Here come the girls: 40 years of The Human League’s Dare
For the fourth year of the UK’s National Album Day, the powers that be have decided to spotlight female performers and their immeasurable contribution to music and culture through the art of the LP. From the earliest pioneers to present-day legends, the 2021 event highlights the integral role women play within the wider music community, not only as recording artists, but as songwriters, producers, and even as a “couple of shop girls” hastily drafted in to prop up a new incarnation of one of Britain’s most seminal electronic outfits.
The oft-repeated theory that a new musical decade starts about half way through the actual ten year period certainly wasn’t true of the Eighties. By 1981 the most celebrated album of the genre that defined that era, synthpop, had arrived.
Revisiting iconic and influential albums certainly forces the nostalgia floodgates open, so this year I’ve chosen a masterpiece of electronica that was issued the year I first started buying music but, alas, I didn’t personally own until the end of the decade. It sounded like the future then, and all these years later, incredibly, it still does. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, this is The Human League’s Dare.
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were a couple of computer operators from Sheffield. The flood of cheap technology in the late 1970s ensured that machines that went ping were now within reach of the most fledgling experimentalists and the pair bought a cheap synth or two, invited Adrian Wright in to sort the visuals for some live performances and when local lad Glenn Gregory wasn’t available asked an old school friend called Philip Oakey to work the microphone.
A fairly groundbreaking bunch they were, they eventually called themselves The Human League, after a group in the science-fiction board game StarForce: Alpha Centauri. The ever evolving line-up set about exploring the melodic potential of the synthesisers at hand and went for an industrial, icy feel – a windswept and austere European emotion firmly influenced by Bowie and Eno, Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder’s work with Donna Summer.
At London’s Nashville Rooms in February of 1979, the Thin White Dame himself watched them play to a capacity crowd that included the almost-famous Gary Numan and Tracey Thorn and announced to the NME that he “had seen the future of pop music.”
“We saw The Human League at the Nashville, in the Being Boiled days, when they were a very serious and theoretical concoction of post-punk electronica — the pop songs and the shop girls a long way off in an unimaginable future — and I swear that I stood next to David Bowie at the bar.” — Tracey Thorn, Bedsit Disco Queen, 2013
Releasing their first two albums a mere six months apart — 1979’s Reproduction and 1980’s Travelogue — the band quickly became media darlings with their doomy futurism, their way-out slide show and Phil’s asymmetrical lop-sided hair.
However, by 1981, they were in disarray. The group had split in two, with the non-musical half left with the name, an imminent European tour and a welter of debts. Hard times indeed.
Intensifying the latent discord, the press beatified the BEF boffins (the Ware & Marsh half, later to rechristen themselves Heaven 17 with that Gregory guy), while the League looked to be well and truly down the dumper.
Then, bound by the terms of the band’s contract with Virgin Records, Oakey bought off his old friends for 1% of future earnings then went down the local disco and the rest became extremely marketable history.
He talked, he dared, he won.
With the live commitments to fulfil, Oakey decided to add a female backing vocalist – taking his quest to Sheffield’s salubrious night spots. The frontman had a brainwave when he spotted bright young things Susan Sulley (17) and Joanne Catherall (18) dancing in-sync at the city’s Crazy Daisy Nightclub. The school friends had even bought tickets to the HL‘s forthcoming Doncaster gig.
In additional, Oakey employed musician Ian Burden from Sheffield synth band Graph as keyboardist, with former Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis becoming the final permanent member of the band in the spring. With The Human League V2.0 ready for business, Virgin matched them with celebrated producer Martin Rushent (Stranglers, Buzzcocks, Visage). Rushent’s adept sequencing and programming skills brought a professional edge to the band’s sound, and the result was the impeccably modish Dare.
Released the third week of October 1981, the refashioned outfit presented not only the third League long-player but the definitive electro-pop album; an era-defining record so epochal that it’s impossible to think early Eighties and not be instantly transported back in time to that iconic artwork (based on fash mag rag Vogue) and the slew of radio staples just screaming to get out.
Moreover, a fair few of what we now affectionally call ‘deep cuts’ are so much part of the fabric of contemporary electronica that it’s easy to forget that the likes of Do Or Die or scene-setter The Things That Dreams Are Made Of weren’t actually singles at the time.
