Monday, November 14, 2011

The Human League

 Opening Remarks

The Human League will forever be remembered for the song "Don't you want me". It's a song that resembles how many times the band reformed because members could not get along anymore. That happens in life and in many bands. What works today, why you got together in the first place, many times fizzles and goes sour in the end.
They had a sound. A fresh sound. That always works, for a short time, until someone comes up with a new sound. They had their time in the sun and that is all you can ask for. Many ups and downs, but in the end their talent and freshness came shining through. That can never be taken away. They were really the first techno pop group to make a difference. There has really been no group before or since who did what they did.  They made techno popular for top 40 radio.


The Human League are an English electronic New Wave band formed in Sheffield in 1977. They achieved popularity after a key change in line-up in the early 1980s and have continued recording and performing with moderate commercial success throughout the 1980s up to the present day.

The bands name derived from the game Starforce: Alpha Centauri, a science fiction war game. In the game, 'The Human League' arose in 2415 A.D, and were a frontier-oriented society that desired more independence from Earth. Ware suggested that The Future rename themselves after the game and in early 1978 The Future became The Human League.

The only constant band member since 1977 is vocalist and songwriter Philip Oakey. Originally an avant-gardesynthesizer-based group, The Human League evolved into a commercially successful synthpop band under Oakey's leadership. Since 1987, the band has essentially been a trio of Oakey and long-serving female vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley (who joined the ensemble in 1980), with various sidemen. The Human League has influenced many electro-pop, other synthpop, and mainstream performers including Madonna, Moby,  and Pet Shop Boys.

 The Human League began in the late 1970s as the brainchild of two computer operators, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, from Sheffield, England. They tried a number of names including the Dead Daughters and the Future until settling upon the Human League after former hospital porter, Philip Oakey, joined the group. Adrian Wright joined shortly thereafter to prepare slide shows for projection during the group's live performances.  Listening to one of Ware and Marsh's demos, Oakey was inspired to write some lyrics which later became the single "Being Boiled".

After a few more low-key, private performances, Ware and Marsh decided to officially form a band. Joined by their friend Adi Newton and another synthesizer , they formed The Future and began to create music in their own rehearsal facility in a disused cutlery workshop in the centre of Sheffield. Although The Future was never signed and did not release material commercially at the time, a collection of demos from this period was released retrospectively on CD in 2002 titled The Golden Hour of the Future.

 The association with Adi Newton was short; Newton left The Future and went on to form Clock DVA. Ware at this point decided that he needed a singer rather than another keyboard player. The reason for this was twofold: record companies had been reluctant to sign The Future, as they couldn’t offer any "marketable" songs, and therefore a talented singer was required for any chance of commercial success; also the group only owned two synthesizers and could not afford a third.

Ware and Marsh searched for a vocalist, but their first choice, Glenn Gregory, was unavailable (Gregory eventually became the lead singer of their later band Heaven 17).

Ware then decided to invite an old school friend, Philip Oakey, to join the band. Oakley was known on the Sheffield social scene for his eclectic style of dress. Although he had no musical experience, Ware thought he would be ideal as lead singer for The Future as "he already looked like a pop star."

The 'original' Human League in July 1980. From left to right Oakey, Wright, Marsh, Ware.

Using Future material, The Human League released a demo tape to record companies under their new name. The tape contained versions of "Being Boiled", "Toyota City", and "Circus of Death". Ware's friend Paul Bower of Sheffield new wave band 2.3 who had just recorded a single for Bob Last's Edinburgh-based independent label Fast Product took their demo to Last and he signed the band.

The band released their first single, "Being Boiled", in June 1978 which became Fast Product's third release. Although a limited release - because it was so unique and at odds with everything else on the market – it was picked up on by NME who championed the band,

The band's live performances began to gain momentum and acclaim and they were asked to support first The Rezillos (featuring future band member Jo Callis), then Siouxsie and the Banshees as early as September 1978.

In December, 1978 David Bowie appeared in the audience and later declared to NME that he "had seen the future of pop music." Later, the hit song by The Undertones, "My Perfect Cousin", contained a dig at the perceived "arty" Human League in the lyric:

"His mother bought him a synthesiser/Got the Human League in to advise her/Now he's making lots of noise/Playing along with the art school boys"

In April, 1979 The Human League released their first EP under Fast Record entitled The Dignity of Labour, which contained four experimental instrumentals. Although the EP barely charted, major record labels began approaching the band in an attempt to lure them away from Fast. Eventually in May, 1979, the band accepted an offer by Richard Branson's Virgin Records. Because of his label's early support, the band offered Bob Last the position as band manager.

