78. The Human League, 'Dare'
When the Human League's American debut, Dare, began its race up the charts in 1982, both the band and the album seemed unabashed rock rip-offs to more than a few skeptics. The British band, after all, sported no guitars, and there was no drummer or bassist in the group, either. What the Human League used to create Dare was a wash of synthesizers performed by band members who didn't even consider themselves to be professional musicians.
"We started out as rank amateurs with a belief that you could use technology to make up for the fact that you hadn't acquired any skill, that you could use computers to make up for the fact that you hadn't any keyboard players, that you could use sequencers to do rhythms rather than employ a drummer," Human League vocalist and songwriter Phil Oakey told Musician magazine in 1982.
Dare helped pave the way for the onslaught of electronics that would permeate rock on every level in the Eighties. The album demonstrated that synth pop was a viable alternative to rock's time-tested but guitar-glutted formulas. Dare and its smash single, "Don't You Want Me," also proved that the lucrative American market would willingly digest synth pop, provided there was enough in the way of melody and rhythm to overcome the sometimes sterile strains of the synthesizer sound.
With Dare, the Human League linked itself as much to the Sex Pistols as it did to Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder, two Seventies pioneers in techno-rock. Like punk — a movement completely at odds with the kind of pop music a band like the Human League wanted to make — the band confirmed that attitude, and not musicianship, is what's really important in the rock & roll process, and that with enough determination, virtually anyone can play the music.
Produced by Martin Rushent, who had also worked with the Buzzcocks and the Stranglers, Dare was the Human League's third album. The previous two, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980), were U.K.-only releases. Critically acclaimed, both LPs nonetheless possessed largely unfocused attempts at making synth pop an accessible rock style.
After a personnel shake-up in 1980 that left Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright the only surviving members of the original Human League (Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware went on to form the British Electric Foundation and then Heaven 17), the band was revamped with newcomers Ian Burden and Jo Callis on synthesizers and Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley on vocals.
Aside from delivering an alluring synthesizer-soaked brand of rock on Dare, Oakey and the rest of the Human League further validated their best songs with lyrics that went beyond pop pap. "Seconds," a deceptively haunting song about the JFK assassination, "Darkness," a tune about paranoia, and "The Sound of the Crowd," a satirical stab at conformity, are nearly as memorable as "Don't You Want Me."
But in the end, Dare is most remembered for its slick synthesizers, drum machines, dance rhythms and palatable pop.
"We wanted to have a Number One record — like the Beatles," Oakey said. With "Don't You Want Me," the Human League achieved its goal.