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The greatest music debuts of all time #12: The Human League’s Being Boiled

Forty-five years ago, an arty Yorkshire combo started making weirdly experimental electronic music that was defiantly set against the guitar-based grain of post-punk. They sounded as remote, stark, serious and yet instantly cherishable as they looked. 

With their science-fiction board game moniker, slide show and stares – not to mention just the one pioneering haircut between the four of them – The Human League would go on to influence everyone from Gary Numan and Ultravox to Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys. And it started with the masterpiece that is their debut 45, Being Boiled.

“OK. Ready. Let’s do it.” 

Happily, the final words uttered by Utah double murderer Gary Gilmore before his state execution in 1977 became the first words heard by Sheffield’s The Human League on their debut release the following year. 

The 1970s, with its power cuts and stinking rubbish piled in the streets, had felt like a retrograde decade (rather like the one we’re experiencing now, in fact), and after enduring endless strikes and political turmoil, Britain emerged from 1979’s ‘winter of discontent’ with a determination for a better future, even if that meant the rise of the steely if hard-hearted Margaret Thatcher. 

In music, new, affordable electronic technology started appearing via retail outlets, and had already found its way into the hands of two young men from Sheffield. Inspired by Walter Carlos, Giorgio Moroder and other European synth pioneers, computer operators Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware had bought a couple of synths and formed a band called, of course, The Future. 

After struggling to attract any record company interest, in 1978 they drafted in hospital porter Philip Oakey who, according to old school chum Ware “already looked like a pop star”.

A name change duly followed, inspired by a sci-fi board game, and the much more portentous The Human League came into being. The group were now ready for phase one of their career – as an influential, semi-avant garde, wholly electronic band. It felt like the future had arrived in more ways than one, even if the name always sounded like a parallel universe version of the ITV kids’ show The Tomorrow People to me.*

Being Boiled, according to Ware, cost a paltry £3 to make, and was recorded in a dingy, disused factory room lined with apple packaging, as in the fruit not the electronics company, as he told the Red Bull Music Academy in 2013:

“I was kind of obsessed with synthesizers since [The Beach Boys’] Good Vibrations. In Europe we used to listen to Radio Luxembourg. It was the only station that played interesting music. That was the peak time of Motown as well. So all those Motown records that incorporated very early synthesis, theremins, that was stuff that made my ears prick up. 

“I had a spare bit of money for the first time in my life and it was either learn to drive or buy a synthesizer, because they were just cheap enough to buy at that point. So I went to the local guitar store that had just got the first entry-level synthesizer in there. They were all rock dudes, they didn’t know anything about synthesizers. They thought we were gay because we wanted to buy a synthesizer and didn’t want to play Stairway To Heaven interminably in the store.

“Ian Marsh, who was also in Heaven 17, bought a synthesizer and we just started messing around really. Mine was a Korg 700S. It was like a three-and-a-half octave keyboard, monophonic so you could only play one note at a time, no MIDI, some very severe filters on the front. Resonated filters, which were really cool because you could make sounds like cats dying and things like that. very little in terms of presets. Every button had one function, that was it. 

“The only recording equipment we had was a reel-to-reel recorder, and a microphone and that was it. We didn’t have a mixing desk, no equalisation, no effects, apart from the ones built in to the synthesizers. And yet, by bouncing from track to track and adding a new instrument each time, we managed to create our first single.”

“We made it in one of these disused factories where they used to make cutlery. It was absolutely filthy, had a partially working toilet. To soundproof it, we used the trays that apples come in. We just got them from the local greengrocers and put them all over the walls to dampen it down a bit. 

“What happened is that we ended up sounding like we came from Mars. It still sounds pretty strange to me now, but we had diverse influences. Obviously, things like Kraftwerk were important to us; a lot of German bands like Can and Neu!, but also Funkadelic, Parliament, Bernie Worrell. The biggest compliment my manager ever gave to me when we signed was that I sounded like Bernie Worrell.”

Then along came the other non-musician Philip, aka Adrian Wright, with his minimal musical skills. As the League’s newly appointed Director of Visuals he came armed with a host of mood-setting slides, helping to create a visual identity for the band, just in case Oakey’s amazing asymmetric hair wasn’t quite enough. 

The Human League broke boundaries by creating pop music that was intended to be taken seriously. As a lyricist, Oakey was influenced by Philip K Dick and JG Ballard and, thus, even the group’s most throwaway tunes pulse with intelligence and seriousness of intent. Without making a big deal about it, they and Brian Eno helped bring the avant-garde to the mainstream.

