The Human League – Hard Times / Love Action (I Believe In Love)

Just days before a tour of Europe and the UK, and unable to reconcile themselves with Phil Oakey’s views on the future direction of the band, songwriters and keyboard players Martin Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to launch their own project, Heaven 17.

Amidst the turmoil, Oakey fought for The Human League name, and to win it, conceded to pay 1% of any future royalties earned by his reformed and restyled band to Ware and Marsh.

He also inherited all the band’s debts, and an obligation to fulfil the upcoming tour, which with only days remaining presented significant issues in itself, given he’d lost the band’s most skilled musicians.

Oakey quickly recruited Ian Burden of Sheffield synth band Graph, and perhaps more famously, spotted teenagers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall dancing in a club in the same city, and invited them to join the tour too as dancers and backing singers. Philip Adrian Wright remained as Director of Visuals with the band to complete the line up.

With their overhaul underway, the Human League were able to embark on their planned tour dates, and whilst on the road, Oakey began writing new material for the more-pop less-Avant Garde style Oakey with new-recruit Burden.

The first fruits of the new songwriting partnership emerged in April 1981 when The Human League released ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’. This was also their first single with female backing vocals, and their first with new producer Martin Rushent, who record-label Virgin had recommended to polish the new band’s sound.

The single became the band’s biggest hit to date, reaching number 12 in the UK chart. But the label still viewed the Human League as high risk, as they had little new material, and the majority of the band were not even musicians.

Heavily in debt, the band were given the opportunity of one further single to prove themselves, and on that basis, they chose to record another new Oakey & Burden composition, ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’.

The track proved to be the catalyst for the band’s future success, peaking at number 3 in the UK chart, and as a result, persuading Virgin to sanction the release of a full album of new material from the new line up.

That album would become Dare, which would spawn two further top 10 hits in ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Don’t You Want Me?’, and which would go on to sell over a million copies.

Oakey’s vision for the band was having exactly the effect he had intended, and with each new release, the full extent of his blueprint became clearer.

For a while the band badged their singles with ‘Red’ or ‘Blue’ code words for fans – the former signifying a dance record, and the latter a pop record (this particular release fell into the ‘Red’ category).

Most single releases were coupled with 12” extended versions and remixes, but this 12” segues the single with its b-side ‘Hard Times’ to create a 10-minute plus piece from the two tracks.

‘Hard Times’ is a largely instrumental track built from a couple of samples from its a-side, and received club play in its own right upon its release, thanks largely to its bold, crunchy bassline.

Producer Martin Rushent was responsible for the band’s extended versions, and before long he would take them in an even more unique direction with the creation of semi-instrumental ‘dub’ versions of their tracks.

These were released in 1982 as a follow up companion album to Dare called Love And Dancing, which was a non-stop remix album, credited to the League Unlimited Orchestra.

12 years after its original release, ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’ was heavily sampled by another northern electronic act, Utah Saints, for their top 10 hit ‘Believe In Me’.

Oakey’s vision may have taken the band away from its avant-garde roots to a more commercial pop sound, but the band continued to innovate not just through their music, but also through their identity.

This 12” is significant not just because it earned The Human League the opportunity to record several more hugely successful singles, and a truly classic album.

But also because it pulled together many aspects of the vision Phil Oakey had when he reformed the band in 1980 for the first time – a vision which he was right to pursue with such vigour and determination.

Label: Virgin
Cat No: VS435-12
Year: 1981

Bassheads – Is There Anybody Out There? (Extended)

Bassheads originate from Birkenhead on the Wirral and are named after club night The Bassment which DJ and band member Desa started in 1988.

With the help of bandmate Nick Murphy, Desa used a reel-to-reel tape machine he’d bought (a Revox B77) to blend samples and loops into unique pieces to play at the club.

This was the height of the acid house and rave scene of course, and the genre was developing rapidly.

The underground nature of the scene meant independent and often anonymous acts were releasing white label 12” singles directly into radio and clubs, and new anthems were being born every week.

Bassheads were one such act, and had played out several of their cuts in their own sets before they released ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ as a 12” white label in 1991.

Their original version sampled Pink Floyd heavily in its intro, and also included uncleared samples by the Osmonds, Talking Heads, Afrika Bambaataa and Ruffneck featuring Cheri Williams.

It’s success on the rave scene quickly spread Bassheads name way beyond Birkenhead, and later in 1991 Deconstruction records signed the track, and a remade version became a top 5 hit in the UK.

