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Music / The Human League

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The best known post-1980 lineup of the group. From left to right: Philip Oakey (singer), Susanne Sulley (vocalist), Joanne Catherall (vocalist).

"Since I was very young I realized, I never wanted to be human size, So I avoid the crowds and traffic jams, They just remind me of how small I am"
— "Empire State Human"

The Human League are a Synth-Pop band from Sheffield, England. They formed in 1978 when the experimental synth duo the Future (consisting of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh) teamed up with singer Phil Oakey to write pop tunes. At the point they formed, synth music was often in the proggy vein (e.g. Kraftwerk, Vangelis) or in the disco vein (e.g. Giorgio Moroder), but the group took note of the DIY punk aesthetic to create their own dark style of synth music with poppy structures. Unlike many other Synth-Pop bands of the era, they completely used electronic instrumentation (Including a full Roland System 100) with no guitars or drums, with their debut Single Being Boiled cited as one of the first examples of popular electronic music in the UK. This led to their signature electronic sound as noted by fans, which helped them gain popularity throughout the late 70s.

Releasing two albums, an EP and several singles, the original lineup split in late 1980 due to Creative Differences, with Ware & Marsh walking out and going on to form BEF, and soon after, Heaven 17. Oakey and their visual director Philip Adrian Wright had to honour touring agreements so added Jo Callis and Ian Burden to the lineup. Additionally, Oakey hired female vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley initially as backing vocalists though the songs got written around their vocals later. This lineup of the group recorded their album Dare, which made them a household name with several singles, most notably "Don't You Want Me".

While the success of Dare would be something of a miracle for the band at the time, it would later become an albatross around their necks, as each following album failed to meet the expectations their 1981 album established. By 1990, the group were generally regarded as has-beens among the general public, something the band themselves lampshaded with their song "The Stars Are Going Out". Their 1995 album Octopus would be seen as a return to form, and their following album, 2001's Secrets, was praised by fans and critics to almost Dare-levels, but it flopped on store shelves. Their next album, 2011's Credo, would receive middling reception from fans and critics. Since then, the band have focused solely on touring and performing.

Despite their rocky history, the Human League are generally considered to be one of the most influential bands of the synthpop era, often being considered a Trope Codifier for the genre alongside Kraftwerk. Dare and its associated singles are still fairly well-remembered as high points of 1980's pop music, and several of their songs have continued to find new audiences through inclusion in movies, TV shows, commercials, and video games. Reproduction and Travelogue, despite underselling when released, gained a cult following in the following decades and has been continuously reappraised by critics as being ahead of their time.

There's a fan website dedicated to preserving the content of Mk. I Human League, as linked here

Discography (studio albums in bold)

MK I Era


  • Dare (1981)
  • Love and Dancing remix album (1982)
  • Fascination! EP (1983)
  • Hysteria (1984)
  • Crash (1986)
  • Romantic? (1990)
  • YMO Versus The Human League EP (1993)
  • Octopus (1995)
  • Secrets (2001)
  • Credo (2011)

The Human League provides examples of:

