In a Melody Maker interview back in February 1979, Martyn Ware of The Human League mentioned that the band were more influenced by films than by they were rock, claiming he’d rather see a good film than a good rock band. In the cinema, ‘You’re part of the experience. Whereas, watching a rock band, it’s just some guys up on a stage.’
When a tour (due to take in Edinburgh and Aberdeen) was later announced supporting Talking Heads, it became apparent that The Human League didn’t see themselves as your standard guys up on a stage kinda band.
Their idea for the show was a multimedia extravaganza, utilizing their new synchronization units that meant they could operate slides in sync with each song. The problem with the plan as far as Talking Heads (not exactly backwards looking dinosaurs themselves) were concerned was the fact that while each member of The Human League would be at the gig, rather than being the centre of attention, they would supposedly be in the audience, hopefully discussing the automated events on stage and signing autographs.
The idea got the band dropped from the tour although they wanted to press ahead with the concept and even expand it.
As their manager Bob Last explained to NME: ‘It’s cost us a lot of money to set up and now we have audio-visuals, tape memory banks – in fact, the whole gist of the show – just sitting in boxes and waiting to go.’
Last outlined the potential of the show and spoke of creating a version for discos rather than rock concerts. ‘There are various other avenues to be explored. For example, I think it would be the ideal support for Alien, or a film of that nature.’
After the comparative failure of second album Travelogue, tensions within the band increased; eventually singer Phil Oakey decided that he wanted to sack Ware, Ian Craig Marsh wasn’t keen on the idea and the pair quit and teamed up on a new project to be known as the British Electric Foundation (BEF).
Remaining members Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright retained The Human League name, although they had to be convinced by Bob Last to do so. The music press didn’t see much of a future for a band with only a singer and director of visuals (even if Wright had started playing incidental keyboards). And you could hardly blame them.
Oakey, though, came up with a possible solution to enable a forthcoming European tour to still go ahead. His plan to fill in the gap left by Marsh and Ware revolved largely around the recruitment of two schoolgirls, Suzanne Sulley (17) and Joanne Catherall (18), who he’d spotted on the dancefloor at the Crazy Daisy’s ‘Futurist’ night in Sheffield although he also additionally employed a professional keyboard player, Ian Burden.
Neither girl had any kind of remarkable singing voice and neither was that great at dancing either. If the pair had time-travelled thirty odd years forward and showed up at an X-Factor audition, they would likely be dismissed as no-hopers.
Luckily the pop buying masses of 1981 didn’t require performers with touching ‘backstories’ on Saturday night TV, neither did they require anyone to have been coached by professionals to perform pointless vocal gymnastics or to display a look that had been (supposedly) ‘styled’ to perfection by somebody with no sense of originality or indeed style.
Having seen the new look League on Top of the Pops miming to Sound of the Crowd, the pop buying masses decided they actually liked the caked-on mascara, beauty spots and lippy and the slightly awkward and un-coordinated dance routines. Generally, girls identified with them while boys fancied them.
Joanne and Suzanne soon became the poster girls for synth-pop but Bob Last, in particular, judged the band could be improved further by the addition of one final and vital ingredient, another professional musician, after Ian Burden temporarily left post-tour.
It might have appeared that the ex-guitarist of the retro obsessed Rezillos and the futuristic Human League had little in common bar sharing the same manager but in April 1981, Jo Callis was invited to become a permanent member, the idea being even stranger if you bear in mind Callis’ confession that he had never been near a keyboard in his life.
The first Human League album with the new line-up, Dare was released in October, 1981 and quickly made its way to the top of the UK album charts. By Christmas it had gone platinum in Britain, its number one status equalled by a single that Phil Oakey hadn’t wanted released, Don’t You Want Me – he only agreed finally on the condition that a large colour poster accompanied the 45, otherwise, he felt, fans would feel ripped off by the ‘substandard’ single alone.
Co-written by Callis, Oakey and Wright, the ‘substandard’ single went on to become one of the UK’s biggest ever selling songs*, the British Christmas number one of 1981 and also later an American #1 too and a worldwide smash.
And here I finally get round to the Scottish independent labels part of the post. Due to the success of Don’t You Want Me, the first ever Human League single, Being Boiled, which had been originally released during the summer of 1978 on Bob Last’s Edinburgh based Fast Product label, was made available again and this time entered the top ten of the singles charts, where it should have been first time around. For me it’s a much better record than Don’t You Want Me. See what you think:
And if anybody is wondering, this is only the first of a number of entries in this series looking at Fast Product, so I will get round to writing more on the actual label in the future. Honestly.
* It even re-entered the charts here a couple of months ago after being taken up by Aberdeen fans in the run up to their team winning the Scottish League Cup.
For more on The Human League: Official Site