In June, 1979 The Human League supported Iggy Pop on his European tour before settling into recording their first single for Virgin. Despite being promised creative freedom, Virgin instead insisted on some sweeping changes to the band's style for their first single in order to make it more commercial. They insisted on conventional instruments and vocals as well as synthesizers. Because the band had accepted a large financial signing advance, Ware was in no position to refuse, but insisted that any releases in this style be credited to a pseudonym.

The band's first single under Virgin Records was the disco influenced "I Don't Depend on You", released in July, 1979 under the pseudonym "The Men". The single did not chart and had very little in common with the previous work of The Human League. It did, however, feature prophetic female vocals by guest vocalists Lisa Strike and Katie Kissoon sounding like the yet-to-be-formed future Human League of 1981.

Because the imposed style had not worked, Virgin permitted the band to return to their original style and the band recorded and released their first full studio album Reproduction in August, 1979. The album and the single "Empire State Human" failed to make any impact on the charts. After these flops, Virgin canceled the band's December, 1979 tour.

By this time, The Human League's role as UK electronic pioneers was usurped by Gary Numan when his single "Are 'Friends' Electric?" became a huge hit in the UK in mid-1979.

In April, 1980 the band was able to release an EP entitled Holiday '80, containing the principal track "Marianne" and a cover of "Nightclubbing" (written by Bowie and Iggy Pop). The seven inch version of "Holiday '80" did well enough to get the band their first TV appearance on BBC TV Top of the Pops  This was to be the only high profile TV appearance by the Oakey/Marsh/Ware trio on British television.

Because of their lack of commercial success, Virgin refused to release further singles from Travelogue. The Human League was booked to conduct a tour of the UK and Europe in October – November, 1980 but the lack of success after two years of hard work and perceived lack of faith by Virgin set about severe internal conflict within the band.
The relationship between Oakey and Ware had always been turbulent, and the pair often quarrelled over creative and personal matters. Oakey was once observed chasing Ware up a Sheffield street, throwing bottles of milk from people's doorsteps at him.

The lack of success compared with the success of Gary Numan's work at that time had brought matters to a head. Ware insisted the band maintain their pure electronic sound while Oakey wanted to emulate more successful pop groups. The pair clashed continually, with Ware eventually walking out. Taking Ware's side, Ian Craig Marsh joined him. Manager Bob Last tried to reconcile both parties, and when that proved impossible various options were suggested including two new bands under a Human League sub-label. Eventually it was agreed that Oakey would continue with The Human League name while Ware and Marsh would form a completely new band, which became Heaven 17.

With the tour only ten days away and the music media reporting that The Human League was finished now that "the talented people had left," promoters started threatening to sue Oakey if the tour was not completed as contracted. To complete the tour, Oakey had to recruit new people in a matter of days.

 Oakey and his then girlfriend went into Sheffield city centre  with the intention of recruiting a single female backing vocalist. After looking in various venues, they visited the Crazy Daisy Nightclub on High Street where Oakey spotted two teenage girls dancing together on the dance floor. Susan Ann Sulley (17) and Joanne Catherall (18) were just schoolgirls on a night out together. Neither had any experience of singing or dancing professionally. With no preamble, Oakey asked both girls to join the tour as dancers and incidental vocalists. He states that when he found out their age and that they were best friends, he revised his plan for a single female and decided that the two girls could look after each other on the tour. Originally just wanting a single female singer to replace the high backing vocals originally provided by Martyn Ware, he says that he thought having two female vocalists/dancers would also add potential glamour to the band. Because of the girls' ages, Oakey and Wright later had to visit Sulley and Catherall's respective parents to obtain permission for the girls to go on the tour.
In addition to Sulley and Catherall, Oakey employed professional musician Ian Burden from Sheffield synth band Graph as a session keyboard player for the tour to cover for the keyboards of the now departed Ware and Marsh.

1981 became the band's most successful period and culminated in the release of the influential, triple platinum album Dare and the multi-million selling single "Don't You Want Me".

