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The Human League – Boys and Girls

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The rivalry and tensions which had been long-brewing within the ranks of The Human League came to a head towards the end of 1980. Founder members Phil Oakey and Martyn Ware enjoyed a friendship which, Oakey himself admitted, often involved the pair chasing each other around the streets of Sheffield throwing milk bottles at each other – and that was when things were going well. Somehow they’d managed to record two critically acclaimed albums (Reproduction in 1979 and Travelogue in 1980) but had so far failed to make any significant impact on the UK singles chart. Their label, Virgin, was losing faith and the band’s implosion and subsequent reformation as The Human League Mark II and Heaven 17, gifted them with a fairly sweet ‘Buy One Get One Free’ deal. While Ware, former League gooseberry Ian Craig-Marsh and newly recruited singer Glenn Gregory hit the ground running with their Penthouse and Pavement LP, Oakey’s dream of becoming ‘the British Abba’ would take a little longer.

Oakey would be the first to admit the band’s future didn’t look good. As a self-confessed “bunch of bozos who wanted to be in a group,” the band now consisted of only two members (Oakey and Philip Adrian Wright,) neither of whom could be considered ‘real musicians.’ Looming on the horizon, a mere fortnight away, was a contractually obligated European tour and Oakey’s solution to the problem is embedded in 80s Pop History. Desperate to add a touch of glamour to the proceedings, Oakey recruited schoolgirls Suzanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall to join the band. While the girls would be the first to describe their singing style as “quirky”, their Clockhouse at C&A style and, let’s just say, unique dance moves made The Human League instantly relatable and far more relevant than they’d ever been. And just as a ‘red flag’ was undoubtedly being added to a file somewhere in Sheffield’s Child Services department, Oakey’s ‘All New’ Human League headed into the studio to cut their first single as a four-piece.

Unfortunately the first fruit of their new incarnation doesn’t actually feature the girls’ voices. Virgin was pushing hard and the girls had their GCSE Eyeliner Application exams to study for (or something), so Oakey and Wright wrote and recorded Boys and Girls on their own. While the song’s stark electronics and bleak lyrical content has more in common with their previous output – which included songs about crows devouring babies, record shops being sucked into black holes and silkworms being boiled alive – than the sparkly, synth-pop perfection which lay just around the corner, Boys and Girls acts as the perfect bridge between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Human League.

While this track always sits comfortably among my personal Top 3 League songs, it does feature some truly excruciating, but undeniably entertaining rhymes – ‘go far’ and ‘cal-en-dar’ – and introduces something which would later become a beloved League staple – awkward lyrics which sound like they’ve been written by someone with English as a second language – a trait best exemplified in Boys and Girls by the lines “Time to leave the old school suits, grown-ups can be real cute” and one which peaked with “And where there used to be some shops, is where the sniper sometimes hides”  from 1984’s The Lebanon. Boys and Girls is both strangely uplifting and darkly menacing, and when Oakey croons, “boys and girls, I love you dearly, but I hate to have you near me,” you know he really, really, means it. It’s hard to believe a few months later The Human League would be one of the most popular bands in the country and the girls would find themselves choking on party popper streamers they’d accidentally inhaled during the festive edition of Top of the Pops as they sang 1981’s Christmas No.1, Don’t You Want Me…oh, the glamour.

 

Entered chart: 28/02/1981

Chart peak: 48

Weeks on chart: 4

Who could sing this today and have a hit? – I can imagine thousands of drunken Glaswegians singing along to this as Chvrches belt it out from the main stage at this year’s T in the Park.

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