Rating The Human League

With Sheffield’s finest celebrating the 40th anniversary of Dare, Shaun Ponsonby revisits the back catalogue of this pioneering group.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Sat 16 October, 2021

Originally published in 2019.

Mention the Human League to anyone and inevitably there is one image to mind; singer Phil Oakey with his bizarre hairstyle – long on one side, short on the other – flanked by backing vocalists Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall.

It is a striking image, one that nobody who saw it has ever forgotten, and it defined an era.

The story of the Human League is a story of incredible heights and crushing lows, of surviving against the odds, of musical and visual innovation. They created an album so definitive that it cast a long shadow over their career, unable to truly follow it up amongst in-fighting, label disputes and bankruptcy.

Yet since the late 90s, they have reinvented themselves from a predominantly studio band to one of the most popular live attractions in the UK. Barely a festival bill is announced without their appearance, not a year goes by where they don’t play shows up and down the UK. They’re still too underdog to call them national treasures, but they are well and truly loved.

Formed in Sheffield in the late 70s, the Human League began as the brainchild of keyboardists Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, later joined by Phil Oakey to provide a robotic, distant vocal. They were inspired by bands like Kraftwerk, who presented a cold detachment in their work that countered the warmth of what pop had always been about. They were avant garde, hiding behind a projectionist in the way that Pink Floyd had 15 years earlier.

After a number of years slugging it out with nothing to show for it except a significant amount of debt, Ware and Marsh left to form Heaven 17, with Oakey continuing with a radically different version of the Human League, starring two girls he found in a nightclub.

Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall were never just there for visual dressing. They became the heart and soul of the band. They represented the audience and made the Human League far more relatable than they ever could have been without them, helping to guide the band towards the world conquering success of 1981’s Dare.

The years since have seen incredible singles, disappointing albums, surprising returns to form, squabbling, failed experiments with superstar producers, label troubles, widespread acceptance and more hits than most people realise. But through it all Oakey, Sulley and Catherall have remained not only the focal point, but loyal to each other, which only adds another dimension to the group.

One day all music will be made like this,” they once said. And now it is.

As the band prepare to headline a massive 80s revival show in the grounds of Croxteth Hall this summer, Planet Slop revisits the back catalogue of this pioneering group.

A Boozy Afternoon with Sonic Yootha

16. The Golden Hour of the Future [Recorded 1977/Released 2002]

A curiosity more than anything. These are previously unreleased recordings by proto-Human League band The Future, as well as the first recordings ever made by the first line-up of the League. It is Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh who dominate, with Oakey not quite yet developing his persona. He also has a solo track, The Circus Of Dr Lao which, like a lot of the recordings, sound more like a soundtrack to a sci-fi movie. Overall, it suffers from the same drawbacks that all early demo collections suffer from, but you can’t tell the story of the Human League without it.

15. The Dignity of Labour [EP/1979]

This EP consists solely of a four part instrumental piece called The Dignity of Labour, loosely telling the story of the construction of Vostok 1, the rocket that took cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space for the first time. It supposedly begins with miners digging underground in Russia, before the gantries were made from steel for Gagarin‘s spaceship, whilst the second half of the piece is a tribute to the cosmonaut himself. It is extremely difficult to imagine anyone who took to the League’s second incarnation would find this anything other than a chore to get through – and, indeed, it is pretty indulgent. However, if you enjoy the earlier, artsier Human League sound, it’s worth tracking down.

14. Holiday ’80 [EP/1980]

Another oddity, Holiday ’80 features a couple of mediocre new songs – Marianne and the instrumental Dancevision – a more sprawling version of Being Boiled and, most bizarrely, a mash up cover of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing and Gary Glitter’s Rock & Roll. At the very least, it adds credence to the theory that early synthpop was born out of punk and 70s glam rock. But it is hard to know who would willingly put this on. They work best as bonus tracks.

Following the release of Holiday ’80, Marsh and Ware would depart acrimoniously to form Heaven 17.

