The Human League are an English synthpop band formed in 1977. Originally a minimal Post-Punk synthesiser-based group from Sheffield, UK, they became one of the most successful New Wave acts of the 80s. The only consistent band member is vocalist and songwriter Phil Oakey. The band’s best known configuration was their 1980-1985 lineup of Phillip Oakey (vocals), Joanne Catherall (vocals), Susanne Sulley (vocals), Phillip Adrian Wright (keyboards), Jo Callis (guitar, keyboards) and Ian Burden (bass).
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were both working as computer programmers in 1977, and combined a love of pop music (such as glam rock and Tamla Motown) with avant garde electronic music. They acquired a Roland System 100 synthesizer and began to create music in their own rehearsal facility. Initially they formed a group called The Dead Daughters, which then became The Future with Adi Newton on vocals. Newton was soon dismissed and left to form the outfit Clock DVA. Ware and Marsh searched for a vocalist, but their first choice, Glenn Gregory (who would be the lead singer of their later band, Heaven 17), was unavailable. Ware instead decided to invite Philip Oakey, an old school friend, and a hospital porter at the time to join the band, “apparently by leaving a note stuck to his door”. Oakey accepted the invitation, despite never having been in a band before. Shortly after, they decided to call themselves The Human League. A collection of demos from this period was released on CD in 2002, titled The Golden Hour of The Future, compiled by Richard X.
The original lineup of The Human League debuted in 1978 with the single “Being Boiled”, a dark synth track that would later become extremely influential on later industrial musicians (namely Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails). This single and it’s follow-up “Empire State Human” were modest sucesses, however the group’s albums – 1979’s “Reproduction” and 1980’s “Travelogue” – did not sell. This caused a rift in the band, and in 1980, Ian Marsh and Martyn Ware left the group.
Following the split of the original line-up, Phillip Adrian Wright (their live slide projectionist) fully joined the group and Oakey & himself released another flop single, “Boys and Girls”. In order to fulfil their European tour commitments, they recruited bass player Ian Burden, and fronted the band with two singers, Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall, schoolgirls whom they had met in a Sheffield nightclub, and managed to complete the tour.
In 1981, Virgin Records paired them with former Stranglers producer Martin Rushent, and the first result was the single “The Sound of the Crowd”, which saw them at last achieve success in the singles chart. Guitarist Jo Callis (formerly of The Rezillos) was now recruited to the band, and with Rushent at the helm, The Human League recorded their most successful album to date, “Dare!”. It achieved huge success, fuelled by its further hit singles, “Open Your Heart”, “Love Action” and most famously “Don’t You Want Me”, which reached number one in the UK charts during the Christmas of 1981 and was one of the biggest selling singles of that year, and it also charted at number one in the US during the summer of 1982. These three releases were accompanied by striking promo videos (“Love Action” based on the movie The Graduate). During their Dare! phase, the Human League were often associated with the New Romantic movement.
The band also had a number of other hits but their success faded towards the mid-1980s. Arguably, one problem was the length of time the band took to make a record. Dare! was followed by the six-song EP Fascination! (featuring hit singles “Mirror Man” and “Fascination”) as a stopgap, and it took three years to release a full-length follow-up album, “Hysteria”.
In 1985, outside of the Human League, Oakey scored a huge hit single in collaboration with one of his idols, synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder, with the single “Together in Electric Dreams”, taken from the film soundtrack to Electric Dreams. The pair proceeded to record an entire album for Virgin, Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder, but this met with rather less success.
In 1986, the group found themselves in creative stagnation, struggling to record material to follow up on their previous success. Key songwriter Jo Callis departed, replaced by drummer Jim Russell, and Virgin paired the League up with cutting-edge American R&B producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The result was the “Crash” album. The album featured much material written by Jam and Lewis’ team, and showcased their distinctive DX7-led sound, making it quite a departure from previous Human League material. It did provide an American number one single, “Human”, but other singles made smaller chart impact