Saturday, 21 February 2009

1981 The Human League: Don't You Want Me

Sheffield's The Human League had been tinkering in the electronic music field since the late seventies, but various splits within the group meant that the band that recorded 'Don't You Want Me' (no question mark) were a faction that had only half of the original members.

One of the most remarkable things about 'Don't You Want Me' is that vocalist Phil Oakey absolutely hated it and that it was the fourth single to be taken (
at the label's insistence) off their breakthrough 'Dare' album . And yet it resolutely screams out 'hit single' from the opening bars with the unfolding story drawing the listener in to a timeless soap opera in miniature. There is still not a dancefloor or bar in the country that won't have punters acting out the lyrics and yelling along to the chorus whenever and wherever it's played.

'Don't You Want Me' is a call and response dialogue with Oakey telling his female charge that just because she made the big time, she can't turn her back on the man who put her there. The girl (Suzanne Sulley, complete with a flat, nasally voice that sounds exactly how a waitress from a cocktail bar would sound) does not bend to his will and instead delivers a big 'fuck you' to which Oakey has no response save the veiled
"Its much too late to find, you think you've changed your mind. You'd better change it back or we will both be sorry" threat.

And there it ends. Or rather, it doesn't; it feels as if there's a verse missing and we never find out if the '
we will both be sorry' is bravado or actual threat (the 'film within a film' video had a deleted scene of Oakey shooting Sulley with a pistol from a car window, but it's not clear whether this was a scene from the 'film' or a scene from their 'lives') and this adds a layer of mystery to the song, ending it like a Saturday Morning serial cliff-hanger which complimented the aesthetically glamorous yet emotionally cold imagery the band had adopted by this stage - there's obsession and manipulation in the song but precious little love.

The main riff to 'Don't You Want Me' chugs along like Gary Numan's 'Are Friends Electric?' on adrenalin, but rather than using it to power the song along on a wave of major chords like a rock band, there's an underlying electronic rhythm that throbs like a pulse throughout that keeps things fluid and reveals the band had finally been playing close attention to their Kraftwerk albums. It's a jump forward from their far more primitive sounding early recordings, and they could have gotten away with an aura of innovation had those pesky Kraftwerk kids not shown up with a number one of their own a few weeks hence to reveal their source with a song already four years old.

But no matter, Kraftwerk would never have incorporated an array of such human emotion and perspective in any of their music, so the band were one up on them in that aspect at least. And one up on a lot of contemporary bands who plugged in their keyboards and raided the dressing up box throughout the decade. The eighties are frequently cited as being the decade of style over substance. While in many cases, the decade is guilty as charged, it's not always the case, and tracks like 'Don't You Want Me' show that sometimes you can have both.

1 comment:

  1. It was Susanne Sulley not Suzanne. Today she is just plain Susan Ann Sulley. Still a top popstar and a real looker at 46.

    Her website is