The Human League’s Classic “Don’t You Want Me” Celebrates A Special Anniversary

For the Human League, the legendary British synthpop band, this month marks a milestone in their history: it was 40 years ago on July 3, 1982, that their now-iconic hit, “Don’t You Want Me,” reached number one on the Billboard chart. Today, the song and its memorable music video still get frequent airplay, but at the time the group was reportedly reluctant to release the track as a single, which appeared on their 1981 breakthrough album Dare.

“I think we all maybe saw the Human League as it being a bit dark,” recalls former band member Jo Callis about the smash song that he co-wrote. “So it’s quite possible that we wanted to get a bit darker at the time. We maybe did think [“Don’t You Want Me”] was a bit light and jaunty perhaps, which is maybe why we never saw it as even a single, let alone a hit single.”

The success of “Don’t You Want Me” both in the U.K. (where it had earlier gone to number one in December 1981) and the U.S. consolidated the popularity and comeback of the Sheffield-based band. Prior to recording the Dare album, the Human League, which formed in 1977, were at a crossroads: the band’s first two records, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980), didn’t make a significant dent commercially. In 1980, two members of the original band lineup, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, exited the group and later formed Heaven 17, leaving singer Philip Oakey and keyboardist Adrian Wright to carry on. To make up for the loss in personnel, Oakey and Wright rebuilt the group by adding keyboardist/bassist Ian Burden and, most significantly, singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.

Callis, who would co-write several of the Human League’s popular songs, also joined the newly-configured band; he had previously played guitar for the Scottish punk/New Wave band the Rezillos, who shared a bill with the original League at London’s Music Machine venue in 1978. Both bands shared a mutual acquaintance in Bob Last, who was the Rezillos manager and the head of the label Fast Product, which put out the Human League’s single “Being Boiled.” “I sort of got to know them quite well, and we would usually hang out with each other,” says Callis of the League. “If the original lineup of the Human League were playing in Edinburgh or Glasgow, I’d catch up with them or hang out with them or go to their gig and then vice versa.”

When Callis did get the call to join the Human League after the departures of Ware and Marsh, he was transitioning from guitars to synths, the latter of which he didn’t haven’t much experience with. “I had been playing guitar for quite a while,” he explains. “The guitar started to become a bit unfashionable for some reason at the start of the ‘80s. Not for that reason, but I just felt I wanted to try my hand at something else. I was just feeling a bit jaded playing [the guitar]. It’s almost like you sit down to write a song and it’s like the same three or four chords just keep coming out all the time. And I thought I should maybe try and learn or pick up another instrument.”

Ironically, it was former Human League member Ware, now with Heaven 17, who showed Callis how to work with synthesizers. “Martyn Ware spent a day with me in the studio and he showed me the basics of how to work a little analog synthesizer and stuff like that, which was great of him. It was quite competitive at the time, this new Human League and the breakaway Heaven 17. I learned the very basics. I’m not a keyboard player by any stretch of the imagination, but I knew the chords. And Martyn showed me some of the electronic sides of the synthesizer as well: ‘this is the oscillator,’ ‘this is the envelope.’ It was a bit like science fiction, like learning all these faders and knobs and things to make these bizarre sounds.”

In collaboration with producer Martin Rushent, the Human League began work on what would become the Dare album at Genetic Studios in Streatley, England. On the music-making process, Callis remembers: “What used to happen initially was Philip and Ian, they’d go into the studio in the daytime and myself and Adrian would go in the evening. Adrian would have a lot of ideas but he didn’t have his own quality control going on. So we would play me lots of ideas that he had and I’d pick out the ones I thought had potential or had promise. I’d be going, ‘That’s one quite interesting, and that’s one quite interesting. Let’s work on those.’ We would just go into the studio in the evening and start tinkering about.

“I’d be playing Adrian’s ideas, putting chords to them. We’d always had a title and some words initially. Quite often, we’d be working on something at night and we leave it all set up in the studio. That was before computers and MIDI. So everything was connected up, one thing triggering another. It was all quite haphazard. But we’d sort of have something going, and then we’d pack up for the night and go home, and Philip and Ian would come in the next day and get everything going and almost pick up where we left off.”

In retrospect, the utilization of the technology of the time and Rushent’s production techniques were quite innovative during the making of Dare. “I think [Rushent] had the first Linn drum, it was very early days,” says Callis, “There were a few drum machines about that, but the Linn drum was kind of a game-changer. It was digital sounds in [its] infancy of any form of digital recording or sampling. So here you had this machine you could program up…that sounded like real drums rather than those electronic-y sounding drums, which we liked as well. And also the Roland MC 4, which was like a programmable sequencer. It was all kind of very mathematical because you were programming in an almost mathematical way.”

