Sparks – No. 1 in Heaven

Similar to last week’s oldie, SparksNo. 1 in Heaven is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this month. Unlike last week’s, this was the group’s eighth album already.

It opens with the lovely Tryouts for the Human Race, which perhaps surprisingly, was released as the last of the singles from this six-track album, peaking at number 45 in the UK. It’s a great album opener though, launching with pulsing analogue synth sounds. All of the classic Sparks elements are there – silly, but semi-serious lyrics, falsetto vocals, and brilliant rock instrumentation.

This must have come as something a shock to Sparks‘ regular fans, though – if there were any left. Having passed on the rock baton to others, after their initial UK success, the Mael brothers had returned to their native USA, and spent the mid-1970s steadily fading into obscurity. Ignoring a couple of early attempts, No. 1 in Heaven was really their first major reinvention, as they roped in Italian mega-producer Giorgio Moroder to help them go disco.

Actually, Academy Award Performance is the one track on here that didn’t appear on a single, and is a lot of fun, particularly with its manic live drumming, which must have been fun to bring to life alongside the lively electronic instruments. The vocals are brilliantly silly too.

This is a short album, though, clocking in at only thirty-three minutes altogether, and so it moves quickly. Closing Side A is the lovely single La Dolce Vita. Although it was never released in the UK, it appears to have been the lead single in some territories, and it is a catchy and memorable choice, so that wasn’t a bad decision. In a way, it’s a shame that the UK never got to enjoy this one on the charts, but maybe four singles from a six-track album would have been pushing it a little.

Sice B opens with the second single Beat the Clock, brilliantly catchy, and surprisingly a bigger hit than the first in the UK, taking the duo back into the top ten for the first time in five years. It would be difficult to describe this as anything other than exceptional.

My Other Voice was also on a single, as the b-side to La Dolce Vita. It’s not the strongest or most memorable song on here, but if nothing else, it serves a useful purpose in breaking the mood of Side B up a little. It does have a full vocal, but initially it’s a great vocoder-driven piece, making you constantly unsure whether you’re listening to a synth patch or a vocal. For all the synthesiser taboos that had been broken while Sparks were hiding away making the commercial flops Big Beat (1976) and Introducing Sparks (1977), the human side had often been overlooked, and the Mael brothers were using it to full effect here.

This is also true for the lead UK single and near-title-track The Number One Song in Heaven, opening as it does with huge choral vocal samples. It builds gradually and beautifully into the first part of the song (that’s the more traditional, slower part). The faster Part 2 is a bit manic, and comes as something of a surprise half way through the track, but it’s still fun, effectively giving us a seventh hidden track, right on the end. This was, I think somewhat unpredictably, the single version, which perhaps explains why it didn’t perform quite as well as Beat the Clock. Anyway, after a few minutes, it fades out, and that’s it – the album is already over.

So No. 1 in Heaven is a short album, but it is well executed. Without it, it’s hard to imagine that Sparks would have ever achieved the legendary status that they eventually did. I’m not sure how proud Giorgio Moroder really is of it, but he really should be – forget Donna Summer, this is the moment he popularised Italian disco and invented synthpop.

I own the 2013 Repertoire reissue of this, which apparently isn’t sanctioned by the band, and has been criticised in some quarters for poor sound quality. Personally, the only other thing I have to compare against is the original LP, so I have to say it sounds fine to me, but you may wish to wait until the band’s own reissue appears, coming out soon on double CD.

Pocket guide to The Human League albums

The Human League have an enviable back catalogue of nine studio albums, but the release status of each is confusing. Having just seen an excellent reissue of Secrets, now is a good time to review the situation. In this article, we will explore the current release status of each and suggest some suitable next steps.

The Golden Hour of the Future (compilation)

Originally released in 2002 and reissued in 2008 and 2009, all versions of this seem to have become fairly rare again, so this exceptional collection of early rarities is definitely in need of another reissue.

Reproduction

The debut album was originally released in 1979, and finally saw a CD release ten years later, with an incredible eight bonus tracks shoved on the end. It’s a fairly comprehensive collection of tracks from the era, and is widely available thanks to a remastered 2003 reissue. The original LP is also widely available, having been reissued on 180g vinyl in 2016.

