Feb 09

THE HUMAN LEAGUE – “Don’t You Want Me”

FT + Popular109 comments • 7,259 views

#491, 12th December 1981

It’s almost a shame that after three years making records concerning sericulture, medieval time-slips, singles-as-singularities, assassinations, Judge Dredd, Dr Who and whatever the hell “Crow And A Baby” was about, the Human League get to #1 with a straightforward song of embittered romance. They maybe felt the same: “Don’t You Want Me” was the fourth single off Dare, released at the insistence of the label. Who of course were quite right.

Their cosmic imagination was only part of what made the League’s records good, though. They made their synthesisers slam together in an awkward but still addictive dance, and they had Phil Oakey’s marvellously rigid voice. Which you might not have thought was suitable for a song as directly emotional as “Don’t You Want Me”, but no – its limited range and perpetual tetchiness are ideal for a record about a man who simply won’t or can’t acknowledge the reality of the situation. Nobody else could have made the chorus sound quite so honestly uncomprehending.

For all that the guy in “Don’t You Want Me” is obviously a bit of a shit – “and I can put you back down too” – there’s something so hangdog about Oakey’s delivery that you feel sorry for him, like you might feel sorry for Alan Partridge or David Brent. Susanne Sulley’s polite and pitying dismantling of his perspective – blankness masking obvious irritation – leaves you in no doubt whatsoever that this is indeed a full stop.

As with “Tainted Love”, this is not a record I expect to stop meeting any time soon. I don’t think it’s as good as “Love Action” or “Sound Of The Crowd” – to be honest by now I’d even prefer to hear “The Lebanon” if I’m out of an evening. But it’s also easy to hear why it did so well: even beyond the all-too-yellable chorus, its clear-sighted outline of a whole romantic history makes it one of the most complete number ones.



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  1. 76
    lonepilgrim on 15 Feb 2009 #

    some great quotes from Phil Oakey in Simon Reynolds’ new book ‘Totally Wired’ such as:
    “If you want to make a lot of money out of pop, be number 3 a lot. Like New Order did. Or The Cure. Because when you’re number 1 you’re everybody’s; nobody really cares about you any more. Everyone and their grandma knows about you, so nobody wants to wear your badges any more.”
    There’s even an explanation of Crow and Baby if you’re curious.
    Martin Rushent is interviewed as well and gives a good account of the making of Dare and Love and Dancing.

  2. 77
    wichita lineman on 15 Feb 2009 #

    Phil’s great. I always liked “I never thought I’d be in a group. I thought people in groups were stupid.” And pretending to Smash Hits that he collected models of Tom from Tom & Jerry: “I now have 245” or some such…

  3. 78
    Sarah on 16 Feb 2009 #

    Phil also has a deceptive vocal range – I did this at karaoke for about the third time in a row on Friday and WHEN WILL I LEARN MY LESSON.

    I’d like to see Phil and the biscuit tin…

  4. 79
    Taylor on 18 Feb 2009 #

    The main riff – it’s a steal from “Eagle” by Abba, isn’t it?

    I’ve always wondered why no one seems to mention this. Perhaps it’s just so blatantly obvious that no one’s ever thought it worth mentioning.

  5. 80
    Billy Smart on 14 May 2009 #

    NMEWatch: 28th November 1981, Julie Burchill;

    “Samson Oakey – who resembles Phil McNeill at the height of punk – needs to have a haircut and the stuffing knocked out of him. But it takes two to do it (duet) wrong. This could be a swinging little song if given to two black singers with GREAT VOICES. Phil and moll sound sallow and callow. So many people should be silent songwriters. You could be in folklore instead of on Top of the Pops. Look at Phil Spector. No, don’t look at him like that!

    The Human League must stop using the singles chart as an agony column sometimes. And my scout tells me that there are no cocktail bars in Sheffield. And they’re too sensitive. They could learn a lot”

    Burchill awarded no single of the week. Also reviewed that week;

    Rip Rig & Panic – Bob Hope Takes Risks
    Barry Manilow – The Old Songs
    Elvis Costello & The Attractions – Sweet Dreams
    Kiki & Elton – Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever
    Fogwell Flax & The Freehold Junior School – One-Nine For Santa
    Gary Numan – Love Needs No Disguise
    Madness – It Must Be Love
    Vic Goddard – Stamp Of A Lamp

  6. 81
    Erithian on 17 Aug 2009 #

    Channel 4 Top 100 Watch – this is the 25th best-selling single of all time in the UK.