The Pink Floyd sample was removed for the commercially released version, and other samples were recreated to reduce the need to obtain full permissions from the rights holders for each.

But the journey of this track is interesting not just because of the need to remake it for commercial release.

It’s also helps to illustrate the natural dynamic of any underground scene that grows sufficiently to cross over into the mainstream.

As the acid house scene grew, Deconstruction Records set themselves up, primarily to distribute and market house anthems.

Thanks to distribution deals with Parlophone and RCA, they were soon able to score top 10 hits not only with Bassheads, but also with K-Klass, Robert Miles, Felix and M-People, amongst others.

Just six years after its formation, the label was bought by BMG, and such was its growth in that period, both in terms of size and reputation, that shortly after the buy-out, the label was able to sign Kylie Minogue.

As for Bassheads, they soon release an album C.O.D.E.S. through Deconstruction and achieved several more top 40 hits in the early 1990s, most notably with ‘Back To The Old School’.

But this was their anthem, and whether in its original white-label version with original samples, or in this slightly more polished commercial release, it’s a track that still regularly rocks dancefloors in the UK and beyond.

On to the record itself then, and the sleeve is in the Deconstruction house style, designed by 3a.

Colours changed from one release to the next but the fonts and layout remained the same, keeping design costs down, and building a strong identity which contributed to the label’s success.

The 12” single contains the “extended” version of ‘Is There Anybody Out There?’ and a version of b-side ‘Non Verbal Communication’ on the reverse.

Given that the extended a-side is virtually the same length and structure as the original white-label, it isn’t actually extended at all, and it would have been more appropriate for this to be called the original version, and the 7” to be called the truncated version, albeit that that would have defied convention.

Either way, this 12” is a superb product of a scene that had an energy and intensity that has rarely been matched since, and which saw many other dance anthems make the journey from the British provinces to a global stage.

Label: Deconstruction
Cat No: 12R 6303
Year: 1991

Orange Juice – Rip It Up (Long Version)

Upon it’s release in 1982, Roland initially marketed their TB-303 bassline synthesiser as a tool to provide looped accompaniment for guitarists to practise alone.

The 303 was later repurposed by Chicago DJs and musicians in the emerging house scene, when its distinctive sound would drive its own sub-genre – acid house.

Whilst Phuture’s ‘Acid Trax’ (1987) is recognised as the first acid house record, the definitive TB-303 track came much later, in 1995, in the form of Josh Wink’s ‘Higher State of Consciousness’.

Given this context, it’s a little surprising to that the first chart hit to feature a TB-303 was this mid-tempo single from the Scottish post-punk band Orange Juice.

At the time of its release, the band had actually been in existence for 8 years, initially as the Nu-Sonics, then following line-up changes, under their new name Orange Juice in 1979.

Their debut album, ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’ reached number 21 in the UK in 1982, but ‘Rip It Up’ was the only one of their 14 singles to break the top 40 (it reached number 8).

‘Rip It Up’ was the second single from the album of the same name, and featured a different sound to the band’s 9 previous singles – more synthesiser-led and with a groove that was quite likely inspired by Nile Rodgers and Chic.

The track itself was written by singer Edwyn Collins, who over a decade later had an even bigger hit as a solo artist with ‘A Girl Like You’.

In another curiosity, ‘Rip It Up’ features a segment of a Buzzcocks guitar riff, from their track ‘Boredom’, which we hear as Collins sings the lyric “my favourite song’s entitled Boredom”.

As for this 12” version, we’re treated to a longer and slightly meatier sounding version on the a-side, and an extended version of the b-side, ‘A Sad Lament’ on the reverse.

The TB-303 bassline, so prominent in the 7″ version is largely absent in the Long Version.

The artwork, drawn by Collins himself, shows a fighter plane with cartoon teeth and eyes, partially submerged in the sea.

‘Rip It Up’ is a record that sounded fresh on its release in 1983, and like many classics, still sounds contemporary today, more than three decades after it was recorded.

Label: Polydor
Cat No: POSPX 547
Year: 1983

THE SPECIALS – GHOST TOWN (EXTENDED MIX)

It’s a little surprising how many of the now classic records in this series were conceived in chaotic circumstances.

This track was nominated single of the year in 1981 by the UK’s three biggest music papers of the day (NME, Melody Maker and Sounds) and spent three weeks at number one.

