491. ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by The Human League

1981 has had its fair share of iconic chart-topping moments: Bucks Fizz’s skirt-ripping moves, The Specials’ call to arms, Soft Cell’s re-imagining of a soul classic, Mercury and Bowie going toe-to-toe… And it ends with perhaps its most iconic tune.

Don’t You Want Me, by The Human League (their 1st and only #1)

5 weeks, 6th December 1981 – 10th January 1982

For this is one of the most recognisable riffs ever, I’d say. Up there with ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘You Really Got Me’ for chart-topping riffs. It’s dramatic and ominous, yet catchy and danceable. It’s a synth riff here, but play it on a piano, a guitar, a bloody harp, and people would know it was the intro to ‘Don’t You Want Me’.

The opening lyrics are equally iconic: You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar… a male voice intones… When I met you… It’s sung by an overbearing – ok, creepy – bloke. A Svengali figure. He found this girl, made her a star, and now she’s outgrown him. Don’t forget it was me who put you where you are now, And I can put you back down too…

In the second verse, the starlet has her say. Yes, she was working in a cocktail bar… That much is true… She tells him politely that it’s time for her to make it on her own. The male ‘character’ is so well-formed, such a nasty sounding piece of work, that you wish his female counterpart had a little more bite. Who is she? Did she really just use him? Or maybe her niceness is the ultimate insult…?

Aside from the riff, the next best bits are the lines that accelerate up to the chorus: You better change it back or we will both be sorry! This is a high-quality pop song, well worthy of being the year’s biggest-seller and a Christmas number one. But – there’s always a ‘but’ – I’m not sure if there isn’t a hint of ‘fur coat and no knickers’ about it. ‘Don’t You Want Me’ has a great riff and great hook, but on repeated listen it goes from all-time classic to simply great pop. Two years ago, Gary Numan was doing things with a synth that genuinely stood out. Now, in late-1981, synths alone are not enough to wow.

Phil Oakey, The Human League’s founder, didn’t want this released as a single, and has said in subsequent interviews that he sees the music video as a big factor in its success. And you can see why: it’s moody, noirish… dare I say, once more for luck, iconic? It’s certainly slicker and more expensive than many of the homemade looking MVs from the last couple of years, and it looks forward to a New Romantic future in the make-up, earrings and fringes. ‘Rolling Stone’ has claimed ‘Don’t You Want Me’ as the starting point for the 2nd British Invasion in the US (it hit #1 on Billboard six months after topping the charts here).

The Human League had only the one UK chart-topper, but were scoring hits well into the nineties. They still tour to this day. After I’m done writing this post, I’m going to listen to the album that birthed this hit, ‘Dare!’ to see what all the fuss us about. Maybe I’m being harsh in saying that this record lacks much substance beyond its killer riff. It’s still a great tune, but when songs come along with as much baggage and reputation as this one then I can’t help expecting great great things…


23 thoughts on “491. ‘Don’t You Want Me’, by The Human League

  1. This does indeed have a very recognisable riff. A they used to say, if you’re going to steal, then make sure you steal from the best. This was a single in several European countries about three years earlier – maybe just as well it was only an album track in the UK:

    All credit to the Human League, it’s a nice song, but a tad lightweight, I agree. If there is one electro-pop-rock song that, though a pathetically minor hit, really sends tingles down my spine forty years later and wipes the floor with DYWM, it’s this one from The Motors, no contest:

    • Have to admit that I’ve never once listened to ‘Eagle’ and heard the same riff as ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Now you’ve pointed it out… I still don’t really hear it! But thanks for introducing me to the Motors’ song – hadn’t heard that before.

      • I don’t hear it, either. I love Eagle and I am a big fan of Human League, too. But, I’m not getting the similarity.

        The Motors song is new to me, too and I like it.

  2. Classic dramatic pop story single, still gets everyone going. Ive seen human league 6 or 7 times and they never fail to deliver their magnificent back catalogue, at least hslf a dozen even greater than this. DARE is a total 80s classic album, dark, clubby, upbeat, downbeat, the whole lot and in a live setting every track works, much like ABC’s Lexicon of Love. Both key complete albums as well as singles.

    I see that Eagle riff and yes borrowed in part. Eagle should have been a single, soaring and epic.The classic motors track for me is Airport. Still exciting!

  3. Yeah this is definitely a cool-sounding song but I’m not in the camp of all-time classic but it certainly in America is an important hit song. “Don’t You Want Me” is the first #1 song that truly showcased the power MTV had on the ’80s charts in breaking British-led synth-pop. It’s also the first ’80s #1 that’s hard to imagine coming from any time earlier. Weirdly with that type of breakthrough legacy, the Human League weren’t able to keep up with their next album after Dare flopping and the album after that Crash which had them teaming up with R&B hitmakers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis right as they were getting big with their work for Janet Jackson. Considering how wildly different both camps were, Crash caused some members to quit as they were battling over the songs even if it did lead to their second US #1 “Human” which Jam and Lewis wrote and which feels like they wrote from riffing on the group’s name. But that success didn’t do much for Crash which well crashed to the point where Tom Breihan and Todd in the Shadows have talked about how mediocre and embarrassing the album is, “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.”

  4. This was a good pop song and would have been good without all of the damn synths. I do think the video helped it like he said but the song underneath that stuff is good.

      • LOL…No we never did but…I would!
        We had our first recording session in the 80s…the drummer was sick so the studio guy told the guys that he would play synth drums…I flat out refused…pissed everyone off but we didn’t do it. We did it a week later with our drummer….so see….I am the same lol.

        I love organ though.

      • Stick to your guns! I think there’s a difference between a keyboard synthesiser, and computerised drum machines etc. Ones a real instrument, the other almost a form of cheating.

        I say that as someone with basically no musical experience, though

      • You are right…there is a big difference and it was popular at the time so I refused…like I said we had to wait a week but it was worth it.

        It’s just so fake…and I listened to mostly 60s at that time…a timeless sound…that is why I didn’t like the 80s as much…some songs yea like Cars and Bette Davis Eyes I liked.

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