – because he was going into town before I had the chance to do so, and I vividly remember him bringing it along to a meeting of the Film Society in a plain brown paper bag, on which he’d carefully traced the sleeve (including, of course, the face of the Doctor, illustrating the B-side Tom Baker).
Travelogue remains one of the keystone albums of my blind youth. I love Reproduction, too, with what I thought of as those Coronation St ladies’ legs dancing on babies and Circus Of Death, but Travelogue is unimpeachable, featuring black hit of space after black hit of space, a crow and a baby who had an affair, and the tune from the Gordon’s Gin advert you saw at the ABC. Being Boiled is its altarpiece.
I never once forsook The Human League when they went pop. I invested heavily into Dare, the Jam & Lewis experiment and Electric Dreams, applauded their 90s comeback and felt warm inside this century when they and other 80s stars were able to do package tours and earn a pension. But it’s the stuttering beat, burping synths and basso verbosity of Being Boiled that remind me of parking my bike and gazing out at the edge of a brave new world and willing my fringe down over my eye.