NME 3rd October 1981
TRUE, DARE KISS OR PROMISE
Phil ladles on the Max Factor and Joanne and Suanne tell Lynn Hanna how they made The Human League an electro-pop success. And everybody bitches behind one another's back...
Life, states Phil Oakey, settling into an armchair in the tacky splendour of a seedy hotel lounge, “has been a constant series of disappointments to me ever since I joined the group.
“Let’s be honest, I thought we’d do it with our first single. I thought ‘Being Boiled’ would be Number One. Then ‘The Dignity Of Labour’ came out and I thought, well, I know it’s a bit unusual, but it might just get to Number One.”
“Then you got us,” Suzanne says from the other side of the table. “And you got to Number 12, then Number Three, twice. What more could you want?”
We knew we were going to be a top group two years ago,” continues Philip, ignoring this interruption. “Definetely. We’d got all the names trademarked so people coulnd’t rush out and make T-shirts because we were going to be so popular, instantly. Then we just sat around and waited for people to buy the records.”
“And they didn’t,” says Suzanne.
This time around, the Indian summer of 1981 has seen a bright British electro-pop explosion. Already stirring up the stagnant charts is the serene teen-pop of Depeche Mode and the electro-glide of Soft Cell. Still waiting on the sidelines are Pete Shelley’s fresh surge of homosapian love, the smoother electro-glide of Thomas Leer’s ‘Four Movements’, the sensual, cerebral dancefloor funk celebration and stimulation that is the very wonderful Heaven 17.
Pushing to the top of the chart pile, setting the scene with ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ for the insuating success of ‘Love Action’ is the hopeful hit-machine of the regenerated Human League.
And all this after the old League split up last year into the BEF/Heaven 17 formation and Phil Oakey and Adrian Wright were left holding the name, the slides and the haircut.
“I thought then we might easily blow it completely,” admits Phil. “I agreed with everyone else. I thought we were the ones without the talent as well. But it’s possible to have too much talent. And worse, it’s possible to have too much talent and think you have even more talent than that.
“I think if we’ve got anything, it’s the fact that we can spot the things that we’re bad at. We’ve always needed someone like Ian Burden; ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’ is his song. I’m quite good on words and tunes, but we’ve never had anyone who was really good at rhythms and basslines.
“Jo Callis fits in anywhere he possibly can – if you don’t stop him. He’s the world’s most energetic human being. The problem is to shut him up really. He doesn’t stop from when he wakes up to when he goes to sleep, which is about five in the morning. He can do anything. He’s the best keyboard player in the group, which is quite good whnen you consider he’s not a keyboard player. No-one who can play with thw hands has ever been in our studio before. He’s great is Jo. I’m glad he’s not here.
It would be really nice if we needed anything to have someone in the group who could do it. I think we’ve just about got it, now, one of everything.”
Now we are six
I catch up with Jo Callis and Ian Burden in the civilised setting of a Chelsea pub, opposite the small studio where the rest of The Human League are supervising the mixing of a backing track for a forthcoming TV slot. Jo is small, pale, bouncy and ferret-faced with an endaring habit of punctuating his conversation by chuckling happily to himself. In stark contrast, Ian is tall, dark, slowmoving and soft-spoken. By coincidence, both spent their childhood moving round the country with fathers who were in the RAF.
Ina, whose girlfriend shared a house with Phil Oakey in Sheffield, joined the League in the week that Phil and Adrian spent recruiting new members between the old splitting and setting out on a European tour to fulfil contractual obligations. Jo, who finally ended up in Edinburgh, has followed a more circuitous route through The Rezillos, Shake and early Scottish pop-funk exponents Boots For Dancing.
Jo’s own league connection came through a common manager in Fast Product’s boss Bob last and was strengthened by a keen shared interest in ‘60s childhood esoterica with League slide supreme Adrian Wright.
“When I met him, the first thing he did was open his wallet and show me two Thunderbirds bubblegum cards with the words of this song he’d written. Three years later we finished it.”
Jo’s past pop connections and Ian’s rhythm sensibilities have consolidated the League’s new commercialism and both now form an integral part of the complicated songwriting permutations.
“You’re talking to the Nile and Rodgers of The Human league here,” asserts Jo jovially.
“Listening to the old human League was like listening to electronic music, but now when I hear a Human League record, it sounds like a pop record that just happens to have all been done on synthesizers and electronically.
