The Human League - Biography
The Human League could be rightly called one of the bands that invented the 1980s. That sounds like a statement of hyperbole but many people would rightly consider the ‘80s as the decade when synthesizers started to become a strong, if not dominant, force in rock and pop music. The Human League were one of the first and most visual bands using synthesizers exclusively. Though they were hugely successful and influential for a few years, they fell into the trap of trying to over-think and over-produce a follow-up to a huge success and lost precious momentum that they never regained. They continue to do shows of mostly old material, but have not been much of a creative force for well over a decade.
The group that would become The Human League started when two computer programmers and amateur musicians, Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, pooled their money and bought a Korg 770S synthesizer in 1977. Both were big fans of glam rock, kraut rock and northern soul and wanted to see if they could combine their influences into with something unique. Initially they played a series of parties under the name The Dead Daughters.
Deciding they should form something of a more “proper” band, the two joined with their friend Adi Newton (later of Clock DVA fame), got another synthesizer and recorded a bunch of demos under the name The Future. Though nothing was released commercially at the time, some early Future and Human League material was later released on the collection The Golden Hour of the Future (2002 Black Melody).
Newton didn’t last long in The Future. After he left, the band decided they needed to find another vocalist — but this time one who could be a suitable frontman. Their first choice was their friend Glenn Gregory (later the vocalist in Heaven 17), but he was unable to do it. Enter one hospital porter and local scene-maker, Philip Oakey. Though he had almost no musical experience whatsoever, he was known around Sheffield for his eclectic style of dress, consisting of an asymmetrical haircut paired with a penchant for women’s cosmetics and footwear. In Oakey’s audition he added strange, science fiction-inspired stream-of-consciousness lyrics to one of their compositions (which would become the song “Being Boiled”). Suitably impressed, they asked him to join. The group picked a new name, The Human League, from a science fiction role playing game, Starforce: Alpha Centauri, that both Ware and Marsh were fond of playing.
The new group decided that their mission would be to write pop songs using just synthesizers and keyboards for the instrumentation. In the late ‘70s, while punk opened up audiences to new sounds and ways of doing things musically, its filth and fury dogma was in contrast to the Sheffield’s electropop scene which also included Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, The Normal. Few of the cookie cutter punks of 1978 were open minded enough to appreciate a synthesizer band with a cross-dressing lead singer. Nevertheless, the group made a demo of some of their new songs and sent them out to both major and independent record companies in the hopes of scoring a recording contract.
The only record company to respond to them was the Edinburgh-based indie label Fast Product, notable for issuing early releases by other groundbreaking bands of the era like The Mekons and Gang of Four. Fast issued the group’s first single, “Being Boiled,” in June of 1978. Though some critics championed them, the single only sold moderately well. Buoyed by the small amount of praise they received, the three decided to try and play live, making their debut at Sheffield’s Psalter Lane Art College in June of 1978.
In order to add an interesting visual component to their performances, the group asked Oakey's friend, Philip Adrian Wright, to become a member of the band as the “Director of Visuals.” As such he’d control the lights, slides, projections and film clips. As Wright was a huge fan of Star Trek and Doctor Who, his sensibility fit in well with the band. Wright was later roped into helping to play keyboards. With the group now more interesting as a live proposition, they started to play outside of Sheffield, even scoring opening slots on tours by The Rezillos and Siouxsie & the Banshees. At one gig, David Bowie attended and told an interviewer from a music weekly that he had, in the Human League, “…seen the future of pop music.”
The group released their first EP, The Dignity of Labour (Fast), in April of 1979. In something of a surprise move, the band included four instrumentals on the EP, hoping to show their range. Though the EP sold modestly, word of mouth about this strange band from Sheffield was starting to spread and soon the group were pursued by several record companies. The group signed with Virgin Records and in a show of gratitude, the group offered Fast Product’s head, Bob Last, the position of the band's manager. The group opened for Iggy Pop on a European tour in the summer of 1979. When they returned, they set about recording their debut for Virgin in their own Monumental Pictures studios.
Though they had been promised complete creative control by Virgin, the label insisted the band use more conventional instruments and female background singers. In a compromise, the group agreed to record one single using this approach, but using the group name The Men. The single (using acoustic drums and bass played by session musicians as well as keyboards) was called “I Don’t Depend on You.” Once it failed to chart, Virgin let the group go back to their original working structure. The group released their debut, Reproduction (Virgin), in August of 1979. Both it and the album's lead single, “Empire State Human,” failed to make much of an impression on the British charts and Virgin cancelled the group's tour in support of the album.
