I interviewed Martyn Ware once. It was 5 days after Paul McCartney’s show at Hampden Park, should you wish to date it, and I was still flying high, buzzing on seeing a two and a half hour benchmark set of hit after hit after hit, faithfully and loudly reproduced to within an inch of the songs’ original sound and feel.
“Yeah, to us, The Beatles were shit,” he sniffed in his mellow Yorkshire accent. In the mouth open, dead air gasp of disbelieving shock that followed, he continued. “They meant nothing to my generation of musicians. Nu-thing. We looked to Germany, to Kraftwerk and beyond, for our inspirations. Guitars were dead to us, even with the influx of punk groups that were springing up everywhere. To us, the guitar stood for excess and Led Zeppelin and private jets and symbols of phallic insecurity. Not all of The Beatles music was rubbish, but I wasn’t a fan and they certainly weren’t year zero for any of the people I was making music with. Punk, and the possibilities it threw up, was our point of reference. In Sheffield especially, we chose keyboards over guitars…and I think we all made a pretty good go of it.”
Had this conversation been carried out on Zoom – still a twinkle in some Silicon Valley digital developer’s eye – I’d have seen the wry, upturned smile that followed. Ware and his pals certainly made more than a good go of it. His DIY, learn-as-you-go aesthetic, first with the Human League and then with Heaven 17 and later with BEF, saw him involved in the production of some of his generation’s most well-known yet decidedly idiosyncratic tunes.
The Human League’s first single, released way back in 1978, is a case in point.
The Human League – Being Boiled
It’s futuristic sounding, even now. A hissing, spitting, fizzing, electronic groove, all metronomic synthesised hi-hat and piston-powered forward propulsion that’s as industrial-sounding as the city from whence it came. Its rubberised electro bassline, part Bootsy Collins, part Larry Graham, adds requisite pop charm, offset somewhat by Phil Oakey’s monotoned vocal.
‘Listen to the voice of Buddha‘ he deadpans, while the rest of the band make music from anything they can plug in. Morse code dots and dashes of synth ping pong and teleprompt their way across the electrified airspace. The clickety-click of computerised clockwork maintains the tempo – slow and steady, never speeding up, never slowing down – while gently popping bubbles of Prophet and Korg and Moog coalesce nicely in the ether, the ghosts of Kraftwerk and side 2 of Bowie’s Low hanging heavy in the analogue fug. It’s a brilliant debut single, some would say never bettered, by a band who, with a different approach and new line up, would go on to ubiquity and massive chart success.
Being Boiled has long-been a favourite of mine, right up there with the nothing-like-it-at-all Mirror Man and its Supremes-ish ‘Ooh-ooh – ee-oohs’ that take me right back to a time and place. If I was a betting man, I’d wager that Steve Strange was a big fan of Being Boiled too. There is, obviously, in Visage’s Fade To Grey, more than a whiff of similarity in those vibrating, humming chord changes.
For maximum hard boiled analogue thump, you need the Peel Session version from August ’78. It’s, like, out there!
The Human League – Being Boiled (Peel Session 8.8.78)
By the way, never trust anyone who says they don’t like The Beatles. It’s all for show. Whether it’s the throwaway Yellow Submarine or the avant gardisms of Revolution 9, The Beatles have a tune for everyone. You knew that already though.