As punk showed us, the nineteen seventies was a hard and hopeless time. Ten years of social unrest, racial tension and recession had taken its toll on a country whose star had hitherto shone so brightly. Now though, Britain was ready to take a different track – politically, culturally and musically. The eighties saw the rise of a generation where greed was good, consumption was conspicuous, and whose early soundtrack was New Romantic.
Since 1977, The Human League had shown themselves to be early pioneers of electronic music; just as Kraftwerk had come from Dusseldorf in Germany’s industrial heartland, so Martin Ware and Ian Craig Marsh had been sons of steelworkers in Sheffield. Determined never to take the jobs of their fathers, music had become their escape route. Suitably sparse, hard and repetitive beats underpinned their early work, with a profusion of strange synthetic bleeps that could only have issued from that first generation of synthesisers. Over this, the distinctively coiffured hospital porter Philip Oakey added deadpan vocals.
‘Artistic differences’, such as they were, caused the band to haemorrhage, with Ware and Marsh backing up with Glenn Gregory to form Heaven 17. The original Human League was Ware’s band, so he was determined to outshine its vestigial remains, and came out with an electro tour de force with Penthouse and Pavement. Oakey however, was not to be outdone…
Sometime in 1980, at Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy nightclub, Oakey met Susan Sulley and Joanne Catherall on the dancefloor, enlisted them to the band on the spot, and with the help of Ian Burden and Jo Callis, the Human League v2.0 was born. Virgin Records, wanting a return on their substantial earlier investment, duly introduced Oakey to respected producer Martin Rushent and off to the studio they all went. Love Action (I Believe in Love) was the result, reaching No. 18 in the UK charts in August 1981 and creating a powerful vibe for band and label alike.
Things would only get better. Dare was released in October and spent four weeks at No. 1 in the album charts; Open Your Heart quickly charted and then came Don’t You Want Me? Legend has it that Oakey thought this the weakest track on the album, and by the standards of the experimental electronic art rock of the original ‘League it was certainly cheesy. But this didn’t deter the record buying public, who eventually bought two million copies. A slick, expensive video, just at the right time for MTV, helped in no small way.
Dare was absolutely of its time. Had it arrived a year later, it wouldn’t have appeared anywhere near as remarkable. It completely captured the spirit of a decade just about to be obsessed with glitz, glamour and attitude. The cover had five fashion photographs of the foundation wearing, lip gloss lined band members, set against an immaculate white background. At the time It looked strikingly modern – unlike almost everything that came before it, Dare‘s sleeve could have been a Vogue magazine front cover.
The music was clean, shiny and new. The latest Roland synthesisers and sequencers provided a sumptuous soundscape that wouldn’t have been possible even eighteen months earlier. The hard thwack of the Linn drum gave an industrial feel, and Oakey’s steely, almost out-of-tune vocals set this off perfectly. His lyrics weren’t poetry, but were terse and to the point, and came infused with an optimism that chimed defiantly against the ‘No Future’ punk generation that had come immediately before.
Rushent’s production was immaculate. Straightforward but powerful and expansive; it set the blueprint for electronic music ‘best practice’ for many years. Thunderous synthetic bass lines, sparkling analogue synth stabs and electronic drums on an industrial scale made Dare a dazzling listen. Songs were short, structured and delivered with mechanical precision, only Oakey’s wavering vocals showing a human side. “Everybody needs love and adventure, everybody needs cash to spend” hardly matched the pretensions of progressive rock, but it was bang on the money, and caught the mood of the times just right.
The best way to hear Dare is to buy the original British first vinyl pressing [Virgin V 2192], but if you’re a digital fan the ultimate is the 2001 SACD re-release [Virgin SACDV 2192]. The latter has a fine sounding CD-layer playable on normal Compact Disc players, but via an SACD player it sounds superb – almost as good as the original Virgin LP via a top-notch turntable. Other excellent CD versions are the original Virgin digital disc [CDV 2192] and the Japanese version [Virgin TOCP-53869].
A perfect slice of post-punk pop, The Human League’s Dare was utterly of its time. Reflecting both its generation’s yearning for an escape from hard times, and its growing optimism as the new decade dawned, it distilled the ‘leisure-pleasure’ aesthetic of the avant-garde London art and fashion scene down into bite-sized chunks of feel-good music that everyone could enjoy. It came to symbolise a brave new decade and its attendant excess, nihilism and obsession with the superficial. Brimming with bravado, the New Romantic movement could never have started without the grimy nineteen seventies – but would never have flowered without Dare.