At around the same time, London’s Tubeway Army hit the pop charts with “Are 'Friends' Electric?” — the first electronic hit of the post-punk era. The Human League benefit from the new taste for electropop and their Holiday '80 EP (Virgin), realeased in April of 1980, did considerably better than their previous releases. The EP included the band covering Iggy Pop's “Nightclubbing” and Gary Glitter's “Rock and Roll Part 2.” The band even scored an appearance on BBC's Top of the Pops performing “Rock and Roll Part 2.” Capitalizing on their growing popularity, the band made a couple of other television appearances and was able to embark on a UK tour in 1980.
They were also able to return to their studio where they recorded and released their second album, Travelogue (1980 Virgin), which was much more polished sounding than their debut. Travelogue climbed as high as #16 on the charts and, rather than taking a single from the album, Virgin decided to re-release “Empire State Human.” This time it only brushed the bottom of the singles chart. Though there had always been strain in the band, especially between Ware and Oakey, the apparent lack of support by their record label furthered the tensions to the point of breaking. Ware wanted the group to stay a strictly synthesizer group while Oakey was open to using standard instrumentation. Ware eventually walked out on the group and took Marsh with him. Ware and Marsh soon set up a working partnership called the British Electric Foundation and soon formed a new band, Heaven 17, with their old friend, singer Glenn Gregory.
Oakey and Wright were left as the only two members of the band. Worse yet, they were the two with the least amount of musical expertise. With a tour booked that they were already contractually bound to play just a couple of weeks away, Oakey needed to find a new band fast. Oakey had the idea of recruiting a female backing singer to bring some more glamour to the band. One night, while out clubbing he spotted two teenage girls whose style he liked. He introduced himself to 17-year-old Susan Ann Sulley and 18-year-old Joanne Catherall and asked if they’d be interested in joining the Human League to serve as dancers and background singers. When permission from their parents was secured, the girls were in. Oakey and Wright also hired multi-instrumentalist Ian Burden to fill in on keyboards and the new lineup completed the tour; however, it wasn’t without a good amount of criticism and abuse from audiences preferring the earlier, more serious, all-male version of The Human League.
Once back from the tour, Burden left to pursue other commitments and the two girls had to go back to school. Oakey and Wright were left to produce a new single for the band and released “Boys and Girls” in early 1981. Surprisingly, the single charted better than any previous one but Oakey knew that he would need to bring in better trained musicians to help. Burden returned and Virgin suggested that the group could use some guidance from a professional producer. Oakey was introduced to Martin Rushent who suggested that the band, including Sulley and Catherall, should record some new material at Genetic Studios in Reading. This was in part to get away from the competitive atmosphere that existed in Sheffield between the Human League and Heaven 17, who both still shared the same studio.
Rushent had been working extensively with the then-new Linn drum machine, which was one of the first highly programmable drum machines which utilized digital samples of real drums. With the help of Rushent and the Linn, the group recorded a new single, “The Sound of the Crowd.” It was almost immediately a success and reached #12 on the charts. The group, sounding much more confident, now had a rhythmic groove that was both mechanical but also organic and accessible, marking the band’s transition to synthpop. Knowing they were on to something good, the group decided they could use another full-time musician. They asked former Rezillos guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Jo Callis to join the band as another permanent member. The group continued recording with Rushent and next released the single, “Love Action (I Believe in Love),” in August of 1981. It rocketed to #3 on the British charts.
Sensing The Human League might finally produce some hits, Virgin gave the go-ahead for the band to complete an entire album with Rushent. Released in October of 1981, Dare (Virgin) went on to be one of the defining pop albums of the 1980s. The fourth single off of the album, “Don't You Want Me,” was worldwide smash in late 1981, selling over two million copies. A stylish and expensive video was made for the song which cemented the visual image of the band for a whole generation of music fans. Largely on the strength of “Don't You Want Me,” Dare went to the #1 spot in several countries and went three times platinum.
Capitalizing on the band's new mega-success, Virgin re-released their early single “Being Boiled.” Though it sounded like an almost completely different band, this time it too vaulted into the Top Ten. The group set out on tour to promote the album and appeared on the cover of just about every major music publication. The Human League helped open the door for similarly-minded synthpop bands like Soft Cell, Depeche Mode, Alphaville, Real Life, Ultravox, Blancmange and OMD. A remix album of songs from Dare, titled Love and Dancing (Virgin) was released in 1982 under the group name The League Unlimited Orchestra, a reference to Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra. In late 1982, the group released a new single, “Mirror Man,” and it reached as high as #2 in the UK.
Though the band had become incredibly successful, they were now under extreme pressure to produce another hit album. To serve as a stop-gap until they could deliver another album, the group issued a new single, “(Keep Feeling) Fascination.” Virgin combined it, “Mirror Man” and B-sides from the singles together as the EP Fascination! (1983 Virgin), only released in the US.