There seems to have just been one track that didn’t make it onto the CD, but nothing too world changing: The Path of Least Resistance (Original Album Version)

Travelogue

As with the first album, this excellent release from 1980 was reissued on CD in 1988 and then remastered in 2003, and the LP was reissued on 180g vinyl in 2016. This is exactly how The Human League‘s back catalogue should be treated.

Again, there are a handful of rarities that didn’t make it onto the CD: Marianne (Alternative Version); Only After Dark (Single Version); and Toyota City (Long Version).

Dare / Love and Dancing

The outstanding Dare (1981) seems to have presented a few challenges for people who were trying to revisit The Human League‘s back catalogue, as the reissues are a bit of a mess. My favourite is probably the 2002 remaster that packages it with Love and Dancing and comes in book packaging, but having both releases on a single CD is a slightly odd decision. The double-disc box set from 2012 adds a host of bonus tracks, but inexplicably skips Love and Dancing and goes with Fascination! instead.

For me, therefore, a definitive reissue should include the original album as the first disc, plus b-sides Hard Times and Non-Stop. The second disc would include Love and Dancing in its entirety, followed by some or all of: The Sound of the Crowd (7″ Mix, Instrumental 7″ Mix, 12″ Mix, and Instrumental 12″ Mix), Love Action (I Believe in Love) (7″ Mix), Hard Times/Love Action (I Believe in Love) (12″ Mixes and Instrumentals), Non-Stop/Open Your Heart (Instrumentals), Do or Die (Dub), Don’t You Want Me (Extended Dance Mix and Alternative Version). Of these, only The Sound of the Crowd (Instrumental 7″ Mix) and Do or Die (Dub) are missing from recent reissues, but the track orders were all a bit messed up.

Fascination!

Although never properly released as an album in the UK, the 1983 Fascination! mini-album appeared on the tail end of the 2012 reissue of Dare alongside some bonus tracks. Logically, it should really be reordered and treated properly. The original album includes six tracks: (Keep Feeling) Fascination (Extended Version); Mirror ManHard TimesI Love You Too Much (Martin Rushent Version); You Remind Me of Gold; and (Keep Feeling) Fascination (Improvisation). Bonus tracks should include: Mirror Man (Extended Version); You Remind Me of Gold (Instrumental Remix); (Keep Feeling) Fascination (7″ Mix); Total Panic; and I Love You Too Much (Dub Version). All of which have been released somewhere already.

Hysteria

The 1984 follow-up to Dare saw a bizarrely rare remastered US CD reissue in 2005 with two b-sides and three extended versions which resurfaced in Japan in 2017, but otherwise vanished instantly without a trace, and hasn’t seen an LP release since 1984. All the foundations are there, and it’s definitely in need of a bit of love.

Several tracks did not make it onto this reissue: The Lebanon (Instrumental); Thirteen (7″ Version); The Sign (Extended Re-mix). The following have also appeared on other releases: The Lebanon (7″ Version); and Louise (DJ Edit). So nothing too major.

Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder

One of the best treated of all of The Human League‘s releases and side releases, Phil Oakey and Giorgio Moroder‘s 1985 side project saw a comprehensive 2003 remastered reissue with seven bonus tracks in the UK, and more recently, a limited US reissue in 2012 with three bonus tracks. Both are now relatively rare now, and could probably do with another outing at some point, ideally accompanied by an LP reissue as well.

Crash

As with Hysteria, the 1986 American album, while far from great, is also rather unloved. It was reissued in the US in 2005 with three extended versions, and then reissued again in Japan in 2017. While comprehensive enough, it omits a number of potential alternative versions, and could definitely do with a worldwide release and an LP reissue.

Several tracks did not make it onto this reissue: Human (Instrumental and Acapella); I Need Your Loving (Instrumental, Acapella, and Dub); Love is All That Matters (Instrumental and Acapella); and Are You Ever Coming Back? (Edit). The following have also appeared on other releases: Human (7″ Version); and I Need Your Loving (DJ Edit); and Love is All That Matters (7″ Version). So nothing too major here either.

