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Members include Ian Burden (bandmember 1980-88), bass and synthesizers; Jo Callis (bandmember 1980-85), guitar and synthesizers; Joanne Catherall (born c. 1963; joined group c. 1980), vocals; Ian Craig Marsh (bandmember 1977-80), synthesizers; Philip Oakey (born c. 1956), vocals; Suzanne Sulley (born c. 1963; joined group c. 1980), vocals; Martyn Ware (bandmember 1977-80), synthesizers; Adrian Wright (bandmember 1977-85), synthesizers. Addresses: Record company--Elektra/East West Records America, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
The Human League was the first '80s synthesizer band to reach Number One on the music charts. "The group proved that synthesizers could have soul, hooks, and melody and could groove just like `real' music," wrote a Stereo Review contributor. A slew of groups were influenced by the band's electronic technique; these bands took the music world by storm in the 1980s and in many cases overshadowed the Human League. Although they never regained the status they once had, the League continued to put out records in the 1990s, always trying to inject new life and different sounds into the electronic music scene.
For Philip Oakey, leader of the Human League and the last remaining founding member, starting a band was the perfect escape from a life going nowhere. In 1977 he joined with Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh to form the earliest incarnation of the Human League; they took the name from an obscure science-fiction game. Ware and Marsh, school chums of Oakey, were computer operators interested in electronic music. They soon hooked up with Adrian Wright--a former art student and Star Trek fan--whose main job was to show slides during the group's performances, giving the band its sci-fi overtones. None of the bandmembers, however, could play instruments. "We were absolute rubbish," Oakey said in Rolling Stone.
During that time on the British music scene, the all-synthesizer-type band was beginning to gain popularity. The League was able to make a name for themselves by playing local gigs and releasing a few independent records. They were signed in 1978 by Virgin Records and released two LPs--Reproduction and Travelogue--in 1979 and 1980, respectively. The records didn't sell, and Virgin encouraged the group to go in a poppier, more commercial direction. Oakey and Wright agreed, but Marsh and Ware did not. They left to form the British Electric Foundation and later its spinoff, Heaven 17. Oakey and Wright retained rights to the group's name, although Marsh and Ware did receive a portion of the royalties from the League's 1981 album Dare.
Oakey promptly began adding to the lineup. In a much publicized move, he plucked two seventeen-year-old school girls--neither of whom had any previous musical experience--off of a disco dance floor. They were Suzanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall. Bass and synthesizer player Ian Burden and guitarist Jo Callis were then added to the mix. Virgin teamed the band with producer Martin Rushnet, and the Human League emerged radically remodeled in the spring of 1981 with the single "Sound of the Crowd." The song was an immediate success and rose to Number 12 on the British charts. The band then set about recording Dare.
"It took just a few weeks to make Dare," Rushnet recalled in Rolling Stone. "It was fairly simple, and everyone had a good time, because there was really nothing to lose--no one was expecting anything of the record." What they ended up with was a worldwide smash hit. The first two singles made the Top Ten in the UK, but it was the release of "Don't You Want Me" that threw the Human League into the limelight. It reached Number One in the UK and the US and made Dare a Number One record as well. Nearly ten years later Rolling Stone voted Dare one of the Top 100 albums of the decade. "Don't You Want Me" paved the way for the electronic movement of the 1980s, influencing the likes of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Eurythmics, and Boy George.
Many music critics agree with Oakey's assessment of Dare as a groundbreaking album. "We started so many things that have gone on forever since and no one seems to have noticed," Oakey complained to Sylvie Simmons in Creem. "We were like the turning point of pop music. Before us was old-fashioned and since us is now." Although the Human League had been strongly influenced by synth innovators like Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, no one had made the sound accessible enough to reach Number One. The fact that the band had two women joining in the lead vocals was thought terribly unusual as well, although it was quickly copied. There was also the fact that neither Oakey, Sulley, nor Catherall were particularly adept singers. The naivete of the female vocals combined with Oakey's slightly monotone lead delighted listeners. And their look was glamorous, odd, and memorable, with Oakey's makeup and asymmetrical hair taking center stage.
Creem suggested several reasons why "Don't You Want Me" rocked the music world. "1) it was unbelievably catchy; 2) it had 'historical value,' proving that synth-drenched 'new music' could mean big bucks; 3) it scored populist points by way of the Jane Q. Public female singer; and 4) it was uncommonly heavy on lyrical plot, giving each lover's point of view, and creating on the whole one of the fullest modern pop story lines [ever]." Unfortunately for the still very undeveloped band, big success meant they had to tour. "We were rotten," Oakey told Rolling Stone's James Henke. "We went out as a group that had never played together before. Even when we did the record, we didn't play together--everybody recorded his part separately. And we had Jo, who is a great guitarist, playing keyboards--and he'd never played keyboards in his life before." Although audiences and critics were put off by the out of tune live performances, it didn't stop them from buying the record and keeping it on the charts for months.
