As far as opening lines go, “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I found you.” is one of the most instantly recognisable that you’re likely to hear. Nearly everyone you know knows it, and it will hold meaning for a huge proportion of them – some meaning, anyway. “We can never say we’re not proud of that, never” Joanne Catherall tells State. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has been one of the enduring moments of pure joy from the decade of louche hedonism. It made stars out of The Human League and as they return to Ireland to perform at the Bulmers Live series at Leopardstown Racecourse, we caught up with them to chat about the longevity of a band once described by David Bowie as “the future of music” and their most famous song.
As a preamble, the legacy of ‘Don’t You Want Me’ should not and cannot be understated. When it was first released in 1981 it sold over 1.5 million copies in the UK alone and is ranked as one of the most successful British singles of all time. Still touring, The Human League remain as proud the impact it has had as much as the song itself. “When it first happens, in a way, it’s like your whole world gets taken away from you. Maybe it was because myself, Phil and Suzie were so recognisable together, but we genuinely felt as if we couldn’t do anything without people wanting to chat to us or come up to us.” Reaching number 1 in the US the following year, the band were involved in what was generally looked upon as the second wave of British music to truly resonate with American audiences. Yet when Catherall and Sulley joined the Human League in 1980 it never occurred to them that they’d be about to create one of the defining musical moments of the decade. “We’d only ever signed up as a touring members of the band. We’d play the odd gig around Sheffield or wherever and slowly things got more and more full-time. From gigs to recording to touring to promotional work and that was that, as soon as ‘Don’t You Want Me’ came out we were 100% full time members of The Human League.”
Now, some 34 years on, the band constantly reminded of just how meaningful the song was and still is. “There are a couple classic songs in our set, and it’s fair to say that they’re what people who come to our shows want to hear. It’s also the reason we go to shows ourselves. Myself and Sue were at a gig recently and like everybody else when we heard the more famous songs we were over the moon, it’s so silly but it’s what you want to hear! If we can have that effect on people when we play ours we’re obviously delighted.” It also explains how, even despite the shadow cast by the song, the Human League have avoided becoming just another band touring as a novelty, as a permissibly over-wrought nostalgic totem. They have managed to somehow maintain ownership of the track rather than the other way around and as it develops with the years it still gets the same reactions now as it did a lifetime ago. “The music has evolved because we always insist on playing live”, Catherall explains. “A lot of the really old tracks were obviously written and recorded using really old synths which you can’t take out on tour any more. We’ve had to change equipment so many times and that has changed the sound of the songs. There’s the dynamic of instrumentation and then there’s always…how can I put this, human error, ha! The funny thing is, and this may sound weird, but I can remember listening to records when I was younger and if there was a scratch or a blemish on the vinyl it would become part of the song. Those little scuffs and scratches then became so ingrained in my mind that now when I listen to the tracks on iTunes or whatever I hear the imperfections despite them not actually existing. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ gets that reaction all the time. People have a version of it in their mind and when we play it live on new equipment and sounding older as we do there will be differences.”
Still getting the same reactions is one thing, but for a band who literally happened across this career and managed to sustain it is another thing entirely. “The three of us in the band now, the three who are left, we never wanted this, we never once thought that this was a career. we just kind of landed into it and never thought too much about it. We did at one point all think to ourselves ‘well, this is actually alright, eh?’ As a way of making a living I think this is far better than the alternative but it was never a career move. But in saying that, we never felt like giving up. We never really went anywhere and we’re still motivated by the same thing, playing our songs. We always said that we’d give up if things got too much or too hectic and it never really got to that stage.” Maybe maintaining roots in Sheffield has had a lasting effect on the band? “Yeah that definitely had something to do with it. We’ve never left home and even though everything was happening in London at the time we were never tempted to move there. When we went on tour it was always from here and we always came back here. Now we tend not to actually tour though, we play a lot of festivals and one-off shows but we don’t tour any more.”
The Human League play Bulmers Live at Leopardstown on August 13th.