The Human League
Synopsis of Pop Music
“Don’t you want me, baby?
Don’t you want me, o-oh-oh-oh?”
By the early 1980’s, synthesizers were just as important to a pop group’s sound as electric guitars. Advances in technology and cheaper prices made it possible for even the smallest groups to produce full-blooded sounds with a few synthesizers. As a result, a whole series of groups rose up who put electronics at the heart of their sound to create a musical style known as synth-pop. One of the most important of these early synth-pop groups was the Human Leagues, an electronic outfit who managed to coax rich, enticing sounds out of their electronic equipment to create worldwide hits like “Don’t You Want Me” and “Human.”
The Human League was born when two computer operators, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, banded together over their love of electronic sounds and left-of-center pop music. They soon acquired a stylish vocalist in Phil Oakey and developed a performance art-styled presentation that mixed their music with lighting effects and slide shows. In 1978, they sold 16,000 copies of an indie single called “Being Boiled,” and its success won the group a record contract. Over the next few years, the Human League developed an edgy, electronic style in the vein of Kraftwerk on albums like Reproduction and Travelogue.
In 1980, the more experimental-minded duo of Marsh and Ware left the Human League to form Heaven 17 and the British Electronic Foundation. Meanwhile, Philip Oakey remolded the Human League’s electronic sound into a warmer, more pop-friendly style. He also added new members, including female vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, to flesh out the group’s sound. The next year, the Human League brought their new sound to life on Dare. This album became a U.K. sensation and spun off an endless series of catchy electro-pop hit singles. The biggest of these was “Don’t You Want Me,” a danceable exploration of love gone bad that was the biggest-selling single in England during 1981.
The Human League crossed over to international fame in 1982 when “Don’t You Want Me” became a smash worldwide hit. The song made unique use of two lead vocals to explore both sides of a failed relationship, driving it home with a pulsating, complex sound delivered almost totally by synthesizers. The song also boasted an excellent, cinematic video that depicted the two lovers of the song breaking up while they were working on the production of a film. The film-within-a-video concept and the stylish, model-like appearance of the group made it an instant favorite on MTV. The video success translated to radio success as “Don’t You Want Me” became a #1 hit in the U.S.
During 1982, the Human League made a successful tour of the world as Dare became a best-seller around the globe. Meanwhile, their success made it possible for synth-pop groups like Soft Cell and Duran Duran to cross over to American success. The Human League did not release another album in 1983 but continued to stay on the charts with new singles: “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” was a joyous slice of pop with a Motown feel that went Top-10, and “Mirror Man” continued in this soulful synth-pop vein to become a Top-30 hit. In 1984, the Human League returned with the album Hysteria, and Phil Oakey sang the theme song for the romantic comedy Electric Dreams.
Two years would pass before the next Human League album. Crash arrived in 1986 and was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who helped Janet Jackson become a superstar with her Control album. Jam and Lewis also wrote several of Crash’s songs, including “Human.” This lush slice of soft-pop balladry returned to the love-gone-wrong theme of “Don’t You Want Me” to become a #1 hit. Surprisingly, the band remained silent for the rest of the decade. During this gap, a successful Greatest Hits album was released in 1988.
Since then, the group’s members have pursued other projects but reunite occasionally to make music as the Human League on albums like 1990’s ‘Romantic?’ and 1995’s Octopus. In recent years, they have also done reunion tours fellow early-1980’s groups ABC and Culture Club. Their classic synth-pop recordings continue to be a staple at dance clubs and on new-wave radio programs. As long as pop musicians want to pursue pop music in an electronic format, the Human League will continue to provide an important inspiration.
Artist Release History07/79 - Reproduction
05/80 - Travelogue
10/81 - Dare
06/84 - Hysteria
05/86 - Crash
10/88 - Greatest Hits
09/90 - ‘Romantic?’
01/95 - Octopus
07/98 - The Very Best Of The Human League
Pop Sub Categoriespop
Essential Music AlbumsThe Very Best Of The Human League (Ark 21)
Band MembersPhil Oakey vocals
Martyn Ware (1978-80) synthesizer
Ian Craig Marsh (1978-80) synthesizer
Adrian Wright synthesizer
Susanne Sulley vocals
Joanne Catherall vocals
Ian Burden bass
Jo Callis guitar