Dr Martyn Ware recently joined a growing list of luminaries from the 1980s alternative music scene in acquiring an honorary doctorate. The University of Sheffield awarded the degree to Ware in recognition of his contribution to music; particularly in Sheffield, his hometown. It’s a long way from the NME’s review of his first proper album, The Human League’s Reproduction, which writer Andy Gill slated “as flat, neutral and unappetising as a glass of Coke that’s been standing for too long.”
Gill was wrong, of course. Reproduction was a landmark achievement for 1979; representing the keystone for Synth Britannia. Unlike Kraftwerk, with their instinct for clarity and perfection, The Human League organised noises into pop songs. They were more mensch than maschine. They wore beards and 70s fashions instead of Bauhaus-inspired uniforms. They embraced the absurd and emotional over scientific progress. They weren’t punk, prog or rock, but they absorbed and reprocessed influences from all of them.
Whatever the NME’s reaction, the band felt that Colin Thurston’s production had neutered the sound they were reaching for, and their answer was 1980’s Travelogue. From the fierce opening of “The Black Hit of Space,” to a retooled and repurposed version of their first single, “Being Boiled,” The Human League staked their ground as daring conductors of electricity. Oakey’s lyrics veered from the peculiar (“A Crow and a Baby”) to the prescient (“WXJL Tonight”), while a cauldron of sounds punched their ways through the speakers. Ware and Marsh squeezed sounds from their machinery that invested the songs with emotional qualities that could never have been wrought from guitars. Travelogue moved the bar for the growing crowd of alienated young men with Moogs who were posing as post-punk robots.
And then, suddenly, it was over. A split was engineered by their record company, who sent Phil Oakey and Adrian Wrightoff to one corner and Marsh and Ware to another. Oakey kept the band name and his haircut, while new doors opened for Ware. Together with Marsh, he launched the British Electric Foundation (B.E.F.) as a production company. Although it would be overtaken by Heaven 17, as an outlet for new material, B.E.F. gave Ware a chance to work with artists like Sandie Shaw and Tina Turner. His involvement with the latter revived her career and helped propel Ware into the music production big leagues.
Heaven 17, which brought Marsh and Ware together with another Sheffield native, Glenn Gregory, had its own success. Alongside the Pet Shop Boys and Depeche Mode, Heaven 17 married electronics with danceable rhythms in a way that was more post-disco than post-punk. With songs like “Play to Win” and “Temptation,” they won over the yuppies they were side-eyeing, but they also snuck in sharp political commentary. Ware, a steel-city socialist, took particular pleasure in subverting Reagan-era nightlife with “(We Don’t Need This) Fascist Groove Thang.”
As the 80s ended, so did the First Cold War and the heady days of vinyl-based pop. As acid house and then Britpop took over the mainstream, Ware found himself involved in avant-garde technologies, such as immersive sound environments. With Vince Clarke, he started the Illustrious Company and made electronic and ambient sound for commercial purposes and public spaces. Ware continues to work in this field, while keeping up Heaven 17 and doing production work. He teaches music production at a postgraduate level, which will help put his new title to use.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ware started a podcast to help keep himself working and to chat with people he found interesting. Named after a phrase that appeared on the first Human League single, the series is also the title of the good doctor’s forthcoming autobiography: Electronically Yours.
10. The Future – Dance Like a Star
When Ware and Ian Craig Marsh started making music together, they acquired a Korg 700s synthesizer. It was soon joined by a Roland System-100 semi-modular set-up, and they took on Adi Newton to make material as The Future. Newton left to form Clock DVA — a later press release had him “deleted due to a malfunction” — and Marsh and Ware looked around for another member. They settled on a hospital porter called Phil Oakey, whom Ware knew from school and whose haircut he admired. Oakey’s sax didn’t fit with the programme, so he took on vocal duties, but that is another part of the story.