Yet it was created in a fractious environment by a band that was in the process of self-destructing.

The Specials had followed their eponymous 1979 debut album with ‘More Specials’ a year later.

And whilst ‘More Specials’ had charted in the top 10, and delivered singles that had done the same, its more produced sound hadn’t met with unanimously positive reaction.

More importantly, several bandmates were skeptical of Jerry Dammers’ approach to production, and unhappy with the slightly different direction it took the band in.

Against this backdrop – and the backdrop of riots on the streets of Bristol and Brixton – Dammers had continued writing, and in particular, had been honing this new track for some months.

He and the rest of the band had witnessed the growing crisis in urban Britain first hand as they’d toured the ‘More Specials’ album around its provinces.

And whilst what they saw influenced this track, they couldn’t have foreseen the scale of unrest that would exist by the time of its release in June 1981, by which time unrest had been reported in no less than 35 towns and cities across the UK.

‘Ghost Town’ would provide a suitable soundtrack for broadcasters, and instant social commentary for its listeners, adding interest even beyond the sheer quality of the track itself.

So what of the almost equally riotous recording?

Whilst writing and refining ‘Ghost Town’, Dammers had been enjoying a reggae track called ‘At The Club’ by Victor Romero Evans, and had decided he would like its producer and co-writer, John Collins, to take over production duties for this single.

Dammers first called Collins in the middle of the night with the offer, but Collins believed the request a joke and put the phone down. But Dammers persevered and eventually Collins travelled to Coventry to meet Dammers before agreeing to produce the track.

Dammers had used a 24-track studio for the ‘More Specials’ sessions, but it was agreed they would ditch this in favour of a modest 8-track studio in a house in Leamington Spa for ‘Ghost Town’.

Collins would also insist the band recorded in mono, with reverb and delay used to add width to the sound, to give a more authentic reggae/ska feel.

The limited space available in the house meant the band had to record their parts independently, providing another departure from the band’s previous sessions.

In an attempt to encourage a common approach in this environment, Collins played band members records whose style he wanted to inspire the recording.

Drummer John Bradbury for example was played ‘What a Feeling’ by Gregory Isaacs (a Sly & Robbie production) before being invited to mimic its drumming style.

But not all of the band were behind ‘Ghost Town’ as it developed in the studio.

Dammers remembers guitarist Lyndal Golding rushing into the control room at one point shouting about how wrong it sounded, and recalls vocalist Neville Staple being reluctant to try out some of the proposed ideas.

Collins eventually got sufficient material work with, and took the mono recordings back to his Tottenham home for mixing, during which band members visited individually to pass comment on the developing track.

We now know the end result as a classic of course, but that was far from the feel at the time the record was completed, and given the troubled recording, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this would become the band’s final release before they split.

Interestingly, critical reaction was also not instantly positive. This at the time was a very unusual single, with very unusual sound and subject matter. But it gathered momentum and respect during the second half of 1981 in good time for the end of year polls it topped.

As for the 12” single, it features an extended mix which clocks at 6’02” compared with the 7” single version at 3’40”.

The package is completed neatly with two additional tracks, both written by different band members, and both with nightclub connections as per the a-side.

‘Why?’ is Lynval Golding’s plea for progress following a racist attack he suffered outside a nightclub, whilst ‘Friday Night, Saturday Morning’ is Terry Hall’s epithet to a mundane night out in Coventry.

Quality and history in roughly equal measures then in this particular record, and yet another classic track which surely can’t be enjoyed more than when in its 12” format.

Label: 2 Tone Records
Cat No: CHS TT 1217
Year: 1981

Flowered Up – Weekender

Flowered Up emerged at the height of ‘Madchester’ and the legendary acid house movement in 1990, and were frequently pigeon-holed as north London’s answer to the Happy Mondays.

In a scene dominated by northern bands such as the Mondays, The Stone Roses, Inspiral Carpets and The Charlatans, it wasn’t the height of cool to hail from London’s King’s Cross.

Nevertheless, the band were sufficiently hyped by the British music press that they made the cover of the NME and Melody Maker before they’d even released a record.

London Records were the label that bit, with a £250,000 6-album deal, which singer Liam Maher would later feel was the band’s downfall, with the intense pressure it put on sales.

The label were naturally keen to market their act heavily, but Maher was unhappy with their debut album, and didn’t feel the production adequately reflected what the band were about.

