The Human League

  • British new wave/synth-pop band formed in 1977 from Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. The members of the band from 1980 onward were Philip Oakey (vocals, keyboards, songwriting), Joanne Catherall (vocals) and Susan Ann Sulley (vocals). Adrian Wright (keyboards), Ian Burden (keyboards, bass guitar), Jo Callis (keyboards, guitars) and Jim Russell (drums) were members in the early to mid-80s – once they left the group, they were replaced with session/touring musicians. These musicians also co-wrote with Oakey.
  • The earliest members of the band were Oakey and two friends – Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. Ware and Marsh asked Oakey to join their synthesizer-based band they called The Future, because they needed a vocalist, although Oakey had no experience in singing in public. Ware and Marsh picked him because “he already looked like a pop star.” The trio began to perform, enhancing their shows with slide presentations assembled by their friend Adrian Wright. In early 1978, realizing that they needed a new name for the group, they chose The Human League after a group in the science fiction board game Starforce: Alpha Centauri. 
  • A demo tape of their music was sent to record companies, and an independent label based in Scotland signed them. In the summer of 1978, they released their first single, Being Boiled. It did not chart initially, but UK-based music newspaper NME wrote a positive review, and the band started to get noticed. Their live performances became more refined, and they were asked to open for established acts.
  • An EP was released in 1979, and while it was not successful, it opened the door to major record labels. Now with another label, they released studio albums in 1979 and 1980, with Wright now part of the group, adding some keyboards. These records sold modestly in the UK. Unhappy with the direction of the band, Ware and Marsh left, with a Human League tour scheduled to start in ten days.
  • Oakey was desperate to keep his tour obligation, so he went to some local bars and found Catherall and Sulley dancing on the dance floor. They were just two teenage schoolgirls out for the night, but Oakey asked them to join the tour as dancers and vocalists. Burden was asked to join on bass guitar and keyboards, and the tour went on, though they were skewered by the press and ended heavily in debt.
  • Under pressure to make money to cover their losses, they quickly released a single, Boys and Girls. It managed to reach #47 on the UK charts, and their label was satisfied to continue to support them. The label brought in a professional producer to work on their next album, and Callis was added to the lineup. This new lineup released the album Dare in 1981, and it was their breakthrough. The first three singles from the album charted highly in the UK – The Sound of the Crowd reached #12, Love Action (I Believe In Love) made it to #3 and Open Your Heart peaked at #6.
  • The label wanted one more single released from the Dare album. Despite Oakey’s objections, Don’t You Want Me was chosen in late 1981. Oakey hated the “poppy” sound that their producer had given it and he felt that it would ruin their growing popularity. Instead, thanks to the music video that was made to support it, it topped the charts in both the U.S. and UK, and The Human League was lauded as innovators in electropop, with Dare considered a huge influence on music in the early 80s. Their success led to a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist.
  • They struggled to put together new music, but by 1983, an EP titled Fascination! was ready. Two singles sold well – Mirror Man and (Keep Feeling) Fascination reached #2 in the UK and the latter was a top ten hit in the U.S. Finally, after changing producers and scrapping music that they recorded, they released the Hysteria album in 1984. It was less successful, though three singles broke into the top 20 in the UK.
  • Still struggling to create new music, Callis left the group. Another producer was hired and fired, and then the record label contracted with American R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to try to craft a hit album. The band battled their way with Jam and Lewis to create the album Crash, released in 1986. Three of the songs from the album were written by Jam and Lewis, including The Human League’s final #1 hit, Human. 
  • Following Crash, Wright and Burden left the band, leaving The Human League officially a trio of Oakey and his two women vocalists. In 1990, they released an album titled Romantic? which was not successful, and they were dropped by their record label. After a few years, they found another label, and albums were released in 1995, 2001 and 2011. They continued to tour throughout the 10s decade, and a Dare 40th anniversary tour was planned for 2021.
  • The Human League is another early 80s band that can thank MTV for making them famous. Here’s the video that still pays the bills for them – Don’t You Want Me. It pretty much defines 80s technopop.

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