Romantic?

Arguably The Human League‘s nadir, the original 1990 release of this album also suffers from appalling mastering, and hasn’t seen a reissue outside of Japan since. Tracks from the singles, including edits and William Orbit‘s remix of Heart Like a Wheel, have appeared on other releases in recent years, but there’s still plenty of scope for bonus tracks, including the dub mix of A Doorway and a suite of remixes of Soundtrack to a Generation. With a bit of curation, it would probably be a good single CD release (or even a passable double) with an accompanying LP.

Several tracks should be included on a future reissue: A Doorway (Dub); and Soundtrack to a Generation (Instrumental, William Orbit Mix, Pan Belgian Mix, Pan Belgian Dub, 808 Mix Instrumental, Dave Dodd’s Mix, and Acapella). The following have already appeared on other releases: Heart Like a Wheel (Extended Mix and William Orbit Mix); and Soundtrack to a Generation (Edit).

Octopus

Between 1993 and 1996 was probably The Human League‘s most prolific period, with a fantastic album in early 1995, plus six single releases, each containing huge numbers of remixes. I could live without the remixes of Don’t You Want Me, which were commissioned for a single to promote the reissued Greatest Hits album, but Stay with Me Tonight and the tracks from the rare YMO versus The Human League single definitely deserve to be packaged with the album somehow. It’s long overdue a double CD and LP reissue, not having seen any sort of release since 1995.

A huge number of tracks could be considered for a future reissue. Following the logic of the Secrets reissue, the first disc should definitely include: Behind the Mask; Kimi Ni Mune Kyun; The Bus to Crookes; and Stay with Me Tonight. The second disc should include a selection of: Kimi Ni Mune Kyun (Extended Version), Tell Me When (7″ Edit, Utah Saints Mix 1, Mix 1 Edit, and Mix 2, Red Jerry Remix, Strictly Blind Dub, Overworld Mix and Edit); One Man in My Heart (T.O.E.C. Radio Edit, Extended, Unplugged, Nasty Sue Mix, and Nasty Sue Radio Edit); These Are the Days (Sonic Radiation Mix, Ba Ba Mix and Symphonic Mix, Overworld Mix, and Man with No Name Vocal and Instrumental); Filling Up with Heaven (Neil McLellan Vocal Mix and Club Mix, Hardfloor Remix and Vocal Remix, and ULA Remix); John Cleese; Is He Funny? (ULA Remix, Self Preservation Society House Mix, and Valentines Bonus Beats); Don’t You Want Me (Red Jerry 7″, 12″, and Dub Mix, and Snap! 7″ and 12″ Remix); and Stay with Me Tonight (Space Kittens Vocal Mix and Future Dub, and The Biff & Memphis Remix and Dub).

Secrets

The exceptional 2001 comeback saw an unexpected three-sided white vinyl release for Record Store Day 2018, which was followed by a brilliantly comprehensive double CD release which is still widely available. All that remains is to make the vinyl more widely available again.

I think there are just a couple of tracks that didn’t make it onto this release: All I Ever Wanted (Tobi Neumann Remix) and Love Me Madly? (Toy Mix and Zenn Eternal Countdown Edit).

Remixes 2003-2008

The decade between Secrets and Credo was far from quiet, with a whole suite of remixes released on The Very Best Of, followed by a large selection of reworkings of The Things That Dreams Are Made Of. Some of them are extremely good, so it would be nice to see them properly released at some point, but for now, this shouldn’t be a high priority.

Live at the Dome

I’m not quite clear why this 2005 CD exists, apart from just to repackage the 2004 DVD, which itself suffers in terms of sound quality in a couple of places. Not worth reissuing.

Credo

The most recent album is unlikely to see a reissue any time soon, but the original release from 2011 is still widely available on CD, with a rarer double vinyl release also floating around.

