Martin Rushent: A Tribute to the League Unlimited Orchestra

When I heard that Martin Rushent died a few days ago, I was crushed. I never met him. But I spent a happy year of my life, about eight years ago, working for my good friend Simon Reynolds as the research assistant on Rip it Up and Start Again. One of the less glamorous aspects of my job was transcribing interviews. Simon had interviewed nearly 150 people for his book–a superhuman effort–and recorded all or most of the interviews onto cassette tape. Simon transcribed most of the interviews; I probably transcribed one-fifth of them. I don’t remember now. I do remember that one of the tapes I had to transcribe was his interview with Martin Rushent. (The interview appears in full in Totally Wired, the wonderful companion book to Rip it Up–I highly recommend both books.)

I was completely transfixed by Simon’s interview with Martin Rushent. This guy was inspiring. I would listen to the tape over and over–as you often have to do while transcribing–memorizing what was on it. Rushent, speaking about the making of the 1982 League Unlimited Orchestra Love and Dancing LP, taught me an incredible amount about the recording studio, and about music production. That interview was part of the reason why I decided to write a book on Eno, some years later.

If you had to ask me what one of the most relentlessly avant-garde records was in my collection, I would tell you it was the League Unlimited Orchestra Love and Dancing LP. Sure, I’ve got the classic French musique-concrète recordings, the Stockhausen albums, the mammoth ten-disc Steve Reich box set, and too much other stuff to count. Talk to hipsters about the Human League and they’ll namecheck “Being Boiled” and the artier early stuff (much of it collected in The Golden Hour of the Future reissue), before Martyn Ware left for Heaven 17. Dare–the over-the-top pop record, the one that hit #1 in America–gets less critical love. If you look back to the 1982 Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll, Dare (a “B-“, according to Robert Christgau) ranked as the 26th best album of the year–a tie with Kid Creole and the Coconuts. Dare, the album so unstoppable that “Don’t You Want Me” was the last track on the second side of the LP. We all remember the brutal anecdote about Lester Bangs dying of an overdose while Dare played on the hi-fi, the needle hitting that last groove and spinning inexorably to oblivion. Go to any record store in the US and you’ll see piles of used copies of the Dare LP for two bucks, white and pristine. The silent synth-pop killer of rock and roll, deadly as a cocktail of Valium and Darvon.

Dare is a much weirder record than most of us think. I like it, but I’ve always liked Love and Dancing–Rushent’s reworkings of several of the songs on Dare–far more. I actually heard Love and Dancing before I heard Dare. While I love all of the remixes to pieces, my favorite part is the triptych, of sorts, at the end–“Seconds,” “Open Your Heart,” and “The Sound of the Crowd.” When I first heard “Seconds” as it is on Dare, I was disappointed, thinking it wasn’t nearly as good as the remix. Why wouldn’t Oakey stand back and let the synthesizers sing?

Love and Dancing was a trailblazing effort–a remix album, back before that was even a concept, that eventually went platinum. Rushent wasn’t a DJ; he was a producer. But Rushent, in my mind, is right up there with the pioneering DJs and remixers from the disco era–Tom Moulton, Francis Grasso, Walter Gibbons, Larry Levan–and the hip-hop legends, too, from Kool Herc to Grandmaster Flash. (Rushent was inspired to make Love and Dancing after seeing an early performance of Grandmaster Flash in New York, in fact.) Look at Rushent, bearded and earnest, on the back of the Love and Dancing LP, in stark contrast to the grinning, foppish Oakey. You can totally believe that Rushent was the guy who lived in the studio, studying the arcane manual for the Roland Microcomposer late at night, instead of going out and hitting the dancefloor.

Which is why Rushent’s intuition for the dancefloor is so unbelievable. Here was a guy who knew pop music, inside and out, who knew how to arrange a song that would stick to the brainpan and never let go. He cut his teeth working on Shirley Bassey records; he was an engineer on T. Rex’s Electric Warrior. By the late ’70s, he had turned to punk–working with the Stranglers, among others, and producing some of the most sublime pop songs of all time for the Buzzcocks. By 1981, a collection of ‘demos’ he produced for Pete Shelley–the brilliant proto-synthpop record Homosapien–was released, and he got started with the Human League.

So back to the League Unlimited Orchestra LP. This was an album that clocks in at about 35 minutes long, that contains about 2,600 edits, all done with tape, a custom-made ruler, and a splicer. As Rushent relates in the interview he did with Simon, he couldn’t rewind or fast-forward the master because he was too worried about the tape disintegrating completely. But unlike many of the cut-and-paste tape collages that were en vogue with the experimental set, Love and Dancing doesn’t sound like collage. It sounds completely of a piece, as if music should have always sounded that way–as if these remixes emerged, fully formed, out of nothing. It is perfect pop music.

4 thoughts on “Martin Rushent: A Tribute to the League Unlimited Orchestra

  1. David Nash

    A truly fitting tribute to an exceptional talent , & a revolutionary piece of recording history. I’m digging my copy out right away!

    Reply
  2. Iain Stewart

    fascinating stuff, I’ve linked your piece to the DJ History forums where Martin has been feted for years. I seem to remember Martin was working on a re-edited version of Love and Dancing, do you know anything about this? Cheers.

    Reply
  3. Eddie Veale

    Martin, I remember him joining Advision from school and he soon started showing exceptional talent, but I did not see much of that until a decade later when I had the privilege of designing his studios at Wood Cottage where his talent blossomed and great works produced. A truly great engineer and sound craftsman who will be missed by many.

    Reply

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