Don't You Want Me sleeve

DON’T YOU WANT ME – The Human League

8 December 1981 – 11 January 1982 · Virgin VS 466 · Writers: Jo Callis, Philip Oakey, Philip Adrian Wright

One of the most enduring and instantly recognisable hits of the decade, and easily the Human League’s best known song, by rights Don’t You Want Me should never even have been a single. In fact, in some ways it’s a wonder it was ever written in the first place.

Formed in Sheffield in 1977 by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, the original incarnation of the Human League had little time for the frivolities of pop music. For their first single Being Boiled, singer Phil Oakey wrote about the plight of silkworms (“Boiled alive for some god’s stocking”). They followed this with an instrumental EP The Dignity Of Labour Parts 1-4, which came with a free flexi-disc containing a recording of the band arguing about what to put on the free flexi-disc. Commercial success did not beckon.

Nevertheless, Virgin Records signed the band and they even managed an appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1980 when their cover of Gary Glitter’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Part 2 reached the dizzy heights of number 56. This sat uneasily with Marsh and Ware’s vision for the band and they quit shortly afterwards, leaving Oakey with the Human League’s name, its debts and an upcoming European tour. Faced with having to complete the tour with a Human League comprised of himself and slide projector operator Adrian Wright, Phil Oakey went clubbing.

Having set out with the intention of recruiting a female backing vocalist, Oakey came back with two: Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley, two teenage girls he spotted dancing in a nightclub. Along with new musicians Ian Burden and ex-Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis, the restyled Human League set about writing a pop masterpiece. The result was the album Dare!, released in October 1981. While it harked back to the League’s austere earlier sound in places, it was first and foremost a synthpop album and already included three top twenty hits by the time of its release: The Sound Of The Crowd, Love Action and Open Your Heart. This presented something of a problem, however: after the release of Dare!, Virgin wanted to issue a fourth single in order to prolong the album’s chart success. The obvious choice seemed to be the album’s closing track Don’t You Want Me, a duet between Oakey and Sulley and the most commercial sounding song on the album that hadn’t yet been a single.

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The idea of releasing Don’t You Want Me horrified Oakey who considered the song to be mere album filler material; he was also unhappy with producer Martin Rushent’s overly poppy mix of the track and was concerned that after three top twenty hits in quick succession the public wouldn’t want another Human League single. Despite his misgivings, the single was duly released and – to the amazement of all concerned – rocketed to number 1, a highly unusual case of the fourth single from an album dwarfing the success of its predecessors. It stayed at the top of the charts over the Christmas period and went on to sell over 1.5 million copies in the UK alone; it also topped the US charts in the summer of 1982.

Despite this, the single’s success proved hard to follow. The idea of releasing a fifth single from Dare! seemed like overkill, so EMI stepped in and reissued Being Boiled which reached number 6 despite bearing little resemblance to the band’s current sound. While the band struggled to record a follow-up to Dare!, a stop-gap single Mirror Man was released at the end of 1982, followed by (Keep Feeling) Fascination in 1983, but by the time the League’s next album Hysteria was finally ready to go in 1984, their momentum was lost and their popularity had begun to wane. Although the band – now essentially Oakey, Sulley and Catherall with an ever changing cast of backing musicians – continues to perform and even occasionally releases new material, their only top ten hits since 1984 have been 1986’s Human (another US number one) and Tell Me When, something of an unexpected comeback hit in 1995. The band’s sudden mid-’90s resurgence prompted the release of a Greatest Hits album, promoted by a remixed version of Don’t You Want Me which reached number 16.

Having survived covers by Mandy Smith and The Farm, the song has entered the public consciousness to such an extent that it has even been taken up as a football chant. Supporters of Scottish Premiership club Aberdeen FC have adopted the song, singing the chorus “Peter Pawlett baby” in tribute to the team’s popular midfielder. This took on a new twist after the club’s success in the Scottish League Cup in March 2014 when a campaign by Aberdeen supporters managed to get Don’t You Want Me back into the UK top twenty and all the way to number 1 in the Scottish chart. A bona fide pop classic, even Phil Oakey doesn’t hate it any more.

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