Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Human League Hated "Don't You Want Me"?

A few years ago, I was watching one of those VH1 "Top 100 Songs Of The '80s" specials or something of that ilk (Zrbo knows this story well), and suddenly Elton John appeared in a clip: "So I was driving on a country road in England one night and this song came on the radio and ... it just blew me away. I pulled over to the side of the road just so I could listen to this killer song."

Those throbbing drum machines. The way that incessant keyboard riff hits a series of extra rapid notes just as the verse begins. The bridge to end all bridges. Every element instantly conjures up some dank, dingy European night club smothered in strobe lights. This baby all but screams out "Worldwide #1 Hit."

The thrill that Elton John felt on that country road in 1981 must have been echoed by pretty much everybody else the first time they heard "Don't You Want Me." Everybody, that is, except the Human League. From Wikipedia:
The lyrics were originally inspired after lead singer Philip Oakey read a story in a "trashy US tabloid". Originally conceived and recorded in the studio as a male solo, Oakey was inspired by the film A Star Is Born and decided to turn the song into a conflicting duet with one of the band’s two teenage female vocalists. Susan Ann Sulley was then asked to take on the role. Up until then, she and the other female vocalist Joanne Catherall had only been assigned backing vocals; Sulley says she was chosen only through "luck of the draw".[3] Musicians Jo Callis and Philip Adrian Wright created a synthesizer score to accompany the lyrics which was much harsher than the version that was actually released. Initial versions of the song were recorded but Virgin Records-appointed producer Martin Rushent was unhappy with them. He and Callis remixed the track, giving it a softer, and in Oakey's opinion, "poppy" sound. Oakey hated the new version and thought it the weakest track on Dare!, resulting in one of his infamous rows with Rushent.[4] Oakey disliked it so much that it was relegated to the last track on the B side of the (then) vinyl album.

Before the release of Dare!, two of its tracks—"The Sound of the Crowd" and "Love Action (I Believe in Love)"—had already been released as successful singles. To promote the new album, Virgin released "Open Your Heart" in October 1981, which hit #6 in the UK Singles Chart. With a hit album and three hit singles in a row, Virgin's Chief Exectutive Simon Draper decided to release one more single from the album before the end of 1981. His choice, "Don't You Want Me", instantly caused a row with Oakey who did not want another single to be released because he was convinced that "the public were now sick of hearing The Human League" and the choice of the "poor quality filler track" would almost certainly be a disaster, wrecking the group's new found popularity. Virgin were adamant that a fourth single would be released and Oakey finally agreed on the condition that a large colour poster accompany the 7" single, because he felt fans would "feel ripped off" by the "substandard" single alone.[5]

"Don't You Want Me" was released in the UK on 27 November 1981. To the amazement of the band (and especially Oakey[6]), it shot to number one on the UK charts. This success was repeated six months later in the U.S., with "Don't You Want Me" hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks. Billboard magazine ranked it as the sixth-biggest hit of 1982. The single was certified Gold by the RIAA the same year for sales of a million copies. Today, the song is widely considered a classic of its era. Oakey still describes it as overrated, but acknowledges his initial dismissal was misguided and claims pride in the track.
Umm ... yeah, it's kind of overrated, aside from being, you know, your best song. Sure, I've got a copy of Dare! (known among my friends as the last album that rock critic Lester Bangs listened to before he died - which raises the question: did he find Dare!'s dissimilarity to his treasured '60s guitar-based rock so terrible that it ultimately killed him?). The first nine songs are cute, they're pleasant, and then I get to Track 10, and it's simply in a whole different ... if you'll excuse the expression ... league. Philip, buddy, it's not even a contest. How about this: maybe you could write some more songs that you don't like and then record them, please?

Also, Susan Ann Sulley was 17? No wonder why their relationship sounds so convincingly sketchy. I love it when Oakey sings, "But don't forget it's me who put you where you are now/And I can put you back down too," and then he follows that up with "Don't, don't you want me?" Like, "You're my little bitch and you'll do whatever I want. Hey, why don't you like me?" Hmm, maybe I could give you a hint?

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