A synth pop group from Sheffield in the UK. The band originally formed in 1977, from the duo of Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, joined by Adi Newton, and at first operated under the name "The Future", but then shortly changing its name to Human League. At the time, they operated with a single Korg synth and a variety of other instruments, tape loops and noisemakers. The band's eclectic mix of Motown and experimental music drew some interest, but none of the three was a good singer, which limited record company appeal.
Newton departed shortly to form Clock DVA. At that point Ware and Marsh decided to hire someone to be the band's singer and frontman; their rather odd choice was Philip Oakey, who had no singing experience but, in Ware's words, "had the right look". It took a while for the new formation to click, but in 1978 they released their first single, "Being Boiled", on a local label. After their first few live performances, Ware and Marsh were concerned that, due to their heavy reliance on sequencers and tape loops at the time, their stage presence was flat and not visually interesting. They agreed to hire a friend of Oakey's, Phillip Adrian Wright, to fill an unusual role in band. Wright, who had a background in visual arts, neither sang nor played an instrument; his function was to add interest to the live show with lighting, projected visuals, and stage props.
The band caught Richard Branson's interest, and Branson signed them to his label Virgin Records in 1979. Trouble began almost immediately, though: the band, in exchange for accepting a large advance, had to agree on significant changes to its sound and lineup to sound more like a conventional pop band. Ware insisted that any such material be released under a pseudonym. But after their first single in this style, released under the the name "The Men", flopped, Virgin agreed to give the band more creative control. However, after this, the band's first album, Reproduction, also flopped commercially, leading to further tensions with Virgin.
Things came to a head in late 1980. On the eve of a UK tour, Ware and Marsh departed (going on to form the band Heaven 17), leaving Human League with no original members and without anyone who could play an instrument. Scrambling to meet commitments, Oakey hired Ian Burden to play synths on the tour, and Wright was able to cover some keyboard parts and operate tape loops and devices in addition to his visual-display duties. In an off-the-wall maneuver, Oakey hired two teenage girls, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, as vocalists and on-stage dancers, despite the fact that neither had any experience as either singers or performing artists. The tour was rocky but the band did manage to complete it. After the tour, Virgin assignd producer Martin Rushent, who had previously worked with Joy Division, to provide professional production and help bring in more musicians in. Rushent convinced Burden to join as a permananet member, and brought in Jo Callis to play keyboard and guitar parts. The immediate results, starting in 1982, were the album Dare and the singles "Don't You Want Me" and "Fascination", which made the band an international smash.
However, creative tensions continued. The album Hysteria did not sell as well, and the band members felt exhausted by the writing and recording process. Virgin replaced Rushent with American hip-hop producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis; the result was the album Crash, on which most of the material was written and performed by Jam and Lewis, and the band had little creative input. By 1990, Burden, Callis and Wright had all departed, and Virgin dropped the band.
Oakey, Catherall and Sulley struggled for several years to get another label interested before signing with EastWest Records in 1994. Bringing in ex-Tears for Fears synth player Ian Stanley to produce, and with parts performed by Stanley and a variety of studio musicians, the band released the album Octopus and enjoyed its first commercial success in eight years. This period of creativity lasted until 1998, when EastWest inexplicably dropped them after a management shakeup. Further misfortune occurred in 2001 when their new label, Papillon Records, went bankrupt shortly after the release of Secrets and was unable to ship copies of the album to stores, which killed sales. However, they did have the fortune of working with Neil Sutton, who was brought in as a studio musician and then was asked to join the band full time; he remains with them to this day.
The band continues to tour and release new material as of 2016. The standing lineup continues to be Oakey, Catherall, Sulley and Sutton, with a variety of musicians joining at various times for recording and tours.