Studios with leaking roofs, trips to new romantic clubs in a little Hillman Imp, and a heavy metal single recorded between sessions. They’re all part of the behind-the-scenes story of the 1980s synthpop masterpiece that is THE HUMAN LEAGUE’s ‘Dare’ album
Words: NEIL MASON
This is quite a spot. Halfway up a hill in the picture postcard Berkshire village of Streatley, the view is spectacular. The River Thames snakes through its valley beneath us, while rolling hills stretch out as far as the eye can see, dotted with fizzing yellow fields of oil seed rape.
To our right, on a tree-lined, winding country road, a huge pair of new-looking wooden gates screen what lies behind them. Peering over the top, you can see the six-bedroomed, seven-bathroomed carbuncle that occupies the plot. Apocryphal perhaps, but local legend claims it was built for Geri Halliwell. The fact it sits empty several years after completion, too brassy even for Ginger Spice, speaks volumes.
What was here before the property developers showed up had more character in its tiled lav than this entire £5.9 million pad can muster. The ramshackle collection of buildings that used to be here made up Genetic Studios, where in the summer of 1981 one of the most important records of the last three decades came to fruition. This is the exact spot where The Human League’s ‘Dare’ album was recorded.
The story of ‘Dare’ is the story of a handful of decisions leading to the creation of a record that swept away everything before it and laid down a marker for everything that was to follow. Had any of those decisions not been made, or been made differently, ‘Dare’ would not have worked out the way it did.
But the story doesn’t start in Berkshire, nor as you might expect does it start in The Human League’s home town of Sheffield. The first key decision in the making of ‘Dare’ came in Edinburgh in 1978, when local music entrepreneur Bob Last signed the band to his fledgling Fast Product imprint. Last was a canny operator. The label, which went on to boast releases from The Mekons, Gang Of Four and Dead Kennedys, even gets a nod alongside the independent big boys in The Clash’s DIY scene tribute, ‘Hitsville UK’: “When Lightning hits Small Wonder / It’s Fast Rough Factory Trade”.
Wow, this is a hit, we’re going to put this out’Bob Fast
There’s a music world truism that good bands know good bands, so Last listened when Paul Bower – whose Sheffield outfit 2.3 recorded a single for Fast Product – waxed lyrical about his mates back home. A demo duly dropped through the Fast letterbox. Last’s pre-punk love of Parliament and Funkadelic was to be as much an entry point to what he was about to hear as the cold electronic landscapes of Kraftwerk. The demo was The Human League’s ‘Being Boiled’.
“I listened to it once and when that bassline kicked in, that was it,” says Last. “I didn’t know anything about making hits, but I thought, ‘Wow, this is a hit, we’re going to put this out’.”
Last was nothing if not ambitious, but when ‘Being Boiled’ came out in June 1978 it didn’t exactly trouble the Top 40. Subsequent versions were recorded and released and it eventually went Top 10 on the back of the success of ‘Dare’ in 1982. But bigger fish were frying. At the insistence of future DinDisc boss Carol Wilson, Virgin Records MD Simon Draper was dragged along to see one of the League’s London shows.
“I remember being particularly taken with Phil Oakey, their cover version of ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’, and the whole light and slideshow concept,” recalls Draper.
By the time Fast released the band’s next record, ‘The Dignity Of Labour (Parts 1-4)’ EP in April 1979, the band had already signed to Virgin, with promises of creative freedom nailing the deal, and Last made the leap from label honcho to band manager.
“The idea The Human League could be the new ABBA didn’t seem crazy to me,” offers Last. “From the first time I’d heard ‘Being Boiled’, I’d always thought this was about pop.”
They realised they weren’t actually getting anywhereSimon Draper
The band’s second album, ‘Travelogue’, was issued in May 1980. It entered the album charts at Number 16, but failed to produce a Top 40 single. By the autumn, The Human League Mk1 were crumbling. Last’s managerial mettle was about to be tested and he would soon be making another decision that would edge them close to ‘Dare’ – or, alternatively, see the whole thing go up in smoke.
“They realised they weren’t actually getting anywhere,” says Simon Draper. “And the tensions in the group were such that they reached something of an impasse.”
