The Human League are an English synth-pop band formed in Sheffield in 1977. Initially an experimental electronic outfit, the group signed to Virgin Records in 1979 and later attained widespread commercial success with their third album Dare in 1981. The album contained four hit singles, including the UK/US number one hit “Don’t You Want Me.” The band received the Brit Award for Best British Breakthrough Act in 1982. Further hits followed throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, including “Mirror Man,” “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” “The Lebanon,” “Human” (a US No. 1) and “Tell Me When.”
The only constant band member since 1977 has been lead singer and songwriter Philip Oakey. Keyboard players Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh both left the band in 1980 to form Heaven 17. Under Oakey’s leadership, The Human League then evolved into a commercially successful New Pop band with a new line-up including female vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley. Since the mid-1990s, the band has essentially been a trio of Oakey, Catherall and Sulley with various sidemen.
Since 1978, the Human League have released nine studio albums, two remix albums, one live album, six EPs, 30 singles and several compilation albums. They have had five albums and eight singles in the UK Top 10 and have sold more than 20 million records worldwide.
Before adopting the name the Human League, the band briefly had two previous incarnations. In early 1977, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who had met at youth arts project Meatwhistle, were both working as computer operators. Their musical collaboration combined pop music (such as glam rock and Tamla Motown) with avant-garde electronic music. With the price of electronic components dropping in the mid-1970s, equipment became more affordable for the average consumer; Ware and Marsh purchased a Korg 700S synthesizer together and learned how to play it. Their musical reputation spread and they were invited to play at a friend’s 21st birthday party. For the party, Ware and Marsh formed themselves into an informal band called The Dead Daughters. Their live highlight was a rendition of the theme of the British TV series Doctor Who.
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, mixed by Richard X. 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 could not 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. Oakey was working as a hospital porter at the time and 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.” When Ware called on Oakey he found he was out, so asked him to join the Future by leaving a note stuck to his front door. He accepted the invitation, but early sessions were awkward. Oakey had never sung in front of an audience before, could not play keyboards and only owned a saxophone (which he could barely play). Listening to one of Ware and Marsh’s demos, Oakey was inspired to write some lyrics which later became the single “Being Boiled.”
With a new line-up, sound, and vocalist, Ware decided that the band needed a new name. It would also allow them to approach record companies again from a different angle. Ware suggested a quote derived from Starforce: Alpha Centauri, a science-fiction wargame. 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.“
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 unique and at odds with everything else on the market – it was picked up on by NME who championed the band, although one guest reviewer, John Lydon of Public Image Limited condemned the band as “trendy hippies.”
Boosted by critical praise, on 12 June 1978 the band played their first live gig together at Bar 2 in Sheffield’s Psalter Lane Art College (latterly Sheffield Hallam University); a plaque commemorated the event until the Psalter Lane site officially closed on 31 August 2008.
With their reliance on technology and tape machines, the band had been nervous about playing live. After the Psalter Lane performance, they worried that they had appeared static and uninspiring. A friend of Oakey’s who had been in the audience, Philip Adrian Wright, who also had an art and photography background was invited to become the band’s Director of Visuals with a remit to “liven up” the stage performance with slides, film clips and lighting.
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.”
In April 1979, the Human League released their first EP on the Fast Product label 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. 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 promising them creative freedom, Virgin demanded sweeping changes to the band’s style for their first single to make it more commercial. The label required the band to use conventional instruments and vocals as well as synthesizers. Because the League 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 female vocals by guests Lisa (Liza) 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 an impact on the charts. After these flops, Virgin cancelled 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 March 1980, the band — which had not yet hit the singles charts — was namechecked in a UK hit song by The Undertones. The track “My Perfect Cousin“, which would peak at #9 on the UK charts in May, 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 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 on 8 May 1980 opening a Peter Powell presented show with Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2”. This was to be the only high-profile TV appearance by the Oakey/Marsh/Ware trio on British television, with the sole exception of BBC2’s Mainstream programme in late 1979, where a performance in the studio, complete with slideshow, was broadcast of the tracks “The Path of Least Resistance” and the current minor hit “Empire State Human.”
In May 1980, the band toured the UK. Philip Adrian Wright was now playing incidental keyboards in addition to his visuals role. It was the last time all four members performed together live. Also in May, the band released their second studio album Travelogue. More commercial-sounding than Reproduction, it peaked at No. 16 in the UK, giving the band their first real success. As a result, “Empire State Human” was re-released and the band made their second appearance on Top of the Pops even though it only reached No. 62 in the singles chart.
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.
Equipment used in this period were – Roland Jupiter 4, Korg 770, Roland System 100 consisting of 1 x 101 keyboard, 2 x 102 expanders, 2 x 104 sequencers and 103 mixer plus taped backing for rhythm and drum parts.
The relationship between Oakey and Ware had always been turbulent, and the pair often quarrelled over creative and personal matters. 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. Two weeks before the UK/Europe tour the band split.
Retaining the Human League name came at a heavy price for Oakey; he was responsible for all Human League debts and commitments. Also, the Human League would have to pay Ware and Marsh one percent of royalties of the next Human League album under the Virgin contract.
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 on a Wednesday night 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 girls dancing together on the dance floor. Susan Ann Sulley (aged 17) and Joanne Catherall (aged 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.
Oakey states that when he found out the age of the girls 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.
The tour was completed as advertised with the first date at Doncaster Top Rank but was less than successful. The music press was scornful of “Oakey and his dancing girls” and treated the new band line-up with derision. Many of the audiences who had paid to see the original all-male line-up were not happy with the new band; Sulley and Catherall were often heckled and, on occasion, objects were thrown.
