Remembered as one of the great pop groups of the 1980s, the Human League actually started life as an avant garde electronic band. Inspired by the likes of Kraftwerk, computer programmers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh formed this synthesiser-based band with Phil Oakey on vocals. An ex-hospital porter, Oakey's main feature was his haircut, short on the left but long enough to cover his face on the right. Taking the name 'The Human League' from one of the teams in a science fiction board game, they signed to the independent label Fast Product in 1978. Their first single, 'Being Boiled', was a song about silkworms, sung by Oakey over Marsh and Ware's primitive electronic backing.
In an attempt to make their live shows more visually stimulating, the band recruited Adrian Wright on 'visuals'. Wright's job was to operate a slide projector which would show images from science fiction films and comics while the band played. Their next release was The Dignity of Labour, an experimental, instrumental EP. As an example of the band's avant garde nature at the time, some copies of the EP came with a free flexi-disc which featured a recording of the band arguing about what to put on the free flexi-disc!
Despite an apparent lack of commercial potential, Virgin Records signed the band in 1979 and released an album, Reproduction. The synthesised backing remained, but the material became more commercial, including a version of the Righteous Brothers' 1960s hit 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling'. Around this time the band hinted at their future direction with a much poppier single, 'I Don't Depend On You', released under the pseudonym The Men.
The band's second album, Travelogue, was recorded and released less than a year later. This was followed closely by their first hit single, the Holiday 80 EP, which reached number 56 on the back of the band's first TV appearance on Top of the Pops, where they performed the EP's most memorable track, a synthesised cover version of Gary Glitter's 1970s hit 'Rock 'n' Roll'. Shortly afterwards, the band's previous single 'Empire State Human' finally made its way into the chart, and the League seemed to be on its way to success.
This success seemed to come to an abrupt halt on the eve of a major tour in late 1980 when Marsh and Ware, the musical heart of the band, suddenly left to pursue a new project, the British Electric Foundation, and later went on to form Heaven 17. With only a vocalist and a slide projector operator left in the band, only the most optimistic of observers considered the Human League to have any kind of future. Faced with the break-up of the band and possible legal action if they failed to fulfil their touring commitments, Phil Oakey went clubbing.
In what appeared at the time to be a fit of lunacy, but actually turned out to be the most important move in the career of the Human League, Oakey met two teenage girls in a Sheffield disco and asked them to join the band. After securing permission from their parents, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley agreed, and the new look Human League was born. With additional keyboard players Ian Burden and Jo Callis, and a more commercial sound, the band released a single, aptly titled 'Boys and Girls', which reached number 48. The follow-up single, 'The Sound of the Crowd', proved to the be the breakthrough, reaching number 12 and paving the way for a run of Top Ten hits from the number one album Dare: 'Love Action (I Believe In Love)', 'Open Your Heart' and the classic 'Don't You Want Me?', which took the band to number one at Christmas 1981 and topped the US chart early the following year. By this stage the group's popularity was such that their debut single, 'Being Boiled', was reissued and reached number six, despite bearing little similarity to their current pop style.
The success of Dare should have been a springboard to worldwide superstardom, but instead the band went strangely quiet, releasing only an album of remixes and two new singles over the next two years. Despite being denounced by the press as a rip-off, Love and Dancing, an album of instrumental remixes of tracks from Dare credited to the League Unlimited Orchestra, reached number six. 1982's 'Mirror Man' and the following year's '(Keep Feeling) Fascination' both reached number two in the UK singles chart, but by the time the next album was ready in 1984, the League were old news.
The Hysteria album reached number three in the UK, but the band's younger fans had moved on to the likes of Wham! and Duran Duran, while fans of the original Human League were alienated by the band's increased reliance on guitars. The album's three singles all fell short of the UK Top Ten, and were overshadowed by the top three hit 'Together in Electric Dreams', Oakey's collaboration with Giorgio Moroder. The two went on to record an album together the following year.
Dispirited by the comparative failure of Hysteria, Burden and Callis left, and after appointing new keyboard player Jim Russell, the band set about writing the next album, Crash. Faced with a lack of inspiration, they relocated to the US to work with soul producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Written by the producers, the album's first single, 'Human', took the band back into the UK Top Ten and reached number one in the US, but the two follow-up singles failed to reach the Top 40.
After the release of a successful Greatest Hits album in 1988, by which time the band consisted simply of Phil, Joanne and Susan, they returned to Dare producer Martin Rushent in an attempt to recapture their earlier success. The album Romantic?, released in 1990, in fact became their least successful since their debut, only reaching number 24 and spawning only one top 30 hit, 'Heart Like a Wheel'.
The album's lack of success prompted Virgin to drop the Human League after eleven years with the label. Other bands may have taken this as their cue to throw in the towel, but the League persevered, eventually signing a new deal with Warner Music and releasing a comeback single, 'Tell Me When', in December 1994. Fusing the classic Human League style with a modern dance sound, the single reached number six, their biggest hit for over ten years. A wave of '80s nostalgia saw the band score a top ten album, Octopus, four further top 40 hits, including a remix of 'Don't You Want Me?', and another Greatest Hits album.
Nobody is quite sure what the future holds for the Human League. In recent years the band has toured as part of an '80s revival package alongside the likes of ABC and Culture Club, but their less than prolific history suggests that a new album could surface at any time.