13. Hysteria [1984]

It would never be easy to follow up a monster success like 1981’s Dare, and the Human League found it especially difficult. In fact, Virgin Records were forced to release not one, but two stop gaps before they were finally ready with their next long player. And so, in 1984, came Hysteria – as disappointing a record as they could have released.

Perhaps this is to be expected. Production of the album was beyond difficult, with the key ingredient to their epiphany, Dare producer Martin Rushent, leaving the sessions, as did replacements Chris Thomas and Hugh Padgham. What we’re left with is a hodgepodge. Like most Human League albums, the singles are a saving grace. Louise is a fine example of Oakey’s best songwriting skills; what seems sweet on the surface actually hides a darker subtext. Though it appears to be about a chance romantic encounter between a man and a woman, it is actually about self-deception and delusion, with Oakey telling one interviewer; “It’s about men thinking they can manipulate women when they can’t, even conning themselves that they have when they haven’t.”

The album’s first single, The Lebanon, was a seemingly a concerted effort to alienate their fan base with rock guitars, heavy bass and basically all the things that you wouldn’t expect from a synthpop band. There was also a specifically political lyric relating to the Lebanese Civil War. All of this sounds dreadful, but thankfully the reality is far sweeter. Luckily for long-time fans, Life On Your Own harked back to the sound of Dare.

The rest of the songs are forgettable at best, and embarrassing at worst, such as the cover of James Brown and Lyn Collins’ Rock Me Again and Again and Again and Again and Again and Again (Six Times). Perhaps it isn’t the worst release from the post-Dare years, but you can’t ignore the disappointment given what they had only just achieved. Though it reached number three in the UK, it didn’t even crack the US top 40.

12. Romantic? [1990]

The late 80s and early 90s were a frustrating time for the Human League. Every time it felt like they were getting it together, outside (or, just as often, inside) forces stopped them dead in their tracks.

If Hysteria was a concerted effort to take a left turn from Dare, Romantic? was an attempt to recapture it, right down to the unironic return of Oakey’s iconic hair style, and even producer Martin Rushent. Sadly, it doesn’t work. Nearly a decade on from that classic record, Romantic? was a dated record from a band out of step.

As always, there are inspired moments; the top 40 single Heart Like a Wheel is a saving grace, as is the lesser known Soundtrack To a Generation, which seemed like something of a sarcastic title after it tanked so horribly as a single that it spelled the end of the band’s time with Virgin Records.

11. Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder [1985]

Though not a Human League album, Oakey’s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder yielded such a big hit with Together in Electric Dreams that it has become known as a Human League song – even appearing on numerous compilations and becoming their traditional set closer.

The song was written in just ten minutes for the film Electric Dreams. Director Steve Barron – who also directed the iconic music video for Don’t You Want Me – waned to emulate the huge success of a film like Flashdance, and felt that a title song would help. The song, though, overshadowed the movie, leading to the joint album.

Following the long, arduous sessions for the Human League’s Hysteria, this album was finished in just a few days. This has its positives and negatives – it sounds far more urgent than Hysteria, but like that album much of it is fairly forgettable. Ultimately, it was an album created to capitalise on a hit single and isn’t the finest work of either artist.

10. YMO Versus The Human League [EP/1993]

The Human League’s discography is full of unexpected curiosities. This collaboration with legendary Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra came at the nadir of their career, between the flop of Romantic? and the brief rebirth of 1995’s Octopus. It features just four tracks, all re-recordings of classic YMO songs, with English lyrics by the League.  The one exception is Behind The Mask which, surprisingly, was re-written by Michael Jackson. The Human League don’t add much to YMO, but it’s a fun, if forgotten and impossible to find, stop gap.

9. Love and Dancing [1982]

Technically, this was released under the title The League Unlimited Orchestra – a play on Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra – and holds the distinction of being one of the first remix album ever released, coming just a month after Soft Cell’s Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing.

Dare had been extremely popular in the US, leading to underground remixing of the cuts. Oakey and producer Martin Rushent had been inspired by both this fact and a performance by Grandmaster Flash to create a dub version of Dare’s Love Action as a b-side. This led to him pitching an instrumental remix album for the League. Initially, the band were unresponsive and the record company balked.  There was no real precedent for this. Virgin certainly weren’t going to pay for it. Nonetheless, Rushent continued working on the project, the lack of samplers meaning he had to splice the tapes manually.