“Everybody was frustrated,” says Bob Last. “So I was proactively encouraging them to split. I knew somewhere among it all there were hits, but I didn’t know where. In the end, all sorts of things were negotiated in difficult circumstances. At one point, Phil didn’t want the name ‘The Human League’ and the other lot did.”
The “other lot” being Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who left to form Heaven 17. Somehow among the acrimony, Bob Last ended up managing both bands. It solved the problem of where the hits would come from, but with a perception that the musical talent had left, this was an anxious time for Phil Oakey and his art school pal Adrian Wright, the other remaining original member of the band.
“I’d had arguments internally,” admits Draper. “Because of the recession in the early 80s, we knew we had to cut back and Nik Powell [co-founder of Virgin Records] wanted me to drop The Human League. Richard [Branson] backed me when I refused and fortunately I was vindicated quite quickly.”
“We couldn’t have got through all this and ended up with ‘Dare’ without someone at the record company who carried a lot of weight,” believes Last. “Simon Draper had complete faith from day one. Would I have blamed him for dropping us? It would have been a perfectly reasonable position. His faith was crucial.”
Phil Oakey once claimed of The Human League Mk1 that “only lads in long coats liked us”. It was clear, to him at least, that they needed to broaden their appeal. How he did that is not only one of pop folklore’s most famous tales, it was a masterstoke of a decision. No matter how good their songs were, how great their records sounded, it wouldn’t have mattered a jot if the League had been fronted by boys.
“When Phil called me up and said he’d got these girls, I was… less than convinced,” says Bob Last of Oakey’s trip to a Sheffield nightclub, where he found teenagers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley and asked them to join the group on the spot. “I don’t recall what I said. I think there was probably an interesting silence.”
Last admits they’d had a little road test with this direction before. The first single proper for Virgin, in July 1979, made good the label’s creative freedom promise and offered a glimpse of The Human League Mk2 with the release of ‘I Don’t Depend On You’, recorded by the band under the alias The Men.
“Phil had these theories about how they weren’t going to use conventional instruments – no guitars, no drums,” says Simon Draper. “So they didn’t want it to be a Human League record, they didn’t think it fitted with their image. Listening to it now, you can hear what they would become. At the time, it seemed a bit of a red herring.”
‘I Don’t Depend On You’ is a remarkable song – a deep, rolling bass, punchy synths, a toe-tapping drum machine, a soulful, soaring vocal. “It’s cruel but it’s true / I don’t depend on you / Go back to the end of the queue” purr the female backing duo of Katie Kissoon and Liza Strike. The sleeve, featuring a woman in a suit with scraped-back hair and heavy kohl eyes, screams League Mk2 while the B-side, ‘Cruel’, is an instrumental re-rub, a formula that would eventually lead to the post-‘Dare’ album ‘Love And Dancing’.
Funny thing is, this wasn’t the first time a seemingly innocent event doffed its cap to the future. The cover of the band’s 1979 debut album, ‘Reproduction’, appears particularly prophetic. It’s hard to look at it now and imagine those legs belonging to anyone other than Phil, Joanne and Susan.
“I honestly don’t know where the idea came from,” says Simon Draper. “The legs belonged to two girls in the A&R department. It might have been the band’s idea, but I can’t believe they were thinking ahead in that way.”
It wouldn’t be very long, however, before everyone discovered this was exactly what Oakey was thinking.
“Phil understood what Sue and Joanne would bring – and it did prove to be crucial in respect of giving a wider audience a route in,” says Bob Last.
They were due on tour soon after Mk1 split. So soon, in fact, the girls already had tickets to see The Human League in Sheffield. Now they were in The Human League.
“I saw them on that tour,” sighs Draper. “Hammersmith Odeon… and it really was terrible. But because of the girls, I think they got away with it. I vividly remember [influential journalist/broadcaster] Charlie Gillett came to the drinks party afterwards and said, ‘This band’s going to be huge’. I remember being so encouraged.”