  7. 82
    Conrad on 17 Dec 2009 #

    #80, I’d like to hear some Vic Godard some time. Is he any good? Been reading about him in “Rip It Up and Start Again” whic I have finally got round to buying.

    NB – It’s “Stamp of a Vamp” isn’t it? Although “Lamp” is arguably better…

  8. 83
    thefatgit on 18 Dec 2009 #

    Life Imitates Art-Watch:

    DYWM has now become the unofficial theme-tune to the split of Ronnie Wood (65) and Ekaterina Ivanova (21).

  9. 84
    swanstep on 20 Feb 2010 #

    @Taylor, 79. Holy sh**, you are right. The difference between the riffs is really quite subtle, but it’s quite enough to throw one off. I look forward to figuring out the difference exactly hence how all that works! I confess to being a little staggered by your observation: the DYWM riff has always sounded so singular to me! Some of the very best pop (not coincidentally) seems to play tricks on your perceeption like this: the main riff from Smells like Teen Spirit is so utterly singular and convincing sounding that it comes as terrible shock (or at least did to me) when you hear a guitarist run through its changes and, by just changing one or two notes, turn it into More than a Feeling, or by changing two different notes turn the riff into Wild Thing! These small differences spread out by performance quality and timbre make for enormous differences experientially. Amazing and shocking. Anyhow, congrats again on a good catch! I’ll hear both DYWM and Eagle quite differently from now on.

  10. 85
    Brooksie on 20 Feb 2010 #

    This is a 10 for me. The true dawning of the age of UK synth pop that would dominate the world for the next 5 years. A US # 1 to boot. The two national charts were about to begin synching up in a way they hadn’t since the mid 60’s. It was also a time in which the people making pop music still had just a little cred from dues-paying (SAW would wreck that for good). Heady times to be in a British pop group.

    I think the synth riff from DYWM actually adds something to the riff from Eagle; DYWM is more menacing (different key?) and the wrap-up at the end is different (and varies). I think I heard that Phil Oakey copied the lyrics from a photo love-story in a magazine.

  11. 86
    swanstep on 20 Feb 2010 #

    @Brooksie, 85. You’re absolutely right that the riffs aren’t identical, and the basic keys overall are different (DYWM’s in C, Eagles’s in D), and, in general, Eagle’s saturated with SoCal languor whereas DYWM bounces from chord to chord throughout (quite Motown-y really).

    Still (i) the riff melody’s *initial rhythm* is the same, (ii) the *initial notes* are essentially the same (pounding the A then noodling around it), and (iii) both riffs eventually resolve to Am. DYWM *starts* on Am too, so its As and noodles preserve a cleanly minor quality. Eagle’s initially on Em so its As and noodles significantly thicken the sound, giving the riff its brassy, adult quality. (Eagle’s officially about nature, but I’ve always thought of it as having quite a louche, almost druggy vibe about it too – the song scared me a little as a kid!)

    Anyhow, in the grand scheme of things this is insignificant. I hear something, but it’s hardly Oasis-style strip-mining of influences!

  12. 87
    Conrad on 20 Feb 2010 #

    This discussion inspired me to dig out Eagle and have another listen…

    it’s really not a steal, though it’s a great spot – the first half of each riff is similar, but Abba’s is more classic blues in origin, and the second half of theirs is a standard, and fairly uninteresting blues lick. The Human League’s is a much more defined melody in the second half and resolves strongly, which is why it’s so memorable.

  13. 88
    swanstep on 20 Feb 2010 #

    @Conrad, 87. Well-judged comment, with which I completely agree. (I probably overegged things back at #84.) Heh, well, at any rate there’s an fun mega-mix arrangement for some basement party band where you start off playing DYWM, modulate via the bluesier Eagle riff into playing Eagle, which, noodling around a bit now, I find can be rocked quite nicely into Being Boiled. Yee-haw.

