August 1986: The Human League Release "Human"

(MANDATORY CREDIT Ebet Roberts/Getty Images) UNITED STATES - JANUARY 01: Photo of HUMAN LEAGUE (Photo by Ebet Roberts/Redferns)
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(Ebet Roberts/Redferns)

By 1985, The Human League was in complete disarray. After breaking worldwide with the massive Dare album, the band struggled to come together for its follow-up, the appropriately titled Hysteria. When it looked like the group was on the verge of collapse, the record label threw a Hail Mary: they packed up The Human League and sent them to Minneapolis to record with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

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"Human League came up to Minneapolis, and I would say, for the most part, we got along really well," Jimmy Jam told Wax Poetics. "Obviously, there was a little bit of a culture shock and a little bit of a weather shock, because it was in the middle of winter. The thing that happened toward the end was we wrote the song 'Human.' Phil Oakey was the lead singer, and he had always sung in a kind of robotic manner. It was his style. And I remember Terry worked with him on his vocals for about a week. Terry told him he wanted him to sing with more feeling. I will say this: Phil worked his tail off, and did a great vocal."

The session went off the rails when it came to the background vocals for the track.

"When his vocal was done, we were thinking about who should do the backgrounds because both of the girls in Human League were good singers, but they didn’t have the texture that went with the backgrounds we were doing," Jimmy Jam continued. "So, Terry came up with the idea of them doing the talking part on the song and him doing the background vocals. Then, we had a girl named Lisa Keith. Lisa was our go-to background singer. She could sing anything. We asked her to go through what Terry did, and fill in the harmonies. I remember we got the record done, and we were all so happy. When we played the record for the group, they had no reaction to it. We asked them what they thought of it. We told Phil that his vocals sounded really good. One of the girls said, 'Who is the other girl singing on it?' We said, 'What other girl?' She said, 'The girl singing on the backgrounds.' We said, 'Her name is Lisa Keith. She was doing the backgrounds on it.' She said, 'I don’t like the idea of another girl being on our song.' We said, 'Really. But doesn’t it sound good?' So we finished up that day."

The next day, Oakey approached the producers about the song: "Phil was seeing one of the girls in the group named Joanne. And she was the one raising a stink about the other girl being on the song. Phil walked in and told us, 'I have to say. I don’t like the idea of another girl being on our record.' We said, What?' He repeated, 'I have to say. I don’t like the idea of another girl being on our record.' We said, 'Oh. We get it. We got you. You just have to say it. We got it. Perfect.' We called the record company and told them, 'We either have your first single or a record that is off the album. And you guys can figure out how you want to handle it.'"

The label listened to the track and sided with Jam and Lewis. The song was finished and ready to go. Released as a single on August 11, 1986, The Human League's "Human" was an immediate hit on the radio and at record stores, cruising up the charts to peak at #1 for the week of November 22, 1986. It was toppled on the following week's chart by Bon Jovi's "You Give Love a Bad Name."

"The way it was characterized back in the day is that we didn’t get along with Human League, and that was absolutely not the case," Jimmy Jam stressed to Wax Poetics. "We went through the whole process of recording, and that was the only disagreement we had, but because it involved what was potentially a first single from the album, it probably became a bigger deal than it needed to be. The song ended up coming out the way we wanted it to. It ended up being a huge record for them and us. We won a Grammy for Producer of the Year that year. Anything that we read from Phil about us has always been positive, and we feel that way about them too."

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