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#RSFlashback – 40 Years Ago, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ Started 1982 Steady at Number One

The British synth-pop group scored their biggest hit through Christmas and the new year

Amit Vaidya Jan 07, 2022
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The Human League started 1982 at the top of the charts in the U.K. with their single “Don’t You Want Me.” The fourth single from their third studio album Dare ended up becoming the band’s most commercially successful single, becoming the Number One Christmas single of 1981 and then staying atop through the first two weeks of January. The song would have global legs throughout 1982, reaching the top of the U.S. charts by July.

The song felt like the perfect intersection between the dying world of disco and growing emergence of new wave and synth-pop. While the band has many hits in their discography, no track is more beloved or remains as memorable as this. “Don’t You Want Me” continues to poll as one of the best songs of the Eighties. In November 1983, Rolling Stone actually stated the single was the “breakthrough song” of the Second British Invasion.

“Don’t You Want Me” is also notable as the first song to feature the Linn LM-1 drum machine to hit number one in both the U.K. and the U.S. Beyond the technology, the playful vocal exchange between male lead vocalist Phil Oakey and Susan Ann Sulley, one of the group’s two female vocalists (the other female vocalist, Joanne Catherall also happened to be Oakey’s girlfriend) helped the song standout. Oakey had initially conceived the song as a male solo but inspired by A Star Is Born, he opted to make it a duet. The lyrics mirroring the truth (“Working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”) instantly struck a chord with audiences who lapped up the storytelling sing-along tale of the conflicting young lovers.

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Male/female couples’ duets have always worked. From Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” to Jay-Z & Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love” to Shawn Mendes & Camila Cabello’s “Senorita” —  they’ve all shot to Number One but seldom have bandmates used the trick. While usually the lyrical content is more romantic mush than banter — the genius of “Don’t You Want Me” was that it got all people singing, dancing and moving. Of course, it’s also fun to realize that Sulley sang on the track, not Catherall, despite the song being about her.

The success of the single came as a genuine surprise to Oakey, who never expected the single to crossover Stateside and end up becoming a huge Number One record for the band. Oakey had no intention of making it big globally, but “Don’t You Want Me” rewrote the books. The song and style inspired a great many bands in the Eighties, particularly the likes of Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and Information Society.

Dare, the mother album from which “Don’t You Want Me” released has been labeled by many music historians as instrumental in laying the foundation for the entire synth-pop sound.

While the synth and drum machines may have got an upgrade over the years, the band’s style remains a mainstay even today. 

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In fact, these days, the sound Oakey and company mastered 40 years ago is basically everywhere again on Top 40. From Ed Sheeran’s “Overpass GraffitI” to The Weeknd’s entire new album Dawn FM, there is a little bit of The Human League in all of it. And yes, we continue to want it!

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