It places the musicality of these songs front and centre, and re-contextualising them for everybody who thinks they know them back to front. The one new track – Hard Times – acts as a perfect precursor to Love Action, with the only lyrics being Oakey, Sulley and Catherall repeating the title phrase. Though none of the versions here surpass the original recordings, the results are surprising and innovative, even if you don’t listen to it as often as Dare.

8. Credo [2011]

A full decade after the surprisingly effective Secrets, the Human League finally returned with Credo.

Much had changed in the previous ten years. Most notably, by 2011 80s synthpop was enjoying a resurgence, with La Roux, Little Boots and especially Lady GaGa enjoying humungous hits in a style that owed much to the sound that the Human League had pioneered. As a result, despite the odd touch of auto-tune and flourishes of drum’n’bass, the League sound doesn’t require much updating

The results are that it is a respectable inclusion into the canon. It’s less than an essential release, but more than a mere excuse to say “Here’s a new one” on the road. Yet with the exception of Night People and Sky, nothing really comes close to matching their greatest singles. It’s a pleasant, comfortable release, and with a history as erratic as theirs, that comes as something of a relief.

7. Octopus [1995]

The commercial disaster of Romantic? could have spelled the end for the Human League, but somehow they bounced back, and then some.  Octopus’ lead single Tell Me When was a bona fide smash and their first top ten hit since Human in 1986. It was a thoroughly modern record, taking the best of their classic period and giving it a 90s twist.

They followed that up with a real novelty (and another top 20 hit) in One Man In My Heart, the first Human League single not to feature Phil Oakey on vocals. Instead, backing vocalist Susan Ann Sulley – who was keen to have a higher profile on the album – sings this gentle, innocent ballad. It dramatically inverts the Human League formula in a way they hadn’t since The Lebanon over a decade earlier.

And for the most part, it works for them. There are plenty of highlights, from Filling Up With Heaven to These Are The Days. They even manage to hone their somewhat detached image to a snarky 90s perfection. There is something very Generation X about a title like John Cleese: Is He Funny? questioning the validity of a national treasure, even if it does only amount to an instrumental track.

It is far from perfect. The world probably would have been a better place without a song like the whingeing Words, for example. But it marked a surprising return to form, and without it they probably wouldn’t be here today.

6. Travelogue [1980]

Travelogue was the second of only two Human League LPs to feature the original line up, and it feels like a transitional period for the band. Not quite the avant garde pioneers of the late 70s, but not yet the pop superstars of the early 80s. The push and pull between Marsh/Ware and Oakey sadly seemed to create a record that tried to compromise instead of falling comfortably in either camp.

Although taken as a whole, it is probably a step down from their debut, lacking the ambition the band initially showed, the album’s best moments do better anything from the first. This is especially true of Being Boiled – the first song the trio wrote together. In need of a singer, Ware and Marsh gave the music to Oakey, who returned two days later with the lyrics (though Oakey has admitted that, in retrospect, the lyrics are somewhat vague and confused; “Listen to the voice of Buddha/saying stop your sericulture“). John Lydon hated it. But David Bowie – whose opinions actually matter – declared it the future of music. That one song was the most influential thing they recorded in their earliest days, and inspired Vince Clarke to form Depeche Mode.

Elsewhere, The Black Hit of Space has an energy that demands your attention, and Touchables stands out with its unusual melody.

In some ways it is a frustrating release, and it is a good thing that Marsh and Ware got out of the way to form Heaven 17. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t have Dare.

5. Crash [1986]

One of the more controversial inclusions in the band’s back catalogue, 1986’s Crash may not be the League of old, but in retrospect it seems to be the right album for the right period.

Following the difficulties surrounding Hysteria, the Human League suffered a blow when Jo Callis – one of the lead songwriters of the group – decided to call it a day. Virgin Records were concerned, and didn’t want another Hysteria-shaped disaster, so they hit upon a radical solution.

