Thirty years later, the Human League’s Top of the Pops performance of “The Sound of the Crowd” remains a document of radical pop: Frontman Phil Oakey’s hair is as asymmetrical as the off-kilter ’80s ever got; his makeup — even by androgynous Brit standards — is startlingly extreme; teen backing singer/dancers Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall split the difference between disco abandon and New Wave cool, and a bank of tape decks declare that this is studio-created artifice that snears in the face of rock reality. The message is clear: We’ve seen the future, and it is us.
The evolution of the Human League from stern electronic experimentalists whose major claim to fame was a derisive name-check in an Undertones single to the chart-topping icons behind one of the most-loved and enduring songs of their decade is one of popular music’s strangest, yet most successful transformations. Previewed in the UK by “Sound” and then buoyed by the unexpected international smash “Don’t You Want Me,” this Sheffield, England sextet’s 1981 breakthrough boasts traditional hooks — nearly every track was a single or sounds like one — and cutting-edge technology: Thanks to producer Martin Rushent and his studio full of brand new musical toys, this was the album that popularized the Linn LM-1 drum machine, the Roland Jupiter-4 polyphonic synthesizer, and other key instruments of ’80s pop, dance, and R&B.
Yet Dare also exudes the naïve confidence of punk: Oakey, Sully, Catherall and visual artist Philip Adrian Wright were all non-musicians when they became Leaguers; Jo Callis had actually been in a punk band, a near-great one, the Rezillos. You can feel them pushing themselves to be David Bowie, Kraftwerk, and ABBA all at once, and what they can’t achieve is just as key to the record’s success as what they can: Sulley’s solo on “Don’t You Want Me” announces that despite Rushent’s polish, this is not a conventional, slick pop, and it trumps Oakey’s thespian chauvinism on the track more effectively than a well-sung verse because it says I am what I am, bum notes and all, and I can not only survive your bossy put-downs; I can squash them on an indisputably genius record.