In January, 1981 although they had survived the tour, the band was still in trouble. Heavily in debt to Virgin Records, Oakey and Wright were under pressure to produce results quickly. By February 1981 the band recorded and rushed out "Boys and Girls". Sulley and Catherall (who had returned to school full-time) were not involved. The single reached #47 in the UK charts, the most commercially successful Human League single to that point. Oakey acknowledged that he needed to bring in professional musicians and so Ian Burden was tracked down and invited to join the band as a trial member.

Virgin's faith had been restored by "Boys and Girls", but they believed the band lacked professional production. In March, Oakey was introduced to veteran producer Martin Rushent. Rushent's first move was to dispatch the entire band to Genetic Studios in Reading, Berkshire, away from the "unhealthy atmosphere" of Monumental Studios, Sheffield that they shared with Ware and Marsh's Heaven 17. The first result of the Genetic sessions was the single "The Sound of the Crowd". The single was an instant success reaching #12 in the UK.

Bob Last believed that the band could be improved further by the addition of one more professional musician, so in April 1981 his associate Jo Callis (formerly of The Rezillos, a band Last had previously managed) was invited to become the final permanent member of the band. The next single, "Love Action (I Believe in Love)", reached #3 in the UK in August 1981.

The band's commercial success and higher public profile prompted Virgin to authorise the release of a full album. The band set about arranging their existing material and demos into a viable album. Sulley and Catherall who had just left school immediately postponed their plans to attend university to work on the album. By October 1981 the album was ready and entitled Dare. Just prior to its release, Virgin released a single from the album, "Open Your Heart", which equalled the success of the previous two singles.

Dare was released in October 1981 and reached #1 in the UK. It spent a total of four weeks at the top spot over the 1981/82 period, remaining in the chart for 77 weeks and eventually going triple platinum.
Because of Dare's enormous success, Virgin executive Simon Draper instructed that a fourth single be released from the album before the end of 1981. His choice was to be "Don't You Want Me", a track Oakey considered to be a filler and the weakest track on the album. Oakey fought the decision believing it would damage the band, but was overruled by Draper and "Don't You Want Me" was released in December 1981. Aided by an expensive music video (a rarity at the time) directed by film maker Steve Barron, the single went immediately to #1 and stayed there over Christmas 1981. The single became the band's biggest hit, selling over two million copies worldwide.  

Concurrently, Dare (later renamed Dare!) was released in the US by A&M Records and "Don't You Want Me" also reached #1 there in mid-1982. 

 The lyrics were originally inspired after lead singer Philip Oakey read a story in a "trashy US tabloid". Originally conceived and recorded in the studio as a male solo, Oakey was inspired by the film Star 80 and decided to turn the song into a conflicting duet with one of the band’s two teenage female vocalists. Susan Ann Sulley was then asked to take on the role. Up until then, she and the other female vocalist Joanne Catherall had only been assigned backing vocals; Sulley says she was chosen only through "luck of the draw". Musicians Jo Callis and Philip Adrian Wright created a synthesizer score to accompany the lyrics which was much harsher than the version that was actually released. Initial versions of the song were recorded but Virgin Records-appointed producer Martin Rushent was unhappy with them. He and Callis remixed the track, giving it a softer, and in Oakey's opinion, "poppy" sound. Oakey hated the new version and thought it the weakest track on Dare, resulting in one of his infamous rows with Rushent. Oakey disliked it so much that it was relegated to the last track on the B side of the (then) vinyl album.

In November, 1982 the Motown influenced electro pop single "Mirror Man" reached #2 in the UK chart, just missing another Christmas #1, which was taken by a novelty record by Renée and Renato. 

The follow-up single, "(Keep Feeling) Fascination", was released in April, 1983 and peaked at #2 in the UK.

The following months proved to be difficult ones for the band as they struggled to record a follow-up album to Dare under immense pressure from Virgin. A six-song EP called Fascination! composed of the singles "Mirror Man" and "Fascination" together with the new track "I Love You Too Much" was released from the original recording sessions for their new album, later to be named Hysteria. The EP was released in America as a stop-gap and also became a strong seller as an import in the UK.