They sent the group to Minneapolis to work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Both protégés of Prince and former members of The Time, the duo had recently produced Janet Jacksons breakthrough album Control and were well on their way to becoming two of the most successful producers in history. The duo figured that the League would be a perfect opportunity for them to crossover from pure R&B to mainstream pop.

Despite some initial enthusiasm, it became clear that Jam and Lewis would not be saving the Human League’s bacon. The two camps couldn’t reach an agreement on what the album should consist of, and the American producers were irked by the band’s laid back working methods.

Oakey pulled the plug on the sessions after four difficult months, and the crisis led to the band’s further dissolving, with keyboardists Phillip Adrian Wright and Ian Burden leaving shortly after their return to the UK.

When the album was eventually cobbled together just three of Jam and Lewis’ songs appeared, but ironically one of those songs did save the band in the short term when the lush ballad Human topped the US charts in the summer of 1986. It makes one wish that they had stuck it out together and reached a compromise. It is as perfect a pop ballad as you could hope for – so much so that Jam and Lewis seemed to have retooled it for Janet Jackson’s Come Back To Me.

Their other collaborations are a mixed bag. Love Is All That Matters is an effective marriage of the two disparate styles and should have been released as the follow up to Human. Sadly, Virgin decided on I Need Your Loving, a song that Phil Oakey really has no business singing and should really have given to someone like Morris Day.

It might be sacrilege to some that Crash is rated higher than Travelogue. It is, after all, pure pop, with none of the avant garde and at times, it barely even sounds like a Human League record. But it’s actually a very good pop record, regardless of who is performing it. A worthy experiment, but one that should have yielded more results.

4. Secrets [2001]

Sometimes it feels like the Human League just can’t catch a break. Despite the success of Octopus, a change of management at EastWest Records led to the cancellation of the group’s contract. In 2000, they finally signed to Papillon Records and released Secrets. However, the label experienced financial problems during the promotion of the record and was ultimately closed down.

It is a shame, because although at 16 tracks Secrets is perhaps too long an album, it boasts some of their finest work. Emboldened by the electronic music coming out of Europe which they seamlessly incorporate into their sound, the finest songs on the album amount to their best since the 80s.

Had they held on to opener and lead single All I Ever Wanted and handed it to a younger star at the end of the decade, they likely would have made a substantial hit out of it, whereas Liar proved that despite all the electronics, melody was still central to Oakey’s songwriting. The album’s masterstroke, though, is the throttling Love Me Madly? , which finds Oakey spitting out his lyrics, whilst Catherall and Sulley respond to his rambling by seemingly just making him more frantic.

There are seven short instrumental tracks which are probably excessive. They probably could have taken most of them out, but a few of them are interesting enough, and they do hark back nicely to the band’s earliest days. Nevertheless, if Hysteria was the most disappointing album of their career, Secrets is their most surprising.

3. Fascination! [EP/1983]

Fascination! was the second of two stop gaps that Virgin released as the band toiled away on Hysteria, and that resulting album would have been much better served by including the material that was utilised here. One of them was; I Love You Too Much. Oddly, the least interesting or enjoyable things here. Why on earth the two lead tracks weren’t held over is one of life’s great mysteries.

Firstly, there’s opener (Keep Feeling) Fascination which has a striking resemblance to Prince’s 1999 in style, with Oakey, Sulley, Catherall and keyboardist/guitarist Jo Callis taking a different lead vocal on each line. Like 1999, the colourful music mask a darker lyric, in this case a feeling of uncertainty and pessimism about the group’s ability to hit upon a winning formula twice.

And then there’s Mirror Man, reportedly written about Adam Ant, which serves as a joyful 80s Motown pastiche. It is as far removed from the gloom and doom of their early years as you can get, but as infectious a pop song as you can write.

The rest of the EP can’t match them, but those two of the greatest singles the band ever released.

2. Reproduction [1979]

If Kraftwerk were cold, the first Human League album lacked humanity. In some ways, it’s a total subversion of everything we’d been led to believe popular music was.

