Mixing desk wizard David M Allen discusses his role in the making of what may well be one of the greatest synthpop albums of all time… and The Human League’s ‘Dare’
You may recognise David M Allen’s name. He’s best known as a producer and studio engineer. Look at the credits on The Human League’s ‘Dare’, a run of albums by The Cure, key releases by The Chameleons, Wire and many others, and there you will find him, helming the mixing desk and helping to birth some of the era’s most beloved records. Now, more than 40 years after it was recorded, he has an album of his own – ‘The DNA Of DMA’. It’s an archival find that would be at home in the Minimal Wave catalogue and is of particular interest because of its backstory and connection to the making of ‘Dare’.
The expurgated version of the story behind ‘The DNA Of DMA’ is fairly straightforward. Allen was working with Martin Rushent in the late 1970s and early 80s. With fresh hits by The Stranglers and Buzzcocks under his belt, the esteemed producer went to America towards the end of 1980 for a few weeks, leaving Allen to take delivery of a Roland System 700, with a Roland MC-8 MicroComposer. The instruction from Rushent was simple enough – “Learn how to use all this new gear…”.
So Allen spent a couple of weeks “in a fugue state”, living at Rushent’s Genetic Studios (which were then in mid-construction), attempting to master the considerable intricacies of the Japanese computer and its oscillator-stacked pal. The result was nine tracks of lively proto-synthpop and experimental electronica. When Rushent heard them, he said, “It’s a good job you’re in – we’ve got The Human League coming next week!”. And lo, the technological blueprint for the most important British synthpop album of all time was created. Amen.
The longer version is, as you’d expect, more convoluted, which is why we find ourselves scoffing a bacon sarnie in a cafe around the corner from Allen’s north London studio. With his flowing white hair and beard, he doesn’t look much like an architect of synthpop, but then who does?
“Well, once you reach a certain age, it’s either Gandalf or Phil Mitchell, isn’t it?” he quips.
When I tell him my understanding of the process behind the creation of ‘The DNA Of DMA’, his response is something of an understatement.
“Well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that…”
In late 1978, Allen was the bass player in a band called Pinpoint. He shared writing and singing duties with guitarist Arturo Bassick (aka Arthur Billingsley), who had departed from his previous outfit, The Lurkers. Pinpoint had considerably more to recommend them to the public than The Lurkers’ lo-fi pub rock/punk stylings and were being nurtured – if that’s the right word – by management company Albion. They occupied a space somewhere between the post-punk, art school cleverness of Wire and the head-rush pop of Buzzcocks. Albion, who also managed The Stranglers, put Pinpoint’s records out on their own label.
The band’s first single was released in 1979, a highly collectable seven-inch called ‘Richmond’ produced by Vic Maile (who subsequently did Motörhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’). They then went into the studio with Vic Coppersmith-Heaven (The Jam, The Vapors) to no avail, before finally having a stab at the album with Martin Rushent. But in the rapidly changing pop landscape of the late 1970s, time was running out for Pinpoint.
“Instead of bashing out all the stuff we had and making a first album, then moving on to a second, time moved on,” says Allen. “All the songs we’d written were a year off-base, then it became 18 months off-base.”
Both Rushent and Albion thought that electronic music was the future, and nudged Pinpoint accordingly.
“That pretty much cut Arthur out of the picture,” says Allen.
It also drove a wedge between them, with Allen’s songs accounting for 80 per cent of Pinpoint’s material. The band split up, which Bassick maintains was the intention all along, leaving Allen a solo performer of no fixed abode. With Rushent taking him under his wing, Allen was expected to knock out an electronic new wave long-player at Genetic.
“Martin wanted to sign me as a solo artist because he wanted to do his own label, Genetic Records,” he explains. “He went away to do an album in America, I’d left Pinpoint and was in the process of disengaging myself from Albion – which took two years – and he offered me 10 days’ studio time. He said, ‘Come up and do some demos. My techie bloke will be able to get you going’.”
The day he arrived, however, the unnamed techie bloke left, leaving Allen to cope on his own with the complications of a studio that was still being built.
“So there I was, just trying to learn how to put a two-inch tape on, let alone record the codes. I was the first person to use any of this stuff. There was loads of it that I had no fucking idea how to work.”
Allen was unboxing the future and his own destiny in the shape of Roland’s System 700 and the MC-8. And he was desperate.
“I was sitting there thinking it was the end of my career. I had 10 days, and the guy who was supposed to be helping me had gone.”
The MC-8 was a complicated piece of kit, acknowledged as the most sophisticated stand-alone sequencer on the market at the time. It certainly wasn’t intended to be used by oiks from post-punk bands.
“It was designed to do classical, not pop music,” says Allen. “The example given in the manual was the ‘Brandenburg Concertos’ transcribed into MC-8 notation. This was one of the first attempts to do pop music on that structure, with that sort of equipment.”
Nonetheless, he was able to wrangle the gear and record a clutch of songs.
“This is late 1980 and January 1981,” he remembers. “I had a whole album ready to go. When Martin heard these demos, he didn’t say very much, but I think he must have thought, ‘Fuck me, how’s he managed to do this?’.”
Perhaps it wasn’t the end of his career after all.
The tracks he recorded now sound like a bridge between the decades. There’s plenty of art-school weirdness on ‘The DNA Of DMA’, most notably on opener ‘You And I’, while the wild ‘The Passion Of Father Bernard’ ventures into early Radiophonic Workshop territory. ‘The Dice Are Loaded’ could be a Human League demo. But it’s clearly heading into the bright pop world with ‘The Sound Of Muzak’ and ‘Just A Combination’, while the fast synthpop instrumental of ‘Is It Nowhere’ sounds like a Devo outtake, complete with staccato, sugar-rush melodies, tightly synced arpeggios and explosions.