“At the time, you were starting to see the emergence from the whole mess that Britain was in back then,” believes Last. “‘Dare’ was about saying aspiration was okay and possible. The video for ‘Don’t You Want Me’ really crystallised things, particularly round the girls. It’s this idea, before ‘X Factor’, that made you think these are people not that dissimilar from you, that you can buy into this glamour, because here are these two girls from Sheffield, and now they’re in this video as if they were movie stars.”
What The Human League were doing musically was dramatically different, radical even, but on its most basic level, ‘Dare’ tapped into the cultural climate perfectly. It would be embraced by the high street, in particular by girls in slingbacks going to town on a Saturday night – a factor that proved pivotal to their success.
The Oakey/Wright-penned Mk2 debut ‘Boys And Girls’ failed to dent the Top 40 on its release in February 1981. In order to sustain interest, the band needed to re-establish themselves. And quick. But Virgin’s verdict on the demo of the song that the band wanted as their next single was inauspicious.
“When ‘Sound Of The Crowd’ was delivered, it just didn’t sound good enough,” says Simon Draper. “It just seemed to me they had to make a more credible musical record and Phil suggested Martin Rushent would be the prefect producer. Based on what? I don’t know. It didn’t seem all that likely to me.”
Martin Rushent had made his name as a producer working with the likes of The Stranglers, The Buzzcocks, Dr Feelgood and Generation X. He’d also produced 999’s ‘Separates’ album in 1978. More new wave than punk, 999 sounded properly tight: the drums were crisp and sharp, the bass deep and full. It turned out Oakey was a bit of fan. Asked who he’d like to work with, Rushent was top of his list.
Martin Rushent, meanwhile, had been busy setting up Genetic Studios at his newly acquired Wood Cottage home in Streatley. He loaned Midge Ure and Rusty Eagan the fledgling studio to record the first Visage album. When Virgin called up to see if he would drop in for a chat, he’d already soaked up the lessons learned from watching Visage work and arrived clutching a record he’d made with Buzzcocks frontman Pete Shelley, who was about to return to the fray as solo artist with his electronic based debut, ‘Homosapien’.
“Martin said you must come to my studio,” says Dave Allen, who engineered ‘Dare’ and who first met Rushent when he produced Allen’s band, Pinpoint. “We arrived expecting this amazing country studio, and it was a building site. The original studio was in this ramshackle bungalow down the hill from where the main studio was being built.”
Allen’s band didn’t work out but, getting along well with Rushent, he found himself hired as an extra pair of hands in the studio, taking on everything from programming to heating up meals for the bands. Yes, along with the famous imported Linn Drum, Genetic also had one of the UK’s first microwave ovens.
Work on ‘Dare’ started in Sheffield, with Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright joined by Ian Burden and Jo Callis. Burden came via Graph, a Sheffield band who had appeared on a Fast Product compilation. Callis was from Edinburgh and was a former member of The Rezillos, who had been managed by Bob Last.
“It was this derelict building that at some point had been a veterinary surgery,” says Jo Callis of the League’s optimistically named Monumental Studio in Sheffield that they shared with Heaven 17.
“It was mostly falling down and used to leak constantly,” confirms Last. “I still have a recurring nightmare about trying to fix the roof of that studio.”
Callis was hired for his songwriting expertise, but he was essentially a punk guitarist masquerading as a glam rocker, and his knowledge of keyboards was patchy at best. But when he first arrived in Sheffield, the new boy was helped out by an unlikely ally.
“Martin Ware of Heaven 17 actually showed me round,” says Jo. “He showed me the basics of how a synth worked, how to programme it, how to get different sounds out of it.”
Once they had a few songs demo-ed, the band would decamp from Monumental to Genetic, where Martin Rushent and Dave Allen set about meticulously recreating the tracks. The first fruit of the sessions was a new version of ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ that peaked at Number 12. With Rushent and the girls on board, The Human League finally had pop potency. Rushent’s PA, Carri Mallard, remembers the band’s regular trips to Genetic.
“I used to pick Susan and Joanne up from the train station,” says Mallard. “They’d be sat in the back of my little red Hillman Imp, all northern accents. They were wonderfully down to earth and excited about the whole thing. We’d go off round the clubs in the area, the new romantic nights. They wouldn’t have been able to do that a few months later. ”
“I still feel the girls weren’t appreciated enough for the sort of spirit and the input they provided,” offers Jo Callis. “It was just as important as anything anyone else did.”