The band spent many months agonizing as they tried to make a successor to Dare, and as things became ever more stressful, producer Martin Rushent left the project. At this point, the band ditched much of the material recorded so far and started over again with new producers Hugh Padgham and Chris Thomas (though some of Rushent's contributions to certain tracks from the earlier sessions were included on the released album). 
Finally in May, 1984 the band released the politically charged single "The Lebanon". The single peaked at #11 in the UK.

This was followed shortly thereafter by the album Hysteria, so called because of the difficult and tense recording process. It entered the UK album chart at #3, however it climbed no further and critics and fans were divided by the new direction the band had taken. The second single was "Life on Your Own" in mid-1984. The single missed the UK Top Ten, peaking at #16. With the parent album Hysteria failing to live up to expected sales, thoughts of a third single were put on hold.

Later that year, success outside of The Human League came for Oakey in the shape of the huge hit single "Together In Electric Dreams", a collaboration with one of his idols, synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder. The track was taken from the film soundtrack to Electric Dreams and became a massive hit.

After Hysteria, the group found themselves in creative stagnation, struggling to record material to follow up on their previous successes. Key songwriter Jo Callis departed, replaced by drummer Jim Russell. Bob Last quit as manager and was not replaced.
Worried by the lack of progress with their most profitable act, Virgin paired The Human League up with American R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who had a proven track record.  Jam and Lewis had expressed an interest in working with the band after hearing their US releases. Virgin flew the entire band to Minneapolis. The four-month long recording sessions were beset with creative disputes, with Jam and Lewis having preconceived ideas on how they wanted the album to sound, rejecting most of the band's material (which would cost the band considerable loss of royalty income). The band eventually quit the sessions early amidst creative acrimony, although the personal relationships had actually been good.

The final result of the sessions was the Crash album. The album featured much material written by the Jam and Lewis team, and showcased their DX7-led sound. It provided a US #1 single, "Human" (#8 in the UK), but other singles made smaller chart impact. 

In November, 1988 a greatest hits compilation album was released that reached #3 in UK. This was preceded by the release of the single "Love Is All That Matters" from Crash.

In 1990, the band released their last album for Virgin Records, Romantic?. By now, longstanding members Adrian Wright and Ian Burden, together with newer recruit Jim Russell, had all left the band, although Jo Callis did return to play on some of the sessions and co-wrote two songs, including the minor hit single "Heart Like a Wheel".

New to the line-up were keyboardist Neil Sutton who had worked with the band on the Crash tour of 1986, and guitarist/keyboardist Russell Dennett. At odds with the prevailing trend of US grunge and the Manchester scene the Romantic? album did not re-capture the group's huge commercial success of the 1980s with its second single "Soundtrack to a Generation" barely charting. In 1992, Virgin abruptly canceled their recording contract. 

Damaged by the failure of the album, their rejection by Virgin, harsh criticism in the media and facing financial ruin, the emotional well-being of Oakey and Sulley deteriorated badly. Catherall remained positive and she is cited as the principal reason why the band did not fold at this, their lowest point.

After a couple of years the band had recovered enough confidence to put out demos to other record labels. Concurrently in 1993 they were invited to work with veteran Japanese electropop band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) which resulted in the EP "YMO Versus The Human League". Released principally in Japan and Asia in April, 1993 the EP includes the songs "Behind The Mask" and "Kimi Ni Mune Kyun" ("I Love You") written by Oakey and Yukihiro Takahashi, featuring the vocals of Sulley and Catherall.

In 1994, EastWest Records showed interest in the band's demos and the material rejected by Virgin. They signed the band and paired them with producer Ian Stanley (formerly of Tears for Fears). EastWest financed expensive music videos and heavily promoted their releases. The first release  was the single "Tell Me When", which gave the band their first Top 10 hit since 1986's "Human". It also topped the UK airplay charts for several weeks. The accompanying album, Octopus, returned the band to the UK Top 10 and later achieved a gold disc.

The next single from the album was the ballad "One Man in My Heart", which features Sulley on lead vocals. It reached #13 in the UK and was unique in that it was the only single by The Human League to feature a female only lead vocal until "Never Let Me Go" in 2011.

 Subsequent singles "Filling up with Heaven" and the non-album single "Stay with Me Tonight" also reached the UK Top 40, and a new remix of "Don't You Want Me" was released to capitalize on the band's revitalized profile. This was in the run up to a new "greatest hits" compilation in 1996, but which proved less successful than their first "Greatest Hits" album from 1988.

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