LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta

It’s a slightly incongruous prospect, The Human League playing live at a racecourse – any racecourse, let alone one in “leafy” Surrey. At first glance, their presence might seem almost like a “bolt-on” to what would, for most, be the main event – that of the day’s racing.

The potential culture clash of “People’s Republic of South Yorkshire” vs that of the London commuter belt’s race-going public also boggles my mind. It makes me wonder if the attendance for tonight’s event might be slightly patchy or unenthusiastic. My fears, however, were quickly allayed upon our arrival by the sight of the crowd barrier in front of the stage already being fully lined at least 45 minutes before the band’s slated 8:20 pm stage time. Two races are still left on “the card”!

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta

I needn’t have worried about the enthusiasm, either. As the band punctually take to the stage one by one – backing band first – the opening strains of ‘Sound Of The Crowd’ are – appropriately enough – rapturously received by the throng around us. It seems that time has made anthems out of even the songs that seemed destined to achieve only underground hit status, to us Electropop kids, back in the day. The moral panic that Phil Oakey’s first appearance on Top Of The Pops – with *that* fringe – elicited in living rooms across the country as this song entered the charts is now apparently long forgotten by the denizens of Middle England.

Perhaps the element of nostalgia might have something to do with it, too. This is, after all, effectively a slightly modified follow-up date to December’s 40th-anniversary tour for ‘Dare’ – the album that made the freshly realigned League’s name and rapidly achieved cult status across the spectrum of the electronic music-making world.

That nostalgia element can’t have been lost on the band as they formulated these shows, either. Their appearance as they emerge and the projected graphics that accompany them almost serve as a checklist of 80s monochrome culture: the instrumentalists in uniform sharp black suits and skinny ties wielding white ‘keytars’ slung around their shoulders; Susanne and Joanne in elegant black outfits; and Phil – when he finally emerges – clad in a huge black coat – more a gown concealing almost his entire form. With his shaven head, small oval mirror shades and the large white stripe circling the back of the coat, he almost resembles The Matrix’s Morpheus about to receive his degree at university graduation! This, however, is removed for the following ‘Mirror Man’, revealing a stylised open-neck white shirt and the most enormous pair of grey ‘Oxford Bags’ trousers you have ever seen!

Perhaps playing to their audience’s 80s cultural roots, there is also a curiously aspirational element that runs through the show as a thread too – the “party” outfits of Susanne and Joanne reflecting the glad rags of the ladies in the crowd, presumably especially worn by the spectators for this somewhat unusual day at the races. It also can’t be denied that from the start, there was always a “local lads/lasses come good” element to the League’s story. After their well-documented but manipulated split from Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh (who would, of course, go on to form Heaven 17 immediately), The League MK. 2’s rise was nothing short of meteoric, one of pop’s most famous not-quite-rags to riches stories – and “the girls” (as they are sometimes rather patronisingly called) were emblematic of this. Such achievement must sit well with the racing fans in the crowd, there primarily to chance their arm and wages on a flutter on the horses, hoping for a small profit on the day but forever dreaming of bigger things.

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta

The projections, too, reinforce these aspects: ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ is accompanied by not just video footage of the game “Connect 4” in action but also by images of dice endlessly rolling and piling up; ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’ is backed by the almost inevitable travel footage; whilst ‘Open Your Heart’ sees Ms Pacman turning the tables on her 8-bit pursuers on a huge scale behind the band.

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta

The sound for the evening is, to me, surprisingly good. I couldn’t see the bass bins from where I was, but I could certainly feel them! And the mix was well-balanced throughout – really sharp, with no distortion. As a post-cancer treatment tinnitus sufferer, I didn’t feel I had to deploy my earplugs at any point. Perhaps inevitably, Oakey is something of a synth enthusiast, sometimes cropping up at Sheffield’s own Synthfest to look at the latest wares on offer. His interests in that field are balanced between the analogue and digital realms, so perhaps this rounded approach and general interest in sound and its design inform his standards for live sound, too. I have to take my hat off to the guys on the sound desk, too. Chapeau!

Another strong area – perhaps surprisingly for some – is Oakey’s voice. Like fellow Synthpop vocalist Marc Almond, he came in for some criticism early in his career, but – just like Almond – he’s learnt to master his voice over the years so that his live renditions are perfectly reflective of the recorded versions – quite possibly better, in the case of some of the early songs.