A future bonus disc would ideally include some of the many remixes that appeared on the singles: Night People (Single Version, Cerrone Club Remix, Mylo Remix, Emperor Machine Extended Vocal, Villa Remix); Never Let Me Go (Radio Edit, Italoconnection Remix Radio Edit and Remix, Aeroplane Remix Radio Edit, Remix Edit, and Remix, and DJ Pierre’s Afro Acid Mix); Sky (Fusty Delights Remix Edit and Remix, Plastic Plates Remix, The Hacker Remix, Martin Brodin Remix, and Marsheaux Remix Edit and Remix); and Egomaniac (Radio Edit and Instrumental). The single edits of Night People and Sky already appeared on the Anthology – A Very British Synthesizer Group collection.

Next Steps

It seems the most urgent thing to do is to release a double CD version of Octopus, followed by a remastered version of Romantic? with extra tracks. Then the existing reissues of Hysteria and Crash should see a wider release.

The Human League – Crash

This week sees the thirtieth anniversary of The Human League‘s 1986 comeback album Crash. This was the album which saw them reject their Yorkshire routes, travelling instead to Minneapolis to work with smash hit producers Jam & Lewis. The results were, as you might expect, largely dreadful. At least, that’s how I remember them.

The album opens with Money, which is one of the less bad songs on here, although it sees Phil Oakey stretching his vocal range way beyond what he’s comfortable with. But this is, as it turns out, one of the less bad moments on here – Swang, once you’ve accepted the completely meaningless title, is absolutely awful. The general rule seems to be that the League-penned tracks are the less bad ones here, and Swang is provided by one of Jam & Lewis‘s regular collaborators, someone called David Eiland.

The exceptions, of course, disprove the rule, as the best track on here is the only one anyone remembers, the brilliant Human. If you only need one reason for this album to exist, this is it. Despite the fact that they didn’t have a hand in writing it, it’s everything The Human League should be – iconic for its era, and a very good pop song.

But as with Phil Oakey probably should have learnt from his earlier collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, one good single doesn’t necessarily mean the resulting album will be up to much. In this case, there’s probably a book in the story of the recording of Crash, as Oakey seems to have struggled with the lack of creative control after a few months in the studio, and pulled out, leaving the producers to finish everything off while The Human League went home and started haemmoraging members.

In that context, it’s almost surprising that it works at all. As it turns out, Jam is tolerable, and Are You Ever Coming Back? is actually reasonably good. Admittedly there’s nothing on here that’s really up to the standard of, say, Dare or even Hysteria, and bad though it is, it doesn’t seem to be quite as bad as I remembered.

There were clearly some errors of judgement here though. Human might have turned out to be a surprise success, but it should have been obvious that second single I Need Your Loving was truly dreadful. It flopped, and, though it may be surrounded by uninspiring songs on the album, it still stands out as awful.

Part of the problem is that Jam & Lewis‘s jaunty production is really starting to wear by this point. Party is far from great – in particular, the lyrics seem to have been written in about ten minutes flat – but with a more traditional UK production, it might have been a little more tolerable. Or maybe not.

Love on the Run would definitely benefit from some more appropriate production (and ideally fewer snare drums) and it might be pretty good. The Real Thing probably isn’t as easily fixed – it just seems to drone on forever. It’s probably fair to say that it could be better.

Closing the album is Love is All That Matters, the third single – actually it was released to promote the group’s first Greatest Hits album a couple of years later. The introduction is pretty promising – it’s got that enormous 1980s epic beginning that other people were doing very well. The song works reasonably well too – The Human League may not be the ideal vessel to deliver it, but it’s tolerably good.

Which might be, as it turns out, a decent description for the whole album. There’s a lot wrong with it – you can almost feel the tension from the recording studio while you listen – and it definitely doesn’t do The Human League justice. But as a snapshot of what music sounded like in 1986, it isn’t all bad.

The 2005 remastered CD never actually seems to be available, so your only chance of owning this really lies with the original release, still widely available.

Greatest Hits – Vol. 7

As we worm our way gently into 2016, it’s time to highlight a few reviews from this blog that you might well have missed.

