The Human League are an English synthpop band that was initially active as a recording unit between the late 1970s and mid-1980s. Originating as an electro-futurist combo, the band were among the first to apply classic songcraft to an entirely electronic framework. In 1981/82, a revamped six-member lineup signaled the Second British Invasion with the transatlantic smash “Don’t You Want Me.” The band scored thirteen consecutive Top 20 singles on the U.K. charts and two number-one hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
Members: Philip Oakey (lead vocals, synthesizer, keyboards), Martyn Ware (synthesizer, 1978-80), Ian Craig Marsh (synthesizer, 1978-80), Adrian Wright (visuals, keyboards, synthesizer, 1978-87), Joanne Catherall (vocals, 1980-present), Susanne Sulley (vocals, 1980-present), Ian Burden (keyboards, synthesizer, bass, guitar, vocals, 1981-87), Jo Callis (synthesizer, guitar, 1981-85), Jim Russell (drums, guitar, percussion, vocals, 1985-89)
The Human League came together in 1977 when vocalist Phil Oakey joined The Future — a Sheffield-based electronic duo consisting of Korg/Roland enthusiasts Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. Forging a mid-ground between English vocal pop and the Berlin School, the trio debuted with the Fast Product single “Being Boiled” / “Circus of Death” in June 1978.
Original Quartet: 1979–1980
Aiming to augment their live presentations, the trio brought projectionist Adrian Wright into the band to handle slides. Soon enough, the quartet signed with Virgin Records and released their debut full-length, Reproduction, in late 1979. Forgoing the help of stringed instruments or percussion, the band mix an array of synthetic tones to sculpt the foreboding atmospherics of “Morale,” “The Word Before Last,” and a cleaner cut of “Circus of Death.” Compositionally, the material ranges from the compact, chorus-line danceability of “Empire State Human” to the complex, multi-movement epicism of “Austerity/Girl One (Medley),” the format of which features a song within a song. Capping things off, the band’s use of rhythmic machinery feeds the lurching-to-lightning pace of “Zero as a Limit.”
Throughout this period, The Human League maintained a purely experimental side, as expressed on the Dignity of Labour EP, which consists of a four-part instrumental suite that explores the sonic potential of the band’s electronic arsenal. At the same time, the band kept an ear on the dance scene, as revealed on the 1979 single “I Don’t Depend On You” — issued under the moniker “The Men.”
May 1980 witnessed the release of The Human League’s sophomoric longplayer Travelogue. Reaching back for some of its contents, the album pulls in all directions, from the analogue-darting library instrumental “Gordon’s Gin” to the soulful fold-out chorus of “The Touchables.” The epic “Dreams of Leaving” showcases Oakey’s newfound mastery of range between the muted, nervous verses and swelling, expository chorus. The song’s melodramatic narrative is bisected by a flickering-fuse middle that advances the band’s sonic adventurism — a side that’s further explored with the laser-beam delays of “The Black Hit of Space” and the kalimba-glimmer of “Toyota City.” The singer’s cool, unaffected bravado in light of unsavory circumstances can also be heard amidst the spiraling aural lights of “W.X.J.L. Tonight,” which laments the fall of a once-mighty station.
Augmented Sextet: 1981–1984
Soon after the second album, Ware and Marsh broke from the band, leaving the musical balance to the vocalist and slidesman. In under a year, The Human League rebounded with the additions of ex-Rezillo Jo Callis and Sheffield musician Ian Burden on keyboards and bass, respectively. Teenagers Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, whom Oakey had met at a nightclub, were recruited as dancers and backing vocalists. Ware and Marsh, meanwhile, assembled the British Electric Foundation and formed Heaven 17 with Sheffield vocalist Glenn Gregory.
The 1981 holiday season saw The Human League soar to the top with the release of Dare and its soap-operatic leadoff single “Don’t You Want Me.” With its ever-so-pointed he said/she said verses and fold-out chorus, the song became a global smash and an era-defining evergreen. Competing for supremacy on the band’s triumphant third longplayer are the slow-motion euphoria of “Open Your Heart,” the low-end reverberations of “Darkness,” and the looped-back/pitch-bent accents of “Love Action (I Believe in Love).” The last of those, with its flowery synth fills and heartbeat precision, nearly doubled its predecessor chart-wise in certain territories. In keeping with the lucid eeriness of earlier experiments, “Get Carter/I Am the Law” hears Oakey emote chilling lines amidst a frosty, rhythm-less backdrop.
Dare proved to be a tough act to follow, hence the band’s contentment with stop-gap singles over the two subsequent years. With its sunny backing harmonies and Motown-style back-beat, “Mirror Man” exhibits a then-growing influence of co-writer Callis. Backed with the echoey shivers of “You Remind Me of Gold,” both songs were included on the 1983 Fascination! EP along with the synth-wail sleepwalk of “Hard Times,” the soaring throb of “I Love You Too Much” and the title-sake “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” The latter, with its wall-of-neon keys, became another transatlantic smash.
A tumultuous year-long holdup in the studio finally yielded Hysteria in the summer of 1984. Abandoning their icier roots, The Human League pursue uptempo pop and poignant balladry on their fourth full-length. The former approach is embodied in the advancing bridges and courage-summoning straight talk of “Don’t You Know I Want You.” The latter is displayed in the earnest reasoning of “Life On Your Own,” where Oakey seems mournful yet even-minded as he parts ways with a longtime love. Elsewhere, “Betrayal” weds foreboding precision and eerie atmospherics to a detached, soulful vocal delivery, while “The Lebanon” sets astute political observations to a ringing, Edge-like riff.
Return and Onward
In the fall of 1986, The Human League scored another transatlantic triumph with the soliloquy-infused piano ballad “Human” from the album Crash. Further works followed, albeit at sporadic intervals, during the 1990s and into the 21st century.
- Reproduction (1979)
- Travelogue (1980)
- Dare (1981)
- Hysteria (1984)
- Crash (1986)
- Romantic? (1990)
- Octopus (1995)
- “Being Boiled” / “Circus of Death” (1978)
- The Dignity of Labor (1979, EP)
- “Introducing” (1979 — “Empire State Human” b-side)
- “I Don’t Depend on You” / “Cruel” (1979 — as The Men)
- “Boys and Girls” / “Tom Baker” (1981)
- “Hard Times” (1981 — “Love Action” b-side)
- “Non-stop” (1981 — “Open Your Heart” b-side)
- “Mirror Man” / “You Remind Me of Gold” (1982)
- “Keep Feeling Fascination” / “Total Panic” (1983)
- “The World Tonight” (1984 — “Life on Your Own” b-side)
- “Thirteen” (1984 — “The Lebanon” b-side)
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