This song is about a guy who meets a cocktail waitress and turns her into a star before their love goes bad. It was inspired by an article in a woman's magazine. Lead singer Phil Oakey claims this is not a love song but about power politics between two people.
With help from MTV, which launched on August 1, 1981, this opened a mini-British invasion of the USA. There were a lot of video shows in Europe, so when MTV went on the air, they were forced to play videos by many UK bands because that was most of their library.
"Don't You Want Me" was the first US single released by The Human League; it was issued in January 1982, entered the Top 40 in April, and thanks to the MTV exposure, hit #1 on July 3, 1982, where it stayed for three weeks. The song's rise mirrored that of MTV, gradually gaining attention and making a huge cultural impact by the summer of 1982.
In the UK, this was a monster hit, and the first #1 for Richard Branson's Virgin label. The song was released in the UK in November 1981 and hit #1 on December 12, where it stayed for five weeks; the group had three previous UK hits that year: "The Sound Of The Crowd" (#12), "Love Action (I Believe In Love)" (#3), and "Open Your Heart" (#6).
When the Official Charts company compiled a 2012 list of the all-time top-selling singles in the UK, "Don't You Want Me" landed at #24, with sales of 1.54 million.
The Human League was formed in 1978 by Philip Oakey, Adrian Wright, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. Wright - a non-musician - was in charge of the visuals, and created elaborate slide shows that were projected on stage during their songs. In 1980, Ware and Marsh left to form Heaven 17, leaving Oakey and Wright in charge of the group. The female backup singer/dancers Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall were added that year, and various musicians were hired to work on the Dare album. Wright learned to play some synthesizer and contributed to the songwriting, but Oakey fronted the group. "Don't You Want Me" was was written by Oakey and Wright along with keyboard player Jo Callis, and was unusual in that one of the female backing singers took a lead role, as the song was structured as a duet. It was Sulley who got the call, and to many American listeners who only knew the group for this song, she appeared to be much more than a hired backup singer. At the time, Philip Oakey was dating the other singer, Joanne Catherall.
The Human League considered themselves very cutting-edge. They relied on electronic sounds and considered guitars "archaic and antique." At first, they didn't want "Don't You Want Me" released as a single because they thought it was too mainstream.
The Dare! album was recorded without traditional instruments. Its success prompted a call at the Musicians Union's Central London chapter to ban synthesizers and drum machines from recording dates and live work. The union feared that musicians were being put out of work. The proposed ban was defeated.
The Human League turned down an appearance on the American music show Solid Gold because they were asked to perform this song with the famous Solid Gold Dancers, and the band refused, since they had their own dancers - Sulley and Catherall. Solid Gold was a very influential pop music show, but "Don't You Want Me" still managed to continue up the charts and hit #1 without that exposure.
Phil Oakey recorded his vocals for this song in the studio lavatories. According to Q magazine August 2012, the recording was disrupted by Jo Callis reaching through an open window from outside to repeatedly flush one of the toilets.
The video was directed by Steve Barron, who did many of the most memorable early MTV clips, including "Money For Nothing
" by Dire Straits and "Take On Me
" by a-ha. He shot it on 35mm film, which was expensive, but gave the video a very cinematic look. The video was inspired by a 1973 French film called Day for Night
, which is about a director struggling to make a film. Jacqueline Bisset starred in the movie.
Phil Oakey (From NME December 29, 2012): "The key to that song is that we didn't spoil it, I think. With most songs you think of a couple of nice tunes and some words and then you start working and you work until they're not very good. We happened to stop before, stop while it was still all right. So in a strange way, it sounds complicated but it's a pretty simple sort of song."
The guitar-synth melody that accompanied the chorus was the result of a studio accident. Producer Martin Rushent recalled to NME: "That came about because the computer screwed up and played the line a half-beat out of time. The moment we heard it, Jo (Callis, guitarist) and I went, 'Wow, that's amazing!'"
Virgin Records owned the rights to the material that Human League recorded over the period they were signed to them. When a parody version of this tune was used in 2001 for a Fiat Punto TV advert, the band fought a bitter legal battle. They ultimately lost the case to Virgin and Susan Sulley later complained: "Now even if we wanted to use the song for a more worthy company, we can't because it will always be associated with a particular brand."
Supporters of Aberdeen FC changed the lyrics to "Peter Pawlett Baby," referencing their midfielder. After winning the 2014 Scottish League Cup, the Scottish team's fans launched campaigns on Facebook and Twitter to get the song to #1 for a second time in the UK and though they didn't achieve that goal, it did return to the Top 20.
Phil Oakey appreciates what this song did for the group, but doesn't think very highly of it. He told Classic Pop magazine in 2014: "'Don't You Want Me' might have shifted gazillions, but either I've heard it too many times or the rest of Dare! is just so far ahead that it puts it in the shade. Still, it made the band."
The Human League borrowed the concept for the Dare sleeve artwork from German Vogue. Phil Oakey recalled to Q magazine: "That concept they'd done 18 months before and I use to collect old fashion magazines. I thought we'll probably get away with it and we did. They never came after us. There was probably contemptuous of a crummy pop band."