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The Human League’s Radical Future

The ’80s synthpop band sounds more revolutionary than ever in 2017

The 1980s were seen as a clean slate for pop culture. An emphasis on the futuristic was everywhere, and in music the future was electronic instruments. The future was also distinctly androgynous, and as the glam-rock ’70s morphed into the sci-fi ’80s, a generation of musicians inspired by Ziggy Stardust brought the alien feeling into the new decade, long after David Bowie had abandoned it for other worlds. The Human League’s home of Sheffield, England, like other industrial cities in Europe and America, became a late-’70s epicenter of early electronic pop. Music’s move toward synthesizers that decade encompassed the New Age sounds of Jean-Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream, the glittering glam of Roxy Music, the German electronic experimentation of Popol Vuh and Faust, and the late ’70s krautrock of Kraftwerk and Neu! Elsewhere and simultaneously, punk was remaking and remodeling rock music with analog instruments.

Toward the end of the decade, these new experimental sounds exchanged fluids. Many former post-punks turned to synthesizers to create a new sound — a familiar minimalism, but with synth stabs in place of guitars. Out of this primordial electronic soup came new wave and synthpop, in tandem with new electronic instruments like the Roland TR-808 drum machine hitting the mass market in the early ’80s. Bowie, after seeing The Human League perform in 1978, told NME he “had seen the future of pop music.” A Very British Synthesizer Group, the expansive four-disc retrospective set that The Human League recently released, features 12-inch versions, remixes, and demo versions of songs, allowing us to hear the band’s evolution from post-punk darkwave to glamorous synthpop in real time.

Bowie was right. The Human League’s influence on pop music is so baked into modern pop that we’ve almost forgotten that there was a time before drum machines and glamorous singers ruled the genre. Originally called The Future in their late-’70s post-punk incarnation, Philip Oakey, Martyn Ware, and Ian Craig Marsh could only afford two synthesizers at first — a Korg 700S and a Roland System 100. After taking the name The Human League from a sci-fi role-playing card game, they signed a contract with Virgin. Their debut, 1979’s Reproduction, failed to dent the charts, and Virgin canceled their tour even as the group gained a cult youth following. An EP featuring a cover of Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” got them on Top of the Pops, and second album Travelogue charted in 1980. Around the same time, acts like Gary Numan broke the new synthpop sound into the British mainstream. Internal conflict in The Human League festered, in part over resentment that Numan was so much more successful than they were. Oakey wanted to go poppier, and Ware and Marsh split in 1980 to form leftist art-rock band Heaven 17.

With the departure of his bandmates, Oakey was on the hook for a tour with 10 days to replace the band members, so he scouted hip Sheffield dance club The Crazy Daisy. There he recruited two cool-looking teenagers to sing backup — Joanne Catherall, 18, and Susan Ann Sulley, 17 — who turned out to already be fans of The Human League. He also hired Sheffield session keyboardist Ian Burden and promoted the band’s “visuals” guy, Philip Adrian Wright, to keyboardist (Jo Callis of The Rezillos would soon join as well). On tour, the new Human League were booed by fans who’d come expecting the old Ware-Marsh lineup. But this version of the band established what would become The Human League’s defining sound — paired male and female vocals with an unburnished, conversational feel, dueling and duetting over dark, melodramatic synths. The band’s new look underscored the sound: Oakey as the dashing, sophisticated singer, flanked by Catherall and Sulley, who looked like Roxy Music cover girls come to life.

Label execs chose “Don’t You Want Me” as a single from The Human League's next album, Dare, over Oakey’s protests. But the song quickly scaled both U.K. and stateside charts in the winter of 1981 — topping the all-important Christmas week chart in Britain, and positioning The Human League as the bright new stars of the synthpop and new wave movements.

Oakey was inspired to write “Don’t You Want Me” by the 1976 movie A Star Is Born, the story of an aging male star who falls in love with a young female starlet whose fame eventually surpasses his. He's referred to it as “a nasty song about sexual power politics,” an ’80s hot topic that feels as relevant as ever. It was also the first chart-topping song to feature the Linn LM-1 drum machine, a significant symbolic shift: Where the Roland TR-808 is known for its strict, inorganic drum sound, the LM-1 samples real drums and has a wet, silky drum sound. The LM-1 fits perfectly in the sensual “Don’t You Want Me,” whose sexual power play is built into its icy synths and purposefully laissez-faire vocals.

By then Oakey was known around Sheffield for his androgynous and flashy personal style, wearing eyeliner and lipstick with power suits and emulating Veronica Lake’s eye-covering swoop of bangs. When Catherall and Sulley joined the group, the three became a visual unit. With matching haircuts, heavy 1940s cabaret makeup, and thrifted vintage Old Hollywood style, they looked like the cast of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. The video for “Don’t You Want Me” is shot in a postmodern noir style. Oakey appears, notably, with the same sort of lined eyes, stripes of blush, and glossy lip as Sulley and Catherall. Sulley’s hair is cut short with a wave of blonde bangs, Oakey’s ears are adorned with earrings; they were instant, new style icons. This androgyny tipped at a bigger idea: If men and women are impossible to tell apart visually, then the perceived differences between them collapse. And what are femininity and masculinity but some haircuts, makeup, and clothes anyhow? As Catherall and Sulley moved from background singers to frontwomen, The Human League became symbolic of the new allegiances between like-mindedly cool men and women who wanted to build a new, better world.

In 1983, The Human League pioneered the format of the “video single,” releasing a VHS compiling three of their music videos — for “Mirror Man,” “Love Action (I Believe in Love)” and “Don’t You Want Me” — as part of a burgeoning trend catering to that very latest home appliance, the VHS player. 1984’s follow-up album, Hysteria, was criticized for using guitars. The British music press called the band hypocrites, because in 1981 it had issued a “no guitars” statement, cheekily stoking the fear of the British Musicians’ Union at the time that the new machines would make human musicians outmoded. Much later, in 1996, Trent Reznor would tell Spin he was inspired by “the excitement of hearing a Human League track and thinking, that’s all machines, there’s no drummer!” But in the mid-’80s, The Human League felt paralyzed by the success of Dare, which had been a worldwide critical and commercial hit, and so they traded in their breakthrough’s plinky, icy minimalism for a more band-like sound.

The making of Hysteria was a tense period for the band, and the album became a comparative disappointment — peaking at No. 3 on the U.K. charts and going only gold. But Hysteria’s best songs, like “Life on Your Own,” are just as pulsating and catchy as anything on Dare, with an even more melancholy streak.

For 1986’s Crash, the band went into the studio with the American production duo of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who were fans and had just come off Janet Jackson’s landmark Control. This move took their sound from early-’80s synthpop into mid-’80s synth-funk and very soft rock. “Human,” written by Jam and Lewis, recreated the whisper-softness that they’d given Janet’s “Let’s Wait Awhile,” taking the group away from their original edgy sound into a velvety, sensual zone. It topped the Billboard Hot 100 and rose to No. 3 on the chart known at the time as “Hot Black Singles” (later retitled Hot R&B).

While The Human League’s critical and commercial fortunes dipped again in the 1990s, they were influential on generations of electronic musicians who came to shape mainstream pop and dance, as well as the electronic avant-garde. With their new career retrospective, they remind us again of their continuing relevance and place in the canon of electronic music pioneers. The cover image of A Very British Synthesizer Group features stylized portraits of the androgynous trio who became the band’s core members, reminding us that sexual radicalism can assert itself visually with an image as simple as a man wearing red lipstick with a smart suit. The Human League still look like the future I want to live in — genderless and pluralistic — and they still sound like pop’s past, present, and future-perfect.