With expectations sky-high, and a slightly cynical, baggy bandwagon sound, the album was met with skepticism, and the seeds of the Flowered Up backlash were sown.

The band’s response was to work with a different production team to record this 13-minute epic in 1992, which saw the band’s credibility significantly restored, winning praise from fans and critics alike.

‘Weekender’ sees the band divert focus to the mundanity of the popular live-for-the-weekend lifestyle adopted by many of their working and lower-middle class north London compatriots.

This was a true crossover track, appealing to indie and dance sensibilities, and it was played out heavily by DJs in both types of club.

Despite the unavailability of a 7” single, and a radio edit, ‘Weekender’ became the band’s biggest hit, reach number 20 in the UK charts despite these obstacles.

In keeping with this refusal to conform, rather than a regular video, an 18-minute short film was released to accompany the track, which bears some retrospective comparison with Shane Meadows’ style, and with Danny Boyle’s classic film Trainspotting.

But Flowered Up seemed somehow destined not to play to the script, and the achievement of their biggest hit had followed their being dropped by their label, hence the track being released on Heavenly rather than London Records.

Just months later, the south would become cool again on the indie scene, when Blur scored a hit with their ‘Modern Life Is Rubbish’ album, and Suede released their debut long player.

The band soon split, but the tragic endgame would come much later, with Maher’s death from a heroin overdose in 2009, and his brother, guitarist Joe Maher, from the same cause in 2012.

One wonders if a different set of choices between 1990 and 1992 by both band and label might have seen the brothers still alive today, and who knows, perhaps performing more classics in the mould of this epic 12” single.

Label: Heavenly
Cat No: HVN16
Year: 1992

Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – The Message

To many, Grandmaster Flash is perhaps best known for this track.

But whilst it bears his name on the cover, he didn’t write it, and barely appears on it.

He’s in good company though – most of the rest of the band don’t appear on it either.

The track actually originates from Sugarhill Records’ staff songwriter Ed Fletcher, who began the composition in 1980 in his mother’s basement, on the piano.

Sugarhill Records boss Sylvia Robinson liked the track and wanted Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five to record it, but the band weren’t convinced by the unconventional style and content, and made fun of the track initially.

One band member held a different view, so Melle Mel worked with Fletcher to complete the composition and the recording, and the two take alternate verses on the finished track.

Songwriting credits are split therefore between Sylvia Robinson, Ed Fletcher, Melle Mel, and also Sugarhill Records producer Clifton Chase, who contributed greatly with a unique sound to match the then unique lyrical content.

As the track was developing, some band members warmed to it and asked to become involved, but Robinson refused, other than to have them included in the skit in the track’s outro.

Sugarhill Records was very much a production house in its own right, and this record was very much the product of the label rather than the band – the band’s role being much more to front rather than create the record in this case.

Given the scenario that had unfolded, it’s unsurprising perhaps that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five divided into Grandmaster Flash the solo artist, and Grandmaster Melle Mel & The Furious Five not long after this release.

And the tensions didn’t end with the split, as Grandmaster Flash would later sue Sugarhill Records for $5m in unpaid royalties, which in turn would see future single ‘White Lines (Don’t Do It)’ retrospectively re-credited to Grandmaster & Melle Mel rather than Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel, as Flash had actually played no part on that track too.

Flash was regarded as a pioneering DJ, who had invented a number of techniques, including using two copies of the same vinyl to loop breaks on twin-turntables to play out a break for longer than other DJs had been able to previously, and also a technique known as punch phrasing, where short segments of music such as horn hits were rhythmically overlaid on a break.

Flash’s status made it attractive for Sugarhill Records to bill tracks as having his involvement, even where that meant being flexible with the truth. To be fair to them, his is amongst the coolest names of the era, and you would want it on your record!

Notwithstanding the extraordinary politics around ‘The Message’, there exists a track that startled listeners at the time, and which has been consistently lauded since as a game changer in the hip-hop genre.

In 2012 Rolling Stone magazine for example recently named this as the Greatest Hip-Hop Song of All Time, beating another Sugarhill Records release, ‘Rapper’s Delight’, and Africa Bambatta’s epic ‘Planet Rock’ to top spot.

And its influence is not restricted to the genre.

When interviewed about their 1983 hit ‘Mama’, Phil Collins of Genesis revealed ‘The Message’ had been a favourite of the band’s at the time, and ‘Mama”s drum pattern, and segment of laughing lyrics were both inspired by the Sugarhill track.