In 1983 the Human League released the EP Fascination! Top Ten hits "Fascination" and "Mirror Man" made it big on the dance floors and "featured some undeniably irresistible hooks," according to Creem, but they weren't enough to satisfy the public hungry for the long-awaited follow-up to Dare. The wait drove the band and its producers crazy, too. Two and a half years after Dare's release, the Human League finally completed Hysteria. It took three producers to get the job done: Martin Rushnet lost patience with the group, and Chris Thomas finally had to leave due to prior commitments, so it was producer Hugh Padgham who finally nursed the album through to completion. Apparently, it was the suggestion by the record company that the band would soon be broke that truly spurred them to finish Hysteria.
With its release came the problem that would forever haunt the Human League: nothing could compare to Dare. Hysteria sold well, and die-hard fans like Melody Maker's Colin Irwin felt it "drips with hit singles," but most reviews mirrored Richard Grabel's in Creem: "Hysteria is no Dare. It completely missed that stylistic surety, the confidence and sense of vision and purpose that made Dare so distinctive." The band did win praise for Jo Callis's guitar work and for the surprisingly meaningful lyrics on "The Lebanon," but a lack of direction and ongoing producer problems took their toll. Grabel called Hysteria "a very flawed record that still reveals, here and there, an underlying talent for making the kind of songs that catch you the first time and stick with you. A little rethinking, a little concentration, and they could regain their former stature the next time around."
They did not regain that stature. While Dare sold six million copies worldwide, Hysteria and the group's following album, Crash, sold only two million between them. The 1986 Number One single "Human" and a Greatest Hits album kept the Human League in the public eye, but continued attempts to recover their early fame failed. The League's 1990 release Romantic? flopped. Repackaging, pairing down to just Oakey, Catherall, and Sulley, and signing with a new label--Elektra's East West--produced 1995's Octopus. The single "Tell Me When" reached No. 1 on the British pop singles chart; still, it was all but dismissed by the American press. Entertainment Weekly opined that "Octopus sounds as if it were recorded a decade ago and buried in a time capsule." The competition was too fierce; the band was outflanked by groups inspired by them but doing their music one better.
The Human League is credited with changing the face of British pop. They had the biggest record sales of any act for five years, influencing a remarkable number of bands with their sound and their look. The members never became big-headed superstars--in fact, they never moved from their hometown of Sheffield, England. The group's goal was to make good pop music that would get people dancing and sell records. However, their continual attempts to redefine themselves and their sound made their fan base a constantly changing entity, with many listeners being disappointed over not hearing the sorts of songs they had enjoyed previously. And always there was the pressure of their first brilliant album hanging over them. But the Human League has high hopes, good intentions, and a stubborn streak. As Oakey told Melody Maker, "We have to make records. We can't do anything else."
by Joanna Rubiner
Human League, The's Career
Band formed in Sheffield, England, 1977; signed by Virgin Records, 1978; released first major label album, Reproduction, 1979; radical bandmember change, 1980; first success with single "Sound of the Crowd," 1981; major success with Number One song "Don't You Want Me" from their Number One album Dare, 1981; comeback album, Octopus, released on East West Records, 1995.
- Selective Works
- Reproduction, 1979.
- Travelogue, 1980.
- Dare (includes "Don't You Want Me"), 1981.
- Fascination! (EP; includes "Fascination" and "Mirror Man"), 1983.
- Hysteria (includes "The Lebanon"), 1984.
- Crash, 1986.
- Greatest Hits, 1988.
- Romantic?, 1990.
- Octopus, Elektra/East West, 1995.
- Billboard, June 30, 1984; March 11, 1995.
- Creem, September 1983; September 1984; December 1984; January 1987; March 1987.
- Entertainment Weekly, May 5, 1995.
- Keyboard, May 1987.
- Mademoiselle, September 1982.
- Melody Maker, October 17, 1981; December 24, 1983; May 12, 1984; June 9, 1984; September 13, 1986; October 11, 1986; December 6, 1986; January 24, 1987; October 8, 1988; October 29, 1988; November 26, 1988; February 4, 1989.
- Musician, November 1983; November 1986.
- People, May 1, 1995.
- Rolling Stone, July 8, 1982; July 7, 1983; October 13, 1983; July 5, 1984; November 20, 1986; November 16, 1989; May 4, 1995.
- Seventeen, May 1987.
- Stereo Review, May 1991.
- Trouser Press, February 1982; August 1982; July 1983.
- Variety, May 26, 1982; February 18, 1987.
- Village Voice, April 1982.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from East West Records publicity materials, 1995.
Human League, The Lyrics
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