The Human League - Dare!
Updated: Apr 22, 2021
verb: dare; 3rd person present: dares; past tense: dared; past participle: dared; gerund or present participle: daring
1. have the courage to do something
"a story he dare not write down"
2. defy or challenge (someone) to do something.
"she was daring him to disagree"
3. take the risk of; brave.
"few dared his wrath"
noun: dare; plural noun: dares
1. a challenge, especially to prove courage."she ran across a main road for a dare""
December 1981 - somewhere in Kent, 11 year old JO’B is in his first term at the local Grammar School. He has bad hair, a broken wrist from a slip on the ice, an obsession with Star Wars figures and Blake’s 7. Pop music is nowhere on his radar.
Meanwhile in Sheffield, former hospital porter turned new romantic electronica pioneer Phil Oakey and his band have released their seminal album, Dare!. They are on Top Of The Pops and they are the first band that really caught my eye - mainly, because they could easily have appeared in an episode of Blake’s 7 with their brash costumes, make up and futuristic music. I am intrigued by the lop-sided bob...
It took me another couple of years before I was quite ready to let go of the childish toys and fully embrace pop music, but The Human League were one of my first loves.
Yet, somehow I had managed to lose my copy of this wonderful record - lost in break-ups, house moves or some clearout or other. Anyway, my lovely friend Gill bought me it for this year’s birthday and it feels timely to reassess the album as it approaches its 40th anniversary later this year.
Dare! did not have the most promising start. Formed in Sheffield in 1977, initially as The Future, the band comprised of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh. Phil Oakey was drafted in as a second choice for vocals (Glenn Gregory was their first choice and eventually joined them in Heaven 17). Finally, Adrian Wright joined - not as a musician but instead their “Director of Visuals”, choreographing their stage shows with slides, films clips and lighting. Wonderfully pretentious.
Two fantastic, but very experimental, albums of electronic music were released - Reproduction and Travelogue. Under pressure to be more commercial, they had a near hit with Empire State Human. But success eluded them, while Johnny Come-Lately Gary Numan sped past them with Are "Friends" Electric? and Cars. Consequently, relationships strained, especially between Oakey and Ware. Inevitably, Ware and Marsh left to form Heaven 17 and BEF - Oakey retained the name, but the deal was costly - he had to take on all the band’s debts to Virgin in exchange. With its musicians gone, and only Oakey and their Director of Visuals remaining, the band looked finished, with a tour due in ten days from the split.
If you look at the definition of "dare" at the top of this piece, its title is apt, given what Oakey did next. He made a truly radical and baffling move, recruiting two teenage school girls with no musical or singing experience, but they looked the part dancing in a club. Professional musician Ian Burden was recruited and the tour delivered, though the reviews were savage.
From this very wobbly start, they then were joined by Jo Callis (from The Rezillos) and producer Martin Rushent. Callis, though a talented musician, was a guitarist and had never played synths - again, on paper a deranged choice for an electronic band that was resolutely guitar free. That this band, held together by sellotape and Oakey’s vision & need to beat Heaven 17 would survive must have seemed unlikely. That they would immediately make an era-defining album must have seemed heroically laughable.
Yet, first track with the new lineup, The Sound Of The Crowd was their first Top 20 hit. Its pulsating beat, chanting vocals and really quite rubbish dancing gave them a new way forward - a genuine pop band! Love Action and Open Your Heart quickly followed, setting the scene for Dare! Futuristic pop music with glossy sheen, high end (for the time) videos and a marketing campaign like they had never seen. Lyrics were no longer “Listen to the voice of Buddha saying stop your sericulture” - instead they were mini dramas about boys and girls in love, jealousy and obsession. Poptastic, but also relatable to everyone, not just the trench coat wearing doom merchants that had dominated their early (and very male) audience. Their lyrics were no longer pseudo-intellectual hokum - this was music to dance and sing to!
Dare! holds up 40 years later for this very reason - although some of the music was cutting edge electronica at the time, fundamentally this is just a brilliant album of pop songs. Yes, Seconds and I Am The Law are dark and brooding still. But The Things That Dreams Are Made Of is life affirming, Love Action is joyous pop (the tongue in cheek backing vocals and the “this is Phil talking” line still crack me up).
Of course, its closer, Don’t You Want Me is their defining moment. Oakey thought it was their weakest track, hence it’s tucked away at the end of the album. He fought releasing it, but was overruled. And if a record label executive ever earned their salary, its Simon Draper at Virgin who made the decision to release it as the album’s fourth single.
Don''t You Want Me has sold millions of copies and is the UK’s 25th highest selling single ever. And it was The Human League performing this on Top Of The Pops that caught my eye. I have danced to it in numerous clubs and later at many many middle-aged weddings - it’s a guaranteed floor filler. And I have regularly introduced my oldest friend Lozzer, saying she was working as a shop girl in Woolworths when I met her, I picked her out, shook her up and turned her around, turned her into someone new….who hasn’t paraphrased its opening lyrics at some point?
40 years on, the core three members of Phil, Joanne and Susanne remain and tour - though they have never achieved the heady heights of Dare! again, they have survived line up changes, inter band relationships (Phil has dated both of them at different times, but all remain fiercely loyal to each other) and are a phenomenal live act. And Dare! remains as catchy and inventive now as it was way back then.
And frankly, it includes one of the weirdest and best lyrics EVER:
“New York, ice cream, TV, travel, good times
Norman Wisdom, Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, good times”