Given the circumstances, Allen’s mastery of the gear, not to mention his attention to rhythmic detail and melody, is very impressive. It’s no real surprise that he came to play a pivotal role on ‘Dare’.
“I mean, it’s got loads of problems,” he notes. “All these mistakes you make when you start – it’s over-compressed and the mix isn’t great. It’s quite funny listening to it now because the producer/engineer in me goes, ‘For fuck’s sake, what’s going on here?’. But it’s such a long time ago that I can forgive myself.”
Yet almost as soon as Allen had completed his intense solo recording sessions, his cruise towards a new pop identity with the hottest producer in town at the controls was scuppered as news filtered in from the post-punk frontline that Buzzcocks had split. Rushent immediately poached Pete Shelley.
“And that blew me out of the water,” says Allen.
Within days of the last Buzzcocks show in Germany in January 1981, Shelley was hunkered down in Genetic Studios with Rushent, recording the album that would become ‘Homosapien’. Unsurprisingly, the project took precedence over the work by the ex-bass player of Pinpoint.
“I thought ‘Homosapien’ was genius,” says Allen. “It’s a fucking brilliant record. Acoustics and electronics – what a great combination, with Pete on the 12-string. I was the other artist on Martin’s nascent label.”
This was Rushent’s second attempt at starting a label. This time around, the prospect of getting major-label backing looked more hopeful.
“He had Pete Shelley,” explains Allen. “So it was easier for him to talk to Chris Blackwell at Island with an established artist, a proven songwriter, and posit him in this new electronic world.”
Rushent’s first attempt to engineer Genetic into life had been crushed by big label machinations.
“Martin had an office above the Blitz in London,” recalls Allen. “That’s how he got into all the new romantic stuff. He’d done demos with Spandau Ballet and Joy Division, and he was thick with a guy called Andrew Lauder [former A&R at Liberty/United Artists, who had signed Buzzcocks and The Stranglers], who formed a record company called Radar.
“He went in for a meeting and played them his Joy Division demos and Spandau Ballet’s ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’. And they said, ‘They’re fucking rubbish. We’re dropping you’. So you can imagine how bitter Martin was. I think that’s one of the reasons he so gleefully took all the props for The Human League. It was payback for being told to fuck off three years before.”
In 1981, The Human League were an unusual band at a critical point in their history. The wound from the split with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh was still fresh, although they continued to frostily share a studio in Sheffield with their erstwhile bandmates.
Ware and Marsh’s Heaven 17 were perceived as the safe bet to deliver on the promise of the League’s hit-making potential, while Phil Oakey was lumbered with the band’s debt and a contracted tour at the end of 1980 with his wholly unprepared new recruits, sixth-formers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.
The tour kicked off in Doncaster in November 1980, just days after the new line-up had been thrown together. On a bootleg of the concert, Oakey can be heard introducing the band with nervous laughter.
“This is the first concert of a wonderful new tour by a Human League that was born five days ago…”
Despite shambolic appearances, the League were destined for greater things, fulfilling Oakey’s vision of becoming a futurist “electronic Abba” for the 1980s. The aesthetics having been addressed, now he just needed the music to hit the spot, and the team to make the album would be Martin Rushent and David M Allen. The Human League had been demoing the tracks in Sheffield, so by the time they arrived at Genetic, they were ready to go.
“They had songs and demos,” says Allen. “Jo [Callis] had left the Rezillos, so he had songs ready, or chords for songs. When we did ‘Don’t You Want Me’, everyone else had gone back to Sheffield, but Jo didn’t have anywhere to live, so he stayed and we did all of the backing track with Martin. I don’t think there was anything on it that wasn’t in the original backing track.
“When Phil and Adrian Wright came back, Phil’s going [Yorkshire accent] ‘Oh, I don’t know about that…’. They didn’t like it. Mind you, Martin’s chorus was, ‘I’m a cunt / You’re a cunt / We’re all cunts, woohoo!’. Phil spent two days trying to come up with some proper words, and when he came in and went [Yorkshire accent again], ‘Don’t you want me, baby / Don’t you want me, oh-oh!’, me and Martin were like, ‘Really?’.
“Jo had a guitar background and could hardly play keys. Adrian didn’t play keys, although he was great at slides. Ian Burden was an excellent bass player but all his basslines were transposed onto the System 700. Phil was very good, with his one-fingered keys. It’s him doing the cats at the front of ‘Love Action’ and the bottles on a Korg. He’s very underrated for that. He was able to cover the songs with that tenor voice. The chorus vocal on ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was done with the tape running a semitone flat to get that high note.”
When the The Human League toured the album at the end of 1981, Smash Hits’ Dave Rimmer neatly summed up their new status in his review of their Bradford show: “After such a short time as a chart-topping band, their live set seems full of hit singles.”
David M Allen became a sought-after and high-profile producer himself in the wake of ‘Dare’, going on to work with Depeche Mode, The Sisters Of Mercy and Neneh Cherry, among many others. As we flick through his miraculously intact invoice book from 1981 – including entries for those pioneering Human League sessions – I ask how he feels now about the work he did back in 1981.
“It’s difficult to place yourself in history when history is happening,” he muses. “I did bust my arse. We did think it was the future, but we were a little bit early. I was absolutely besotted with the studio. Now I’m older, the days are precious and I like to be out and see a bit of the sun. I still do stuff and I still like singing. It’s good for your head, otherwise there wouldn’t be all these fucking choirs everywhere. And possibly people might be more interested in this than a new Human League album.”
‘The DNA Of DMA’ is out on Themsay