“I think what’s good about The Human League compared to Depeche Mode or Soft Cell, is that they’re just electronic bands who are fashionable at the moment. With The Human League, obviously there is the fashion and image thing, but I think that at any stage in their development, they’ve never been dependent on any current trend. In many respects it’s taken all these other groups three years to catch up with them.”
How do you all get on as a group?
“It’s horrendous, like a love/hate relationship. This is defientely the strangest combination of people I’ve ever worked with. It’s like people have been picked up on the way, ending up with this bizarre conclusion. Well, it’s not the conclusion, maybe in two years Suzanne will be the lead singer or something.”
“Everyone’s different,” adds Ian. “No little alliances ever form.”
“Part of The Human League concept is that no one knows what everyone else is doing at any given point in time,” says Jo. “It’s that random element that adds the vital spark.”
By now the story of how Phil Oakey recruited Joanne and Suzanne in a Sheffield disco is already semi-legendary in the hallowed annals of The Human League story.
“He wanted a tall black singer and he got two short white girls who couldn’t sing,” explains Suzanne.
Pausing only to take a month off school where both were studying for four A-levels each, the girls set off on tour and embarked on a pop career.
“Don’t ask me what my exam results were, please,” groans Joanne. “They were highly disappointing.”
Were they previous fans of The Human League, I wonder?
“Well, we’d bought tickets to go and see them in Doncaster, I mean we’d got ‘Travelogue’ and the singles on tape.”
Ask what they feel they add to the group and Joanne replies frankly, “Glamour. Definetely glamour; stuff that gives it a more saleable quality. We’re here to sell it.”
On the other hand both are lively, forthright 18-year olds with a dry, canny Yorkshire wit, a sharp sense of humour and pronounced opinions on what they like in pop.
“When we went on tour we didn’t know anything about the music business, we were still at school. We’ve been learning, picking up tips, listening to what people say. It’s no good jumping in at he deep end and saying. ‘I think this should go on the record’ when you don’t know anything about it. But if we got an opinion, we’re not pushed out.”
What was your idea in getting girls in, Phil?
“I think women are going to take over almost everything at the end of the centuary. I don’t think it’s a man’s world any more. For a little while it will be, but it’s just about finished, don’t you think so?”
Joanne and Suzanne were originally ardent Gary Numan fans who both dressed alike in black, although they’ve since developed their own stage, mainly through shopping second-hand stores.
“We’re trying to be individual in the way we dress and dance says Joanne. “You want people to know what you are.”
Joanne stops suddenly.
“Am I sounding like Steve Strange?”
“Everybody says you should dance the same, but we won’t. If we stood there
and did a routine, it wouldn’t be ourselves.”
“I think it works that anyone can do what they want really,” says Suzanne. “If anyone comes in and says, ‘Oh no, you can’t, that’s not your role in the group.”
“Everyone’s supposed to be an individual ,” states Joanne. That’s what this group is, a set of individuals.”
We are family
The Human League are an exotic and incongruous spectacle in the tawdry afternoon emptiness of the Bayswater hotel. The girls are in black, red and gold clothes, colourful paint and powder, bright tights and precariously high heels.
In their midst Phil Oakey reclines in an armchair, resplendent in bronze face-powder and black eye-liner, the haircut scraped severely back from his forehead and wearing a dark, wide-lapelled suit that seems to have a split in the seat of the trousers. Adrian Wright stands out by virtue of the ordinariness of his appearance, sombre jacket, faded jeans, pointed suede shoes and a calm, cynical manner that contrasts the mayhem created by the other three members of the group who the hotel porter views from time to time with some consternation.
We rejoin the scene as Adrian and Joanne return to the circle around the coffee table after posing for a photo-session.
“You’ve combed your hair, Adrian,” cries Philip immediately in wheedling and irritating tones.
Adrian refuses to fall for the bait.
“No I haven’t, he replies evenly.”
“You have, I can tell,” crows Philip.
Adrian appeals to Joanne. “Did I comb my hair?”
“No, he didn’t,” she states seriously.
Philip is already closely questioning Suzanne.
“Look at that hair. Does it look combed?”
“It must have been the photos. We were doing steamy shower shots,” says Adrian, slyly.
Philip bitches back. “In your leather jacket and jeans?”
It’s gratifying to see that the girls give as good as they get in the confusing cut and thrust of The Human League’s conversation and the complex internecine system of point-scoring where disagreement is de rigeur.
Philip is at pains to point out, several times, the split lip he alleges he suffered at the hands of Suzanne only this morning on the train from Sheffield, although beneath the pure sheen of his lipstick no scar is visible.
