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…