Outside of the technology, the presence of singers Catherall and Sulley proved crucial in the Human League’s transition from an underground electronic collective to a mainstream pop band. Both Catherall and Sulley were school students whom Oakey spotted dancing one night at a club and invited them to join the band. Callis says of the two women: “The great thing about that was, and I love them both dearly to this day: they were almost like gave you the perspective of what young fans at the time, so they had a good ear for a song. If they said, ‘Oh, this song is really good. Yeah, we should do this and finish it off,’ you take their word for it because they kind of reflected the audience of that age who would go out and buy the stuff at the end of the day. I think they did have a really good objective viewpoint on the thing.”

When it was released in October 1981, Dare yielded a number of hit singles including “Open Your Heart,” “The Sound of the Crowd,” “Love Action,” and of course “Don’t You Want Me,” which Callis co-wrote with Oakey and Wright. “We never thought that “Don’t You Want Me” was that great,” says Callis. “It was another track on the album. We didn’t see what it became. We almost viewed it as a filler, that song.

“I used to go to clubs a lot back then. I was quite into Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Coati Mundi, and I was quite getting into all that Latin sort of stuff, syncopated rhythms, and things like that. And Adrian was fiddling about with something on a synthesizer, which was absolutely nonsensical. You could strip some of them notes out and syncopate that and it would have a little bit almost of a Latin groove to it, which was the springboard for it. And then I’d come up with bass lines and chords and things like that for it.

“Phil had this idea lyrically for this song: a story in the song which is very much A Star Is Born [and] My Fair Lady—the impresario who takes an everyday person and transforms her into a superstar that outshines himself. So that married up quite nicely with what I had. Phil had some musical ideas for it, like the bridge section: “Much too late to find/You had already changed your mind”—and he had this idea for something climbing up, building up and building up going into a chorus. So I worked that out as chords and things. That was one of the examples where those ideas sort of married up quite nicely.”

Although the band didn’t initially see “Don’t You Want Me” as a single, their label Virgin Records wanted to release it. “I can remember a lot of people that I knew had heard Dare when it came out, and they’re pointing out “Don’t You Want” and going like, ‘Oh, that’s the one you should have that out as a single.’ I’m going like, ‘Yeah, really?’ (laughs), and [Virgin Records exec] Simon Draper and other people going like, ‘Oh yeah, this is the single. This is the next single.’ And we didn’t get that at all. But then you’re that close to it, you don’t see it in the same way that other people do that.”

“Don’t You Want Me,” the fourth and final single from Dare, reached number one in the U.K. in December 1981. “I think we must have been on tour or something,” Callis recalls the first time he heard about the song peaking the chart, “because the album as well went to number one about the same time. So all of a sudden, we started out as kind of like a bit of an underground kind of left-field band, and then by the end of that first tour, we were a f***ing pop group (laughs), which is pretty weird.”

With the success of “Don’t You Want Me,” the Human League became part of a wave of new British acts like Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Soft Cell who were experiencing popularity in the U.S., especially through MTV. “We were hearing that that was getting used a lot in American sporting events and things like that, played over the sound system or on the TV. So I think that was our first idea that that was kind of taking off in some way in America. And then, we toured America and it was right at the time of the Falklands War as well, which was quite bizarre (laughs). It was a bit interesting.”

After Dare, Callis and the other Human League members later released the 1984 follow-up titled Hysteria, which found him returning to the guitar in addition to playing synths. He left the Human League in the mid-1980s but occasionally still wrote songs for the band such as “Heart Like a Wheel” and “Never Again” on the Romantic? (1990) and Octopus (1995) albums respectively. Over the years, he has been working on his own music projects. Meanwhile, the Human League’s Dare and “Don’t You Want Me” continue to stand the test of time four decades later.

“There are people that will know that song, but they don’t know anything about the Human League, which I suppose is the same of a lot of classic old songs, isn’t it? It’s one of those things that gets played at people’s weddings and gets used in TV advertising and things like that.

“It’s just that the sort of romantic lyrical side of it, I guess, people associate with. I just watched recently the Lady Gaga version of A Star is Born, and I take it upon myself to educate people about George Bernard Shaw who wrote the original story more than 100 years ago when it was called Pygmalion, which then became a stage show called My Fair Lady. Then subsequent to that would be these endless versions of [the story, like A Star Is Born]. And young folk are completely unaware of that, and it’s a timeless story, isn’t it? I suppose “Don’t You Want Me” is that story (laughs) as a three-minute pop song, so you don’t need to know the history of it to appreciate it. So yeah, weddings and God knows what else. And it’s just in part of popular culture.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.