The pioneering style of twin lead harmony vocals, syncopated bass line rhythm sections and Phil’s wonderfully odd baritone croon — somewhere between latter-day Bowie and an annoyed android — caught on, because it wasn’t long before his deadpan off-kilter stylings was taken to its extreme by Soft Cell, sustaining Marc Almond throughout his entire career.
Happily, throughout the year the League’s fortunes changed dramatically and incrementally as the album generated hit after hit. Adam And The Ants may have been the biggest band in Britain, but the League were the sound of ’81, and nothing typifies that better than the Lou Reed-quoting Love Action (I Believe In Love) — a crystal chandelier as pop song: bright, sparkling, cold and brittle, but still elusively attractive. One of the group’s greatest 45s, it swanned up to third place in August.
The awkwardness of lines like “I believe, I believe what the old man said / though I know that there’s no lord above / I believe in me, I believe in you, and you know I believe in love”, is kinda like stilted ear-candy, the guileless creation of a lonely young man in his basement writing love songs on his computer.
Moving swiftly on, the shimmery spare pop of Open Your Heart reached number six the very week the album was released and confirmed the band’s newfound popularity.
The heady pop rush culminated in fourth single Don’t You Want Me stealing the show as a transatlantic chart-topper, UK Christmas No.1 and what has recently been announced as the biggest selling song of the year. Though that’s a matter of some conjecture.*
Why was it buried at the very end of the album? Chiefly because Oakey wrote it as a throwaway piece of ABBA-esque pop, a “poor quality filler track… our sort of Des O’Connor song.” Moreover, he hated Martin Rushent’s overly poppy mix and thought it would be the weakest track on Dare, resulting in one of his infamous rows with the producer.
Indeed, it’s easy to forget how little the DYWM behemoth had in common with the album’s more crepuscular and avant-garde moments that add depth and offer some experimental weirdness and maybe even a link back to The Human League of old. You know, things such as the eerie Darkness, the chilling Seconds and the minimal I Am The Law — or even the claustrophobic artpop of The Sound Of The Crowd come to that, the surprise No.12 hit that kicked off the Dare project just seven months earlier.
With lyrics based on a cornball photo-story in a teen-girl’s magazine, Don’t You Want Me‘s deliberately banal chorus, especially, smacks of super Swedes Agnetha and Frida at their most overtly poppy.
In the course of writing this article I asked Dare’s chief synthesist Ian Burden what he made of Oakey’s unashamed ABBA fixation, especially as by 1981 the Nordic Fab Four, though still capable of the odd minor classic, were largely regarded as kinda square and old hat.
“I think Philip is often inclined to be contrary. He also doesn’t like to be tied to fashions. Plus, he loves to combine artiness with pure pop. That’s my reading of it.”
Unlike the Swedes, there’s scant information about the League’s internal machinations. Dare was issued just a month after I started high school, and I can remember a silly conversation with some of new chums as to which pop stars of the day we thought might be gay. The general consensus was Marc Almond definitely was (surely some mistake?), someone thought Nick Rhodes might be, Adam Ant “must be” and “that Phil Oakey — apparently he’s going out with one of the girls in the band. But he’s had his nipples pierced, and with all that hair and make-up I reckon he must be bisexual.”
Wisely, Oakey is fond of a Bowie-esque mystique, though he did allude to an ill-fated youthful marriage in Love Action, partnered Catherall – and, rumour has it, dated Sulley.
“There was all sorts of romance and things going on in the first place,” he affirmed in 2017. “[But] we’ve done that, we’ve moved on. Joanne’s got a son who’s now leaving university and Susan’s got a lovely bloke.”
That’s alright then.
So massive was Dare that, inevitably, the synth-popsters struggled to follow it — with a pile up of abandoned sessions all they could put their name to in 1982 and 1983 were a pair of one-off 45s, with the Adam Ant-baiting** Motownish Mirror Man — my own very first HL purchase — and the bass-tastic ensemble piece (Keep Feeling) Fascination. The singles would both reach runner-up position in the British charts, their last Top Five entries in their homeland to date.
“They’re just a pop group now,” opined Steve Day, when we watched the League doing the song on Top Of The Pops. Curiously, Fascination checked out of the charts the same week that Paul Young’s fretless, deathless cover of Marvin Gaye’s Where I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home) made itself known. The connection? Listen to his distinctive female backing singers (going by the oh-so-jocular moniker The Fabulous Wealthy Tarts) and ask yourself where he got his shop girls idea from.
