Imagine a world where “Don’t You Want Me” had never been released… The most famous single to be taken from The Human League’s Dare album, it’s one of those songs that sits so centrally on our cultural compass that it’s hard to think of the synth-pop explosion and the Second British Invasion, of the early 80s, without it. Let alone those many millions of radio plays and raucous dancefloor excursions that followed…
But “Don’t You Want Me” remains an unlikely populist highlight of an icy ten-track synth classic that wouldn’t have been released as a single if the band had their way. Like so many chapters of The Human League’s story, “Don’t You Want Me”’s November 27, 1981, UK release was something of a happy accident; certainly not some cynical exercise to secure world domination at a time when the band would have been forgiven for chasing a break.
“You could dance to it”
The fractious splintering of the original Human League line-up into the Phil Oakey-led collective and Heaven 17 was a difficult hangover the group had yet to recover from. The Travelogue and Reproduction albums had started to build some momentum for the band, but the subsequent messy split and Oakey’s seemingly left-field decision to recruit two inexperienced teenage girls to bolster the lineup surprised critics and threatened to derail the League’s credibility.
But new sessions with producer Martin Rushent suggested there was a method to the apparent madness. 1981’s “Boys And Girls” hinted at a sound that fused contemporary dance appeal with the fresh New Romantic movement, and this standalone single finally helped the band crack the UK Top 50. With their record label intrigued enough to allow further sessions to continue, “The Sound Of The Crowd” was the first big Human League success and set the template for Dare. “When we first heard it, it was just thump-crash-thump-crash,” said recent band recruit Suzanne Sully. “But we knew it was a definite hit. You could dance to it.”
High-street glamour and kitchen-sink creativity
Follow-up “Love Action (I Believe In Love)” intensified the dance dynamic still further and made it all the way to the UK Top 3 in the summer of 1981, with The Human League finding themselves Top Of The Pops regulars. It was perfect timing – the UK music scene was in a freshly confident mood. Magazines like Smash Hits and The Face were helping telegraph a soap-opera narrative of high-street glamour and kitchen-sink creativity, also shaped by the growing reliance on pop promos to help sell a song. The Human League had a strong look that played perfectly into that.
With “Open Your Heart,” released that October, the band perfected its sharpest image to date in a striking video, which dovetailed with the launch of Dare, on October 16. This was perhaps the first time a video had ever so explicitly launched the visual identity of an album, but the work of designer Ken Ansell also echoed some classic covers of fashion bible Vogue.
A starker, colder set of songs
Across Dare’s ten tracks, you find those effervescent pop singles but also a starker, colder set of songs far removed from the mid-market gloss of the contemporary teen scene. “Seconds” is a brutal narrative of assassination (then largely assumed to reference the recent death of John Lennon, but actually written about John F. Kennedy’s murder in 1963), while “Darkness” offers some melodic uplifts but is a brooding epic about the terrors of the night. “I Am The Law” is a stark, synth chiller taking its inspiration from the 2000 AD comic character Judge Dredd… It’s about as far removed as you can imagine from the fluffy pop compositions being created for chart contemporaries like Shakin’ Stevens.
“Do Or Die” is a hypnotic, dance-focused cut that lifts the mood midway, but, to be clear, it would be wrong to say that Dare is a gloomy listen. The lighter touches come fast and furious, and, in essence, the album is almost a perfect exercise in how to balance a pop record.
The greatest party record of all time
But Dare is also an album forever overwhelmed by those magnificent singles, which briefly threatened to turn The Human League into the biggest band in the world. Over the festive holidays that year, “Don’t You Want Me” sat at No. 1 for five weeks (helped by the innovative Steve Barron video) and the Dare album inevitably topped the UK charts, staying on the listings for more than 70 weeks. International success soon followed, with “Don’t You Want Me” reaching the top of the US charts the following summer, and Love And Dancing – an early example of the remix album, featuring new versions of some Dare highlights – hitting the shops at the same time.
Almost four decades on, it’s a little easier to unpick the winning formula here: the sharply-crafted pop singles that built momentum; glossy, evergreen production magic from Martin Rushent (he would go on to many other great things but did he ever really surpass this?); slick visuals; a near-perfect band line-up (with ex-Rezillo Jo Callis on synths, adding so much musical ballast); and that song. A cut that will outlive an album even as classic as this, “Don’t You Want Me” arguably remains the greatest party record of all time.
Even if you don’t agree with that entirely, it will see you on the dancefloor again very soon…