The Human League – Tell Me When

Billy, we are told, was an inspiration, positive and kind. And while history doesn’t necessarily explain who Billy was, The Human League‘s late 1994 comeback Tell Me When is still pretty fantastic.

A little over four years after the broadly misguided and largely digitally-driven Romantic?, Tell Me When was the first single from The League’s brilliant 1995 comeback Octopus. This was the album where they regained control for the first time in over a decade – Crash (1986) had famously descended into fine, but often dull, American soul, and its 1990 follow-up had been the sound of a group who had fundamentally lost their way. It wasn’t until Octopus that they found it again.

The lead track is fantastic, and got plenty of airplay. It was not, perhaps, as big a hit as it should have been, but it was undisputedly the Sheffield group’s best hit since at least Human, if not earlier. The lyrics are typically daft, and the vocal delivery typically imperfect, but the melody is catchy, and the soft analogue sounds are refreshing and uplifting.

This was, of course, the mid-1990s, and so a slew of remixes were inevitable. First up on this single was Utah Saints, with their Mix 1. It’s a catchy dance-pop crossover remix of a kind that just wouldn’t turn up now, with heavy beats and rippling synth arpeggios. It’s dated, and here’s a particularly fun bit half way through, where Utah Saints do their normal chord change-heavy bit, which is almost hilarious, but the mix as a whole is still great for what it is.

We then get not one but two b-sides, the first of which is the 1993 collaboration with YMO, Kimi Ni Mune Kyun. With two great groups collaborating, I’d have had high hopes, but this is honestly pretty dreadful. It must be at least 20 bpm too fast, and just seems to be a bit of a mess of beats. It’s a shame, but it really isn’t great.

But then we get the delightful instrumental The Bus to Crookes, a delightfully Sheffield-oriented take on the now-traditional transport mode-based electronic music track. This was not, let’s face it, ever going to break any particular boundaries, but it’s a nice instrumental piece, nonetheless.

Disc two opens with Utah Saints‘ other contribution to this release, Mix 2. This one seems more fully developed, somehow – the sounds are all the same, but the attempt at a full vocal mix has gone, replaced instead by repeated vocal snippets and broken down sections. Both mixes are great, but this is the one that really hits its mark.

Red Jerry is next, one of the people who would record one of the less offensive remixes of Don’t You Want Me a year or so later. His take on Tell Me When isn’t great – it’s a little better than the manic happy hardcore that was floating around during this period, but not a lot. The mid-1990s seem to have been a period where it was acceptable for remixers to take other people’s songs and just put the same riff on every one of them, and Red Jerry does seem to have been a part of that crowd – it worked for other songs, but not so much for this one.

Next is the Strictly Blind Dub, a dull house mix from Development Corporation. It’s a bit faster than some house tracks, so doesn’t quite do the relentless plodding thing that a lot of unimaginative house seems to, but it isn’t particularly elevating either, and lasts at least two or three minutes longer than it should (it isn’t even six minutes long in total). The fact that one of the remix duo was in Urban Cookie Collective should probably have been a sign. The same duo were responsible for the Overworld Mix that follows, and that’s a little better, with a bass line that nods to Blue Monday and a lot of acid squelching, but unfortunately it doesn’t go anywhere more interesting in the end.

Inexplicably, the second disc also closes with Utah SaintsMix 1, so there’s little more to say here. It started off so well, but as was often the case in the mid-1990s, this single gave us a great lead track, a couple of interesting b-sides, and then a bunch of largely lacklustre remixes. But as a comeback release, this was pretty promising, and served well to herald Octopus.

The first CD of Tell Me When is still available here.

The Human League – Don’t You Want Me 1995

Before we broke up for our extended winter holidays, the last oldie we looked at was The Human League‘s classic album Dare. Somehow it seems appropriate to follow that up by looking at how the album was treated subsequently.

Looking back now, it’s hard to conceive a time when The Human League weren’t regarded as the grandparents of the modern pop song. But everything about the 1995 version of their Greatest Hits seems to scream “we were told to do this by our record company”. In fairness, it’s actually a vast improvement on the original 1988 version, flipping the tracks into a better order, adding two tracks from Octopus, and also gaining the brilliant non-album track Stay with Me Tonight.

But remixing Don’t You Want Me with contemporary versions by massive mid-nineties euro-dance names? A good idea, or a travesty? Let’s find out…

I want to make it clear at this point that I do have some respect for Red Jerry. A lot of his mixes are pretty good. It was he, after all, who founded the label Hooj Choons, which some years later would give us the excellent mixes of The Things That Dreams are Made Of. His take on Don’t You Want Me, however, is far from good. I can only assume that he was asked to complete this mix during a five minute toilet break between other projects, because I can really think of absolutely nothing good to say about it. His additional “Don’t you want me, do-do’nt you want me” section is awful, and frankly the fade is the best thing about it.

Then comes a mix by Snap! (as in, “I’m as serious as cancer when I say rhythm is a dancer,” which is surely the best lyric of all time). Their mix is very marginally less awful, but it does mess with the arrangement by starting with the chorus, which is an odd decision to say the least. It also bears an uncanny resemblance to Rhythm is a Dancer, particularly the absolutely awful middle section in which the “I guess it’s just what I must do” line is steadily faded out as Phil Oakey gets faded back in. It is this version which closes the reissued Greatest Hits collection, which must be a tad irritating for any self-respecting League fan.

The UK release of the single then generously gives you extended versions of the Red Jerry and Snap! mixes, while the Dutch version gives you an Oliver Lieb mix which I can’t comment on as I don’t have a copy. The extended versions barely scratch six minutes each, which suggests to me that even the people doing the mixes were getting bored of them. Can you seriously imagine any of these mixes ever being played in a club? Really?

The penultimate track, and honestly the saving grace of the whole bunch, is surprisingly Red Jerry‘s dub mix. Freed from the shackles of having to destroy a classic eighties anthem, he was able to construct a relatively decent euro-dance track which perhaps unsurprisingly is not unlike Felix‘s Don’t You Want Me. It barely even mentions the words “don’t you want me” and is considerably better for it.

Finally, you get a reminder of the original 1981 version, and everything is OK again. But, all in all, to answer my original question, I think it’s fair to say that this single is definitely a travesty, and let’s never mention it again.

If you want to buy a copy of this single, [sarcastic comment removed! Basic message is: don’t bother unless you’re an ultra-completist.]