Amid line-up changes and several nervous breakdowns, the band’s fourth album, 1984’s sleekly minimal Hysteria, will be eternally underrated, despite or more likely because of its politically controversial, guitar-edged single The Lebanon.
And where shops have given up the ghost, the League — with its nucleus of vocalists acting as a trio since the mid ’80s — has endured, gaining two further Top 10 hits with the Jam & Lewis-helmed Human in 1986 (HL’s second US No.1 to boot) and the better fitting Tell Me When in 1995. As with most acts this century they tour whenever they can, sparked by a resurgence that caught fire during the Noughties’ electroclash era, with the band subverting Eighties revivalism with 2001’s criminally under-appreciated Secrets, their most analogue-y work since Dare.
On the crest of a synthwave, the following year George Michael sampled Love Action on his satirical anti-Bush and Blair single Shoot The Dog (No.12 in the run up to the Iraq war). But renegade producer Richard X went one better (well, nine actually) when he repurposed Being Nobody for Liberty X, blending Being Boiled with Chaka Khan’s Ain’t Nobody. “We very nearly made an LP with him, two LPs ago,” Oakey revealed. “We went and recorded four tracks. [But] he was going in a direction that we weren’t quite going in. So we didn’t end up working with Richard. I’d love to work with him again now.”
“I often think records are a little bit better than I gave them credit for at the time,” the frontman reflects. “But we’ve always had quite an inferiority complex because we’re not trained musicians. We came out of punk in Britain and we were almost proud not to be virtuoso musicians. So we could never believe that we were making such musical records.”
In 2008, they even toured Dare for the first time in its entirety, on a triple header Steel City tour with ABC and (gasp) Heaven 17. The shows were several years in the making. In fact, there were negotiations with the newly reformed Soft Cell to stage a 20th anniversary double bill of Dare and Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret in the last quarter of 2001. Until that is, Marc Almond, giddy from the reception the Leeds duo received with their tentative foray back on the boards, went off the idea:
“Human League? Oh, I don’t think we need them now,” he told management supremo Stevo. To which the Some Bizarre mainman who had been instrumental in setting the whole thing up called him a capricious bastard. I know, because I was there, often popping in on lunch break from MOJO magazine round the corner. Which is more than be said of one legendary curmudgeonly music critic. According to the book Let It Blurt: The Life and Times of Lester Bangs, Bangs’ heart went bang and died of a drug overdose while listening to Dare.
But in 1981, when men in eyeliner and lipstick was the height of sophistication and synths threatened to sweep away all before them, this record was indeed “the sound of the crowd”, the definitive soundtrack of young Britain (and, soon after, way beyond). Dare has it all: intriguing lyrics, the most chicest of visuals whose shiny white brilliance matches the music inside and, above all, those synthetic martial beats and swathes of sleek, thrilling and icily cool synthpop.
“One day all records will be made this way”, they promised. These are the things that dreams are made of.
*The UK’s OCC announced in March 2021 that with an estimated 1.15 million sales Don’t You Want Me is the top selling song of 1981, which “differs from previously released versions of the chart, which had Soft Cell’s Tainted Love at Number 1, now in second with 1.05m sales. The new chart has been compiled using the very latest Official Charts Company sales information now available for the 1980s period.” Though they fail to say whether DYWM was the best selling single of those released in 1981, ie subsequent sales after that year are included.
**When I published Adam Ant is The Human League’s Mirror Man in 2017, no less than Ian Burden exclaimed on my Facebook page that “I had no idea Mirror Man was about Adam Ant!,” and then revealed that Oakey never revealed what his lyrics were about to the rest of the band. No talking, just looking then.
Released the same day as Dare, The greatest music debuts of all time #9: Eurythmics are In The Garden is here.
But if you’ve ever wondered exactly which issue of Vogue Phil was gawking at, then look no further: Model Gia Carangi was one of the Bowie fan ‘Sigma Kids’ of Philadelphia and this 1979 edition was clearly the HL‘s inspiration, exclamation mark and all. By all accounts ‘!’ was left off of the original UK pressing of the album in 1981 though it was featured in advertisements at the time.