  • After the End: The music video for "Life On Your Own" has Phil Oakey play the last surviving person in a desolate London.
  • Boxed Set: 2022's The Virgin Years is a five-LP set containing all of the Mark II lineup's studio albums on Virgin Records plus the EP Fascination!, each on color-coded vinyl (the two Mark I albums, Reproduction and Travelogue, are omitted). Consequently, the set marks the first time Romantic? was reissued outside of Japan since its original 1990 release, having previously been thrown into Canon Discontinuity by Virgin on account of its critical and commercial underperformance.
  • Call-Back: On the "Love Action" 12", the song is preceded by "Hard Times" which segues into it— hence the line "I've had some hard times in the past" (which also samples that song).
    • Hysteria has three songs that are this to previous hit "Don't You Want Me"— these being "Louise" (in which the ex-lovers meet again several years later), "Life On Your Own" (which derives its theme from Don't You Want Me's line "Now I think it's time I lived my life on my own") and "Don't You Know I Want You" which is obviously a tongue-in-cheek rewrite.
  • Canon Discontinuity:
    • The single "Boys And Girls" was an unfinished song rush-recorded and released to fulfil record company demand, and has never been performed live after the tour it was released during. It is available as a bonus track on the Travelogue CD and the A Very British Synthesizer Group box set, but has never been on a Greatest Hits release.
    • The 4-track EP "Dignity of Labour", an instrumental concept album about Yuri Gagarin, has never been played live and has been rarely mentioned by the band overall, besides being included on A Very British Synthesizer Group and the Reproduction CD. The flexi disc included with it, however is notable enough as a piece of Meta-Fiction.
    • The single "I Don't Depend On You", by a re-naming of the Human League known as 'The Men', has been mostly forgotten as a Disco track which is rarely mentioned by the band outside of its inclusion on the Travelogue CD.
    • Romantic? is notably the only one of the Virgin-era albums to be excluded from the band's remastering campaign in the early 2000s. The album represented the band's career at its nadir (which the band themselves commented on in "The Stars Are Going Out?"), generated only a modest UK hit in "Heart Like a Wheel", and undersold, leading both the band and Virgin to ignore its existence (outside a couple Japanese reissues) until its inclusion in the 2022 Boxed Set The Virgin Years.
  • Canon Immigrant: After the "Philip Oakey and Giorgio Moroder" project fell apart, Oakey repurposed their hit "Together in Electric Dreams" as a Human League song, with it being on compilations and performed live.
  • Circus of Fear: "Circus of Death" depicts a monstrous Eldritch Abomination that takes the form of a constantly-growing circus led by a Monster Clown, who placates the circus' victims with the Fantastic Drug "dominion" before annihilating all of humanity.
  • Clip Show: The music video for "Love is All That Matters" consists almost entirely of reused clips from older music videos, both due to Virgin Records' declining faith in the band by 1988 and as a way of promoting the band's first Greatest Hits Album, on which it was included (the single was originally the closing track on Crash, but was released two years later to coincide with the compilation).
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience: During the '80s, the Mk. II incarnation frequently denoted their singles as "red" or "blue," be it through the color of the logotype or a worded label; red singles denoted dance tracks, while blue singles were pop.
  • Cover Version: A few:
    • Prior to recruiting Phil Oakey (and back when they were known as the Dead Daughters), renditions of the Doctor Who theme (composed by Ron Grainer and arranged by Delia Derbyshire) were a staple of the group's live performances.
    • "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" (by the Righteous Brothers) on Reproduction.
    • A medley of "Rock and Roll Part 1" (by Gary Glitter) and "Nightclubbing" (by Iggy Pop) on Holiday '80 (which also made for the League's first Top of the Pops appearance); the medley was later included on all CD releases of Travelogue as a bonus track, even ones issued well after Glitter's convictions for multiple sex offenses against minors.
    • "Only After Dark" (by David Bowie sideman Mick Ronson) and "Gordon's Gin" (by Jeff Wayne) on Travelogue.
    • "River Deep Mountain High" (by Ike and Tina Turner) on their 1980 tour.
    • "Rock Me Again And Again" (by James Brown and Lyn Collins) on Hysteria.
    • "King of Kings" and "Reach Out I'll Be there" from their Golden Hour of the Future demo as the Future.
    • They also covered the Get Carter theme.
    • The general point of YMO Versus The Human League, which features the band covering "Behind the Mask", "Kimi Ni, Mune Kyun", and "Tong Poo" by Yellow Magic Orchestranote . The latter is also conjoined with a performance of "Firecracker" by Martin Denny, which YMO famously covered on their own debut album (which "Tong Poo" also hails from).
  • Dude Looks Like a Lady: Philip Oakey in the early years of the band with his asymmetrical haircut and makeup. Oakey based the look on an advertisement from that era.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Their early work is quite dark and minimalistic and lacks the female vocals and the disco-style rhythms that would go on to define their sound.
