In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The “Human” in the Human League’s band name was not supposed to be a literal description. Before he split off to start Heaven 17, Human League co-founder Martyn Ware took the group’s name from a sci-fi board game. Even then, though, the joke must’ve been implicit. The Human League made cold, precise, Kraftwerkian synth music. In The SPIN Alternative Record Guide, Rob Sheffield describes frontman Philip Oakey’s vocal style perfectly: “Oakey sang like a robot — a bored robot.” The Human League weren’t trying to sound human. They would’ve sneered at the proposition.
Ware was long-gone by the time the Human League broke through with 1982’s “Don’t You Want Me,” but the group’s all-synth-everything sound remained, and so did Oakey’s bored-robot voice. On “Don’t You Want Me,” Oakey is stern and commanding, and the desperation of the song is strictly implied. Historically, “Don’t You Want Me” is a hugely important single — the hit that made the American pop charts safe for icy British art-school keyboard music. “Don’t You Want Me” remains a perfect piece of music, but its success was a time-and-place thing, an early indication of MTV’s game-changing power. The Human League proved that America wanted pop stars who didn’t need to assert their own humanity.
So it’s pretty funny that the Human League finally returned to #1 four years later, with a song where Oakey insists, again and again, that he is human. “Human,” the Human League’s second and final #1, finds Oakey attempting to use his organic composition as an excuse for doing something shitty: “I’m only human/ Of flesh and blood I’m made.” He does not make a convincing case for himself.
Seen from a cold, calculating, machine-like perspective, “Human” was a solution to a problem. The problem: The Human League weren’t hitting anymore. The solution: Make a funky dance record with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, the hot producers of the moment. From that standpoint, there’s a robotic ingenuity to “Human” that might even be worth admiring. The song did its job, returning the Human League to the charts and giving them a flukey late-career #1. But on an aesthetic level, the song doesn’t work. Heard today, “Human” hits like a syntax error.
At home in the UK, the Human League were already pop stars with a couple of top-10 hits by the time “Don’t You Want Me” came out. They were total unknowns in America before the single hit, but their Dare album was an absolute gold-plated pop classic. The LP went platinum in the US, and it launched another single into the top 10. (“(Keep Feeling) Fascination” peaked at #8. It’s a 9.) The Human League had launched something, and hoards of makeup-caked British synth-twiddlers followed in their wake. Once the high of Dare faded, the Human League couldn’t keep up.
The Human League bricked badly with their 1984 follow-up album Hysteria. In the UK, Hysteria was considered a disappointment, but three of its singles still made the top 20. In the US, though, only one song even charted on the Hot 100: The oddly self-important “The Lebanon,” which peaked at a dismal #64. Oakey also teamed up with Giorgio Moroder for “(Together In) Electric Dreams,” an absolute banger of a movie theme that did well around the world. In the US, though “(Together In) Electric Dreams” and the Oakey/Moroder collaborative album that followed both missed the charts completely. If the Human League were going to be an ongoing concern in America, they needed a hit.
Hits were not forthcoming. Band members left and were replaced. The group started recording a new album and then scrapped it. Finally, the A&M Records executive John McClain had the idea to team the Human League up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. McClain had brought Janet Jackson to Jam and Lewis, and that had resulted in the massive album Control. Jackson’s career had been cold before Control, and Jam and Lewis turned it around and helped her rise to transcendent pop stardom. Maybe McClain thought he could pull off a similar coup if he put his struggling synthpoppers together with a team who knew how to make hits.
Talking to Wax Poetics a few years ago, Jimmy Jam described how this random-ass collaboration came to pass:
[McClain] told us he had this group called Human League. We told him we knew about them. He asked us if we wanted to produce their album. We asked him, “What sense does that make for us?” He said, “If you listen to their records, they’re trying to make funky synth records, which is what you guys do well. They’ve already written a bunch of songs, but if you produce them with your ears, and make them a little funkier, then that will be exactly what they’re looking for. Those are the kind of records they’re trying to make anyways.”
Philip Oakey was a fan of the records that Jam and Lewis were making with the Italo-disco group Change, so he was open to the idea. The Human League flew to Minneapolis in the middle of winter to record the album Crash. Jam and Lewis had just finished making Control with Jackson, and the Human League presented them with a challenge. Jam and Lewis were used to working with slick, experienced funk musicians. The Human League were not that. Jam and Lewis rejected many of the songs that the group had written, and they mostly used session musicians while working on the LP. Soon after Crash came out, a couple of members of the Human League, embarrassed by the experience, quit the group.
Crash is a terribly awkward record. Control-era Janet Jackson might not have been the world’s most technically gifted singer in the world, but she knew how to sound cool on Jam and Lewis’ sleek clatter. Oakey, on the other hand, had no idea. A track like “Swang,” written by Jam and Lewis’ former Flyte Tyme bandmate David Eiland, forces Oakey to play the synth-funk party-starter and to wail out Black American vernacular with his whole chest. He is not up to it. It’s rough.
Jam and Lewis only wrote a few of the songs on Crash themselves, but one of those songs is “Human,” the album’s lead single and opening track. The idea for the song is kind of clever. Oakey and his Human League bandmate Joanne Catherall, a real-life couple at the time, play two lovers who have just gotten back together after they’ve been on a break. While they’ve been apart, Oakey’s narrator has been with someone else. He confesses, bears his soul, and begs for forgiveness. When the bridge arrives, Catherall admits that she’s been cheating, too. They’re on equal footing after all. From a certain perspective, then, “Human” is a song about sexual power dynamics, just like “Don’t You Want Me.”