“The band used to stay in a pub called the Miller Of Mansfield in Goring, just across the river from Genetic,” says Mallard. “Philip would wander round the village with his asymmetrical hairstyle, no shirt, tight black drainpipe jeans, high-heeled women’s shoes and red lipstick. You can imagine. Philip was the most charming guy, but to the little old ladies in this sleepy village it was like, ‘Who is this person?’.”
The last piece in the ‘Dare’ jigsaw, the very final decision, revolves around a song that, if it hadn’t been written, may have left the album flat on its face and the League’s career looking similarly deflated. As a single, it would be Number One on both sides of the Atlantic and a Top 10 hit in a dozen more countries, selling over 2.5 million copies.
“It wasn’t like there was this big pool of material waiting to be recorded,” recalls Callis. “We were almost recording as we went. Adrian had this little book of instructions about how to turn all the equipment on and how to work the studio. So we’d get the studio working and kind of potter about. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ came from such pottering. I was thinking along the lines of Coati Mundi and Kid Creole & The Coconuts, strangely enough, and then Phil had the idea of the ‘Pygmalion’ lyric and it all developed organically from there.”
“Phil was quite visionary in his own way,” says Dave Allen. “When we were doing ‘Don’t You Want Me’, we didn’t have a chorus, so we had to wait two or three days for Phil to knock one up, which is small beer in my subsequent experience. Eventually Phil came in and said, ‘I’ve got the chorus, I’ve got the chorus… “Don’t you want me baby, don’t you want me, oh-oh-oh / Don’t you want me baby, don’t you want me, oh-oh-oh-oh…”.’ Me and Martin both looked round and went, ‘You’re having a fucking laugh… fuck off’. And Phil was like, ‘No, no, no, it’ll be great’.”
“We were the last to see it as a potential single,” says Callis. “It was just another track on the album to us.”
Curiously, it’s the last track on the album too. This is in the pre-shuffle era, when people would put a record on and listen to the whole thing from start to finish. As such, artists thought hard about the sequence of tracks. It was important. So why was ‘Don’t You Want Me’ last? Depends who you talk to. Some say it was a deliberate sequencing choice, others say it was buried because Oakey didn’t like it. Whatever, you can’t deny the impact.
“It was always going to be the really massive one,” claims Last. “But Phil was really unsure about it. There were many discussions where he took the position that ‘Don’t You Want Me’ wasn’t even worth releasing. For all I know, he was well aware it was a big hit and he was just testing to see if everybody else knew.”
“It was Number One over Christmas 1981,” says Jo Callis. “To say thank you, Virgin Records bought everyone presents. Phil got this trials bike, the girls got expensive faux fur coats, Adrian got a state-of-the-art Nikon camera. When Richard Branson’s autobiography come out, he said that if it wasn’t for ‘Dare’, Virgin Records would have gone bust. In a way I helped save Branson’s company… so thanks for the fucking black-and-white TV.”
“He always talked about revisiting ‘Dare’,” says Martin Rushent’s son Tim, sipping from a glass of iced water in The Bull, the pub at bottom of the road that leads up to where Wood Cottage and Genetic Studios once stood. “When dad worked with the League on ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ in 1988, he was talking about how he’d like to remix ‘Dare’ at some point.”
Sadly, Martin Rushent died in 2011. His legacy is not only the work he completed during his time, but one unfinished project. For as long as ‘Dare’ has been around, there have been stories of lost out-takes and alternative versions. It’s relatively well known that there are two unreleased tracks from the sessions: ‘So Young’ and ‘Beauty’. Neither were completed to any standard, though. In recent months, there’s also been speculation that Rushent was working on a version of ‘Dare’ using traditional instruments when he died.
“He realised another dub remix wouldn’t cut it,” says Tim Rushent, who is himself a producer. “He hated to repeat himself and was always looking to move productions forwards and challenge himself. There are some recordings, but they’re not what he settled on. The plan is for the first, last and only time, one take, ‘Love And Dancing Live’. It’s all mapped out, it’s all dad’s work. And dad being dad, it’s not as straightforward as it sounds. All we have to do is see that his final production happens.”