9. The Men – I Don’t Depend on You
Virgin Records signed The Human League with a significant advance, but they lacked confidence that their new act’s experimental electronic leanings would have mass appeal. The Human League were a little too weird for most A&R men to get their heads around. Never mind that David Bowie had declared them the future of music, the makers of “Being Boiled” were looking like a risk.
To address their concerns, Virgin piled pressure on the band to produce a commercial hit with more traditional instrumentation. Ware resisted, but eventually agreed to a compromise: they would make a record under a different name, so that The Human League brand could remain unsullied by drums and guitars. The song didn’t give Virgin the hit they were looking for, but it did turn up in a cover by the Ware-produced Hot Gossip two years later. It also provided a glimpse into exactly what Oakey’s Human League would become.
8. The Human League – The Black Hit of Space
As the opening track on Travelogue, “The Black Hit of Space” broke all boundaries. The story of a song that swallowed up the charts as it rose in popularity, it used distorted synth sounds aggressively; creating a storm of filtered and flanged noise. Oakey’s surreal lyrics set off swoops and bleeps characteristic of science fiction, while the instrumentation worked the kind of charge otherwise found in throbbing guitar chords.
7. BEF – Groove Thang
A primitive version of what would become the first Heaven 17 song,”Groove Thang” is a sketch that shows Ware and Marsh in transition from the pure electronics of the Future and Human League to a more open pop format after the split engineered by Virgin and manager Bob Last.
6. Heaven 17 – Let Me Go
The debate about which release was the first to use the Roland TB-303 Bassline continues, but this was certainly an early example of the silver box in action. Paired with the TR-606 Drumatix, it was designed to give guitar players a rhythm section to play along to. In practice, the ability of the 303 to generate overdriven squarks made it the ideal tool for acid house. Ware played it straight here, finding a sweet spot that leveraged the machinery’s capacity for warmth in one of the most elegant tracks of the 80s.
5. Tina Turner – Let’s Stay Together
Tina Turner’s career was in the doldrums when she was asked to take part in the B.E.F. project, Music of Quality and Distinction. On the strength of her version of “Ball of Confusion,” Turner was signed to a new deal by her label and Ware was asked to produce another cover.
Turner was ready for a screaming comeback, and her Private Dancer album ended up selling tens of millions of units. Ware and his production partner, Greg Walsh, also recorded a version of David Bowie’s “1984” with Turner for the album, leaving a deep imprint on one of the iconic albums of that era.
4. Erasure – Always
This hit from Erasure’s sixth album is one of the duo’s best loved songs. Ware stepped into the studio with Vince Clarke and Andy Bell at the invitation of Daniel Miller. I Say I Say I Say went to number one in the UK charts, while also giving Erasure their best US result to date. “Always” was held at number four in the singles charts, but it is an enduring synthpop ballad with enough quirkiness to avoid blending into the background of 90s nostalgia.
3. The Clarke & Ware Experiment – White (You Are in Heaven)
Ware’s relationship with Clarke grew on the back of his Erasure work. The two pop pioneers started creating material that explored the use of space from a space in Brixton.
This is one piece of a commissioned work that linked music to colour. Mute released it as part of the album, Spectrum Pursuit Vehicle — the title a reference to Space 1999 and a link to the Human League’s early imagery.
2. Martyn Ware – Tales from the Bridge
Ware’s experimental work is extensive, ranging from installations to investigations on the use of sound for people with autism spectrum condition. In this clip, he explains one of his pieces. The range of his creative work is impossibly broad, but this conceptual piece gives a good flavour.
1. The Human League – Being Boiled
If he’d had his way, Ware would have put loads of realistic brass onto this track. Thankfully, for music history, he was limited in the sounds he could work with for the debut Human League single. The result was a minimal, elegant and captivating track in the same DIY spirit as The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette/TVOD” and Throbbing Gristle’s “United.” Oakey’s completely mad lyrics make no greater sense today than they did when he presented them to the band, but they are entirely unqiue. Kanye West ripped off the single’s distinctive orange and black cover style for The Life of Pablo, and many have tried to accomplish the same degree of menace since without nearly the same level of success. An enduring classic.