One of the first songs I learned to play on the piano was “Human” by the Human League, and I learned it out of a sense of survival.
“Human” was all over the radio in 1986, the year I graduated from eighth grade. I have no fond memories of junior high. I missed being placed in the honors class by a few test points, and the classmates with which I was placed didn’t appreciate my presence.
I was never physically harmed, but my social status was pretty obvious — I had none.
I didn’t have an aptitude for sports, and my school had no arts program. If I was going to turn things around in high school, I had to distinguish myself in some way.
So I learned how to play piano, and I learned popular music as a means to ingratiate myself.
I knew I wouldn’t have impressed anyone with classical repertoire — not that I had developed sufficient skills to tackle it — but with songs you heard on the radio? I could at least not look too square.
I wasn’t looking to become popular — I was realistic enough to know that would be dead end — but I wanted to make myself a less-appealing target. My band teacher seized on my ability and kept me busy. Before long, people didn’t mess with me because I had a talent.
I never repaid the Human League this change in status by buying their album. I loved “Human”, but other singles from Crash failed to make a dent in the US. So I moved onto other music.
I picked up a vinyl copy of Crash more than 30 years later at the Lifelong Thrift Shop.
At that point in the band’s career, the Human League had difficulty following up some big hits from earlier in the 1980s. At the urging of their label, the band teamed up with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, the producers who helped Janet Jackson break through with Control.
The resulting album is more Jam and Lewis than Human League, but it’s a rare instance where American funk rubbed against an English art school aesthetic. It’s actually an appealing convergence that deserves multiple spins on the playback device.
If I had listened to the album at the time of its release, I might have found it likable, but I’m not sure I would have appreciated the meeting of Sheffield and Minneapolis.
Crash is not a well-regarded album, not even by the band. “Great experience,” Phil Oakley said about working with Jam and Lewis,”but it’s not our album.”
I’m not familiar enough with the band’s earlier work to know what qualifies as a “Human League” album, so that probably allows me to have a more forgiving perception of Crash.
It’s an anomaly, for sure, but one that ought to be re-evaluated and maybe appreciated anew.