League Unlimited

BEFORE I EVER heard them, I hated the Human League. Not because I thought the ascendance of synthesizers and dance music signaled rock's demise, or that I'd read any disparaging press notices. My prejudice against the Sheffield combo was far more elitist in origin: In the summer of 1982, they had a No. 1 radio hit. And if "Don't You Want Me" was good enough for the rest of the country, then I was too good for the Human League.

Alas, this fact was lost on the friend who gave me Dare, the League's first U.S. full-length, as a birthday present. I immediately filed the LP away. Then one day, having exhausted the other possibilities of my rather meager record collection (even the most artsy teen can only ingest so much Kate Bush), I deigned to play Dare. Almost immediately, I recognized my error.

What captured my attention wasn't cheery pop concoctions like "Open Your Heart," "Love Action," or the aforementioned chart topper (although I grew to love all three), but how eerie the remainder of Dare sounded: the swirling paranoia of "Darkness"; the martial rhythms that propelled the Kennedy assassination vignette "Seconds"; the unnerving 62-second instrumental that kicked off side two, "Get Carter." That balance of sinister and sweet struck a chord in my cynical adolescent soul. My opinion of the Human League underwent a complete reversal.

Sadly, half-baked follow-ups like Fascination! and Hysteria simply didn't match the precedent set by the consistently compelling Dare. And while their earlier catalog, from the pre-Dare days before the group split into two halves—with instrumentalists Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh going off to form Heaven 17, and singer Phil Oakey assuming leadership of the League—proved intriguing, it lacked the polish of their masterpiece. By 1986, when the group enlisted Janet Jackson's producers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, for their soppy comeback, "Human," I'd decided that Dare was the only Human League album I'd ever need.

Yet recent events have forced me to re-evaluate my position once again. It started with the 2001 release of Secrets, the band's first full-length since 1995's Octopus. When I read an interview in which the remaining original members (i.e., Oakey and those two backup singers who look like aging airline hostesses) touted it as their strongest offering since Dare, I shook my head, but damned if they weren't right. From the irresistible "All I Ever Wanted" and the bittersweet "Never Give Your Heart" to the instrumental interludes between each song proper, Secrets showed the Human League was still capable of making an album as good as, if not better than, all the "electroclash" acts that have sprung up in their wake.

Then there was last year's Soul Jazz compilation In the Beginning There Was Rhythm, which restored the Human League's 1978 debut single, the stark "Being Boiled," to its rightful place in the canon of electronic masterpieces, next to pioneering cuts by Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. And now comes The Golden Hour of the Future (on Sheffield indie Black Melody), an anthology of early, unreleased selections by the League and its pre-Oakey incarnation, the Future (featuring Adolph "Adi" Newton, later of Clock DVA).

"This is a song for all you bigots out there who think disco is lower than all the irrelevant musical gibberish and tired platitudes that you try to impress your parents with," announces Oakey on the opening "Dance Like a Star." "We're the Human League, and we're much cleverer than you. . . . " All boasting aside, Golden Hour offers a fascinating and highly listenable glimpse into an era where simply refusing to use guitar or drums was an act of rebellion far more daring than anything punks like the Pistols and Siouxsie and the Banshees were peddling (perhaps recognizing this, the latter took the League out as their tour support in the winter of 1978).

Despite the primitive recording conditions, most of these 20 selections hold up remarkably well; the moody closer, "Last Man on Earth," could pass for a Boards of Canada outtake. An instrumental rendition of "Reach Out (I'll Be There)" points toward the more soulful direction Marsh and Ware would explore in Heaven 17, while Oakey's solo contribution, "The Circus of Dr. Lad," dabbles in the cut-and-paste audio collage techniques of William S. Burroughs.

But if any of these titles sound intriguing, you might as well wait till Jan. 28 before you rush out to order or purchase them. That's the day Caroline Records is reissuing the must-have Dare, now augmented with its sequel, Love and Dancing by League Unlimited Orchestra. Of course, if you simply can't wait, I understand. You probably already own Dare. And personally, I've never considered Love and Dancing, which features eight mostly instrumental remixes, to be essential. But I reserve the right to change my mind.

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