One of the things that most bands had to contend with in the 80’s was the decline in importance of the guitar. Take Spandau Ballet for example, two perfectly good guitarists, one of whom had to play synthesizer on their debut single, the other had to play percussion and saxophone as their career progressed. Even U2, on of the few guitar success stories of the 80’s were soon padding out their songs with various synthesized ambient noises. It seemed that soon the guitar, like real drums, might soon be obsolete.
One band who were well ahead of the curve were the Human League. Initially formed by two computer programmers they were never tempted to rock the six strings. It was a brave move, maybe it was something to do with coming from Sheffield, there was still an industrial vibe exemplified by co experimentalists Cabaret Voltaire. It was hard to imagine their slabs of noise combining from Sussex or Suffolk. Early sounds from the band were fairly uncompromising, that was the sort of noise you made with the early synthesizers unless you were Chicory Tip. Synthesizers required different skills from those usually expected of musicians, playing one was more akin to being a computer programmer than a keyboard player and Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were ideally suited to the new profession.
Both were canny enough to realize that the market for industrial noise was limited and recruited a school friend, one Phil Oakey, to add some vocals. Despite having no real musical history Oakey was more than up to the task and had a way with lyrics as personified by their biggest hit to date Being Boiled which was about the slaughter of silk worms, a topic that has never since been revisited as a source of lyrical inspiration.
The Human League had a respectable second division career. They played plenty of gigs, sometimes being bottled off stage by rock fans irate at their lack of guitars. They made records and they got a mention in the lyrics of ‘My Perfect Cousin’ by the Undertones. Gradually they were becoming more acceptable with a slightly more tuneful approach. Their new record company Virgin (they had previously been with the ultra trendy Fast label) had pressured them into recording a disco influenced single ‘I don’t depend on You’ which prophetically had featured female vocals. It hadn’t really taken off and the label let them continue on their chosen path, they were developing new, slightly more acceptable sounds and realizing that the synthesizer was hardly a visual spectacular had added Phillip Adrian Wright to add a light show.
Despite this things weren’t progressing fast enough and Gary Newman was becoming the number one pop synthesizer act. Unfortunately, in the short term at least, Ware and Oakey were not getting on. The former being more of an electronic purist the latter wanting to diversify their sound. The result was a 50/50 split which left Oakey with the band name, an iconic haircut and the light operator who had been encouraged to poke a keyboard when needed.
Worse than that, Oakey had inherited a whole load of debt and a forthcoming tour that would be very expensive to cancel.
Despite a real lack of musician power he decided the band needed more vocals, today he’d be able to audition people over the internet from all over the world but this was 1980 so he decided to visit the nightclubs of Sheffield, finally ending up in the Crazy Daisy Nightclub on a Wednesday night. Today it seems amazing there would be anyone there midweek but they make good use of their leisure time up North and he was able to locate Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall doing their best on the dance floor. Neither were dancers, neither were singers but Oakey offered them a job and after approval from their parent (they were both 17) they were up for the tour.
The widespread opinion was that the surviving League had lost their best members and there was quite a lot of derision towards Oakey and his ‘dancing girls’. Sheffield bass player Ian Burden had been drafted in to add keyboards but left after the tour. That could have been the end of it but the band, namely Oakey, was still in debt so he retained the girls, tracked down Burden and recorded a new single ‘Boys and Girls’.
This was enough for Virgin to summon up a bit more enthusiasm but they rightfully realised the need for better production and a bit more musicality. Veteran producer Martin Rushent moved the band to record at his studios in Reading, severing the link, for a while, with Sheffield. Guitarist Jo Callis, ex of the Rezilos was brought in to play more synthesizer and help out with the song writing and the band hit gold.
No longer was the sound industrial, although there were drum machines they sounded more like drums and synths had become sufficiently accessible for musicians to actually play them. The resulting album ‘Dare’ was something of a classic, a perfect blend of the gauche and the accomplished. It was one of those albums where almost every track was a potential single and in fact three of them were actual singles.
Keen to milk the moment as much as possible Virgin order a fourth single ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Oakey hadn’t recognised it’s potential but was over ruled. With the addition of sleigh bells this could have been one of the greatest Christmas singles ever. It was played everywhere by the end of 1981 and was supported by a one of those new fangled videos which was all over MTV for the six people in Britain who could watch it (the rest of us got to watch it on Tops of the Pops every week)
It was a perfect single for the perfect time. The band had tarted up their image, no more bomber jackets or facial hair, but it just seemed like they were a bunch of people who had hit hit it lucky unlike, say Duran Duran, who just seemed to be showing off their wealth every time they made a single.
Just like all bands, the Human League, couldn’t sustain this level of brilliance and the hits slowly dried up as did the backing musicians. Being a fairly adaptable 3 piece the bad have adopted a variety of electronic styles but never again capturing the Zeitgeist. As befits hard working Sheffield folk, they still tour and they still play as live as possible whenever they make an appearance, unlike a lot of the 80’s artists they are still a working and developing band although woe betide them if they fail to play most of Dare during their live gigs.