27th November 2011
1981. I had been a punk, been a post punk industrial funkateer, so now at the dawning of a new decade of pop I had no hesitation in accepting an opportunity of involvement with moody Sheffield synth band “ The Human League” and become a New Romantic, joining the new popular culture movement that was sweeping the country in the wake of the underground popularity of pioneering seventies Euro-Techno music and Roxy / Bowie club nights held in every fashion conscious city and town the length and breadth of the nation. Well I thought, any excuse to wear make up and dress up like a lass.
Having become temporarily a little jaded with the ”guitar based rock” kind of thing and feeling in need of a change of direction, not to mention the fact that the guitar, for the first time in its history, was becoming saddled with the tag of “unfashionable” (although this was only to be the case for a mercifully short period) It was a perfect time to pack my bags and head south of the border to embark on my education in The Way Of The Synthesiser.
It was an age of Heroes and angry, petty Gods. A world without samplers and Midi, a land before time code, It was a world where ultimately I would find myself alone and helpless in a dimly lit room with Adrian Wright; an elder amongst the beings I had come to know as ..The Human League.
Yet Adrian seemed anything but human as he mercilessly began to bombard me with the brain numbing ten note riff which was emanating relentlessly from the workings of his Yamaha CS15 synthesiser, the room began to spin and my head was swimming as I tried to fight down the nausea which was rising from the pit of my stomach. Make it stop ... I must .. make it stop.
If I could just think of a way to utilise the hellish riff, adapt it somehow into the beginnings of a song, then, at least I might be able to limit its duration to brief periods of say four or eight bars, perhaps put some spacings between the notes? who knows, given time Adrian could maybe even be persuaded to change the frequency and timbre of the sound? Oh God! the noise ...the horrible noise ..
Yes, that was it, I knew what had to be done, it was my only chance. So it came to be, that from this demented sequence of notes, this acorn of an idea from Adrian’s prolific mind, we began to work up a tune which in days to come would have drunken strangers swaying with glazed eyes before us, convinced by their inebriated condition that we would really love to hear their rendition of the chorus lyric; “Doant Yooou Want Mi BAY BAyee!.... Dunt Yooou Wan Mi Whooooahhhar.” ...Mind ay that eh? That wis you’s eh.”
Recurrences of this condition occasionally happen to this very day, as often as not by persons who must have been mere toddlers when the song first hit the airwaves. Needless to say I find it quite flattering every time, God bless the general public.
I’d been hearing quite a lot of Latino type stuff by the likes of King Creole and Coati Mundi in the clubs that I’d been frequenting whilst on R&R at the time, so this was where my initial idea was coming from, the riff can be plainly heard on the finished recording of “Don't You Want Me” as a brass part in the verses of the song, playing along with the chord pattern I’d put behind it.
Now we were off and running, we had the very humble beginnings of the song; Four chords and counterpoint top line sequence, now we needed some rhythm, which was quite a tall order in these historic days of electro-pop.
In order to create a drum track one was usually faced with three options, the first being the analogue twelve step sequencer, which was not recommended for the faint of heart or the novice, the second was the preset drum machine of the type used for electric organ accompaniment, which was quick and easy but with the dilemma of “Which setting should I use? Bossa-Nova, March, Rock 1, Rock 2, Disco (always a favourite) ,Samba? Oh! decisions decisions”, or thirdly just sit back and wait a couple of years until Roland invent the TR808 Programmable Rhythm Composer.
With the unique abilities of “Dr. Rhythm” we were able to program basic Kick Drum, Snare and Hi-Hat beats all from the one machine, it was almost a resounding “Ya Beauty! ”, well at least until something better came along. Very soon a truly basic four to the floor beat was programmed up amid some cursing at Mr Roland’s new technological little marvel, then a bassline which owed more than a little to War’s “ Me and Baby Brother” tailored to the chords, and we had us the verse.
On a little bit of a roll by now, I tagged on a new four bar sequence of chords and bassline which seemed to flow quite nicely out of the existing verse, this became the bridge of the song ( “Don’t, don’t you want me, you know I can’t believe it when I hear that you won’t see me.” would eventually go the lyric to this part.) which would precede the build up to the chorus, the bass part I had originally written here ultimately became the leadline featured during the “intro” of the finished recording, it being replaced by a bass part similar to that of the verse, that was producer Martin Rushent’s idea, giving another “hook” to the tune.
At this point in the proceedings, vocalist and longest standing member of the group Philip Oakey entered the fray. Upon hearing the composition as it stood thus far, Philip remarked that it fitted in with an idea for a song that he had had simmering in his imagination for some time, which was loosely based around the “A Star Is Born / Pygmalion” theme, lyrically speaking.
