Sunday, June 14, 2009

Oakey Dares To Reinvent The Human League

In October of 1980, Philip Oakey found himself with the naming rights for a band that had essentially just gone up in smoke. He retained the services of Philip Adrian Wright, the band’s ‘Director of Visuals’, but Wright had never really spent much time working at his other role in the band, as synth player. Oakey was faced with a fully booked tour, backed by promoters, and had approximately ten days to arrange a new line-up with which to meet contracted commitments. Time to hit the night clubs! Oakey liked the idea of the previously male bastion of the Human League benefiting from a couple of female dancers, even occasional vocalists, to add a bit of glamour to the band (well that is very ABBA after all). One night he was scouting for potential talent at the Sheffield club venue, the Crazy Daisy Nightclub. In the stuff of pop legend, Oakey spied two teenage girls, Joanne Catherell (then 18), and Susan Ann Sulley (then 17), shaking their respective booties on the dance floor. Neither had any professional performance experience, and were still attending school at the time, but Oakey offered them the chance to be overnight pop stars, and who could say no to that. So after getting the ok from the girl’s parents, Catherell and Sulley officially became Human Leaguers. To round out the new line-up, Oakey recruited keyboard/bass player Ian Burden (ex-Graph), initially just to cover the roles vacated by Marsh and Ware, for the imminent tour. The Human League did indeed fulfil their tour commitments in late 1980, but Oakey’s new model was the target of much scorn and derision, from both critics and audiences alike, who had bought tickets in the expectation of seeing the original Human League line-up. The Human League began 1981, arguably, on their last legs, both commercially and artistically, but the ensuing twelve months would witness a remarkable turn around in their fortunes.

The band had incurred some massive debts due to the flop of their makeshift tour, and in early ‘81 Virgin Records was piling on the pressure to recoup some of their lost dollars. Oakey and Wright pieced together the single ‘Boys And Girls’ (UK#48), which staved off the wolves, at least for now. The single’s cover featured both Catherall and Sulley, but neither contributed to the song’s recording. It was at this point that the astute Oakey realised he needed some professional help, both in the production and musician stakes. Ian Burden was called back as a fulltime member, and Oakey approached veteran producer Martin Rushent (Stranglers, Buzzcocks, XTC) to help him realise the next chapter in the Human League’s evolution. Rushent recognised that Oakey and his new crew needed to distance themselves from the previous Human League environment, so he shifted them from their Sheffield studio base, and set up operations at Genetic Studios in Reading. The first result engineered at Genetic, was the May ‘81 single, ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’. The song proved to be pivotal in raising the group’s profile across Britain, and became their biggest hit to date (#12). Co-written by Oakey and Burden, ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ was the first Human League single to feature new vocal recruits Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Dulley, and the public took to the balance between female vocals and Oakey’s rich baritone rumblings. But there was still one piece of the pop puzzle missing, and it was found via a suggestion of long term manager Bob Last (the man who’d originally signed the Human League to Fast Records). One time Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis was the man to complete the all new, pop savvy line-up of the Human League.

Callis’ first involvement with the band came via their next single, ‘Love Action (I Believe In Love)’, released in July of ‘81. As had been the case with ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’, this latest offering was, in a technical sense, credited to The Human League Red, which was essentially a short lived gimmick by the band, used to differentiate dance tracks (red) from pop tracks (blue), though the stylistic lines were definitely blurred. Regardless, the Oakey/Burden penned song opened the floodgates for the Human League in Britain, and bolted to #3 soon after its August ‘81 chart debut. It also became the Human League’s first foray into Australian chart territory later in the year (#12). Though production on their proposed album seemed to be taking an eternity, the mammoth success of ‘Love Action’ gained the Human League much needed breathing space, and also served to heighten expectations for the album’s impending release. Initially, a promo video wasn’t produced for ‘Love Action’ (the group weren’t officially big yet), but when sights were later set on the U.S. market, the Human League produced a clever little video, which took partial inspiration in its storyline from the 1968 film, ‘The Graduate’.

