Live Review: The Human League

Frederic Heath-Renn 20 December 2012

The Human League

The Forum, Hertfordshire

It’s true that Don’t You Want Me was the most rapturously received performance of the night, but The Human League have had a truly staggering career; from their avant-garde origins 35 years ago, in 1981 they blossomed with the phenomenal ‘Dare’, one of the first hit albums to be entirely electronically instrumented and still vital-sounding today; they played six tracks from it on the night, all of which sounded fantastic (especially Love Action (I Believe in Love)).

But it was perhaps surprising how varied the set-list was – they played songs from every part of their career (minus 1986’s R&B-influenced ‘Crash’, which they seem to have more-or-less written off). When pressed together in this sort of greatest hits format, it’s delightful to hear how utterly pop their newer, less famous material is. 1996’s Heart Like A Wheel and One Man In My Heart shone magnificently, and the harsher, dance-oriented direction of their latest album, ‘Credo’, worked well on stage thanks to the emphasis on percussion.

That aside, the songs didn’t differ much from on record; the band have, after all, been doing this for decades now. Phil, Jo and Susan’s voices sound pretty much identical to when they first recorded these songs (fear of being accused of miming is probably the reason for the few minor changes to lyrics, it being unlikely that they were put in just to wrong-foot my singing along).

The stage show wasn’t extravagant by any means, but the backing band had keytars (two of ’em!), which allowed them to move around rather than have to stand impassively behind keyboards. As vocalists, Phil was free to wander the stage in a series of sci-fi costumes while Jo and Susan got progressively less dressed as the night wore on.

Most of the visual excitement was provided by projections onto the stage, whirling patterns for the dancier numbers and video for the more experimental ones. The only way 1984’s The Lebanon could be any more crassly naive would be if it was accompanied by a video of soldiers, stealth bombers and explosions, so I’m glad to report they grabbed that opportunity with both hands. The only pre-81 song on the set-list, Being Boiled, was made suitably disturbing by lip-syncing Hitler to some of the lyrics.

For the most part, though, the night was about the music, and what music it is. Songs ranged from the perpendicular disco of (Keep Feeling) Fascination to the sunny, upbeat Mirror Man to the all-out rock of set-closer Together in Electric Dreams (Phil may not have hair any more but the guitarist on the night had plenty of it, which I feel is a requirement for a solo as outlandish as the one in that song). Their set was crammed full of excellent songs, hits and non-hits alike, even if some of the newer stuff – I’m thinking specifically of Night People here – dragged on a bit if you weren’t dancing at the front.

Some of the lyrics might be a bit duff – my companion had to stifle a giggle at The Lebanon‘s infamous “Before he goes outside he stops/He scans the world outside/For where there used to be some shops/Is where the snipers sometimes hide” – but the evening was shot through with such warmth and enthusiasm (Phil especially singing with eyelid-screwing gusto) that it felt impossible to dislike. As a night with one of the greatest bands of the 80s rightly should.

Frederic Heath-Renn