He immediately consulted his large notebook, which accompanied him to all writing and recording sessions, and we soon found ourselves with some lines of lyrics and another musical section to the song which married up nicely with the work already realised by myself and Adrian. Well, now the song was almost writing itself.
The final section of the composition which I came up with to kind of resolve the parts we now had, and which were flowing together very satisfactorily, was probably the most crucial, for although we did not realise it at the time this would become the chorus in all its drunken sing-a-long splendour.
Leagues “Dare” album and subsequent singles etc., said something to the effect of ; “ ‘Ere Phil, that’s yer chorus there that is, now bugger off an’ write some bleedin’ words for it.”
Mind you prior to that, during playbacks of the track in progress, Martin, myself and studio engineer ( now producer) Dave Allen would sing along our own “ chorus ” to this part of the song, which I’m appalled to admit was of such a base and sordid nature that I could not possibly relate it in such a learned and quality publication as this book.
So with most of the component sections of the composition worked out, we set about making a demonstration recording. For the benefit of the readership who now take for granted such things as Midi, sophisticated computer sequencing packages, versatile home recording equipment and so on, it must be stated again that in these ancient times such technology didn't yet exist beyond the confines of research and development departments of the Hi-Tech manufacturing companies.
Demo’s therefore were recorded on The Human League’s antiquated Eight Track tape machine, with most of the synth parts being played manually straight to tape via the mixing console! The procedure for the recording of “Dare “ was that we would write and record rough demos of two or three songs in Sheffield, and then travel down to Martin Rushent’s “Genetic” studios for a couple of weeks where the final recordings would be made, with of course, Martin producing the tracks.
By the time of writing “Don’t You Want Me” we had already done a few stints of recording at Genetic, and we had been picking up a few tips on how Martin did his Synth Brass parts, which were used to great effect embellishing the final arrangement of the song. So being young(er) and tres optimistic we thought that we’d have a bash at incorporating some of these type ideas into our little demo.
Well, unfortunately our relatively meagre facilities in Sheffield could not compete with the state of the Techno art kit such as Roland MC 8 voltage controlled sequencer, Linn Drum Machine (one of the first in the country) and Roland System 700 Modular Synth which Genetic boasted, and so our results were quite hilarious to say the least, but even at that they did serve to pinpoint suitable areas for brass enhancement.
The first thing to do was put the kettle on, then the work would begin. Yes, when it came to Rock ‘n Roll excess few came close to Human League tea indulgence. I myself got started with just a little sip from somebody’s cup of PG Tips, just to see what it was like you understand, but pretty soon I was on about twenty cups a day, and thereafter I’d be brewing it up myself and dealing full cups to the rest of the band. Crazy days and crazy nights man.
So the backing track to “Don’t You Want Me” was arranged and built up during the week, with everybody concerned under the influence of tea. First would go down a guide drum track on the Linn Drum, which would later be replaced by the final drum track complete with fills and so on, then the other parts, bassline, chord patterns etc. would either be played laboriously by hand, as we were all crap keyboard players, or programmed laboriously on the Roland MC8 sequencer with every note,step and gate time entered separately into the machine. All in all quite a laborious process then.
The one little personal victory for me however, was persuading everyone concerned that one of the sequences on the songs verse, for which a sound had been patched up on the system 700 synth, should be triggered by my guitar, I always took it with me - just in case. They all hummed and hawed and tried to cover their inherent fear of the axe with lame excuses, but after I’d performed a convincing though puerile tantrum they relented, I got my way and of course the end result was bloody great, both in giving the song a funky George McRae “Rock The Boat” groove, and getting a guitar used on a nancy synthesiser record. Result!
He seemed to quite value my opinion on his work, so, as was often the case he would run the finished idea past me first, especially if it concerned a song we’d collaborated on. “Jo” he’d start, with a slight trepidation as to my reaction, “ What do you reckon to this?..... ‘ Don’t you want me baby, Don’t you want me whooooaoh, Don’t you want me baby, Don’t you want me whoooaoh!’ ”.
Well, at first I thought he was taking the piss, but within a couple of seconds I realised the true genius of it. Phil’s simple solution to the problem was absolute pop brilliance, adding an element that would take the song to a not yet envisaged level. Sorted!
Perhaps he thought that the stark reflective tiles would provide an ambience befitting his performance, maybe the solitary isolation would help precipitate the laconic disposition that the delivery of the lyric required, perhaps he just liked the smell of toilets. It could have been for these or any other reasons, but as far as I was concerned he was out of every ones sight and way too close to the tea stash.
Be seeing you.
You should also check out Martin Rushents awesome article in the Sound On Sound magazine where he goes into details about the making of Don't You Want Me, which can be found here.