The band know that the atmosphere is unashamedly celebratory, and so is their performance. The seemingly ageless Oakey – he’s 66, remarkably – repeatedly gallops from one side of the stage to the other all night, showing that he is still very far from the knacker’s yard, bus pass or not. One of our party is particularly taken with him, later noting his supernatural youthfulness and vowing to see them again as soon as the opportunity arises. He’s charming too – as are the whole band – and, as they near the end of this gruelling tour, the slightly anachronistic setting and party atmosphere seem to reflect in their relaxed demeanours. By now, in a suit – his third outfit of the evening – Oakey occasionally takes a brief seat on the edge of the stage’s raised section, smiling at the crowd and the session musicians. He could do with a break sometimes, after all! And his co-singers swing and sway and smile all night, breaking only for their several costume changes and a heartfelt thanking of the audience.

Talking of which, I always like to look around at the crowd during a gig and – contrary to my pre-show expectations – when I look behind me halfway through the set, what I witness is quite stunning. Though maybe not as densely packed as an indoor show, the crowd stretches away into the distance. I wouldn’t like to try to put an exact figure on it, but they had to number many thousands. I’m blown away!

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta

It’s a tricky balancing act when a band has so many anthemic hits to not descend into wedding-disco style self-parody. But The Human League manage to pull it off just through a disarming sheer joyousness. Their performance is utterly without guile in the best possible way. And although this is, as mentioned, a date in the wake of the 40th anniversary of ‘Dare’, they don’t slavishly stick to solely that album.

Heaven 17’s performance of the first two Human League albums, ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’ at the Roundhouse, last year was deliberately “by rote”. Every track of both was played and in order, too. But League MK. 2’s catalogue of hits is too rich to be so dogmatic. Even ‘One Man In My Heart’ gets an airing tonight. One major surprise, though, is the performance of Yellow Magic Orchestra’s 1979 classic ‘Behind The Mask’. Their rendition of it is wonderful – good enough to (mercifully) dispel our memories of Messrs Clapton and Jackson’s defacings of this Electro-Disco classic. Perhaps The League felt they needed to rescue this gem on behalf of their late-70s electronic peers?

But they know why we’re here, and they know why they’re here, too. The hits. And following this slight cover (di)version, they flow solidly as the show reaches its climax. ‘Love Action’, ‘Tell Me When’, and ‘Fascination’ are all present and correct. The set ends, of course, with ‘Don’t You Want Me’, though. At this point, the volume of the crowd singing along is so loud it almost drowns out the quite beefy sound system. Remarkable for an outdoor event. The encore is pure gold, too. ‘Being Boiled’ – the League MK. one classic that, in live performance, they share with their Heaven 17 brethren – is massive. It’s almost concussively bass-heavy. Oakey comments after that its frequencies seem so low to him now that he can’t tell if it’s in tune or not. He puts it down to age – a solitary concession to the passing of time from him.

So it’s left to the one remaining hit to close the show, which is the Oakey-Moroder collaboration of ‘Together In Electric Dreams’. Groups of people are hugging. There are hands in the air throughout the huge crowd. It’s anthemic in more than one way, providing a music-obsessed generation with a theme that still resonates with them. It’s a song of yearning, but hopeful yearning at least.

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta

Almost as a postscript, one nice and classy touch from the band is that the show was bookended not by a tape of some cliched 80s hits but instead a couple of low-key ambient tracks by fellow Sheffield alumnus, the late and – for me, at least – very much lamented Richard H. Kirk, once of Cabaret Voltaire.

As we drift away from the stage and disperse into the night, pockets of tipsy race-goers still chant the chorus to ‘Don’t You Want Me’ at the tops of their voices. But, as we chat with the other fans as we wander towards the exits, it’s that last song that encapsulates the evening and what it means for us all: “However far it seems, we’ll always be together – together in electric dreams”. The League were triumphant. All bets are off!

LIVE REVIEW: The Human League at Lingfield Park Racecourse
Credit: Marija Buljeta


‘Sound Of The Crowd’
‘Mirror Man’
‘Heart Like A Wheel’
‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’
‘Open Your Heart’
‘The Lebanon’
‘One Man In My Heart’
‘Behind The Mask’ (Yellow Magic Orchestra cover)
‘Love Action’
‘Tell Me When’
‘Don’t You Want Me’

‘Being Boiled’
‘Together In Electric Dreams’

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