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The Human League: Many Happy Returns To 'Dare'

Monday, 24 October 2016 Written by Graeme Marsh

In 1981, the Human League saw their career hit the stratosphere. But to get there, the previously arty Sheffield electro band had to endure a severing of ties. Their first two albums, ‘Reproduction’ and ‘Travelogue’, were  made by the original line-up - singer Philip Oakey and keyboard wizards Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware alongside visual artist Philip Adrian Wright - and amounted to a creatively intriguing but commercially indifferent start.

It wasn’t until electronic experts Ware and Marsh left, initially to form British Electric Foundation and later Heaven 17 with Glenn Gregory, that the Human League took off. Although tensions were apparent, the split that led to both groups soon having album successes, in ‘Dare’ and ‘Penthouse and Pavement’ respectively, was partly an instigated operation.

Instead of seeing the friction, between Ware and Oakey in particular, as the death knell for the band, their manager Bob Last saw an opportunity to succeed with both camps. “It's a long story, but fundamentally the record company and Bob Last, who was managing us at the time, were determined to get two bands for the price of one," Ware told the Star in 2010.

“So they manufactured a situation, I have to say, with a little bit of duplicity in the background, a little bit of lying and whispers in people's ears. They manufactured a situation where it became 'untenable' for us to be in the same band together. What they got out of it was two successful bands. So from a Machiavellian point of view it worked. A complete success."

Last had revealed as much in a low-key interview with The Black Hit of Space in 2009. “I brokered a settlement between the two halves which included the right for Oakey and Wright to use the name, even though they did not at first want this, because I believed then that they needed it as a platform for the pop breakthrough I was sure was just around the corner for Phil,” he said.

So, for the time being, Ware and Marsh went one way and Oakey and Wright the other. At first, it was a scrap for the two acts to even survive. There was an intervention from Richard Branson to stop the Human League being dropped by Virgin, while landing the rights to the name had also saddled Oakey with their existing touring plans and contractual obligations.

Soon, though, ‘Dare’ would change the game entirely. After the split, Oakey had recruited Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, spotted in Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy nightclub, and asked them to join the band’s European tour. Their inclusion was initially met with a lukewarm reception in the Human League camp and, with the duo still completing school exams, their bedding in was not an instant thing. It soon became apparent, though, that they brought not only their vocals and presence to the band, but also a pop sheen and a way in for prospective fans that is often overlooked.

Until Ware and Marsh departed, the band had sounded very raw as they dabbled in a field of music that was still in its infancy. The technology was literally still taking off, triggered by bands such as Kraftwerk setting wheels in motion as they pioneered the use of electronics in music during the 1970s. The fallout saw youngsters taking inspiration from the German masters and disciples of the new wave appeared everywhere, including Visage, Gary Numan, Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark and Ultravox. They all homed in on the ice-cool possibilities synthesizers offered, but version two of the Human League was about to change all that. Along with the likes of Depeche Mode, they channelled it into something you could dance to.

Crucial to that was the addition of two further members - Ian Burden and Jo Callis, who’d play keys, bass and guitar - assistant engineer Dave Allen and producer Martin Rushent, who had made a mark with punk bands such as the Rezillos and the Stranglers and presided over the sprawling Genetic Sound Studios in Reading, Berkshire. Callis added much needed weight to the songwriting process and also acted as a catalyst within the band while Rushent laid down the law.

“They were under the impression that I was going to work on what they’d done so far and improve that and carry on,” he told the BBC. “I said: ‘No, I’m not doing that, we’re starting again.’ Which was a bit of a shock for Phil. He argued about that but I said: ‘No, if I’m going to produce you, you’re going to do what I tell you to do’.”

Prior to Callis’ involvement, the first single released from the forthcoming album had been The Sound Of The Crowd. It gave the band their biggest hit to date – number 12 on the UK singles chart – and provided some much needed encouragement. When Love Action (I Believe In Love) soared even higher – to number 3 in the UK – the excitement was almost tangible.

A third single, Open Your Heart, again made the top 10 shortly before ‘Dare’ was released. On the strength of the first three singles, the record hit the number 1 spot in the UK. But a month later something bigger happened. Don’t You Want Me had been shunted to the last track of the album, some say because Oakey simply didn’t care for its pop makeover, but it was a hidden jewel.

In August 1981, MTV had launched in the US and Don’t You Want Me, with its intriguing video and vocal duet between Oakey and Sulley, became a global monster hit: a Christmas number 1 in the UK, a chart topper in the US and a dancefloor smash. It remains one of the most successful singles in the history of the UK charts and the effect the song had on the album was also immense, catapulting it back to the top in the UK and to number three in the US.

Aside from the massive success of Don’t You Want Me, ‘Dare’ was given a slick sheen by a number of highlights that have stood the test of time over 35 years. The superb album opener Things That Dreams Are Made Of and Seconds, a song written about the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy, captured the stunning sounds synthesizers were now capable of creating. The latter, with its simple yet nerve-tingling four chord section, electrifies and is testimony to the qualities that Rushent’s equipment had brought to the table.

But the pairing between band and producer was not to last. Rushent would walk during the recording of ‘Hysteria’ following a hastily convened band meeting - at which he later said Sulley asked him “What do you know about what young people want?” during a dispute over the time taken to nail a drum sound - and the Human League would approach another crossroads.

The success the band would later enjoy would never be the same as in 1981 and 1982. ‘Hysteria’ (1984), ‘Crash’ (1986), and Octopus (1995) would all reach the UK top 10 but in the case of ‘Dare’ the band’s personnel, management, production teams, other key contributors and technological advances had all aligned perfectly for a landmark album that would become an all-time classic. Many Happy Returns.

The Human League Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Wed November 23 2016 - LLANDUDNO Venue Cymru
Fri November 25 2016 - BOURNEMOUTH BIC Winsor Hall
Sat November 26 2016 - CARDIFF St Davids Hall
Sun November 27 2016 - SOUTHEND Cliffs Pavilion
Tue November 29 2016 - LEICESTER De Montfort Hall
Wed November 30 2016 - BRISTOL Colston Hall
Fri December 02 2016 - MANCHESTER O2 Apollo
Sat December 03 2016 - SHEFFIELD Arena
Sun December 04 2016 - NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE City Hall
Tue December 06 2016 - GLASGOW Royal Concert Hall
Thu December 08 2016 - CAMBRIDGE Corn Exchange
Fri December 09 2016 - BRIGHTON Centre
Sat December 10 2016 - BIRMINGHAM Barclaycard Arena
Sun December 11 2016 - PLYMOUTH Pavilions
Tue December 13 2016 - LONDON Royal Festival Hall
Wed December 14 2016 - LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
Thu December 15 2016 - YORK York Barbican
Fri December 16 2016 - NOTTINGHAM Royal Concert Hall

Click here to compare & buy The Human League Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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