Human League, ABC, Heaven 17 – review

Last night with a thousand other midlifers to see three bands from my youth at Wolverhampton Civic Hall. I usually avoid this sort of musical necrophilia, but I thought it would be a nice pre-Christmas treat for Mrs D, who can still play an Ultravox album without irony.

One of the inevitables with this sort of “back from the dead” tour is seeing how well the performers have weathered over the the years.  Pretty good in most instances, although there was the odd middle aged spread being held in by the apparently compulsory grey suits.

Heaven 17 were fun.  Someone’s son on drums, I suspect (certainly not an original member).  Glenn Gregory (vocals, trilby, waistcoat) was obviously utterly delighted to be performing.  Great female vocals too. Temptation predictably brought the house down and I could have done with that being twice as long.

I have a soft spot for ABC, having seen them in a very intimate pre-tour warm up gig in the early 80s.  I was particularly looking forward to seeing the drummer, who had quite an individual style.  Disappointingly the sticksman they have now was much more conventional in his technique.

They did have quite a charistmatic female percussionist/vocalist though, which made up for it a bit.

It was all very professional, but in the old days Martin Fry really committed to those nonsense lyrics he writes.  After so long, and with a new album (they did a couple of tracks, which were fine, but didn’t get the crowd going) there’s a feeling that he’d rather be doing the new stuff.

Human League

And then the main attraction.  And no doubt about the stature of Human League in this package.  Ambitious staging (two level, giant LED screen across the full width of the stage).

Shock to see the once hair-curtained Phil Oakey now with a male pattern baldness No 1. Still looking good, though and with that insistent baritone voice in good shape.

Of the two female  singers, Susan Ann Sulley (the blonde one) is great value.  Looking magnificent, toned and blingy, and with great stagecraft (actually better than Oakey, who is a better singer than he is a frontman).

Joanne Catherall, unfortunately, is the Andrew Ridgely of the outfit.  Looking desperately uncomfortable in an ill-advised flapper dress, she looks every inch the girl that Phil snatched from a Sheffield disco nearly thirty years ago – if that disco was a gay bar frequented by transvestite plumbers.

But the set was one electropop classic after another.  There was much wearing of keyboards. Giant love hearts rolled around the stage to Love Action.  Fascination, Don’t You Want Me… you know the canon, and they (Catherall apart) delivered it with conviction.

Returning quickly for a remarkably fresh-sounding Being Boiled, they spoiled it for me by finishing with Electric Dreams. Hey guys, that’s not a Human League song, it’s pure fromage.

The audience didn’t care, though.  They went back home happy, aching slightly, not caring (until the cold morning) about work and wondering where the last 25 years have gone.

Playing to an empty room

Yesterday we celebrated my wife’s birthday in our home town of Birmingham (UK).

It was a three-part event.  Sixty of our family and friends had a private viewing of the classic movie High Society in the small screen of the lovely Art Deco Electric Cinema, then a Chinese meal at Barbecue Village – who looked after us brilliantly.

And then we moved on to cocktails and dancing at Sence – a brand new bar/club on the premises of what used to be 52 Degrees North.  Again the staff there were lovely, helpful and thoughtful but they were rather let down by the young DJ.

I was concerned when we arrived at about 10pm. As Sence has only just opened, they are still building up their reputation, so it was far from crowded.  The (big) dance floor was empty and the DJ was playing banging commercial dance, very loud, over the punchy sound system. Classic error: trying to create a happening atmosphere, when actually it makes stepping onto the dance floor very forbidding.

We’d given them a steer as to the sort of stuff that our lot would like and he made a desultory attempt at playing that (but he clearly didn’t have any/much 70s stuff, for example). A few danced, but he very quickly went back into his comfort zone and cleared the floor again.

Technically, he was fine.  Good mixing, consistent levels and so on. But DJing is about atmosphere, mood and energy – assessing the mood in the room and moving it gently in the direction you want, which eventually is a dance floor full of people having a good time.

But you can’t do that in one jump.  If he had:

  • stepped onto the dance floor a couple of times to feel how isolated a dancer would be there under that relentless beat,
  • used his eyes to assess the people who were there (older, in black tie),
  • thought about why most of us were staying behind the glass in the VIP area, rather than venturing out onto the dancefloor,

he might have played some more mid-tempo, possibly some older tunes, and gently enticed more and more of us – and the other customers – into having a dance.  Once he’d got us in the right mood, we’d have danced happily to the vocal 4/4 and a lot more besides.

We’d have had a better time – and so would he.

Led Zeppelin – pioneers of house music?

Although they didn’t know it, when rock gods Led Zeppelin released the album Physical Graffiti in 1975, they invented a style of music that wasn’t to take off for over five years.

House music.

Oh yes.  Side two, track two – Trampled Under Foot – has almost all of the hallmarks of the seductive dance music that came out of Chicago in the 1980s and was to take over the world – for a while, anyway.

Trampled Under Foot doesn’t have a conventional verse/chorus structure, but bashes out verse verse verse verse with a relentless repetition, based around a jagged guitar riff.  The release of this charging tension comes from an electric piano figure with a lot of the feel of a house breakdown.  It doesn’t have a drum machine, of course, but  John Bonham’s 4/4, underlying the track with precise brutality, does just fine.

Hairy Melon mix

Well, that’s my theory, anyway, so in tribute to this pioneering track, here’s an entirely unofficial remix of it.  I’ve taken out some of the 70s soloing, which sounds a bit self-indulgent now, and laced it with some 21st-century distortion, but it’s essentially the same propulsive tune.

Trampled Under Foot – Hairy Melon mix

I’d be interested to hear what you think about the mix.  And is there an even earlier tune with a claim to be the first house record?

The man who taught me to DJ

I was reading an article in yesterday’s Guardian about makers of “How To” videos who have a big following on YouTube, and a name jumped out at me.

When I started getting interested in DJ-ing about ten years ago, I could find very little guidance on the web about the practical skills involved.  But I eventually found one fount of knowledge, on the site of a Scottish film-editor-by-day-DJ-by-night who went under the name of DJ Recess.

I printed out dozens of pages of advice.  They were my bible as I practised the new (to me) skills of beat matching and mixing. And then, as I started to play professionally, I forgot all about him, because that’s the sort of ungrateful guy I am.

Well, he still has his site.  It looks a bit fancier and it’s garlanded with videos now, which you can also see on his YouTube channel.

And he’s written a book: DJ-ing For Dummies, which was published last year and has an Amazon sales rank of 6,374.  I’m pleased to see that all the free effort he put in to helping people like me had some financial payback for him.

And I’ve discovered his real name:  John Steventon.  So let me take this opportunity to say: thanks, John.

DJ Recess website

DJ Recess YouTube channel