The Human League had been bunkered down in the recording studio for several months, working with producer Martin Rushent, to fashion their material into what would hopefully be a career defining album. Sulley and Catherall even put on hold plans to attend university, to commit fulltime to the project. The band offered up one more appetizer in early October ‘81, with the single ‘Open Your Heart’, obviously seen by the band as more pop oriented, due to the associated ‘blue’ tag. The single hit the British charts, and soon delivered the Human League their second top ten hit (#6), later hitting #33 on the Australian charts. The song also marked guitarist Jo Callis’ first major song writing credit with the band, in partnership with Oakey. This time around, Virgin were prepared to outlay the expense of a promotional video up front, and ‘Open Your Heart’ was the band’s first attempt at the promo video medium, and was concurrently employed as a promotional tool for the imminent release of the new Human League album.

‘Dare’ hit stores as ‘Open Your Heart’ was hitting the top ten, and the eagerly anticipated set made an immediate impact on the British charts. Over the first six weeks or so post release, ‘Dare’ made steady but not remarkable strides up the charts, but it would be the next single, originally intended by Oakey as an album filler, that would launch both album, and the Human League, into the pop stratosphere, and establish the album as a defining moment in 80s pop culture. It was actually at the behest of Virgin Records executive Simon Draper, that the album track ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was released as a single in late November ‘81. For once the label suit had better judgment than the song’s artist, as ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was a walk up chart topper. Such was Virgin’s belief in the song, that they forked out for motion picture director Steve Barron (who went on to helm promo videos for ‘Billie Jean’ and ‘Money For Nothing’) to oversee an elaborate, and very cinematic, promotion video for ‘Don’t You Want Me’. The song, co-written by Callis, Oakey and Wright, was a sumptuous piece of hook laden synth-pop, warmed by the emotional resonance of relatable lyrics. Inspired by the film, ‘A Star Is Born’, Oakey’s lyrics chronicled the tale of a conflicted romance, in which his male vocal role was countered by Susan Ann Sulley’s first lead vocal assignment. Though neither were (or are) the world’s best singers, Oakey and Sulley managed to create a pop classic, aided by the infectious synth hooks laid down by Callis and Wright. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ entered the British charts in the first week of December ‘81, and second week in dared to go to #1. The Human League spent the next five weeks reigning supreme on the British singles chart, and the phenomenal success of ‘Don’t You Want Me’ led to a surge in sales for the album ‘Dare’, which likewise topped the British charts (for three weeks in February ‘82). ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was the biggest selling single in Britain for 1981; the first platinum certified single there in four years (since Wings’ ‘Mull Of Kintyre’) - eventually going on to achieve triple platinum; the first chart topper for Virgin Records; and the only single of the year to surpass one million in sales (eventually going on to sell 1.4 million). The song also reached #4 in Australia, though not until mid ‘82. I recall Molly Meldrum raving about the Human League on Australia’s ‘Countdown’, but he did hand out a rare serve of criticism for an apparently diabolical live performance the band gave during that period - from memory Molly wasn’t overly impressed by either Oakey’s or the girl’s vocals.

In February 1983, Virgin Records released the ‘Dare’ album on the brand new compact disc (CD) format. The Human League had ascended to being one of the leading acts in the synth-pop faction of Britain’s ‘New Romantic’ movement. Gone was the cold, industrialised synth-pop sound of their previous incarnation, as the ‘Dare’ album took the raw synth-pop template, and layered it with finely crafted pop fare, to produce a rich blend of technological precision and engaging human emotion. Well, maybe the earlier Human League machine still had some life left in its commercial batteries. On the mammoth wave of success generated by the ‘Dare’ album and ‘Don’t You Want Me’, Virgin Records re-issued the single ‘Being Boiled’ (UK#6) in early ‘82, quickly followed by the ‘Holiday ‘80’ EP (UK#46). It’s probably just as well, as it seemed that the Human League weren’t about to bless the public with anything in the way of new material, at least not for a time. Besides, the group were focussed on breaking into the U.S. market, and with ‘Don’t You Want Me’, they had just the track.

