Human League are best known for “Don’t You Want Me”, a great piece of psychotic eighties synth pop far more threatening and insidious than “Every Breath You Take”. Listening to it in context on the new compilation, Human League: A Very British Synthesizer Group, its interesting to note how that hit tent-polled the band’s career. At the beginning of the double-disc collection, Human League is decidedly unpoppy, experimenting with pure Gothic dourness on the foreboding debut “Being Boiled” and spiraling off into pure electronic textures on “The Dignity of Labour (Part 3)”. This is daring stuff, and certainly not the makings of a group destined for Atlantic-spanning number one hits. Yet the group gradually gets more traditional, through the melodic “Empire State Human” and a cover of Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” before landing on the crossover sound with the dance-floor natural “The Sound of the Crowd” and all the other tracks from their breakthrough LP, Dare, which includes such sparkling fusions of frosty synths and singing and sing-long pop on “Love Action”, “Open Your Heart”, and of course, “Don’t You Want Me”.
After this point, the edge starts getting worn off for good. There are fine singles to come by way of “Mirror Man”, “The Lebanon”, and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”, but by the time Human League gets to their next massive hit, “Human”, there is more than a whiff of sell-out. “Human” has its cheesy nostalgic appeal, but you definitely might find yourself reaching for the “next” button on your CD player a lot more often while listening to Disc 2. Who would have thought that the band that terrified pseudo synth vampires with “Being Boiled” in 1979 could be soothing dental patients a mere seven years later? Still, the first disc of A Very British Synthesizer Group is more than deserving of regular rotation.