  14. 89
    punctum on 15 Apr 2010 #

    Technically speaking, Dignified Don, the single was credited to “Human League 100.” The “100” tag stems from the Human League’s inclination throughout 1981 to colour code their singles; thus “Red” signified dance (“The Sound Of The Crowd,” “Love Action”) and “Blue” meant post-Abba pop (“Open Your Heart”). The sleeve of “Don’t You Want Me” was decked in striped purple; the “100” may have been a nod to the Haircuts. As with the Next clothing chain, the Human League as directed by Phil Oakey and produced by Martin Rushent aspired towards the profound in the clothing of the functional; unlike Next, the League have endured aesthetically and may yet still have been proved to have won.

    And it was so fantastically clear throughout the Christmas of 1981 – one year after music seemed to have been killed off forever – that we had won; we had come through, and triumphed. I am unlikely ever to forget the first time we listened to Dare, in our college rooms, and how our jaws initially dropped at how cheap the production of side one, track one, “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of” sounded, especially in comparison with the slick and sly production of Penthouse And Pavement by their erstwhile brothers Heaven 17. Two minutes later we were singing along with the song heartily. That’s when we knew the Human League had won.

    Abandoned by its two actual musicians a year earlier, Oakey was left with the guy who did the slides for their stage show, and augmented the ashes with two girls he spotted dancing in a Sheffield nightclub. It seemed hopeless but in fact it was the most ingenious reinvention in pop since Bolan plugged into his amplifier.

    Suzanne and Joanne danced in a together of sorts, but not together as such; they improvised, gave the League the vital amateur facade (in the sense that “amateur” is translatable as “lover”) in order to accommodate the equally vital professional undertow of ex-Rezillo Jo Callis, who, cheerfully bypassing Oakey’s “all synths” rule, plugged his guitar directly into the synth keyboard, translated the physical strokes of chords and left the attack evident – listen to the main treble verse riff of “Don’t You Want Me” and imagine it being thrashed out on a guitar – but more importantly understood the technique of writing pop songs as well as the art. Then there was Martin Rushent, whose production style was, in its unassuming way, as decided a break from history as Trevor Horn’s; whereas Horn is a maximalist, Rushent stuck doggedly to minimalism. He was interested in how much emotion could be compressed into so few notes and rhythms; on his productions for the League, as well as those for Altered Images, Leisure Process and the post-Buzzcocks Pete Shelley, we note the very clear and precise definition and separation of instruments, voices and rhythms (particularly his favourite trick of dividing up Linn drum fills between left and right channels). Everything is pristine, unambiguous, and exact, but not clinical.

    It worked with brilliance. “The Sound Of The Crowd,” “Love Action” and “Open Your Heart” are as great a triptych of singles as has ever occurred in pop; sharp but humble, knowing but naive (“But this is Phil talking!”) and their success proved that miracles could still occur in pop. Was the secret of Dare’s magic its style being all content, or vice versa – for much of the album is far from content, and sometimes very dark; fellow Yorkshireman David Peace would understand “I Am The Law” in a second, “Seconds” itself (tellingly, the B-side to the “Don’t You Want Me” single) is one of the subtlest of all Lennon tributes, and even the heightened spirits of “Love Action” incorporate the post-Joy Division warning of “I’ve lain alone and cried at night over what love made me do.”

    To the public at large the Dare League came along as something entirely new and blessedly different; of course there was New Romanticism, but with the Human League you didn’t really need the capital letters – with them the romantic was inherent and intuitive. Their triumph over that year’s Christmas competition – a particularly competitive field including among others Cliff Richard, Abba, Adam and the Ants and Madness – was the noble triumph of New Pop; and when I arrived in New York the following June to find “Don’t You Want Me” at number one on Billboard, it was hard not to feel akin to stout Cortez, surveying all this territory he has somehow conquered.

    So yes, the Human League deserved to have, not only 1981’s Christmas number one but the longest run of any single at number one since “Bright Eyes,” one of only two singles released in 1981 to top a million sales (“Tainted Love,” fittingly, being the other) and the year’s most popular single and album by any yardstick (only Adam and Lennon from the other side of the year could claim equal commercial status). Funnily enough it was about the only song on Dare which we didn’t really like. We thought it a rather obvious and disappointingly conventional pop song with a fairly corny lyrical set-up, and its placing at the album’s end suggested an imminent narrowing of horizons and polishing off of edge, as a rather overblown effort to make a genuine crossover hit. It also bears some thought that it may have been the last song Lester Bangs ever heard – when his body was discovered in his apartment, a copy of Dare was on his turntable, the needle ceaselessly running over the runout groove. It may additionally be relevant that Oakey himself had serious misgivings about the song, wanting to make it more “icy” and less “pop.”