  • Eldritch Abomination: The titular song from "The Black Hit of Space" is implied to be this.
  • Epic Rocking: "Rock 'N' Roll/Night Clubbing", "Austerity/Girl One", and "Fascination (Improvisation)" all surpass the 6-minute mark. The former sees this mainly thanks to it being two different songs glued together.
  • Expy: Martyn and Ware asked Glenn Gregory to join the original lineup, though he declined, so they asked Phil Oakey (who had a similar voice) instead. After the MK1 group split, Martyn and Ware asked Gregory to join their new group Heaven 17, and this time he agreed.
  • Fading into the Next Song:
    • Done on the band's 12"s of "Hard Times/Love Action" and "Open Your Heart/Non-Stop", which feature the listed songs mixed into medleys rather than having dedicated 12" mixes for the single track. The "Love And Dancing" remix album mimics the flow of the former 12", although with largely instrumental mixes.
    • This was soon after done on the album Dare, in which the minute long "Get Carter" serves as a prelude to "I Am The Law", leading to many not even noticing they're separate tracks. This then fades into "Seconds".
  • Fake-Out Fade-Out: "Tell Me When", which then jumps into a reprise of the chorus before fading out for real.
  • Greatest Hits Album:
    • The Human League Greatest Hits was released in 1988, partly as a way of recouping the costs of the critical and commercial underperformances of both Hysteria and Crash. Following the band's UK comeback in 1995, Virgin Records reissued the album with a reordered tracklist, adding a Eurodance remix of "Don't You Want Me", the Octopus track "Tell Me When", and the newly-recorded "Stay With Me Tonight" (which was released as a single to promote the compilation); the latter two tracks were licensed from EastWest Records, onto whom the band were signed. This version would be released in the US in 1998 as The Very Best of the Human League. A separate compilation, Soundtrack to a Generation, was also released in continental Europe by Virgin associate Disky Records in 1996 to further cash in on the band's renewed popularity.
    • In 2003, Virgin put out The Very Best of the Human League (unrelated to the identically-named 1998 compilation) to coincide with the remasters of the band's first five albums. This compilation focused mostly on songs from those albums, plus the Romantic? track "Heart Like a Wheel", two songs from Octopus, and the Secrets track "All I Ever Wanted". Some versions also tossed in a bonus CD containing various remixes.
    • In 2016, Virgin released A Very British Synthesizer Group, a two-CD retrospective compilation spanning material from the band's debut single in 1978 to their most recent album in 2011.
  • Height Angst: "Empire State Human" is about a guy who loathes his short height and desires to be as tall as a skyscraper.
  • Honor Thy Abuser: In "Louise", a Sequel Song to "Don't You Want Me", the narrator reconnects with the title character, a cocktail waitress-turned-actress who he previously and predatorily mentored, and tries to apologize for how awful he had been to her in the past. Louise immediately understands, embraces him, and patches things up before the two part again on much happier terms.
  • I Am the Band: This was more or less Phil Oakey's stance after the musicians Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left. The two did however continue to receive royalties from Dare!.
  • Leitmotif: The Dominion Jingle appears between every track on their demo album The Taverner Tape, and also at the start of "Circus Of Death" on Reproduction.
  • Left Hanging: The song "Human" is all about a guy who cheated on his lover and is remorseful and asking her forgiveness. At the end she does forgive him, then admits she cheated too and asks for the same charity from him. The song ends without saying whether he did or not, although one would certainly hope so, as he'd be a world class hypocrite otherwise.
  • Lighter and Softer: Dare! abandoned the ominous, borderline Industrial sound of their previous works for a radio-friendly electronic pop sound.
  • Line-of-Sight Name: The group took its name from a faction in the Sci-Fi Tabletop Game Starforce: Alpha Centauri.
  • Meta Fiction: Some copies of "The Dignity Of Labour" included a bonus Flexidisc featuring a track called "Flexidisc", which is a conversation between the group members about what to include on the Flexidisc.
  • New Sound Album: Several.
    • Dare incorporated female vocals and moved away from the doomy, avant-garde pseudo-industrial sound of the Mk. I era in favor of a more pop-oriented sound.
    • Crash was a US-oriented R&B album produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.
    • Romantic? moved to a middle ground between the styles of Dare/Hysteria and Crash, keeping the digital synths and some of the funk elements while moving back towards the sound of their early Mk. II output.
    • Octopus moved back to analog synths and took prominent influence from newer developments in electronic dance music (particularly House Music and Eurodance), with both Secrets and Credo continuing and further modernizing the style.
  • Protest Song:
    • "Being Boiled"... sorta. Read literally, the song is a condemnation of the silk industry, which involves boiling silkworms to death to harvest their cocoons (hence the song title), though it can just as easily be read as metaphorical in a number of other ways, from the perils of capitalist exploitation as a whole to general abuse.
