The Human League – Love is All That Matters
When we last checked in with the Human League they were yet to become precision hit-makers, and Phil Oakey’s haircut wasn’t quite the national obsession it was destined to become. We return to them now at that most interesting point in any pop band’s career i.e.) when they’re on their uppers and the record label has lost all interest. Seven years after Dare! (the album that swept away Abba and most of the preceding decade), it was now the League’s turn to make way for the next generation of pop.
To be honest, things had started to get a bit ropey for the group when they discovered guitars (something which Neil Tennant once pronounced as a signifier of doom, shortly before Pet Shop Boys discovered guitars on Behaviour, and look how that turned out). None of the singles from 1984’s Hysteria made the UK top 10, despite all three being dead good. Jo Callis quit the group in 1985, and at some point around this time the band were summoned to
the headmaster’s office Virgin Records HQ for a crisis meeting. I like to imagine Phil, Joanne and Susan Ann were asked a lot of awkward questions, mumbled “don’t know, sorry” in reply, and were then promptly packed off to Minneapolis where they were met at the airport by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis holding up a ‘Human League‘ placard.
In February 1986 the band (at this point still including Philip Adrian Wright and Ian Burden) found themselves holed up in Jam and Lewis’s Flyte Tyme studios for four months, which is the closest equivalent I can think of for going to pop boarding school. This was something that had undoubtedly suited Janet Jackson down to the ground, but for the League – that bit older, wiser and presumably gobbier – it proved to be fairly traumatic. For Jam and Lewis, I suspect it was a taste of what running St Trinian’s must have been like. Both parties were used to being in complete control and by all accounts the whole experience was rather torturous for everyone involved. Eventually, the League fled back to Sheffield, leaving Jam and Lewis to finish the album. What a palaver.
The result, however, proved once again why I love pop so much – you can have a complete disaster in every way imaginable and somehow end up with a totally brilliant record – which is exactly what the lead single, Human, turned out to be. It has one of the best intros in any pop song ever – I always found it slightly cataclysmic, which turned out to be quite appropriate really – and despite being unmistakably Jam and Lewis, it’s also totally Human League. It’s the perfect two-headed beast, and it rightly returned them to the UK top 10 and scored them a second US no.1. Hooray, yes?
Well no, of course not. I think it’s fair to say that much of the rest of the Crash album bore the scars of its difficult birth, particularly on the disastrous choice for the second single, I Need Your Loving. It has more than a whiff of Nasty about it, but it’s just plain, well, nasty. After it flopped at no.72 in Britain, the whole campaign was quietly shelved and the Human League entered a period of exile, only emerging in 1990 with Romantic? which, despite containing the really rather brilliant Heart Like a Wheel, did little to restore their chart fortunes. In the meantime, Virgin did what any self-respecting record company does when they have a massive investment to recoup – they rammed out a greatest hits album. Usually at this point they’ll ring up and ask for a new track or an off-cut to promote the release, but it appears that Phil Oakey was no longer talking – or had gone ex-directory – by 1988. So instead they returned to the Crash scene and picked out a track from the wreckage as the ‘new’ addition. And so it was that one of my absolute favourite League songs finally got to be a single – the tremendously good Love is All That Matters.
This is one of the Jam and Lewis penned tracks that absolutely should not suit the Human League but does. I can’t think of a pop star on the planet less likely to say “Got this beautiful situation / I’ve finally found out / What life’s about” than Phil Oakey, but there it is, trite as you like and yet somehow it works – brilliantly. Having been rather sidelined on Human, Joanne and Susan Ann get their moment of glory here, delivering a recipe for happiness in their almost-pitched-too-high-but-not-quite chorus of “Love forgiving / Love for good / Love to keep us faithful / After all is said and done / Love is all that matters”. It’s all quite heavenly, and it’s driven by one of my favourite Jam and Lewis rhythms (the one that made so many great Alexander O’Neal records and was most recently borrowed by Kylie on Aphrodite). It’s probably one of the strangest songs the group ever made – in fact for me they come across here more like a cult than they do a league. Of course it’s nowhere near as strange as The Lebanon, which apparently mattered more than love in 1984 – but thankfully one of the great things about pop is that you don’t have to be consistent in your message.
I wouldn’t necessarily want the Human League to be this polished all the time (and they rarely were again, certainly not until 1995’s Tell Me When) – but Love is All That Matters deserved so much more than being spat out as an afterthought. Considering it was more than two years old by the time it got released, and with a cobbled-together-from-old-bits promo clip that just missed out on being the world’s first proper lyric video (thanks Sign O’ the Times), it’s something of a miracle that it made no.41. If only it had followed Human, eh?
Entered chart: 15/10/1988
Chart peak: 41
Weeks on chart: 5
Who could sing this today and have a hit? I do so long for a Jam and Lewis chart renaissance and I don’t think this sounds dated at all. I’d keep the production and give it to Lady Gaga, who is in my good books these days.