    However, this is to diminish the song’s impact as a pop spectacle; Steve Barron’s astute video – who’s watching who, why does Adrian Wright raise his eyebrow at us at his console, playing God, at the end, the lights, the make-up – helped the League to turn nascent MTV memes against themselves (though definitely helped sell the record in the States), and Suzanne Sulley’s vital verse, which she sings or at least intones in a deadpan South Yorkshire housewife drone, acts as the song’s punctum; this is the crucial bit not polished or refined, this is what catches unwary outsiders. And the 12-inch mix – with Rushent deploying his other favourite pre-coital party piece of teasing the listener over and over before reaching the song itself (cf. the virtually perfect 12-inch of Altered Images’ “I Could Be Happy,” its top ten bedfellow over the season) – is very fine indeed. So, for the now of 1981 floating into 1982, they ruled – and therefore, so, by extension, did we.*

    (*N.B.: The “we” used by me throughout this post and passim elsewhere on Popular has nothing to do with Wyndham Lewis or the Royal Family but refers to myself and my first – late – partner.

  15. 90
    Conrad on 15 Apr 2010 #

    It could have been side one playing in Lester’s apartment, in which case “Do or Die”…

    The Top 40 for 19 December 1981 is my favourite of all time

  16. 91
    wichita lineman on 6 Jun 2011 #

    RIP Martin Rushent. I always twinned him with Martin Hannett in my teens, one being dark and spacey, the other light and clean. Both made records that sounded like the future, and in 1981/82 were my favourite producers.

  17. 92
    swanstep on 6 Jun 2011 #

    @wichita. Thanks for the heads-up on that. I twinned Rushent with Hannett in my teens too.

  18. 93
    punctum on 6 Jun 2011 #

    An awful weekend; first the news about Andrew Gold, and now Martin Rushent – I only got round to picking up Pete Shelley’s Homosapien album on CD on Saturday.

    Black armbands and an honorary playing of the 12” of Altered Images’ “I Could Be Happy.” RIP big New Pop architect.

  19. 94
    Jimmy the Swede on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Andrew Gold? Oh no, what a shame. We should never have let him slip away.

    Okay, I’m going…

  20. 95
    wichita lineman on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Benny Spellman of floor filling Fortune Teller fame, also gone this weekend :-(

    I’ve never ventured into Andrew Gold album territory, which is daft because his biggest hits are all super-melodic and up my street save for the odd sax/rock gtr squall. Any recommendations? None are on Spotify.

    His first single was recorded during a year-long stay in the UK and came out in Polydor in 1966 – This East by Villiers & Gold. Never heard it, but I’m most intrigued.

  21. 96
    punctum on 6 Jun 2011 #

    His Best Of compilation Thank You For Being A Friend is a good place to start. “Looking For My Love” – what a song (off All This And Heaven Too, which is likewise a fine starting point if you want to investigate his albums further).

  22. 97
    wichita lineman on 6 Jun 2011 #

    Thanks. Will do.

    I’ll vouch for his 1970 single as a member of Bryndle. I didn’t even know he was involved til I read the obits, but it’s a lovely slice of west coast pop, sonically caught exactly between the Mamas & Papas and Linda Ronstadt eras. Not on youtube, unfort.

  23. 98
    seekenee on 24 Sep 2011 #

    I remember at the time a talking point re Don’t You Want Me besides the fact that it had gone to number one was that Phil had had a haircut – the video seemed charged with the extra information of this “different” Phil.

    The first issue of Smash Hits I bought was the late 81 League on the cover, I was annoyed that I hadn’t noted the existence of the mag up to this point, i was surviving on Songwords and some other thing – Tops?

    I share the view that it’s not as overplayed as Tainted Love which might be down to the fact that it’s easy to stop listening to side two of Dare after Seconds whereas TL is difficult to avoid on Soft Cell’s debut LP.

  24. 99
    Patrick Mexico on 9 Apr 2013 #

    10 without a moment’s hesitation.