See also, Volume 6, Volume 5, and you can probably find the rest for yourself with a quick search…

Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder – Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder

It must have seemed a little strange back in 1985, when Phil Oakey, already well established as the frontman of The Human League, recorded an album with electronic producer and mastermind Giorgio Moroder. After the success of Together in Electric Dreams, released the preceding year from the film Electric Dreams (previously covered here) they decided – or were persuaded – to create a full album.

It kicks off with something of a bang, with the huge drums and orchestral hits of Why Must the Show Go On. It’s a great, catchy, pop song – very much stuck in the 1980s, but somehow different enough from The Human League‘s recent output to stand apart somewhat. It morphs into a slightly strange short instrumental called In Transit before a very uncomfortable segue into the single Goodbye Bad Times.

This was the second single, and the one which really launched the album (there was a long gap between the first and this one, presumably while they went away to record the album). It’s a competent song, but you can’t help but feel it’s a little bit forced – Phil Oakey has said before that the album was recorded extremely quickly, and you have to wonder whether it shows in a couple of places.

The pace doesn’t slow with Brand New Love (Take a Chance), which after another awkward segue seems to be playing at several hundred beats per minute. It does have some particularly nice elements though, with some great lyrics from Oakey and a lovely bass part.

With another clunky jump, Valerie is upon us. It has one of the best melodies on this release, with some slightly odd watery backing noises, and in a sense works extremely well, although even if the singles had performed less badly, I can’t see them ever considering this as one. This is a short and frantic album, and that ends Side A already.

Side B opens with Now, presumably an homage to the compilation series of the same name. At this time, with a couple of decades’ experience in the music industry, Moroder clearly knew how to craft a pop song. This is firmly bedded in the eighties, as you might expect, but as with everything else here, it’s a catchy little thing too.

Then comes the moment we’ve all been waiting for – Together in Electric Dreams is finally upon us, and for the first time on this album it comes without being mixed into its neighbours. It’s essentially just the original single version, but it would be churlish to complain – this is an exceptional song which is now regularly performed by The Human League as though it’s one of theirs. And rightly so.

Final single Be My Lover Now follows. It’s a good song, although again it feels a little rushed. The second and third singles were basically flops, and in retrospect the reasons should be clear – while some songs feel a little rushed, they are good, but really most people were only ever going to buy this album for the first thing they had heard.

Then we’re onto the final track already, the slightly daft but extremely catchy Shake it Up. You really could blink and miss this album, and I suspect the annals of music history have, for the most part, long since forgotten about it. But for all its failings, what it doesn’t lack is great, catchy songs, and at only half an hour in duration, you really have nothing to lose by giving it a go.

There’s a lovely 2003 remaster of this album which includes most of the tracks off the singles, and is well worth tracking down.

Music for the Masses 26 – 15 November 2004

The second Monday evening show saw the station’s webcam working for the first time in 2004, which therefore meant me (right) and my special guest Carl (left) spent much of the show trying to get ourselves seen on the internets.

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Show 26: Mon 15 Nov 2004, from 6:05pm-8:00pm

Broadcast on LSR FM, online only. Artist of the week: Saint Etienne.

  • Daft Punk – Aerodynamic
  • Chicane – Saltwater
  • Conjure One – Sleep
  • Mory Kante – Yeke Yeke (Hardfloor Mix)
  • Zero 7 – I Have Seen
  • Madonna – Nobody’s Perfect
  • Saint Etienne – Who Do You Think You Are?
  • Front Line Assembly – Everything Must Perish
  • William Orbit – Barber’s Adagio for Strings (Ferry Corsten Remix)
  • BT – Return to Lostwithiel
  • Sylver – Turn the Tide
  • Recoil – Jezebel
  • Moby – Run On
  • Saint Etienne – The Bad Photographer
  • X-Press 2 feat. Dieter Meier – I Want You Back
  • Hal feat. Gillian Anderson – Extremis
  • Zombie Nation – Kernkraft 400
  • Sohodolls – Prince Harry
  • Apollo 440 – Heart Go Boom
  • The Beloved – Sweet Harmony
  • Orbital feat. David Gray – Illuminate
  • Saint Etienne – Amateur
  • Giorgio Moroder – Chase (Jam & Spoon Remix)