On completion of the tour, Burden went on to his next commitment playing bass guitar in West Berlin. Because of the professionalism they had shown and because he planned to use them further vocally, Oakey and manager Bob Last made Sulley and Catherall full members of the band, to be paid on a salary basis.
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 their sixth-form full-time) were not involved in the recording but were included on the single’s front cover. The single reached No. 47 in the UK charts, the band’s highest chart position 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 his 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 became their first Top 40 hit, reaching No. 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 Rezilloswhom 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 No. 3 in the UK in August 1981. The band set about arranging their existing material and demos into a viable album, produced by Rushent. Sulley and Catherall who had just left school immediately postponed their plans to attend university to work on the album.
By this time, the band’s commercial success and higher profile had caused their first two albums to start selling again. Reproduction charted for the first time in August 1981, eventually peaking at no.34, and Travelogue also recharted and returned to the Top 30 for several weeks. Both albums would eventually achieve Gold status.
In October 1981, Virgin released a brand new single, “Open Your Heart“, which gave the band another Top 10 hit. The band’s new album, Dare, was also released in October 1981 and reached No. 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 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 over-ruled by Draper and “Don’t You Want Me” was released in November 1981. Aided by an expensive music video (a rarity at the time) directed by film maker Steve Barron, the single went to No. 1 for five weeks over the 1981 Christmas period.
“Don’t You Want Me” became the band’s biggest hit, selling almost 1.5 million copies in the UK. Dare has since been labelled as one of pop music’s most influential albums. In a retrospective review of the album, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, senior editor for AllMusic, gave Dare a five-star rating. He wrote: “The technology may have dated, synths and drum machines may have become more advanced, but few have manipulated technology in such an emotionally effective way.” Philip Oakey often plays down claims of “Dare” being such an influential album, but at other times acknowledges its influence on modern music. In 2001, paraphrasing an NME headline from 1980, Oakey once famously quipped: “The Human League: one day all music will be made like this! And it is!”
Although the group has been retrospectively identified with the New Romantic movement of this period, according to Dave Rimmer, author of New Romantics: The Look, “at the time [they] were no such thing.” The band themselves have also consistently and strenuously rejected the label. The Sheffield scene in which the Human League formed predated New Romanticism and took more influence from Kraftwerk. Bands in the Sheffield scene were also referred to as Futurists, although Oakey himself has said: “We thought we were the punkiest band in Sheffield.”
Capitalising on the success of the album and their recent No. 1 hit single, “Being Boiled” was re-released and became a Top 10 hit in early 1982. The band toured for the first time together internationally. Concurrently, Dare (later renamed Dare!) was released in the US by A&M Records and “Don’t You Want Me” also reached No. 1 there in the summer of 1982. A remix album of Dare entitled Love and Dancing was released under the group name “The League Unlimited Orchestra” (a tribute to Barry White‘s Love Unlimited Orchestra), reaching No. 3 on the UK album chart.
In 1982, the band received the Best British Newcomer award at the annual Brit Music awards, and Rushent also took Best Producer for his work on Dare. By the end of the awards party, a drunken Sulley and Catherall had lost the band’s valuable trophy and it was never seen again.
The Human League’s work was now recognised on both sides of the Atlantic. In February 1983, the band was nominated for the Best New Artist award at the 25th annual Grammy Awards (though the award eventually went to Men at Work).
The follow-up single, “(Keep Feeling) Fascination“, was released in April 1983, and peaked at No. 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.
In August 1983, the band released “the UK’s first videotape single” to capitalise on the growing market created by the increasing popularity of domestic home video cassette recorders (VCRs), called The Human League Video Single. Although “video albums” had been released by bands such as Blondie and ELO as early as 1979, this release was a short (12 mins) video tape cassette in either VHS or Betamax format containing just three tracks (the music videos for “Mirror Man”, “Love Action (I Believe in Love)”, and “Don’t You Want Me”). Although it was not a commercial success (as it retailed for £10.99, compared to 12″ vinyl singles averaging £1.99 in 1983), the format caught on and other artists began releasing video singles/EPs of their own.
The band spent many months agonising 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 No. 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 No. 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 peaked at No. 16.
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. Often now erroneously credited as a Human League single, due to its success and enduring popularity, the band have since adopted it for their live performances and it appears on their greatest hits compilations. Oakey and Moroder then recorded an album together for Virgin, Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder, but this met with rather less success and the following two singles failed to make the UK Top 40. However, the success of the original Oakey and Moroder track encouraged Virgin to release one final single from Hysteria in November 1984, the ballad “Louise” was released and reached No. 13 in the UK.
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. In 1985, the band spent several months working on a new album with producer Colin Thurston (who had produced the first two Duran Duran albums) but yet more clashes in the recording studio ensued and the project was shelved in September 1985.
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 with Janet Jackson, the SOS Band, Alexander O’Neal, and Cherelle. 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 Yamaha DX7-led sound. It had a US No. 1 single, “Human” (No. 8 in the UK), but other singles performed relatively poorly. The album, while making the Top 10 in the UK, was not as popular as previous releases. Disheartened by being sidelined in Minneapolis and with the direction the band had taken, Adrian Wright left the band to work in film. Crash was generally more popular in the US and internationally than in the UK. The band toured in the UK and internationally in 1986 and 1987 to capitalise on their high-profile at this time.
In 1987, Ian Burden also left the band. In November 1988 a greatest hits compilation album was released that reached No. 3 in UK. This was preceded by the release of the single “Love Is All That Matters” from Crash.
In 1989, the band built their own studio in Sheffield, jointly funded by Oakey and a business development loan from Sheffield City Council. Oakey believed if the band owned their own facilities it would cut down on the production costs of future albums and the band could become more productive.