Before they were “working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”, Sheffield synth-pop pioneers The Human League were delving into seriously arthouse territory with April 1979’s The Dignity of Labour.
A four-part EP inspired by the travails of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (that’s him on the cover, by the way), the single was the follow up to the previous year’s Being Boiled, later to become one of the group’s signature hits.
It was reportedly recorded almost exclusively on the Roland System 100 synthesiser, a favourite of fellow electronic trailblazer Daniel Miller, whose TVOD/Warm Leatherette (as The Normal) had broken new ground the previous year.
But while the equipment may have been rudimentary, the soundscape that the band (then comprised of Martyn Ware, Ian Craig Marsh and Phil Oakey) created on opening track The Dignity Of Labour (Pt. 1) is anything but… and wouldn’t be out of place on a Four Tet or Boards of Canada release today.
Shuffling between a muffled breakbeat and a driving 4/4 rhythm, the instrumental, which is said to represent “the miners underground in Russia, digging up the coal to make steel” (according to commentary from the demo cassette version), is hauntingly beautiful, in a north of England way, and a world apart from the synthesiser noodlings of the prog rock beasts of the mid 70s.
Or, as Oakey put it, The Dignity of Labour is “not simple..not even complex..it’s multiplex”.
Check out this video mix uploaded to YouTube by cullyvan, which intersperses the track with glitched up footage from the former East Germany – a ‘montage so good it belongs in the Tate Modern’, as one commenter put it.
Famously, the EP also came packaged with a flexi-disc, which consisted of the group having a discussion about whether to include a flexi-disc with the record. Bizarre, but brilliant.
Gagarin’s voyage into the ether would go on to influence other artists of course, most notably Public Service Broadcasting, but for sheer enigmatic impact, it’s hard to look past the League’s late 70’s paean to human ambition… and frailty.