But “Human” doesn’t deliver, on that level or on any other. The lyric requires Oakey to give a tender, heartsick vocal performance, and that’s just not the kind of singer he is. Jam and Lewis worked with him for weeks, trying to get him to open up and emote. In the end, they were happy with his performance. (Jimmy Jam in Wax Poetics: “Phil worked his tail off and did a great vocal.”) Oakey’s vocal is more technically advanced than what he’d done on past Human League tracks; he even manages halfway-passable falsetto at one point. But his voice is a whole lot more effective when he’s not really trying to sing, when he’s doing the arch synthpop sing-speak thing instead. Jam and Lewis know pop music better than almost anyone, but “Human” works against all of Oakey’s strengths. It sets him up to fail.
It’s also just kind of a gross song. The production has the great rattling, swaggering mechanistic sheen of Jam and Lewis’ ’80s work, but there’s something sickly about the soft-focus synth-tinkles. The lyrics don’t work, either. Oakey’s narrator just sounds pathetic when he pleads for forgiveness: “I wouldn’t ever try to hurt you/ I just needed someone to hold me/ To fill the void while you were gone/ To fill this space of emptiness.” I don’t feel bad for this guy.
When Catherall shows up, she doesn’t even try to sing. Instead, she just deadpans her return volley: “The tears I cry aren’t tears of pain/ They’re all to hide my guilt and shame/ I forgive you, now I ask the same of you/ While we were apart, I was human too.” It’s a nice plot twist, but there’s no emotion and barely any presence in Catherall’s voice. On “Don’t You Want Me,” there had been a real electricity between Oakey and Catherall. On “Human,” that’s just gone. “Human” isn’t a total miss, but that’s just because of that Jam and Lewis production. As a Human League song, it barely registers.
There are backing vocals on “Human,” but they aren’t Catherall. Instead, Terry Lewis sings the soft, melodic bits on the song himself, and the session singer Lisa Keith takes the big notes. (Lisa Keith’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 1993’s “Better Than You,” peaked at #36.) Catherall was upset when she listened to the track and heard another woman singing the backup vocals, and this led to a dispute between the Human League and Jam and Lewis. Jam and Lewis complained to the label, and they won, getting full control of the record. The Human League, dejected, returned to the UK, feeling as though their next record was not their own.
Oakey was a bit surprised when “Human” came out and did as well as it did. At the time, though, Jam and Lewis were on a real hot streak. They’d just scored their first #1 hit, Janet Jackson’s “When I Think Of You,” six weeks before “Human” topped the charts. Two weeks before “Human” reached its peak, Robert Palmer was at #2 with his cover of “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On,” a 1984 single that Jam and Lewis had written and produced for Cherrelle. (Palmer’s version of “I Didn’t Mean To Turn You On” is a 6. Cherrelle’s superior original had peaked at #79.) A few months later, Jam and Lewis shared the Grammy for Producer Of The Year.
Just like “Don’t You Want Me,” “Human” was a time-and-place thing. The Human League had the good fortune to team up with Jam and Lewis right when their sound was exploding and taking over the pop mainstream. Since the Human League were a known quantity — and since they were white — they had a relatively easy time crossing over. “Human” topped Billboard‘s dance chart, and it reached #3 on both the R&B and Adult Contemporary charts — two places where the Human League had never made any impact before. “Human” was a cross-format hit. Tellingly, the song was a whole lot bigger in the US than in the UK, where it must’ve clashed with the Human League’s better-established persona. (In the Human League’s homeland, “Human” peaked at #8.)
The success of “Human” didn’t really do anything for the Crash album, which failed to go gold, or for follow-up single “I Need Your Loving,” which peaked at #44. The Human League stayed together and kept making music, but they never got anywhere near the Billboard top 10 again. They didn’t quite disappear; as recently as 1995, the Human League were able to reach a weirdly impressive peak of #31 with their dancey track “Tell Me When.” Before long, though, the Human League joined the ’80s nostalgia circuit, and that is where they remain today. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, however, will be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Boyz II Men sampling and I guess sequelizing “Human” on their 1997 track “Human II (Don’t Turn Your Back On Me)”:
(Boyz II Men will appear in this column a bunch of times.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the breezy “Human” cover that the clubby UK R&B singer Craig David released in 2000:
(In the US, Craig David’s highest-charting single is 2000’s “7 Days,” which peaked at #10. It’s a 7.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Bone Thugs-N-Harmony interpolating “Human” on “Thug Music (Play On),” their contribution to the soundtrack of the 2001 Chris Rock movie Down To Earth:
(Bone Thugs-N-Harmony will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On the 2001 compilation Reproductions, Stephin Merritt’s Magnetic Fields side project the 6ths teamed up with Lloyd Cole to cover “Human.” Here’s their version:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Rick Ross interpolating “Human” on his 2008 track “I’m Only Human”:
(As a lead artist, Rick Ross’ highest-charting single is the 2008 T-Pain collab “The Boss,” which peaked at #17. As a guest-rapper, Ross’ highest-charting single is the 2019 Drake collab “Money In The Grave,” which peaked at #7. It’s an 8.)