THE UNDERSTANDABLE POPULARITY OF A FOURTH SINGLE FROM THE ALBUM

Here’s the dates when The Human League released material in 1981:-

20 April: The Sound of the Crowd (single)
27 July: Love Action (single)
28 September: Open Your Heart (single)
16 October: Dare (LP)

All the singles had been major hits, with the latter two going Top 10. The parent album entered the charts at #2 and took the top spot the following week. It would spend 22 successive weeks in the Top 10 of the album chart, and it wouldn’t drop out of the Top 100 until 19 February 1983, some 70 weeks after its release.

The reason for the longevity? The popularity of the fourth single which was released on 27 November 1981 at the insistence of Virgin Records and very much against the wishes of the main principal in the band:-

mp3 : The Human League – Don’t You Want Me

Not counting a particular charity release a few years later, it is, arguably, the most recognisable song of the 80s (at least here in the UK). It is everything you are looking for in a perfect pop single – hooks, rhythm, beats and a chant-along chorus. It came with the added bonus of the verses being similarly ear-wormy, and, in an era when music videos were beginning to be an essential part of the package, the promo was memorably different and watchable, for at least the first 50 viewings or so.

Don’t You Want Me had a difficult birth. Phil Oakey had initially thought of it as a song that he would sing on his own, considering it not an ode to lost love but, in his own words in an interview many years later, as a nasty song about sexual power politics. It was while in the studio working on all the songs that would appear on Dare that he realised it could also work as a duet, and this led to Susan Ann Sulley, one of the two backing singers in the band, being asked to become co-lead for the first time. Seemingly, the initial duet version was quite dark and harsh, reflecting the bitter feelings of the male and the exasperation of the female. Producer Martin Rushent, with whom Oakey had already had a number of rows about the way the songs on the album were turning out, remixed things (with the help of Jo Callis from the band) to the singer’s horror who felt it now sounded limp and was by far the weakest of the new material, which goes someway to explaining why it ended up as the last song on Side 2 of the album.

As mentioned earlier, the album had enjoyed immediate success, but it had slipped off the #1 spot after just one week which led the label bosses to float the idea of a fourth single to boost sales, particularly in the run-up to Christmas when sales are traditionally at their highest levels. The fact the bosses wanted to issue Don’t You Want Me did not go down well with Oakey – partly as he felt it was substandard to the earlier 45s and that he felt its pop-feel would alienate many long-standing fans. He must have been amazed when, just two weeks after its release, it gave the band its first #1 single, holding on to the top spot for five weeks, including over Christmas, fending off all the novelty stuff and one-offs that often dominates the singles charts at that time of year.

It’s to his credit that Phil Oakey went along with things, playing the role of pop star to perfection and making sure all promotional activities around the song were realised. Six months later, the song went to #1 in the USA and he, and his bandmates, were made for life.

Don’t You Want Me is fast approaching its 40th anniversary but shows no signs of losing its popularity. Indeed, it is better loved nowadays than even at its height when it sold in its millions, with fans of an age when it was first released now joined by millions across the world who only know it a retro-hit or as a bona-fide karaoke classic. Yes, most of those who get up and grab the mics during drunken nights out with friends and/or work colleagues probably do think they are singing a doomed love song and aren’t acting out the tale of sexual power politics, but so what? It’s a great, instantly recognisable tune that only the hardest and coldest of people can say they have no time for.

The b-side was also lifted from Dare, indicating that The Human League had all but exhausted their seam of material for now. It’s one of the tracks that harked back to the harder-edged sound of earlier material, and probably the song that Phil Oakey would have been happy see released as the a-side to any fourth single:-

mp3 : The Human League – Seconds

As with the earlier singles from Dare, the 12” version contained an extended dance mix which stretched out to more than seven minutes

mp3 : The Human League – Don’t You Want Me (extended)

Quite experimental in some places, it’s impossible to deny its influence on so many pop tunes that followed in its wake – the Pet Shop Boys were most certainly tuning in!

Almost 1.6 million copies of the 7” and 12” were sold in the UK. It also went to #1 in Belgium, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, Norway and, as mentioned earlier, the USA. It also enjoyed Top 10 success in Australia, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and West Germany.

JC

8 thoughts on “THE UNDERSTANDABLE POPULARITY OF A FOURTH SINGLE FROM THE ALBUM

  1. I had first heard The Human League with the amazing “Black Hit Of Space” on Virgin’s “Cash Cows” in late 1980. I was smitten, hard. About a year later, I saw the then current “Sound Of the Crowd” Canadian EP [It had the contents of the UK “Sound Of the Crowd” 12″, plus the “Boys + Girls” single, and “Dancevision” from the “Holiday ’80” 2×7″] and bought it. It was my first Human League purchase. In 1981, I was listening to college radio [WPRK-FM] and finding lots of new music to enjoy. It played lots of import vinyl from the UK; my interest at the time as a New Wave fan.

    In December they were playing “Don’t You Want Me” on import 7″ and I heard it while I was making an aircheck tape of the station. I immediately played back the song about a dozen times in a row. I will admit that much of the song’s allure to me at that time was it was the first time I could remember an electronic track being sung by a woman. The novelty factor was off the charts since synth music had been a boy’s club since day one. I always felt that this was a distinguishing trait of DYWM, apart from it’s well-honed immaculate pop factors.

    Happily, I received a copy of “Dare” on import LP from a friend for xmas and immediately began buying every Human League record I could find in Central Florida in short order. I was listening to “Reproduction” and “Travelogue” almost as much as “Dare.” But it’s safe to say that “Dare” dominated the first half of 1982’s listening until summertime, when WPRK-FM acquired a 7″ single of “Poison Arrow” well in advance of its release in America. At that point ABC and Trevor Horn took the mantle from Human League and Martin Rushent as avatars of pop perfection.

  2. Great post. It is a great single and the album is probably the best of it’s type, but I must admit, I had no idea of that back story about Phil Oakey not happy with it or wanting it released. Kinda adds another layer to my respect for the guy and his work.

    As a wee aside, at that time 1980/81, it is amazing so few of the new wave songs were what you would call love songs, when you consider that is the principle subject matter for pop songs before and after.

    I always think that Don’t You Want Me and Madness’s It Must Be love were kinda responsible for making it OK to sing about love again.

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