Inspired by a story that the Human League’s Phil Oakley read in a teen-girl’s magazine, Don’t You Want Me is a song not about love but instead a song about two people battling for control. While the song was originally conceived as being a male solo, Oakley made the last-minute decision to turn it into a duet, with Susan Ann Sulley taking on the role of the girl who once worked in a cocktail bar but always knew she was meant for a much better life.
After the song was recorded, Oakley disliked it because he felt that the song’s sound was too “poppy” and he was not happy when Virgin decided to release Don’t You Want Me as the fourth single off of The Human League’s third studio album, Dare! Despite Oakley’s misgivings, Don’t You Want Me went on to become the band’s biggest hit and one of its signature songs.
(As of 2014, Phil Oakley still didn’t think much of the song. In an interview with Classic Pop Magazine, Oakley said, “‘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 music video was shot at a time when MTV was still in its infancy and many people weren’t even sure what a music video was supposed to be. Filmed on a cold, rainy night in Slough, Berkshire, the video featured Phil Oakley as a director and Susan Ann Sulley as the actress who walks out on him during the filming of a murder-mystery. Director Steve Barron used 35mm film, giving the video a richly cinematic look that was unusual for the music videos of the time. Reportedly, Barron was influenced by Truffaut’s Day For Night, which is why the clapper board features the inscription, Le League Humain.
The video not only helped to make the song a hit but it also did the same for MTV itself. At a time when many were still wondering if people would actually watch MTV, the popularity of this video gave them a reason to do just that. The video proved that music videos didn’t have to just be bland performance clips. Instead, like any film, a music video could tell a story of its very own.
Don’t You Want Me was the 1981 Christmas number one in the UK, where it has sold over 1,560,000 copies, making it the 23rd most successful single in the history of the UK Singles Chart. In 2015, in an ITV poll, it was voted the 7th most popular number one single of all time.