‘I never worked in a cocktail bar’: How the Human League made Don’t You Want Me

<span>Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

‘Philip turned up to meet my parents fully made up, with red lipstick and high heels. My dad locked himself in the bedroom and refused to come out’

Philip Oakey, vocals, songwriter

I had intended to recruit just one female backing singer but when I walked into the Crazy Daisy nightclub in Sheffield, the first thing I saw was Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley dancing. They somehow looked like a unit while being clearly different individuals. I knew they were right.

The band started work on what became the Dare album. Our music was so simple: we’d all laugh when Adrian Wright moved just one finger on the synthesiser and it sounded great. We mainly wrote the songs in a horrible disused vets in Sheffield. Ian Burden, our keyboard player, wrote our first two hits, Love Action and The Sound of the Crowd. Don’t You Want Me started off as a vocal melody from Adrian. Jo Callis, our other synth player, funked it up but it didn’t have a chorus. When we were recording at Genetic studios in Reading, producer Martin Rushent told me to go into another room. “Don’t come out until you’ve got a chorus.” Two hours later I came out with: “Don’t you want me, baby.”

I recorded the vocals in the toilet. The engineer flushed the loo behind me. We left that off the record

The first verse came more or less wholesale from a photo romance magazine I was reading. The first line was: “You were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar.” Our former member Martyn Ware’s girlfriend worked in Sheffield’s only cocktail joint, Sinatra’s Style Bar, so maybe cocktail bars were on my mind. I thought pubs and pickled eggs were the work of the devil, but cocktail bars seemed glamorous.

I recorded the vocals in the toilet. David Allen, the engineer, flushed the loo behind me. We left that off the record. We’d been doing shows with left-field bands such as Gang of Four and Joy Division, so I thought Don’t You Want Me was too smooth. When it became the Christmas No 1, it felt weirdly hollow. I thought: “How on earth are we ever gonna beat this?” But the song has given us 40 years of global success. I had always assumed that I’d end up carrying my belongings through Sheffield in a carrier bag with people saying: “That guy thought he was good in 1980.”

Susan Ann Sulley, vocals

When Philip came over to ask if we’d like to audition, we told him we were doing our A-levels so would have to ask our dads. My dad thought it would be sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, and both sets of parents refused, but we secretly auditioned anyway and then arranged for Philip to come over to meet our parents, but didn’t tell them he was coming until the last minute. He turned up fully made up with red lipstick and high heels, but very businesslike. My dad locked himself in the bedroom and refused to come out. Years later I found out that my grandma told him: “If you don’t go downstairs and give your daughter this chance, she will never forgive you.” And my dad then bundled us over to Joanne’s to persuade her father.

Weirdly, Joanne and I had bought tickets to see the Human League in Doncaster, which turned out to be our first show with the band. We were used to posing on the dancefloor, so just added a bit of singing. We went on tour in a white Transit van, so it wasn’t very glamorous, but I remember staring at the cathedral in Cologne and thinking: “I can’t believe I’m here.” Before we knew it, we were in a huge studio recording Don’t You Want Me. I laid down the female vocal part in the middle of the night.

The video was a take on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was a film about making a film. Duran Duran had shot their Rio video on a yacht in the Indian Ocean – we got a damp evening in Slough. Jo was supposed to be driving a Rover but he couldn’t drive, so he pretended to steer while people behind him were pushing it.

When the song went to the top of the charts in Britain and the US, I thought: “This doesn’t happen to schoolgirls from Sheffield.” If we had expected it would be the Christmas No 1, we might have put bells on. When I hear it on the radio today, I still wish I’d sung it better, but I was an ordinary girl doing her best and I think that resonated. I’ve spent 40 years telling people I never worked in a cocktail bar.

• The Human League’s Dare 40 tour continues until 18 December.