In the early 80s people wanted Pop Stars and Pop delivered. Debbie Harry, Boy George, Adam Ant, Gary Numan, each one putting their own unique stamp on it, with an unforgettable look. And then along came Phil Oakey, who’d been germinating in a dark world of weirdness. He was androgynous pop perfection; all the girls wanted to shag him and all the boys wanted to be him…and also shag him.
But, on top of this, his band The Human League exploded onto the Pop scene with ‘Dare!’, an album of such masterclass synthetic flawlessness, that only one year in, it was already defining the decade. So understandably it was a hard act to follow. ‘Hysteria’ was doomed to failure before its inception, the expectations were just too high – they could’ve done a Stone Roses and skulked off for a decade, but after years in cult obscurity, Oakey and his new re-tooled Pop vision were now out there and desperate to prove longevity.
Much of Dare’s sound and success had been down to producer Martin Rushent, who bailed out, mid Hysteria, to be replaced by Chris Thomas, and then finally Hugh Padgham. Revisited and re-assessed now, Hysteria is a synth-pop album of impeccable quality. Had it been released under different circumstances its legacy may have been a kinder one. For starters it spawned the moderate hits ‘Louise’ ( a simple, understated and lush love song) and ‘The Lebanon’, one of The Human League’s enduring songs (despite being mercilessly savaged for its “concerned upper-sixth” social commentary lyrics – Oakey took it on the chin, saying they were just in their own naive way trying to do some good). It was also the first time they embraced the dreaded guitar after being a purely synth band for almost a decade, a brave move considering they were (and will always be) the UK’s closest thing to Kraftwerk.
‘I Love You Too Much’ is a pulsing stomp, the backing girls’ “aahs” in all the right places, Oakey’s heroic baritone nailing the hook-chorus (not bad for a hospital porter who accidentally found himself as a singer/frontman), ‘Rock Me Again…’ is a cover of a 1973 James Brown song (all their albums are littered with covers) and frugs and grooves as well as anything else of the era, in a time when Spandau Ballet suddenly wanted to be Sly Stone.
‘Betrayed’ and ‘So Hurt’ do all the things that make The Human League so great, sinister slabs of synths, hooks, arrangements, grooves. It’s all there, they must’ve been bereft at Hysteria’s lukewarm reception. Released today, these songs would trounce the one-note charlatan chancers we have to tolerate daily. I suppose Pop is a fickle lover, and the ultimate crime in the sack is peaking too soon.