From catwalk to club-land, the 80’s have been mined for inspiration for what seems like longer than their actual duration. It’s the decade that won’t go away. Now is as good a time as any to commemorate the Rolls Royce of synth–pop extravaganzas, The Human League’s Dare, with a lustrous deluxe edition. In the late 70’s, electronic sounds grew increasingly ubiquitous. Keyboards became more affordable and less unwieldy than their bulky prototypes. By the early 80’s these glacial textures were the sound of sleek, metropolitan modernity; a miracle of Casio and chrome. As the punk movement atomized, a whole host of musicians were enlivened by it’s original DIY ethos but disillusioned with the stifling, anti-populist stance. They became practitioners of what critic Paul Morley dubbed ‘New Pop’. For a brief moment a vanguard of musicians seized the pop means of production and stormed the charts. ABC, Soft Cell, The Associates & of course, The Human League.
Dare was released at a critical juncture in the band’s career. They had previously been an austere Constructivist electronic outfit for two albums, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue(1980). These records were hugely indebted to pioneers like Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream, as well as the metronomic brutality of Bowie/Iggy Pop collaborations like Nightclubbing. Somewhere in the early League’s minimalist grooves lies the future of electronica like Warp records and Aphex Twin. Nonetheless a pop sensibility flickered sporadically in their work. It’s in their deconstruction of the Righteous Brothers’ titanic You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and the bouncy riposte to the Pistols’ ‘No Future’ maxim on Blind Youth. But when Ian Craig Marsh & Martyn Ware left to form British Electric Foundation and later, Heaven 17, the smart money was on them. Phil Oakey, the Sheffield hospital porter with the floppy fringe and the flat baritone, and projectionist Adrian Wright, with his unhealthy appetite for fascist imagery, didn’t stand a chance. Or so it seemed.
Pop music, of course, is full of against all odds triumphs. When Oakey recruited two disco-dancing teenage girls, Joanne Catherall & Susanne Sulley and enlisted the production talents of Martin Rushent, the new look League produced Dare. Each single release, The Sound Of The Crowd, Open Your Heart and Love Action (I Believe In Love) seemed to nudge them closer to being a household name. Then, in Christmas 1981, Don’t You Want Me began a five-week residency at the top of the charts. The band’s new incarnation was a transatlantic triumph and found favour with future pop royalty. A young Madonna tirelessly strutted her stuff to Don’t You Want Me at New York’s uber-hip, Danceteria. The reaction was ambivalent; they continued to chase the hits but when Oakey found out they were number 1, he smashed his telephone in a fit of rage, believing his band no longer mattered. The sweet smell of success often leads to fame’s more bittersweet aftertaste
Dare epitomizes everything a great pop record should be: aspirational, concise, stylish. Housed in a sleeve that resembled the cosmetic gloss of fashion magazines (note the typography’s similarity to Vogue’s), the album is New Pop’s most brazen manifesto. Opener Things That Dreams Are Made Of is an ode to the good times, extolling the virtues of self-actualization, looking good, socializing and travel. ‘Eveybody needs love and adventure, everybody needs cash to spend,’ Oakey sings. At the heart of his worldview was a conservatism that chimed with the times and could be easily misread as Thatcherite; consume, travel, succeed. All very 80’s.Ten years ago, Pink Floyd had been agonizing over Money (just as barely five years ago Queen put a ‘no synthesizers’ disclaimer on their sleeves).Dare’s opening track revels in an irony-free celebration of consumerism. This throwback to pre-counterculture pop values speaks volumes about public schoolboy guilt and working class upward mobility.
The ‘numanoid-goes-humanoid’ Sound Of The Crowd is ludicrously fantastic, managing to turn the ritual of a night out into a world of surrealist intrigue. The tribal stomp of the music and the lyrics’ exhortation for the listener to participate flew in the face of previous synth records. Not for them the alienated urban sprawl of John Foxx’s Underpass or the ‘pale blinds, drawn all day,’ of Bowie’s Sound & Vision. This was electronic pop as a communal experience. The recruitment of the girls was a savvy tactic. Catherall and Sulley’s clunky amateurism, their glamorous ordinariness proved to be their virtue, reflecting adolescent pangs and ambitions back to the teenage listener like a shiny mirror.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the ageless Don’t You Want Me, a song undimmed by overexposure. Like so many classics, it almost didn’t make the final cut, being deemed too throwaway. A duet between Oakey and Sulley, it remains one of pop’s most enduring soap operas acting out the break-up of an ascendant former waitress and her spurned svengali. This is the stuff from which all great melodrama is woven, from early Joan Crawford movies to early 80’s synth pop. The video was in part a homage to both French New Wave director Francois Truffaut & A Star Is Born. It was filmed on 35mm, a fast-forward for the still nascent pop promo medium. The location was Slough. This deft combination of the suburban and sophisto-pop embodies The Human League’s far-reaching appeal. It was as much music to soundtrack the decadent Bright Young Things nights out at Blitz, as it was to dramatize juvenile romances in leisure centres. A record to do your hair to, while marvelling at the music’s artful construction.