    Obviously it’s been said a million times before, a brilliant slice of suburban melodrama meets electro-pop as pure as driven snow.

    And here’s one they made earlier.


  25. 100
    lonepilgrim on 23 Apr 2013 #

    if you haven’t done so already, then I urge you to read Marcello’s wonderful response to the album from where the single came: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/04/the-human-league-dare.html

  26. 101
    Patrick Mexico on 27 Jul 2013 #

    A rather shocking piece of reactionary nostalgia-annihilation from this month’s Martyn Ware article in Mixmag (yes, really), which I quote verbatim:

    “The musical landscape in 1970s Britain was dominated by a mixture of supergroups with keyboard players dressed in capes and top hats, pub rock bands with pudding-bowl haircuts playing Chuck Berry riffs and bass players dressed in Bacofoil and their mum’s feather boa. It was illegal not to wear denim. Pubs only served beer that was warm and accompanied by pickled eggs. Packets of dried Vesta curry were seen as the height of exoticism. Britain, in short, was shit.”

    I don’t know what it was like – I wasn’t there, man, but a bit strong.

  27. 102
    thefatgit on 27 Jul 2013 #

    As a kid, I thought Vesta Curry was food of the gods. That was until I tasted a “proper” takeaway curry from our local Indian Restaurant. It was a lamb biryani. Not necessarily like for like, but you could actually taste the spices, where Vesta had a lasting MSG aftertaste. Vesta’s offerings lost their appeal after then.

  28. 103
    Lazarus on 28 Jul 2013 #

    Vesta curries just about the last place on earth you can get crispy noodles, though. And I still go for a pickled egg now and again.

  29. 104
    Mark G on 28 Jul 2013 #

    I bought a Vesta curry with crispy noods, years after the event and with full knowledge of good curry.

    I can honestly say that the early seventies were much better than Vesta curries.

    Alice Cooper kicked the doors down, we all stared at the open portal for a couple of years, then the Pistols ran through, then we all did..

    We could never go back to Vesta curries after all that happened. Maybe the pan wasn’t hot enough for the noodles to crisp properly.

  30. 105
    Jimmy the Swede on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Pot noodles, baby. Followed by instant whip. Hmmm!

  31. 106
    thefatgit on 31 Jul 2013 #

    Butterscotch flavour Angel Delight!

  32. 107
    hectorthebat on 19 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    Beats Per Minute (USA) – The Top 100 Tracks of the 1980s (2011) 100
    Blender (USA) – Top 500 Songs of the 80s-00s (2005) 150
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    Pause & Play (USA) – 10 Songs of the 80’s (2003)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone & MTV (USA) – The 100 Greatest Pop Songs Since the Beatles (2000) 86
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 21
    VH-1 (USA) – Nominations for the 100 Greatest 80s Songs (2006)
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 618
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 93
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Gary Mulholland (UK) – This Is Uncool: The 500 Best Singles Since Punk Rock (2002)
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 98
    Paul Morley (UK) – Words and Music, 210 Greatest Pop Singles of All Time (2003)
    Q (UK) – The 1001 Best Songs Ever (2003) 33
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Sounds (UK) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1986) 92
    The Guardian (UK) – 1000 Songs Everyone Must Hear (2009)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 16
    Musikexpress (Germany) – The 700 Best Songs of All Time (2014) 311
    Spex (Germany) – The Best Singles of the Century (1999)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Toby Creswell (Australia) – 1001 Songs (2005)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – Singles of the Year
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 9

  33. 108
    mapman132 on 24 Oct 2014 #

    One of my all-time favorite songs, even if it’s been a little overplayed over the years. Not much to add about DYWM that hasn’t already been said. TEN from me.

    I actually went through my Human League phase a bit later than most. I loved “Heart Like A Wheel” in 1990 (#32 in the US – deserved to be a bigger hit) and Romantic? was in fact the first one of their albums I owned. Oddly I never have gotten around to acquiring Dare although four of its best known songs are on their Greatest Hits which I do own.

  34. 109
    mapman132 on 24 Oct 2014 #

    Also of note: this cover video by a group called Atomic Tom. Not as good as the original of course, but might be amusing to figure out all 39 movie references if you’re feeling bored some evening.

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