    • "Dreams of Leaving" attacks both The Apartheid Era and the more subtle racism in western society that manifests in xenophobic resentment (particularly the "they're taking our jobs" mindset).
  • Real Life Writes the Plot:
    • "Seconds" deals with the tragedy of the death of John F. Kennedy. On the other hand, "The Lebanon" deals with the war in Lebanon at the time. And from their earlier line up, "Dreams of Leaving" deals with a refugee wanting to escape Apartheid in his home country.
    • "The Stars Are Going Out" from Romantic is a more personal example, being about the band's fall from critical and commercial popularity following the unexpectedly gargantuan success of Dare!
  • Rearrange the Song:
    • Both sides of the band's debut single were re-recorded on their Mk. I studio albums, with "Circus of Death" being redone for Reproduction and "Being Boiled" being redone for Holiday '80 and Travelogue. The latter song is faster and more aggressive in its re-recorded iteration.
    • CD editions of Reproduction change the intro on "The Path of Least Resistance", replacing the spoken-word knitting tutorial with a synth bass riff, and add distortion effects to the vocals on verse two. A Japanese CD reissue in 2017 restores the LP mix.
    • Hysteria includes a re-recording of "I Love You Too Much" from Fascination!, featuring a less aggressive electro sound.
    • The 1995 version of the band's first Greatest Hits Album includes a Eurodance remix of "Don't You Want Me" as a bonus track.
  • Re-release the Song: After the group's rise to popularity with Dare!, their debut single "Being Boiled" was re-released and went to Number Six.
  • The Rival: MK2 to Heaven 17. The two sides ultimately patched things up, and even toured together in 2008.
  • Sequel Song: "Louise" is one to "Don't You Want Me", depicting the narrator and his muse reuniting and reconciling several years later.
  • Revolving Door Band: Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley have been the only constant members of the band since the mid-1980s, and Oakey himself has been the only consistent member since 1978.
  • Shout-Out:
    • "Tom Baker" is heavily inspired by the Doctor Who theme song, with a zoomed-in promotional photo for the show (edited to look like an actual screencap) being used as its official artwork on the back of the "Boys and Girls" sleeve.
    • The Cabaret Voltaire track "Eastern Mantra" has the phrase "Human League" backwards said throughout the entire track.
    • The songs "Darkness", "Get Carter", "I am the Law", and "Seconds", are all homage tracks to the Mk1 phase of the band ("I am the Law" actually predates Dare!) Then there's what "Get Carter" and "I am the Law" are named after.
    • As a more obscure example; there's the demo track "4JG", which is supposed to be a stand in for "For J.G. Ballard". The naming convention was most likely a reference to "2HB" (To Humphrey Bogart) from the debut album of Roxy Music.
  • Siamese Twin Songs: The Mk. I incarnation's covers of "Rock 'n' Roll, Part 1" by Gary Glitter and "Nightclubbing" by Iggy Pop, largely thanks to CD re-releases of Travelogue packaging the two together as a single track (which became something of a necessity for the 2003 remaster in light of Glitter's conviction for possession of child pornography).
  • Spoken Word in Music : The original single version of "Circus Of Death" in which Oakey explains the premise of the song at the start. Whilst the LP lacks this part, he does speak some of the lines towards the end of the song.
    • Also used at 3:16 of "Louise" where Oakey comes to terms with the relationship being a moment in time.
    • In earlier Versions of "Marianne", Phil would speak some lines after his singing parts.
  • Stealth Parody: Most of their older pop songs tend to be parodies of then current trends, like some of the songs on Reproduction and Travelogue.
  • Stylistic Suck: Susan and Joanne were initially drafted into the band as dancers, and to perform backing vocals. They were atrocious singers with no concept of key, pitch or timing. Whilst some bands might have searched for professionals, Phil decided to keep them and just use them sparingly on Dare itself, with only "Don't You Want Me" featuring an entire verse sung by one of them. However, due to this turning out to be a Black Sheep Hit, they became lead vocalists on more songs later on. They certainly improved, but Phil was always a demonstrably better singer.
  • The Svengali: "Don't You Want Me" is a duet between a Svengali and his increasingly-rebellious protegee.
  • Trope Codifier: One of the first electronic bands to hit the UK Sheffield scene, in fact. Also a Ur-Example of UK Synthpop.
  • Updated Re-release: CD and digital reissues of Reproduction and Travelogue both include various rarities from the pre-Dare era of the band as bonus tracksnote , with both discs adding up to a complete collection of the 1978-1981 material. Since this early period of the band was never commercially successful in its lifetime, this was likely considered more economical than a dedicated rarities compilation like what the Dare-onwards material would eventually get.
  • Wham Line: "Human" is sung from the viewpoint of a man apologizing to his lover for being unfaithful, stating "I'm only human". She responds to him in the song's bridge:
    The tears I cry aren't tears of pain
    They're only to hide my guilt and shame
    I forgive you, now I ask the same of you