Quirk Your Enthusiasm (23)

By: Drew Daniel
August 23, 2016

human league

One of 25 installments in a series of posts analyzing and celebrating a few of our favorite New Wave songs from c. 1977–1982. Josh Glenn’s series introduction is here, and you can listen to the QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM playlist here. Enjoy!

“MARIANNE” | THE HUMAN LEAGUE | 1980

“Marianne” is a song in which the emotional stakes between the singer and the subject keep changing, as the the song’s inverted ziggurat arrangement expands in scale and scope. When it starts, the Human League are still dour chancers with asymmetrical haircuts, some chirpy synths and a streak of nihilism; when it’s over they’re a pop band who have earned the humanity of their name.

It starts with a high two note stroboscopic pattern (xylophone or Korg?) that could be a tissue sample from a Steve Reich piece, suggesting that “minimal synth” and minimalism are more than kin and less than kind. Then we hear “I take one look at you / It leaves me breathless” and step up a level: the repetitive pattern indexes fixation spiced with ambivalence. The naming of the titular Marianne cues what EDM kids would call “the drop”, a sudden entrance of both low end heft and a burly snare/clap crash tumbling into the kind of reverberant garbage can that modern software plug-ins strive in vain to emulate. As a groove, it’s funky-yet-stiff in the tensile way that the best new wave pop songs are, but what pushes it over is the well-nigh-Proustian swirl of neediness and humor in the narrator’s attitude to the breathtaking object of desire at the song’s center. The emotions are mixed: “One day I might not care what happens to me / Your lack of sympathy fails to disturb me / I’ve got a line of my own.” This future conditional backflips into nostalgia: “I remember the day we thought we couldn’t lose / Running round the garden in your mother’s shoes”. Retrospection gets a chord change and, improbably yet wonderfully, a clack of castanets, perhaps suggesting the report of those shoes on the flagstones of the garden path. Were they both wearing her shoes? I’d like to think so. [Years later, lesser new wave bands will borrow those castanets: see The Thompson Twins use of same in “Hold Me Now”, their bid for crossover into the drivetime Adult Contemporary format that the Human League won’t slink into until “I’m Only Human,” whose cashgrab title suggests pop stars aging out of relevance. But this is 1980, and the Human League are still building up and out.]

By two minutes you feel as if the ziggurat could not climb any higher and sure enough, we’re being told that she’s a “grown up girl in a grown up world.” But it’s then that the over-dubbed multiple vocal lines begin to stack upon each other with declarations of indifference that don’t quite convince: “Add it up. All that’s left is the space in the life that goes on as before” sounds like resignation and fatalism, yet still the stakes mount higher when that line is finally repeated in a way that notes the difference that she made, and still makes, despite despair. He ends by naming her into the void: “all that’s left is the space at the end of the world: Marianne.”

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QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Mark Kingwell on Soft Cell’s TAINTED LOVE | Joanne McNeil on Gary Numan’s METAL | Devin McKinney on Suicide’s FRANKIE TEARDROP | Douglas Wolk on Family Fodder’s SAVOIR FAIRE | Elina Shatkin on Marianne Faithfull’s BROKEN ENGLISH | Steph Burt on Altered Images’ HAPPY BIRTHDAY | Greg Rowland on Jilted John’s JILTED JOHN | Gordon Dahlquist on XTC’s RESPECTABLE STREET | Adrienne Crew on D-Day’s TOO YOUNG TO DATE | Jonathan Lethem on The Blue Nile’s I LOVE THIS LIFE | Josh Glenn on Tim Curry’s I DO THE ROCK | Molly Wright Steenson on Missing Persons’ WORDS | Anthony Miller on The Nails’ 88 LINES ABOUT 44 WOMEN | Luc Sante on The Normal’s WARM LEATHERETTE | Mimi Lipson on Dolly Mixture’s HOW COME YOU’RE SUCH A HIT WITH THE BOYS, JANE? | Tim Carmody on Talking Heads’ LIFE DURING WARTIME | Ingrid Schorr on Ian Dury’s CLEVOR TREVER | Adam McGovern on Lene Lovich’s LUCKY NUMBER | Deb Chachra on Rough Trade’s HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL | Tor Aarestad on Oingo Boingo’s LITTLE GIRLS | David Smay on The B-52’s’ DANCE THIS MESS AROUND | Jessamyn West on Blondie’s HANGING ON THE TELEPHONE | Drew Daniel on The Human League’s MARIANNE | Erik Davis on Tuxedomoon’s TIME TO LOSE | Dan Fox on Thomas Dolby’s EUROPA & THE PIRATE TWINS.

NEW WAVE HILO HEROES: Debbie Harry | Marianne Faithfull | Grace Jones | Ian Dury | Mark Mothersbaugh | Plastic Bertrand | Tim Curry | Kate Pierson | Green Gartside | David Byrne.

MORE ENTHUSIASM SERIES at HILOBROW

#SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads | GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other new wave songs. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other fantasy novels from 1934–43. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other old-school hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.

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What do you think?

  1. Experiencing the Human League as they happened, America edition, with imports intermittent and MTV squeezing the pipeline, I only *heard* the band at the point where less and less I’d heard *about* them was still true — a quick YouTube rabbit-hole is a revelation in the slow, steady drip of their individuality as their recognition rose — you see so many lines dying out; an influence on everyone but themselves. But, rewinding all of that, you picked a perfect spiral of upside-down ledges to jump from.

  2. P.S. Has anyone wondered aloud if Garry Webb really changed his name from “Valerian” to “Numan” ‘cuz it looked more like “Human (League)”?

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