But what gave the track such broad appeal?

Well first it brings social commentary to a hip-hop record for the first time, painting stark images of urban living in what were times of austerity in major cities on both sides of the Atlantic.

But it does so above a sparse electro-funk groove that hadn’t previously existed in hip-hop records – producer Clifton Chase was interested in a style inspired by Tom Tom Club’s ‘Genius Of Love’ and a comparison can certainly be drawn between the two.

In different ways then, a hugely significant track both for those involved with its conception, production and promotion, and for those of us who heard it for the first time in the 1980s and were startled, unnerved or inspired by it.

As for the 12″, Sugarhill Records have us a simple black and white sleeve, with tracklisting on the front, and lyrics on the back, whilst the vinyl itself features the full length version on the a-side, and an instrumental of the same on the reverse.

Label: Sugarhill Records
Cat No: SHL117
Year: 1982

Depeche Mode – Everything Counts (In Larger Amounts)

Mute Records was formed in the UK in 1978 by the electronic solo artist Daniel Miller, in order to release one of his own singles through the Rough Trade chain of record stores.

The success of his first single, ’T.V.O.D./Warm Leatherette’ (the latter was later covered by both Grace Jones and Chicks on Speed) meant the label continued, and was soon on a mission to build up its roster.

Miller had watched Depeche Mode perform in London in 1980 when he invited them to record a single for his fledgling label. They agreed, releasing ‘Dreaming of Me’ in early 1981, which didn’t make the top 40.

But Daniel and Mute would very quickly help the band establish themselves as a major act.

Within two years ‘New Life’, ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’, ‘See You’, ‘The Meaning of Love’, ‘Leave in Silence’ and ‘Get The Balance Right’ had all made the top 20 in the UK, along with two top 10 albums, ‘Speak & Spell’ and ‘A Broken Flame’.

Despite this prolific spell for both band and label, this release arrived with each experiencing a degree of flux. Depeche Mode keyboard player Vince Clarke had by now left to form Yazoo with Alison Moyet, and the label was rapidly expanding itself in order to be able to continue supporting the band rather than pass duties over to a major label.

Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising then then that ‘Everything Counts’, the lead single from their forthcoming ‘Construction Time Again’ album, had a markedly different sound to the band’s previous more pure synth-pop singles.

The first notable change was that whilst lead vocalist Dave Gahan sang the verses, songwriter Martin Gore sang the choruses – the first time this clear sharing of vocal duties had occurred.

The track’s subject matter was also new territory for the band, referencing the corporate greed of the era that was also documented in Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots Of Money)’ amongst others.

And finally the use of found and industrial sounds moved the band towards a much harder and grittier sound than the precision electronics Vince Clarke had now migrated across to Yazoo.

A degree of risk in the approach then, but apparently well calculated given that ‘Everything Counts’ became the band’s best charting single worldwide, and provided them with a style that translated very well to lucrative stadium and arena environments.

Indeed, ‘Everything Counts’ very quickly became a crowd favourite both as a show opener and closer on different tours, and a live version, complete with crowd singalong, was released to promote the spectacular live album, film, and photography project ‘101’ six years later.

The band would go from strength to strength after this release of course, with a succession of hugely successful albums and more than 20 more top 20 hits in the UK, and around the world.

Even at the time of writing, more than three decades later, Depeche Mode still regularly sell out stadiums around the world.

As for this 12”, it features a tidily mixed extended version on the A-side. The remix brings to the fore some of the subtler elements of the 7″ mix, and separates vocals in a clearer and more polarised fashion across the stereo spectrum.

The reverse also features just one track, an extended version of the 7” B-side ‘Work Hard’.

Like so many extended mixes from this era, the extended version helps the listener unravel the components of the track and understand a little more about the 7″ arrangement and decisions taken within it. The emergence of these mixes in the early 1980s lifted the slightly on the DNA of the shorter single and album versions, which is in part what makes them such rewarding listens.

We benefit here from the absence of the 7” version or other extra tracks, which means the grooves on both sides are spread across the full width of the available vinyl for just a single track, resulting in a loud and high quality listening experience.

This combined with the sparse hand drawn artwork on a textured matt card sleeve leaves us with a release which is arguably as good as any in representing a truly pivotal time for a band and label that would both go on to become institutions of British electronic music in the 80s, 90s and beyond.

Label: Mute Records
Cat No: 12BONG3
Year: 1983