I decided it would be fun to try and write something different. I’ve not really written about music very much. I had to in school as part of my Higher and then Sixth Year Studies and it was difficult. Funny as music is one of my favourite things. In casting about for a suitable subject I thought I’d challenge myself to write about one of my favourite albums, ‘Dare’ by The Human League. We both turn 35 this year and out of the two of us it’s perhaps ‘Dare’ who has weathered the intervening years best. I have a strong relationship with it. I can go for ages without hearing it and then when I do it’s as if we’ve never been apart. It’s honestly the first music to ever make any sort of impact on me, second only to ‘Upstairs at Erics’ by Yazoo which of course is in a similar vein. The fact we are so close should make describing why I like it much harder than say describing why I like something I have only heard recently.
From what I’ve heard from my mother and other relatives as a toddler I had a special fondness for ‘Don’t you want me’ (who doesn’t?) the final track and biggest hit from the collection. While I do remember this to an extent I can say that as a whole all of those eerie synthscapes are etched into my brain and I love it as a whole, as it was no doubt intended. I’m a big fan of the art of album making, not just recording but the final sequencing and creating a journey. Deciding what to leave in and what to remove or swap around. If I listen to an album that’s exactly what I’ll do, I rarely skip tracks. In that sense I guess I’m very old fashioned. I can’t fault the tracklisting for ‘Dare’ at all, I only hope that one day I can make something this good.
“Everybody needs love and adventure” (The Things that Dreams are Made of)
In preparation I listened to it again the other day, and indeed as I type it’s gracing the turntable, and it still sounds fresh. I began to make a little list in my mind of the things I particularly enjoy. This includes Phil Oakeys voice somewhere near the top – so recognizable! I love the occasional dip into a pleasing baritone. The clarity of the recordings is superb too. There aren’t far too many overdubs and the songs have room to breathe. The subjects of the songs are great too, some of them are a bit dark in retrospect. As a youth I was moved to seek out the rest of their catalogue and found that their earlier albums were a bit dark too if not more so. I also noticed the pattern of including a diverse cover version amongst the originals. Their cover of ‘You’ve lost that loving feeling’ from their first album ‘Reproduction’ is astounding. ‘Dare’ contains a short melancholic keyboard rendition of the theme from ‘Get Carter’. It was played on a Casio VL-Tone which I only found out years later and is a keyboard I actually own. My first keyboard in fact – I received it as a present for Christmas 1987. The same instrument appears on a few other songs most notably playing a lead melody on ‘Open your heart’. To this day if I ever have the keyboard out the pull to play those tunes is very hard to resist indeed.
The artwork is also amazing – it looks like a fashion magazine. Apparently this was the idea. I’d stare at it for ages as I would with most of my parents’ other LPs. Now that was an education. I found it slightly spooky because the photos of the band members were all cropped in such a way that you couldn’t see their hair. Also the androgyny of Phil Oakey must have resonated with me – a man wearing make-up with longish hair (I say ‘ish’ as it was only long on one side). The fact that the cover is almost all white suits the music. Precise, clean, fuss free, almost sterile. Catchy too, remember 4 of the 10 tracks were hit singles.
Knowing about the the history of The Human League as an adult makes me appreciate it even more. To find out that after 2 albums the original line-up disbanded leaving vocalist Oakey and visual guy Philip Adrian Wright with just the name. With a tour looming they were forced to forage for some new members. Jo Callis from The Rezillos and Ian Burden were drafted in and Phil Oakey found a couple of teenage girls at a local disco and convinced them to join. I wonder how the former members felt when they seen the success that the League went on to achieve in their absence. The other two of course went on to form Heaven 17 and had hits of their own, interestingly with a singer called Glenn Gregory who apparently almost joined The Human League before Phil Oakey stepped in. Hmmmmm.
“In darkness, where my dreams are all too clear” (Darkness)
I think the album’s also special to me for being amongst a few firsts. When I got my first record player in 1986 my parents let me have their copy as they knew I loved it so much. Therefore it’s officially the first record I ever owned (the first one I bought with my own money that I won in a Valentines card competition was Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’). I no longer own that particular copy, it became unplayable and the cover deteriorated. I have re-bought it 2 further times, again on vinyl and then CD. Also I’m pretty certain that vocalist Joanne Catherall (the brunette) was one of my first crushes. There is one picture of her that I adore, from the back of the ‘Love and Dancing’ album which was a selection of primitive remixes. That album’s worth checking out as it was all edited by hand before samplers became prevalent. It was a curious back cover as it had individual portraits of all the key personnel so you got to see not only what the other members of the band looked like but also the producer and engineers. Joanne looked especially lovely in her picture. I remember when we got the ‘Greatest Hits’ video collection in the late eighties it was particularly thrilling to see her in some of the videos. She looked amazing in the one for ‘Love Action’.
I realize I haven’t really described the songs very well. Who was it that said ‘Talking about music is like dancing about architecture’? I don’t think I’m qualified to do such a thing sadly. Amusingly another thing I noticed when I revisited it was that the majority of the songs start with a lone drum beat to set the scene. Programmed of course, I believe there aren’t any real guitars, bass or drums on ‘Dare’. Apparently Jo Callis did use his guitar to reshape some of the soundwaves and create keyboard sounds. Far out man! The lyrics are deliciously loopy too at times. A highlight being
“Stroke a pocket with a print of a laughing sound” (The Sound of the Crowd).
As I mentioned earlier the subjects of the songs are nice and varied, not all your usual love fodder. Even back in their first single ‘Being Boiled’ Phil Oakey was singing about the plight of the silkworm – whilst the b-side talked about a malevolent circus who takes over the world…I think that’s what it’s about. Without going into too much descriptive detail, which I’m sure other folk on the internet have done better, I’ll briefly outline the themes present on the album as a whole; The assassination of JFK, simple pleasures and ambitions (plus a nod to Norman Wisdom and The Ramones), infidelity, fears and darkness, sympathy and authority, jealousy and romantic obsession. Good to see that the contents are educational. It’s been there since the beginning of my life so it is a lot like a third parent. My dad left when I was 12 but ‘Dare’ never left.
“But there’s no future without tears” (Open Your Heart)
I’ll always return to it. It’s a comfort thing, like ‘Ghostbusters’ or ‘Highlander’. Those things never fail me. They’re always there, unchanged, non-judgemental. And you need that. ‘Dare’ is like a big analogue hug to me. I’m not sure when I shall next listen to it but I know it will happen!