The recording sessions for a new album took longer and longer. After becoming frustrated with the pace of the proceedings, producer Rushent left the project. New producers Chris Thomas and Hugh Padgham were brought in to see if they could make sense of the mess. After ditching most of what had been recorded, they set about making the group complete the sessions, which were threatening to bankrupt them. Finally, a new single, “The Lebanon,” was released in May of 1984. The group’s new album, appropriately titled Hysteria (Virgin), soon followed. “The Lebanon” featured rather heavy use of guitar, a first for a Human League album. The rest of the album failed to live up to the expectations of the band's fans and music industry critics. Though it debuted at #3 on the British charts, it soon fell and failed to sell very well in the rest of the world.
Next Phil Oakey got a chance to work with one of his early idols, producer Giorgio Moroder, on the title track for the movie Electric Dreams in 1984. The two scored a hit with the song which kept Oakey (and by extension The Human League) in the public's eye. The partnership of Oakey and Moroder worked so well that the two recorded a whole album together, Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder (Virgin), released in 1985.
After that, the Human League entered a period where they couldn't come up with anything new. In frustration, Callis quit the band and the group enlisted the help of drummer Jim Russell. Still nothing was working so Virgin shipped the band out to Minneapolis to try working with the hit-making production team of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The production team more-or-less took over the sound of the band and gave them more of a mainstream, R&B influenced sound. Disheartened by his diminishing role in the band, Wright left the group and went back to work on his first love, film.
The group released their next album, Crash (Virgin/A&M), in 1986. They scored a #1 US hit with the single, “Human,” but didn't find much success back in their native UK or in other parts of the world. The group toured in support of the album and afterwards Burden left the band. The permanent band was now basically whittled down to just Oakey, Sulley and Catherall.
In 1988, a compilation of the band's greatest hits was issued. In 1989, the group built their own studio in Sheffield. It was there that the band recorded their 1990 album, Romantic? (Virgin/A&M), with new members — keyboardist Neil Sutton and keyboardist/guitarist Russell Dennett. The album failed to sell much and soon the band were dropped by Virgin. Facing criticism from all sides and facing financial ruin, both Oakey and Sully went into periods of deep depression. Catherall was able to keep spirits up somewhat and is credited with getting the band through a very difficult period in its history.
After a few years away from the music scene, the group started making demos again. They were invited to work on a project with another pioneering synthpop band, Japan's Yellow Magic Orchestra. The resulting EP, YMO Versus the Human League (Alpha) was only released in Asia but it kept alive some fans’ hope that The Human League may someday return to being a creative pop band again.
By 1994, EastWest — a subsidiary label of Warner Brothers — expressed interest in some of the band's newer demos and signed the band for a new album. Pairing up with producer and former Tears for Fears member Ian Stanley, the group released a new album, Octopus (EastWest) in 1995. They scored a Top Ten British hit with the single, “Tell Me When.” Though the album didn't do much in the US or the rest of the world, it did climb in to the British Top Ten album chart and gave the group their first gold record in many years. Though the band was just now shown in promotional photos as a trio of Sulley, Catherall and Oakey; Stanley, Sutton and Dennett all contributed to the songwriting and performance of the albums tracks. The group toured again for the first time in almost ten years and released another greatest hits collection in 1996.
The band seemed to be back on a roll but when management was changed at EastWest, the group was dropped. They played sporadically the next few years, including stints on an '80s nostalgia package tour. In 2000, the group signed to Papillion Records and released their 2001 album Secrets. The album was written mainly by Sutton and Oakey, though the group was still presented publicly as the trio of Oakey, Catherall and Sulley. Secrets was warmly received by critics as a return to form for the band but many radio stations saw the band as purely a nostalgia act and refused to add the single off of the album, “All I Ever Wanted,” to their playlists.
At around this time, Papillion suddenly shut down due to financial problems. The band was once again left out in the cold. They decided to tour in support of the album anyway, with Neil Sutton on keyboards, Nic Burke on keyboards and guitar, percussionist Errol Rollins on electronic percussion, and studio engineer David Beevers on stage, with the band controlling sound and sequencers from behind a pair of Macintosh computers. This line-up of the band has stayed stable since that time, with the exception of percussionist Rob Barton replacing Rollins in 2004. Since the early 2000s, The Human League have played selected venues to acclaim. In 2007, to mark the 30th anniversary of the band, they embarked on their Dare! 2007 Tour through Europe, where they performed the entire Dare album. The group have expressed interest in making a new album and have stated they “have a lot of people that want to make a record with us.” Judging by the influence the band had on a whole generation, that surely isn't an idle claim.