And Dare still sounds fantastic. Like so many classic pop albums it represents an alchemical moment when a range of influences are filtered into one perfectly-packaged statement. Every element of Dare works, from the humanizing sound of the girls, new bassist Ian Burden’s love of dub-like space & Rushent’s peerless production, a masterstroke of effective simplicity. Far from being the automated auto-pop its detractors derided it for, virtually no presets were used and the sounds were built from scratch. Rushent relied heavily on the Roland Microcomposer, then a start -of-the-art cut and paste sequencer. From the herd of electro-kittens purring in unison on Love Action to Don’t You Want Me’s approximation of Nile Rogers’ chicken scratch, Dare’s machine-made throbs possess a very human pulse. Pop’s past is fed through a synthesized Xerox; ‘Chinnichap’ Glam handclaps, Chic, Roxy Music. Even Barry White’s lush orchestrations seem to be electronically mimicked on the ecstatic Love Action with its sensuous surfaces. Oakey’s testifying vocal (This is Phil talking!), apparently inspired by Iggy Pop, has something of a blue-eyed soul lothario about it. A New Pop Symphony, indeed.
The album pulls off that rare trick of being full of nuance and free of clutter. Dare takes its cue from obvious templates like the Moroder modulations on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love and the velour, electro bop-pop of Abba’s Super Trouper; synthetic textures with warm-blooded hooks. Rushent is widely regarded as being a new wave polymath, having worked with The Stranglers and Buzzcock Pete Shelley, but his CV stretches back to sessions for T.Rex and Fleetwood Mac. He had also cut his chops with Johnny Harris. From the veteran arranger, Rushent had learnt how to layer sounds so that each constituent part sounded prominent and purposeful. Its best heard on the gleaming, Olympic Open Your Heart. The synth arpeggio is so stand alone striking, the vocals are delayed until the second chorus. Sound Of The Crowd is peppered with ethno-tronica (best heard on the Love and Dancing version) more closely associated with the art-pop elite of Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush or Japan. It is a masterpiece of ‘positioning’, of placing non-pop elements in a pop context.
Something of the imposing Human League mark 1 hangs over the album’s hit free middle section (just a hint of this menace skirts around the edges of Don’t You Want Me). There’s the synaesthesia nightmare of Darkness, apparently triggered by reading too much Stephen King, the Judge Dredd-inspired I Am The Law whose lyric bows to that arch rival of the hip, authority. The original side two opens with a brief snatch of music from classic Brit-noir flick Get Carter. It all gets a bit Clockwork Orange. Such a threat of danger on songs like Seconds, a Kennedy assassination drama with Linn drum wallop, gives Dare a slightly macabre undercurrent. Perhaps the decade wouldn’t be all glitz and glamour.
The special edition of Dare pairs the original album with a bunch of off-cuts such as (You Remind Me Of) Gold, covered in 2010 by Darkstar. There’s two stop gap singles, the robo-Motown of Mirror Man (apparently a swipe at Adam Ant) & (Keep Feeling ) Fascination; more fizzy pop with heart and soul. It also features several cuts from Love & Dancing (1982), one of the first remix versions of an album, released under the pseudonym, The League Unlimited Orchestra, a nod to Barry White. Essentially a labour of love for producer Martin Rushent, the project involved hours of cutting and splicing tapes. To some ears, these extended versions may sound quaint, even primitive but they really highlight the organic elasticity of Dare’s construction. The crafting of these records was an arduous task, a million miles away from the ‘preening and presets’ image the rockist brigade crudely sketched of them. For evidence, see The Undertones My Perfect Cousin’s lampooning of the League as arty poseurs.
After Dare, The Human League continued to be a great singles band but like so many of their peers, when they strayed too far from their synth pop blueprint, it yielded mixed results. Follow-up Hysteria(1984) is plagued with the worst excesses of the decade, numerous exotic recording locations and beyond a few great singles, consists of non-committal padding. Crucially, they ditched Martin Rushent, submitting to a slightly rockier musical vocabulary (The Lebanon’s chest-beating altruism is very U2).It was an ill-fitting costume change and one that, ironically enough, has worn less well with time. But when synth pop infiltrated the ranks of the mainstream charts, it became a byword for sterile vacuity, music as vaporous as hairspray. ‘It says nothing to me about my life,’ lamented Morrissey on The Smith’s Panic. This was a band whose jolts of realism and back to basics beat combo sound were a stark reaction to the luxuriant artifice of records like Dare.
But Dare, along with ABC’s Lexicon Of Love (1982) and Soft Cell’s Non-stop Erotic Cabaret (1981), encapsulates the best of its time. It sits in between the two other landmarks. It’s a classier affair than Marc Almond’s tawdry, bedsitter electro-sleaze. But it clones the likes of Chic with precision-tooled machinery where ABC splashed out on MGM-style orchestrations and widescreen Trevor Horn production. The aesthetic turf wars between indie and pop, synthesizer and guitar mean very little now. From the 90’s onwards, the Human League have been cited as a major influence on a disparate bunch of artists from Pulp to La Roux, as well as being sampled by the likes of Richard X and Utah Saints. Pop continues to cannibalize itself. X-factor’s karaoke machine on barn-storming steroids obliterates all opposing voices. Unsurprisingly, Dare still sounds fresh and bold. And probably will for as long as there is such a thing as pop music.