Perhaps it only really could have come out of Sheffield, a working class city of steel mills. There’s something about the bleak detachment that echoes the similar circumstances that gave birth to Birmingham’s Black Sabbath a decade earlier. And yet it still sounds futuristic.

If anything, the album is probably best summed up with the cover of The Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling.  Originally a 60s blue eyed soul classic, the League take the lyric and give it a whole new meaning. There are no loving feelings anywhere on this album, and that is completely the point.

Only Empire State Human has managed to cross over into latter day League, and fans of the poppier side of the group would be best served steering clear of Reproduction, but approached with an open mind and it proves to be one of the most inventive albums of its period.

1. Dare [1981]

It is rare that an album makes such an impact that it casts a shadow over the band for the rest of time. Dare is a doubled edged sword for the band; a unique moment in history where the planets aligned, and a success so colossal that they were never able to top it. Even today, in a typically British way, the band themselves seem fairly nonchalant about it.

Of course, it was a miracle that it was made at all. When Marsh and Ware departed to form Heaven 17, the prevailing wisdom was that they were the geniuses behind the Human League, and Oakey was semi-talented hack who had just got lucky.

The biggest snag was that the group had a UK tour due to commence in just ten days’ time, with promoters threatening to sue if the band didn’t show. Whilst recruiting new members, Oakey decided that he wanted a female backing vocalist, and headed to a Sheffield night club where he found two teenagers; Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall.

This was music to the ears of Marsh and Ware, who were now certain that Oakey’s new Human League were doomed to fail. Indeed, the ensuing tour was something of a disaster, with the girls being forced to dodge an endless barrage of bottles on each of the tours’ dates. But they got through it, and work began on what would become arguably the defining release of the era.

The girls have often faced criticisms throughout their time with the band, but with Oakey pursuing a more pop sound, Sulley and Catherall proved to be a defining influence in the studio. They were, in effect, the very audience that he wanted the new Human League to appeal to – young girls on a night out. In that sense, they were as vital a part of the process of Dare as anyone, including Oakey and producer Martin Rushent.

Rushent, the girls and the other new recruits Ian Burden, Jo Callis (along with the one holdover from the original band, Philip Adrian Wright) managed to strike a perfect balance between mature song craft and experimentation, pushing the new League past the robotic, detached synthesisers and giving them heart.

The songs, of course, are perfect. Lead single The Sound of the Crowd eases the Human League into this new phase, with one foot in their past. Open Your Heart sounds like a simple pop song, but is actually Rushent‘s most complex track of the album with multiple synthesiser and drum machine layers. Love Action (I Believe In Love) is, quite simply, the greatest pop record they ever produced.

Outside of the singles, opener The Things That Dreams Are Made Of perfectly summarises the band’s predicament going into Dare, and the haunting Seconds is a sombre meditation on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

And that, of course, brings us to Don’t You Want Me.

What can we say? If you had to compile a list of hits from the era – maybe even any era – it would be one of the first you would mention. But it very nearly wasn’t the case.

Despite the clever lyric depicting an interplay between Oakey and Sulley in a tale not of love, but nasty sexual politics, it was only just tacked onto the end of Dare as the band considered it of lesser quality, a bit of filler to round off the record. After a year of continued success with three consecutive top ten hit singles and a number one album, Virgin released Don’t You Want Me to capitalise on their popularity. Oakey was annoyed – in his words “the public were now sick of hearing The Human League”, and he certainly didn’t like the idea of this poor quality filler track to torpedo the progress they had made.

But the label persisted, and even commissioned an elaborate music video to help the band break onto the then-new American channel MTV, which depicted the making of a murder-mystery film starring co-lead vocalist Sulley and Oakey as the film’s director.

Despite the rush release, Don’t You Want Me – the single, the video – somehow managed to define an era. Number one on both sides of the Atlantic, and one of the few non-seasonal songs to re-chart on numerous occasions, and even hit number one again on the Scottish chart as recently as 2014

To this day, Phil Oakey still believes Don’t You Want Me is overrated.

The Human League play Manchester Arena on Friday 10th December.