When new label boss Bob Last was given a demo of Being Boiled he liked it so much he wanted to release it as was, untinkered. “When I heard this phenomenal, fat bass riff in the middle, it was like a mutant Bootsy Collins riff,” he said later. “I was like, ‘God we’ve got to put this out’.”

A masterpiece of homemade futurism, the single was released on 30 June 1978 with the manifesto slogan Electronically Yours on the cover. John Lydon dismissed it, calling the League “trendy hippies”. David Bowie, however, declared they were the future of music, a prophecy that would prove accurate, although it would take a few years and the band to fracture in two before it happened.

John Peel, the BBC’s resident arbiter of leftfield cool, was also a fan, and Being Boiled sold 3,000 copies within three months. Not bad for a fledgling Edinburgh indie label who’d only started issuing product – Fast Product – that year. They do say all good things run in threes.

As scholars of the Steel City sound will know, there are two distinct variations of Being Boiled. The original and arguably the most famous ‘Fast Version’ was reissued in the same dispassionate pastel sleeve in 1980 on EMI, and again, in a “stereo” Re-Boiled mix, which flew to No. 6 in January 1982 in the slipstream of Don’t You Want Me’s seasonal success.

The second immersion into Being Boiled is a comprehensively re-recorded and sped up 1980 version, released by Virgin on the band’s sophomore set Travelogue, and as the third track on the Holiday ’80 EP, from whence, despite its No. 55 chart placing, the League finally made Top Of The Pops with the more commercial Gary Glitter cover Rock ’n’ Roll Pt. 1 – albeit shorn of its medley aspect with Bowie and Iggy’s Nightclubbing for royalty reasons.

The later incarnation, produced by John Leckie, is, despite being shorn of Oakey’s callow-sounding call to arms, longer, and rather than languidly emerge from the white noise of what sounds like machines being switched on and valves being warmed up, it explodes in an insectoid frenzy of rhythmic pulse and floating bleeps and bloops. 

The confidence of its totally synthesised modus operandi is almost overwhelming, a new sound indeed from the still-industrial North, hinting at space-age portent and totalitarian dance. The intro takes it time, then crashes into life with a terrifying cacophonous cathedral riff. That stuttering beat, burping synths and basso verbosity soundtracks a generation of looking out out at the edge of a brave new world.

Who said anything about humans?

The voice that issued forth out of this crackling telex from another dimension was always going to be deep and booming, and Phil slaps down his orders with the authority of a less genial Tharg, albeit not until a glam rock handclap beat has got the party started. 

Famously, we are implored to “listen to the voice of Buddha” as the sound drops out, a spiritual entreaty at odds with the dictatorship of the delivery.

A new button is pressed and a sort of squelchy horn section is summoned. At which point a truly pivotal moment in pop music is born: a singer uses the word “sericulture”, which even a 19-year-old Will Self – an arguably better known writer born in the same hospital as me – wouldn’t have been able to provide a definition for. 

What it means is the agricultural rearing of silkworms for silk, although it was years before I found that out. The way the word plays out was exotica enough for this provincial Buckinghamshire boy. The eventual meaning doesn’t rob it of any mystery and as great as the band’s first two albums are Being Boiled remains the altarpiece of early Human League. 

Having only started buying records in 1981, it was impossible for me to have done the fashionable thing and forsook the band when they became ever more poppier. After a meek first purchase with Mirror Man, I would soon invest heavily into Dare, Love And Dancing and Fascination, applauded their mid-’90s comeback (“Tell meeee when!”) and in this century felt warm and squiggly inside when they and other ‘heritage acts’ were able to do package tours and earn a pension. 

Once more with the voice of Buddha then.

Steve Pafford

*The Tomorrow People was perceived as ITV’s answer to Doctor Who and ran for eight seasons from 1973 to February 1979, just weeks before Thatcher moved into No. 10.


Now firmly established as the pioneering record it is, Being Boiled has had a remarkable afterlife, especially in the hands of Richard X, who “mashed” it with TLC’s No Scrubs and used it as a synth base for Liberty X’s cover of Rufus and Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody. In 2003, it even went for bronze, stuck behind Gareth Gates’ re-reading of Spirit In The Sky and something even more unmemorable by Mis-Teeq. 

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