“New Sounds” in 1986: Pioneering ’80s UK electro-pop synth trio Human League’s “Human”

By on August 3, 2017

On October 10, 1986, Night Flight aired one of our popular episodes focused on “New Sounds,” which featured music videos by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Level 42, Art of Noise and many more, including those pioneers in electro-pop, Human League, whose latest video, the Andy Morahan-directed “Human,” had been written and produced by R&B songwriter-producers and former members of The Time, “Jimmy Jam” Harris and Terry Lewis. Watch the episode now at Night Flight Plus.

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By 1986, the Sheffield, England-based synth-pop trio Human League were representative of all that was considered modern in the mid-’80s, especially through their innovative use of synthesizers, which until at least the early ’80s had mostly been confined to experimental music.

At that time, the group — once a seven-piece band, but now downsized to a trio comprised of the band’s leader Phil Oakey, and his backing chorus, Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley — were focused on giving their UK label Virgin Records another hit song.

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Human League had enjoyed an impressive string of hits in the early Eighties, including 1980’s “Sound of the Crowd,” ’81’s “Don’t You Want Me,” ’83’s infectious “Keep Feeling (Fascination)” and there were several others too, so it should come as no surprise that they would be featured in a popular segment devoted to “new sounds.”

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In 1985, Oakey, Sulley and Catherall, and Russell (who was not shown in the band’s videos or on their album covers) had been unhappy with the way their recording sessions for their next album were going, and it was causing some internal conflict within the group.

It was suggested by someone at Virgin — who were worried about one of their most successful signing’s creative stagnation — that they pair up with Minneapolis-based R&B producers James “Jimmy Jam” Harris III and Terry Lewis, two former members of The Time, who had recently emerged as in-demand songwriting/producing duo due to their huge success with R&B singer Janet Jackson and her most recent album Control.

Read more about Human League and their Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis produced hit “Human” below.

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Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis had expressed an interest to Virgin in working with Human League, and they’d already had written songs they thought could possibly work as Human League songs, and so everyone met up in Minneapolis, at their Flyte Tyme production studio, where it was decided that they’d proceed further with Jimmy Jam and Lewis taking over control of the album’s production.

When Human League’s Crash album was released in 1986, it turned out that, of its ten songs, four were written by Harris/Lewis, including “Human,” a mid-tempo dance ballad which tells the story of a couple who have just reunited after previously separating during their relationship.

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In the first two verses, Oakey apologizes to his partner for being unfaithful during her absence, and in the song’s breakdown, Joanne Catherall’s spoken-word confession, adding a further touch of sincerity, she reveals that she had also been unfaithful. The chorus further explains that they realize they are “only human” and were “born to make mistakes.”

When “Human” appeared as a single in August of ’86 — just a few months before the video appeared in Night Flight’s “New Sounds” episode — the romantic-tinged ballad brought the trio another Top Ten U.K. hit, topping out at #8.

However, it was in the United States where it really took off, reaching #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts — their second million-selling #1 after “Don’t You Want Me” and their second chart-topper on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart after “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” as well as becoming their only R&B-charting hit and one of Human League’s signature tunes.

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The track met with mixed critical reception in the UK, however. Smash Hits reviewer Simon Mills called it “a perfect pop record,” but admitted he was let down by Oakey’s lead vocals, adding “the vocals on this single sound, as on all League records, fragile and unconfident.”

Across the pond in the U.S., Spin magazine’s review of the single said “The Human League tackle the schmaltzy pop soul ballad and emerge with no idea how silly they look,” adding that “Human “a whiny claim to sensitivity, undercuts the band’s essential irony; the joke about Human League was that they weren’t human but digital chips.”

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Jimmy Jam and his co-producing/songwriting partner Terry Lewis would later explain how producing Human League had presented challenges for them, at least at first, eventually giving them the confidence that they could do just about anything after the culture shock of working with the Sheffield synth-pop trio.

Jam: “They come up to Minneapolis. We ended up writing four songs on the album and ‘Human’ was one of the songs. Phil Oakey had a great, unique voice. Phil had never sang anything emotional. Everything was robotic at that point for them. Terry said, ‘No, no, no, you’ve got to sing this with some feeling.’ It took a week to do that lead vocal. Phil killed it. When it came time to do the background vocals, we got Lisa Keith, who did backgrounds on pretty much every record we ever did. There were two girls in the group, and one of the girls was Phil’s girlfriend, and she says, ‘Who’s that other girl on the track?’

Lewis: “The relationship dynamic in the band got involved. The guys were cool. The girls just wanted to be more of a part, but there was no way to get the record right with them being that part.”

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Oakey would later assess the band’s Crash recording sessions this way:

“They just brought that American producer thing where the producer is boss, full stop, which is presumably why a lot of people started producing themselves over there. The most specific thing was we said, ‘We don’t have outside backing singers, we do all the singing. Even if it’s not as good as it might be, it’s us, and that’s important.’

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In June of ’86, hugely successful music video director Andy Morahan had been brought on board to lens the promotional music video for “Human.”

The video — conceived by London-based Morahan — showed Oakey, Sulley and Catherall in full glamour puss makeup (this was the first time they’d been seen onscreen as a trio), sometimes underwater or standing in waterfalls, with slow crossfade edits and serious facial expressions emphasizing the song’s heavy message, which deals bluntly with the subject of infidelity.

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Morahan — noted for his videos for Wham!, the Pet Shop Boys and George Michael — filmed them in a London studio using a Chroma key overlay, emphasizing a colorful blue hue throughout, and a “water reflective” effect.

In the end, “Human” would effectively bring to a close Human League’s run as major ’80s hitmakers, although the band continues to this day to put out compelling recordings and undergo occasional tours.

Watch Night Flight’s October 10, 1986 episode of “New Sounds,” now streaming over on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.