This month marks the fortieth anniversary of The Human League‘s groundbreaking debut album Reproduction. It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of this release, and yet at the time of its release, it was largely overlooked – it didn’t even hit the charts until its 1981 reissue, and history has not been especially kind to it either.
It opens with Almost Medieval, with a typically daft early Phil Oakey vocal which casts modern-day imagery against things from the olden days. It’s true, as he says, that there wasn’t a speed limit for stagecoaches, but it’s also true that they didn’t turn up until the thirteenth century, which makes them very late medieval. This is, though, early Human League at their best – beautifully played electronics with brilliantly daft vocals.
As the much later compilation The Golden Hour of the Future proved, The Human League had been actively making music for several years already by the time this album appeared, and sadly there’s little evidence of that era here. The polished version of Circus of Death that appears here is as close as we get, and it captures much of the experimental mood of those days. This was originally the b-side to Being Boiled, which sadly didn’t make it onto Reproduction, instead being remixed for the following year’s Travelogue.
The Path of Least Resistance follows, with some lovely experimental production – half of the sounds are hidden way over in the left channel at the beginning, but somehow it doesn’t grate too much. It lacks the catchy hooks that the first two tracks had, though, and so doesn’t quite inspire to the same degree.
Then comes Blind Youth, bringing in heavy glam styling, which might not have been particularly surprising in 1979, but in 2019 it seems to come out of nowhere. There’s something brilliantly unpolished about it – this is almost punk, just without the spitting and swearing.
The Word Before Last defies interpretation on every level. It’s nice to have a track that’s a little gentler than its predecessors, but I’ve no idea what it’s meant to be about. Anyway, the dystopian, oddly futuristic feel of the album continues.
Side A closes with the entirely brilliant Empire State Human, which was actually the only single from this album, although it didn’t actually hit the chart until the following year, when it was reissued and repackaged with Only After Dark from the second album. That’s a real shame, because this is a brilliant track, and makes a great single too, but the charts in 1979 were probably too busy with other things.
If Side A was a little odd, Side B is totally bizarre, showing us the weirder side of The Human League‘s early experimentation, much of which consisted of obscure or unusual cover versions. It opens with the sweetly soft, rippling Morale…, which builds into a very long, beautifully electronic cover version of You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling. It’s nice to hear the whole band pitching in on vocals at this point, anyway.
Once that’s done with, we get a lengthy medley of two tracks that nobody had heard yet anyway – Austerity and Girl One. Honestly, this is a bit of a mess – they had much better material in their vaults at this point, so it’s difficult to understand why they persevered with this pair.
But the album is already pretty much over at this point – all that remains is Zero as a Limit, still sonically interesting, but much less challenging as a listen than some of its predecessors, although the ever-evolving tempo is a little difficult to handle at times. It was hardly going to win many fans, though – it’s gentle and a pleasant album closer, but nothing particularly special.
So The Human League‘s debut is an interesting oddity – occasionally great, occasionally not so great, but always interesting to listen to. And it’s one of just a handful of artefacts of that brilliant era in the group’s early history – the time when three Yorkshiremen were messing around with synthesisers that sounded like motorbikes. Essential listening.
This album has been reissued a few times, but the 2003 remaster is probably the best mastered, and also coincidentally the most widely available.