POPOFF! RETRO REVIEW: The Human League – Dare

POPOFF! RETRO REVIEW: The Human League – Dare

Bear’s Haiku Retro Album Review:

One hit that won’t die.
Whole album a synthpop classic.
Back to front it’s fire.

Let’s just get this out of the way up front, everyone young and old, knows, “Don’t You Want Me Baby”. It was an MTV staple for years and at this point is a karaoke, bar, dance club, house party, wedding sing-a-long staple. I put in the top 10 of my most iconic pop songs of the 20th century. It’s loved, it’s loathed, it’s a guaranteed floor filler, it’s overplayed, and worn out. It seems to be the go to template for most synth-pop acts since 2007. It’s legacy status is cemented and outside of the UK it is what most people know of The Human League.

Yes, they scored another big hit in the US with the Jimmy/Jam Terry Lewis produced, “Human” and, “Keep Feeling (Fascination)” hit the pop charts here as well. But that one song remains the persistent ear worm of the 80s. So to have to hear it for the millionth for this review well… good news for me… it is the last song on this 1981 album DARE. This means there are NINE other songs to listen to before enduring that song again.

For those around at the time, this sound (and the look that came with it) was new. Now it sounds (and looks) like old hat with synthwave and ever present retro future aesthetics going on with things like Stranger Things and synthwave. To say nothing of vintage shops offering ever decade of style at your browsing fingertips.

But also it was niche and underground despite the big hit, certainly in the US. And for many at the time and certainly even now that big hit has been a major distraction from what is one bloody great album. And an album that is right dark club mood.

For I should note, I am writing this review and listening to the album in the light of the afternoon and that is all wrong. This is a late night album for when the sun in gone. It’s not that’s it’s a dark mood, it is a full stop club mood. The later the better. It makes me want to draw the blinds to get this apartment as dark as I can and dance. A pulsing song like, “Do or Die” belongs to the haze and smoke of a club lit only by neon.

So for those who missed the scene and you are wondering what underground clubs in the early 80s sounded like put the needle on this record. This album was also one shimmering ten track response to the snobbery, pretension, and glorious over production of rock at the time. The Human League made major arena worthy music all while going minimal in production and sound. For reference, also from the same year was the Phil Collins hit, “In The Air Tonight” and The Rolling Stones, “Start Me Up”. Plus the albums Bella Donna by Steveie Nicks, Ozzy’s Diary Of A Madman, and the penultimate arena rock album, Escape by Journey featuring another iconic played out sing-a-long staple, “Don’t Stop Believin'”.

While only four singles were released from the album I have heard every song off this album multiple times out at clubs, with the exception of the instrumental, “Get Carter”. So that says something. It also says something when a song like, “Seconds” (about the Kennedy assassination) finds it way into pockets of the current Black Lives Matter movement. The refrain of, “It took seconds of your time to take his life/It took seconds…” becoming more resonant than ever.

Those who were part of scene know this record back to front but even so I feel many have forgotten just how great it is. And those of you who were not in the scene or are new to the album… strap in. You’re in for a grand dark synth journey where you will learn there are much better songs than, “Don’t You Want Me Baby”.

Through the course of the record is the dominating lead vocals of Phillip Oakley and of course the playful, deliberate, hyper, and melancholy synth. It’s all vocals and synth no other instruments present. And Oakley sings it all straight (and dare I say “flat”), there are no long winded runs up and down vocal stairs or one giant belt of a note to prove anything. If this record had been made today I am pretty sure somebody would have tried to out sing someone, either on the record itself, or somebody else’s record. But the vocals here provide not just lyrics but character to record, a mix of what I would describe as French Nonchalance and German exactitude. And the synths and keyboards add a complex layering of moods and tones to everything from upbeat songs like, “Love Action (I Believe In Love)” to the more wistful flavors of the opening track, “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of”. The whole album sounds minimalist but feels full over all as it grows with each track until the penultimate hit closes out side B in full pop splendor. The only down time comes at the start of side B with, “Get Carter” a track that just over one minute sounds like an intermission more than a song. Followed by the darkly lit, “I Am Law”, which feels like Human League channeling their best attempt at David Bowie. And that song perfectly segues into the aforementioned, “Seconds”. A non -single and fan favorite.

All songs were written by a combination of band members Oakley, Ian Burden, Jo Callis, & Phillip Adrian Wright (who also designed the iconic album cover). Burden, and Callis were replacements for the original members Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware (who would go on to form Heaven 17). And all four play synthesizer on the record. It was produced by The Human League with Mark Rushnet who had worked with The Stranglers and Buzzcocks. So back to front, top to bottom it is very much a work by The Human League. I think this is what helps the album stay so consistent and in it’s lane. There wasn’t much in the way of outside influence or input directly.

Though indirectly The Human League on this album feel like a new wave ABBA. Songs of angst and love with lush, but again minimal, arrangements and vocals and super catchy choruses anyone can sing. On “Do or Die” I definitely heard the underpinnings of songs like, “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Mama Mia”. The addition of two females to the band Sue Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, while making the group more appealing to a wider audience, also helped soften some of the harder edges and pretensions of the bands previous two albums. Since neither Sulley or Catherall had sung on record before they lend a more DIY quality to the whole that would’ve been lost with professional studio singers. And in doing so make the whole thing feel like a bunch of mates just having a gas.

Dare was The Human League reborn with new members and a new visual style and more pop leaning sound. I guess it was a bit of a “dare” to produce something that sounds so underground and yet clearly vies for mainstream pop clout and attentions and succeeds. At the time this album was new some of the technology used like the Linn LM 1 had hardly been put on record before. Now you can get these sounds and styles from an app or a zip folder of sound samples. But even so you can tell difference when one was put together by people in a room playing with others as opposed to a cut and paste job by one person at a computer (yeah that’s how MANY pop hits today are made, cut and paste on a PC). Mistakes and imperfections get made when performed by live people and they often make it to the record. And that kind of feeling is what keeps this album sounding young and fresh where more contemporary knock-off hits might sound stale one year later because somebody polished every take for the cut and paste to get it “perfect”.

My apologies but, I need to cut this review short. I hadn’t realized the music was on so loud and now the neighbors are singing and dancing along to the final track and I must join them.

Do Or Die
Open Your Heart
Sound Of The Crowd

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