Sometimes you can’t quite trust artists to tell the truth about their best work. Speaking to Smash Hits around the time of Don’t You Want Me’s release and subsequent rise to the top of the charts in 1981, Human League singer Phil Oakey enthused: “It’s the best song I’ve ever written. It’s a proper song like the kind that Earth, Wind and Fire or Abba would write.” Producer Martin Rushent claimed that Oakey actually hated the eventual hit so much that he tried to stop it being released. Whatever the truth of the matter, Oakey’s public pronouncements were correct – this is aspirational music that chimed with the times yet had none of the ruthless, cynical avarice of the decade, and pop, to come.
Don’t You Want Me was to crown the breakout year for electronic pop music – Soft Cell had hit the top of the charts in the same year as the Human League, but Tainted Love had the sneaky advantage of being a cover. Depeche Mode were bubbling up in Basildon, OMD had released the arch yet sumptuous Architecture and Morality, but with 2m record sales, the 1981 Christmas No 1 under its belt, and a US No 1 to boot, Don’t You Want Me is arguably the first synth-pop smash hit.
Yet it was one that nearly never happened, even without Oakey’s alleged attempts to block it. After two moderately well received albums of hip, Kraftwerk-inspired post-punk austerity, founding Human Leaguers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh had departed in 1980 to form Heaven 17. “Director of visuals” Philip Wright and singer Phil Oakey – a man with an asymmetric fringe so extravagant it looked as if it was making a bid for freedom under his elbow – were left with the name, and also the group’s debts to label Virgin.
In need of a bigger lineup to fulfil tour commitments and pay off some of the money owed, Oakey brought in two teenagers he had seen dancing in Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy nightclub to take on the road as backing singers. The addition of best friends Joanne Catherall and Susan Anne Sulley might have looked like an act of desperation, but it ended up proving a masterstroke. It changed the dynamic of the band and Sulley’s vocals made Don’t You Want Me the hit it became. Pushed to the limits of their musical abilities, Wright and Oakey recruited an actual musician, keyboard player Ian Burden, and went into the studio with Rushent. Reflecting on the aims of the newly rehabilitated Human League, Oakey said: “We wanted an album full of singles, like a Michael Jackson or Abba LP … we’ve moved away from textures to tunes. It’s tunes every time.”
He wasn’t wrong. Blessed not only with a solid gold chorus but also a synth bass riff and more hooks than the long line of a Cornish mackerel fisherman, Don’t You Want Me is one of those brilliant, breezy songs that carries a twisted subtext, taking subversion to the top of the charts. While most who heard the song might have perceived it as a lament between two lovers in a relationship that’s no longer firing, Oakey said that it’s instead “a nasty song about sexual power politics”. He plays the character of a svengali who appears to be warning the starlet he plucked from obscurity in the cocktail bar of the opening line that if she doesn’t continue their romantic relationship, her career is over, or maybe worse. In the age of #MeToo and the exposure of exploitative practices in the music industry, Don’t You Want Me is lyrically more relevant now than when it first caused a stir in 1981.
Given the subject matter of the song, the presence of these two young women plucked from obscurity to find stardom was hardly going to go unnoticed, and the tabloids duly had a field day, speculating that the waitress from the cocktail bar was either or both of them. Catherall and Sulley constantly found themselves under misogyny-laden attack from press and industry alike. In a happier counterpoint to the complex sexual power play of the song’s lyrics, Oakey always stuck up for his colleagues and the decision to put them on a proper salary. In a 1986 NME interview, he blasted their detractors: “The musos have never liked them, they’ve never understood them. There’s no one sounds like Joanne and Susan. They make it a Human League record.”
Don’t You Want Me stands as a shining example of what can happen when a bunch of relative amateurs with a point to prove and a keen aesthetic eye get down to work. And after all, part of the charm of the Human League and the moment they encapsulated, the experimentalism of post-punk meeting the new possibilities of electronic music technology, is that it was so refreshingly carefree, the sound of synth pop coming in from the cold.