“I hadn’t done anything,” he complains in an aggrieved voice.
“You did,” says Joanne. “You tried to push her through a window.”
“That was after. At some stage I thought, ‘I’ve got to fight back.”
“I decided that after last December when she hit me the first time,” Adrian observes with morose Yorkshire satisfaction to no-one in particular.
“Ooh, Adrian,” pouts Suzanne reproachfully.
“It’s a good job me and Adrian are nice and quiet to calm these two down, “ Joanne confides.
“You quiet, don’t give me your innocent look,” cries Suzanne.
Joanne smiles serenely.
The same problems arise at many points during the afternoon’s discussion. While Philip or Adrian are expounding pet theories, the girls will make covert winding-up gestures or pull bored faces behind the boys’ backs, gazing at the ceiling with feigned innocence whenever a suspicious glance flickers their way.
Like any group who’ve transcended a cult following, The Human League have incurred some wrath in Sheffield, it seems, from faithful followers who are now forced to share a private appreciation with a wider public.
Suzanne: “The only reason they think we’ve gone commercial is because there’s two girls joining and it’s, “They’ve gone like Bucks Fizz, ‘that’s what they’re saying.”
Adrian: “But even our commercial songs don’t sound as if they’re selling out, they still sound like us. It’s not as if we’ve become The Acrhies all of a sudden.”
Suzanne: “No, but we’re in the same league as them now.”
Adrain: “No, we’re not. We’re just bracketed that way.”
Philip: “I hope we are.”
Adrian: “I’d rather be like Abba.”
Joanne: “What’s the difference?”
Adrian: “There’s a lot of difference. Abba are very good at writing songs. There’s hit records and there’s wonderful hit records. I’d rather be compared with Abba.”
Joanne: “(Dreamily and pursuing a private train of thought) Bucks Fizz are nice people.”
Philip: “We went out to dinner with a couple of them in Sheffield last week. They were really nice.”
Joanne: “Just like us.”
Philip: “Well, they weren’t just like us. They were really nice. Just like me.”
We have the technology
Although Philip will attribute the commercial disappointments of the old League to the fact that the group had a pariah, an unlucky symbol – “It was Martin, he breaks lightbulbs by walking near them and synthesizers and hi-fis. He’s got the jinx. Pity really, ‘cos he’s very talented” – one of the factors in the new League’s success is undoubtedly their collaboration with Martin Rushent and the hi-tech opportunities of his rural Berkshire studios.
“It’s difficult to tell what difference it made. Probably a great deal. He’s brilliant at what he does.”
“He’s a master of his equipment,” adds Adrian.
“And a lot of the old Human League records did sound like a lot of blokes in a eight-track studio in Sheffield.”
“It’s his attitude,” says Philip. “A lot of people I’ve worked with won’t take any little dodges to get around something and make it easier. If something could be played by hand, they’d say, “Keep doing it, you’ll do it eventually,’ and you’d end up wasting six hours, whereas Martin just feeds it through the computer. At every stage, he always goes for the easiest way of getting the best idea down.”
Despite the fact the League fight shy of revealing future plans for fear of encouraging grandiose ideas that may then fall flat, at some stage they plan to release an instrumental LP and, of course, more of their colour-coded pop records.
“Red for poseurs,” says Suzanne.
“For Spandy types,” Joanne explains.
“And for blue Abba fans,” finishes Philip.
The Human League are determined not to succumb to the temptation of talking about Heaven 17 – “It’s like when you fall out of love with a boyfriend and you slate him to everyone because you’ve been so close,” says Joanne. “It’s really trivial. It shouldn’t happen.”
However, it’s obvious that comparisons rankle.
“There’s the swing against us, which at the moment is being shown in Heaven 17 reviews,” asserts Philip. “There’s this thing about how we’re not divergent and that we’re only writing pop songs which makes us less worthy. That annoys me. We’re writing pop songs because we want to and at the moment we can shelve everything else. I don’t think we’re selling out because that’s part of what we want to do. At the moment it makes a lot of sense to write the best pop songs we can.
“When we were doing the album, we considered everything as a single, because that’s the sort of LP we like, the Blondie LPs and Michael Jackson. I’ll buy an album with five singles on it because those are the ones I want to hear.
“In the long term, so long as you’re writing good songs, you’ve got it made. It doesn’t matter what you look like, someone will sing them somewhere, someone will want to hear them. I think that’s really what it’s all about.”
And who could argue with that?