Tim and his younger brother James, the frontman of Does It Offend You, Yeah?, are hoping to get the project off the ground at some point later this year. It promises to be a fitting tribute to Martin Rushent and to those who came together over the summer of 1981 to make that original, astonishing record.
“When they finished ‘Dare’, dad said he played it though and thought, ‘Yeah, not bad’,” says James Rushent. “He never thought it would do what it did and he never thought people would still be talking about it 30 years later. It used to shock him the amount of attention it got, although he would never let on.”
“Martin would always go home after the sessions and play the rough mixes,” recalls Jo Callis. “He’d say he was really enjoying doing it and was really inspired by it, but he couldn’t tell whether it was absolutely brilliant or utter rubbish.”
So what was it about ‘Dare’? Everyone says the same thing. It was about the right bunch of people, in the right place, at the right time. Nothing more complicated than that.
“It just naturally came out of everybody’s personalities,” says Jo Callis. “Maybe it’s that sort of Yorkshire thing – everyone was fairly down to earth, it was all cups of tea and fish and chips. For all the make-up and bizarre hairstyles, there’s a definite element of ee-by-gum about ‘Dare’. Which I love.”
To quote the lyrics of the opening track, ‘The Things That Dreams Are Made Of’, “Everybody needs love and affection / Everybody needs two or three friends”. The Human League had all of those things.
The ‘Dare’ sessions also produced “the worst single ever made”.
“We’d often finish sessions late and everyone would go home – apart from Jo,” recalls Dave Allen. “Jo was staying at the studio because he didn’t have anywhere else to go and after a while we had this idea to make a heavy metal ‘Stars On 45’ record. The beat isn’t difficult, is it? That took 10 minutes. And then it was, ‘OK, what songs have we got to do?’. ‘Smoke On The Water’, ‘Alright Now’, ‘Silver Machine’, ‘School’s Out’… It was a joy to get a guitar out and do a really terrible version of ‘Purple Haze’ over a ‘Stars On 45’ beat. It was relaxation.
“Martin came home very drunk one night when we were trying to do the middle eight of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and we said,’C’mon Martin, we need a mad toms solo like that Led Zeppelin song’, and so he played this brilliant freestyle Linn Drum tom tom solo. In the end, the medley was called ‘Bang Your Head’ and released as a single on Island. The band was called Terrible Lizard. We had a meeting with a guy who said, ‘How are we going to do the promo for this?’. Andy Peebles called it the worst record ever made when he played it on his lunchtime [Radio 1] show. I was very proud.”
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The Human League
Phil, Joanne and Susan released their ninth studio album, ‘Credo’, on Wall Of Sound Records in 2011. They still perform a lot of live shows and aren’t averse to playing songs from ‘Dare’ every once in a while.
Worked as a music supervisor on films such as ‘Chocolat’, ‘Little Voice’, ‘Backbeat’ and ‘A Room For Romeo Brass’ before turning his hand to producing, where his credits include Oscar-nominated animation ‘The Illusionist’ and Terence Davies’ ‘The House Of Mirth’.
Runs Palawan Press, a publishing house specialising in ultra-exclusive, limited edition titles. Selling for hundreds of pounds a pop, many of the beautifully crafted titles are histories of classic cars, such as Aston Martin, Mercedes and Ferrari.
Went on to produce in his own right, with The Cure, The Sisters Of Mercy, Depeche Mode and Neneh Cherry among his credits. He recently bought the mixing desk that legendary German producer Conny Plank used to record Kraftwerk. Franz Ferdinand used the desk for their last album.
Was playing with the reformed Rezillos until recently and is now working with singer Robert King, who was the frontman of Edinburgh long-lost post-punk band The Scars. Has started writing his memoires, which should be well worth a read.
Carri went on to work for Big Country manager Ian Grant and then Alan Edwards, PR for The Rolling Stones and David Bowie among others, before becoming a press officer at RCA. She relocated the US in the late 90s, where she works as an interior designer.