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Profile of Synth Pop Band The Human League

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Profile of Synth Pop Band The Human League Album Cover Image Courtesy of Virgin Int'l

Formed:

1978 in Sheffield, England

Original Members:

  • Martyn Ware (born May 19, 1956 in Sheffield, England) - Keyboards, songwriter, vocals
  • Ian Craig Marsh (born November 11, 1956 in Sheffield, England) - Synthesizer
  • Philip Oakey (born October 2, 1955 in Hinckley, Leicestershire, England) - Lead vocals, songwriter
  • Philip Adrian Wright (born June 30, 1956 in Sheffield) - Visuals

Current & Core '80s Members:

  • Phil Oakey - Lead vocals, songwriter
  • Joanne Catherall (born September 18, 1962 in Sheffield, England) - Lead & backing vocals
  • Susan Ann Sulley (born March 22, 1963 in Sheffield, England) - Lead & backing vocals

Origins:

The genesis of the Human League actually stemmed from the partnership of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who formed a rather avant-garde electronic pop outfit called the Dead Daughters in 1977. After rechristening themselves the Future and then losing an original member, Ware saw the need - for commercial reasons - to recruit a lead singer, settling on friend Philip Oakey. Following yet another name change to the familiar moniker '80s fans know well, the Human League quickly attracted critical praise and became a British post-punk and early synth pop act to be reckoned with.

Record Label Pressure & Lineup Shift:

On the strength of significant buzz in 1978 and 1979, the band's original lineup secured a recording contract with Virgin but immediately encountered difficulties regarding creative control. Forced initially and unsuccessfully into a style the label felt offered greater commercial potential, the group had little luck regardless of approach and found itself eclipsed by Gary Numan on the electronic pop scene. This led to increased internal tension, particularly between Ware and Oakey, and by the fall of 1980, after only two full-length releases, the band split, with Ware and Marsh going on to form Heaven 17.

The Human League Version 2.0:

Oakey managed to retain the group's established name but was written off by many observers in his rushed attempts to put together a new lineup. Off-the-cuff recruitment of unpolished teenagers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley as backup singers and dancers proved increasingly risky among the previous group's remaining fans, making for a chaotic, uncertain completion to the group's obligations for Virgin. Still, Oakey liked what he heard from Catherall and Sulley and kept them in the fold for the 1981 recording of Dare, a record that would eventually go triple platinum and become an undisputed '80s classic.

"Don't You Want Me" - the Making of a Smash Hit:

A final boost that attracted major awards for the band on both sides of the Atlantic in 1982 and 1983 almost never happened at all. Considering it to be one of Dare's weakest tracks, Oakey vigorously fought the single release of "Don't You Want Me." The label pushed through with the move anyway, and a worldwide hit ensued, ultimately taking on the impressive distinction of topping the pop charts in both the U.K. and the U.S. The song and its music video established the Human League as a major act by 1982 and set the stage for a successful run across the '80s pop music landscape.

Challenge of a Follow-Up:

Despite another major 1983 hit in the infectious "Keep Feeling (Fascination)," Oakey and Co. immediately began to feel the pressure of following up on one of the most commercially and critically acclaimed records of the early-'80s synth pop movement. A new album, Hysteria, came out in 1984 after a tumultuous recording process, but it made far less of an impact than its predecessor. Oakey then engaged in some successful activity outside the confines of the group, but by 1985 and 1986 the Human League continued to lack a properly splashy follow-up to an album released half a decade earlier.

More Record Label Meddling: a Revamped Human League Sound:

The band would enjoy one more massive commercial success, but the triumph came at a definite price. Concerned with what it perceived to be band stagnation, Virgin brought in American R&B producers Jam & Lewis to steer the ship for the next Human League record. In a way not unlike outside songwriters recast Heart as a pop act for its mid-'80s resurgence, the members of the Human League found their own contributions downplayed in pursuit of better mainstream reception. "Human" reached the top of the U.S. charts in 1986 and became a signature tune, but it also effectively ended the group's '80s run as major players.

Onward, Consistent & Independent:

Virgin rather inevitably dropped the group at the onset of the '90s, a decade that seemed poised to leave the Human League far behind. But after enduring that rejection the group remained on the radar, particularly in the U.K., flirting with the Top 10 and beginning to benefit from the mark its '80s output could have on younger audiences. By the mid-'90s nostalgia tours featuring '80s acts became a decently profitable reality, but the band has since demonstrated a hard-headed insistence on self-reliance, continuing to release new music and pressing on toward producing a new studio album without label support.
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