Virgin licensed the Human League’s material to A&M Records, for U.S. release, and in March of ‘82 ‘Don’t You Want Me’ debuted on the Billboard Hot 100. It took almost four months, but by July, the Human League had scored their first U.S. #1, aided in no small part by the huge popularity of the promo video on the fast growing MTV network, and the band undertaking an extensive tour Stateside. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ spent three weeks at the summit of the U.S. charts, and the Human League are widely credited with opening the doors to America somewhat for British based ‘New Romantic’ and synth-pop acts, such as Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Eurythmics, Wham!, and Adam Ant - who in part formed a new ‘British invasion’ of the U.S. charts during the second quarter of the 80s. The ‘Dare’ album received an exclamation point (‘Dare!’) for its U.S. release, for some reason felt necessary by the label to differentiate it from its British counterpart, and climbed steadily to a peak of #3 on the U.S. album charts. The Human League could arguably have laid claim to being the synth-pop movements first bona fide global superstars, with an album that has endured well beyond the lifetime of the very genre it became a signature of. Suffice to say, they took out the ‘Best British Newcomer’ gong at the 1982 Brits, and were nominated for ‘Best New Artist’ at the 1983 Grammy Awards (beaten out by Men At Work) - though the definition of ‘new’ was arguable in both cases.

But prolific and prodigious are two words you won’t find being readily associated with the Human League, at least not during the mid 80s. With an apparent dearth of new material in the can, Virgin released a mini-album titled ‘Love And Dancing’, in July of ‘82. It comprised seven tracks reprised from the ‘Dare’ set, and a former B-side ‘Harsh Times’, remixed into extended dance form. ‘Love And Dancing’ was actually credited to the League Unlimited Orchestra, a tipping of the hat to Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. The British appetite for the Human League hadn’t waned, and ‘Love And Dancing’ peaked at #3 shortly after its release (US#135). The set was mostly the work of producer Martin Rushent, and in many respects was a pioneering effort in the soon to be popular practice of releasing remix albums. At any rate, it proved enough to tide the band over until they could come up with their next single.

Whilst it took an age to surface, the November ‘82 release of the single ‘Mirror Man’ was warmly received in both Britain and Australia. The song was only stopped from hitting #1 in the U.K. by the abominable ‘Save Your Love’ by Renee and Renato - the pop charts really do yield some travesties. I actually rate ‘Mirror Man’ as one of my favourite Human League songs. It was a clear attempt by the group to infuse a healthy dollop of Motown into their sound, and was categorised by some as fitting within the whole ‘northern soul’ sound that had enjoyed a bit of a resurgence of late. Oakey later revealed in a 1988 interview, that lyrically, ‘Mirror Man’ was about Adam Ant (see previous post), who Oakey believed at the time to have been in danger of disappearing inside his own public persona. ‘Mirror Man’ certainly didn’t disappear on the charts, also peaking at #5 in Australia, and #30 (upon its eventually September ‘83 release) Stateside. A few months later, the brilliant single ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’ hit stores, and like its predecessor, peaked at #2 on the British charts, shortly after its April ‘83 release (US#8/OZ#8). In keep with the Human League’s self imposed labelling system, ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’ was designated with a ‘red’ tag, aligning it with a dance style track, though seriously it’s more straight up-tempo synth-pop to me. Accordingly, the ‘red’ theme played a strong part in the very clever promotional video (again directed by Steve Barron) - red marks the spot on the map where the Human League just happen to be playing the song. The song’s vocal arrangement style also took some inspiration from that used commonly by Sly and the Family Stone.

Both ‘Mirror Man’ and ‘(Keep Feeling) Fascination’ were included on a six track EP titled ‘Fascination!’ (US#22) and released in the U.S. as a stop-gap measure, designed to keep the punters (and label) happy until the next album. The EP soon found its way back into the British market via import, as an increasingly impatient public wondered if and when the Human League would finally release the follow up to ‘Dare’.

No comments: