The Face December 1982

PHIL OAKEY

I met up with Phil Oakey one wet Sheffield Wednesday afternoon over coffee and a Tupperware box of assorted Chocolate biscuits, in the Formica-finished kitchen of his newly-rented love nest: a large, modern-ish, housing-estate detached with three bedrooms and a distinct air of suburban respectability. While the paper-thin girls in elegant best frocks looked like mannequins stranded from the pages of Vogue North and waited for their Smash Hits interview, Philip cultivated the casually "at home" look with leather strides, t-shirt, scrubbed face and threatening beard. First we chatted guardedly about THE FACE - Philip used to buy it regularly, always sure it was on the point of collapse, he thought it would make a valuable collector's item. I said we have a lot of faith in him too and we quickly moved on to discuss his passions (Joanne, work, Bucks Fizz…) and his bêtes noir (BEF, Ian Paisley, drunks). Philip answered all my questions with that renowned straightforwardness, occasionally tinged with an unexpected eccentricity - he calls himself dull, he isn't - and then offered me a lift to the station on his motorbike, the famous gift from Virgin Records. A nice gesture, I thought, but then again I was polite enough not to enquire about his nipples.

Lesley White

Lesley: What are you working on at the moment?

Philip: For the last week and a half Ian Burden and myself have been recording 45 seconds of music for an advertisement for a Norwegian newspaper. Steve Barron from Limelight, who does our videos, rang up one day and asked us to do it and we thought "Great, it'll take a couple of days to cobble that together"…that was two weeks ago! In fact it's just like doing a single only you've only got a few seconds to develop things, it's really difficult. Still, it's well paid…Steve said, "there won't be much money in it I'm afraid…only about £1,000". I was amazed, we were willing to just do it for the experience and I thought he was going to say a tenner or something!
I'm surprised a thousand pounds still seems a lot to you.
It is for 45 seconds of music!
Are you buying this house?
No! Don't imagine I'd live in a house like this…I did once before when my parents moved to
Sheffield. Then I got married and lived in quite a nice place with my wife and after that ended it was downhill all the way with increasingly worse places until I ended up living in our studio…a terrible run-down old building with no water. Things have improved slightly.
How true are all the stories about the poverty-stricken days of the Human League?

Completely. For a long time I was getting £31 a week, then it went up to £40. Unbelievable!

How did you get by?
My wife made a bit of money and I had a girlfriend with a job for a time. That's the only reason I survived - I was supported by various women who were good to me.
Do you feel financially secure now, in Human League?
I worry a lot about the future.

You once said in an interview - last summer - that you had £2,000 in the bank and it was more than you'd ever had. How much do you have now?
Quite recently our manager Bob Last gave me and Adrian Wright £5,000 each; well he can't actually have given us it cos we're controlling it aren't we. Anyway, he suggested it because we'd worked in the Human League for three and a half years on very little money and without even a holiday. Then I've still got £3,000 - but that goes up as we get paid.

Do you save it?
No, it's terrible. I don't like going to the bank all the time so I get out £500 a time and put it in my pocket.
You don't walk around with £500 in your pocket?
Yes I do! I'm big and tough and I'm always armed…I'm pretty safe. At the moment I'm carrying a little knife. Because I haven't had money for such a long time I tend to be a bit silly. I walked into Smiths the other day and saw this typewriter that stopped me in my tracks…before I knew what was happening I was walking out with it under my arm, a £150 typewriter and thinking "What am I doing, I'm spending money ridiculously".
Where do you live now?
In this house, we rent it from some people who've gone to America because it's too expensive for us to live in a hotel. Joanne and I are looking for a house to buy at the moment; we found one really nice one that we definitely wanted and then I discovered I had to sign a 25 year mortgage. I got really scared and backed down; Joanne's very annoyed! But it worries me, you see, making such huge commitments because the Human League aren't all that successful a band, however much people build us up. I realised that when we were in America and I was moaning about Soft Cell getting more attention when they'd only had one hit record there - I tend to be jealous at times and malicious to people who don't deserve it - then it hit me that we'd only had one hit too. In fact we followed up "Don't You Want Me" with a single that did absolutely nothing there.

You sound very sensible. How old are you?
I'm 27…not as old as Adam (Ant). But I shouldn't talk about him because he's just been very nice to us. He wanted to start a group called The Men (which was our old name) so our solicitor wrote to his to make things clear. Then we got a phone call from Adam himself saying that he was a great fan of the Human League's and wouldn't dream of stepping on our toes in any way. That was unnecessary but very nice of him.
How has your definition of luxury changed since the early days?
I'm not interested in luxury, I'm only really interested in hard work.
So you work very hard?
No, I don't work particularly hard but it's the only part of my life that means anything to me, I'm not interested in fun at all. It's a big mistake that a lot of people make - they work hard with the idea that at the end of it they'll have enough money to have fun…when they go out they realise something's missing because their work has become much more important. I'm just like that myself.
All added up, this attitude to work and your dislike of drink/drugs and decadence must make for a very puritanical life style…

I'm not puritanical at all, I'm straightforward. Being around the edges of the music business for quite a few years now, I've watched the stupid things people do. I've made my own set of rules, one of which is, if you don't enjoy doing something and it doesn't do you any good, don't do it. There's only one person I know who can drink without being more embarrassing than they are when they're sober and that's Ian Burden. He can drink a pint of Vodka before concerts and you wouldn't know the difference.
Why do you prefer to be based in Sheffield?
We all work here. I just like it. I wasn't born here, haven't been here that long. The girls live here, so does Burden and our studio was here, though that's waiting to be knocked down now. I was born in Leicester, then my parents moved to Birmingham, then Sheffield - because my father worked for the Post Office he moved around.
What's the place like?
I don't know, I never go out at night. I go to the pictures very occasionally, that's all.
What was the last film you saw?
Blade Runner. I liked it very, very much, which surprised me because Philip K. Dick is my favourite author. The visual effects of that film were stunning. I want to get my lipstick done like that bird in it, Rachael, with the full lips. I'm trying to look like her, but my five o'clock shadow makes it difficult!
Did you feel displaced by ABC's rise to fame as the new Sheffield pop group?
Yes I did for a week or two, but I had to admit they make good records. Martin Fry and the rest of ABC are clever enough to know they've got to form some kind of image but they're in much the same boat as us; you know it's got to be done but you don't know how to do it, it's a real problem. I think ABC's look has become resented much more than the music; they look a bit like they've just walked out of C&A - which is better than looking like Stiff Little Fingers, I suppose.
Do you think that by limiting your exposure in the media you can avoid becoming unfashionable?

Well, that's the general idea, it might be wrong, it's yet to be proved. A lot of people might well be surprised when our next single "Mirror Man" does less well than they expect. Everyone is saying to us quite blithely at Virgin and Genetic "Oh, don't worry they've not forgotten about you", but it's a fast turnover business in this country and a lot of bands that got popular after us have disappeared already. Like Haircut 100 - they were one of the few groups we didn't like. We hated the lad-next-door image. We're all vaguely towards rock and roll, especially Jo Callis - he's a real old rock 'n' roller and he thinks that pop stars should look like people you'd be scared to let your daughter go out with. I tend to agree.
Have you got a nucleus of old friends here?

I haven't got any friends that aren't in the group; I've never had friends I didn't work with. I'm very private and territorial, I don't like people entering the sphere I'm in apart from my girlfriend. Anyway, the Human League are such a reliable lot. When the first group split up and we had to think very hard about things, I knew there was one person I could really trust and that was Adrian. I wanted to carry on working with him, he wanted to carry on with the Human League, so that's what we did.
What kind of things annoy you?
People who vote for the SDP. But I don't know why that's so bad on reflection, if politics has got to be showbusiness you might as well give it to competent showbiz people like David Owen.
Are you a political person?

No, I don't know much about it at all, I wish I did. I always wanted to join the Labour Party, I never quite got around to it. It seems like their ideas are the sensible ones: get things improving, but do it so you don't offend too many people, because things will get better and they are getting better all the time.
Under Thatcher?

No…I mean, they were until she came along. Talking of things political, I had a dream about Ian Paisley last night: I was giving him a good telling off but eventually he persuaded me to his point of view.

What do you think of the situation in Northern Ireland?
I love the Irish people, I've always worked with them in hospitals etc., and the best concert we ever played was in Belfast. Of course it's terrible that people are blowing each other up but who am I to disagree with a cause that people are willing to die for?

You're reputed to exert very strict control over everything the Human League puts out. How much control do you actually have?

As much as we want…apart from where America's concerned. We were sold down the river to America by Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Records. I'm still thinking up a plan to get back at him.

What happened?

We didn't understand it in the contract but he had the absolute right to sell us to anyone he wanted. He signed us to A&M behind our back. A&M sold "Love



 

Action" - a song I wrote about Joanne - for use in a crummy sex film called The Last American Virgin. I was so totally offended I took them to court…and won, I think. As soon as I discovered what had happened, I sent A&M a telex saying, "How dare you sell our songs like a porn magazine. Stop. I am totally disgusted with you. Stop. Again. Stop.". It was so over the top I thought they'd have to react immediately. The next day I got a telex saying, "We're not sure what you're talking about. Maybe your manager could explain".

What is your relationship with Bob Last, the League's manager?

It's difficult to keep him in check because a lot of the time you can't find him. It's a little battle all the time. I don't think he's ever liked surrendering being the big man…he had his own company, Fast Product, with a lot of less successful bands and he always thought one of them would be as big as the Human league are now but that takes away his power to tell us what to do. Suddenly, we're more important than he is. With his other bands - like The Gang of Four - he could do things his way. He didn't actually believe we'd be the band to provide him with real success, he thought Heaven 17 would.

That's a joke!

It wasn't at the time. I think he still works with them…we're always trying to stop him. But it's difficult to know exactly what Bob's up to.
I read somewhere that you're obsessed with control over the way the Human League is presented, even to the extent of "interfering with the music press".
It's a tricky one this…It's like you're sitting here and I've got a beard and I look a mess. I ride around on my motorbike a lot and you have to look a mess for that! But that's not the Human League, a picture of the Human League has a bloke in it with make up and dressed more interestingly. It's all done to a set of very strict unwritten rules, right down to the fact that a front cover of a Human League record will say Human League across the top and there will be a picture of all the members of the Human League in it. That is correct, anything else is incorrect.
What's the worst thing that's ever been written about you?
If you deal with the Sun you're written about in their way - we made the mistake of thinking that publicity in the Sun would sell us more records. Didn't you read what my wife said? In the course of a double page spread she said that "he never wanted to have sex", which related to the bust-up, and she said "Phil was the best lover ever". Both of which statements are irrelevant. But even your best friends, they'll only remember the bit in the article that insults you sexually. Still, it gave me a good excuse to stop talking to her.
What's the nicest thing that's ever been written about you?
I was very pleased that we got in Vogue.
Does songwriting ever suffer from these meticulous concerns with the Human League as an organisation?
But that's what I like doing! After the split we were told we had to make a new album and I could sing a bit, but couldn't play keyboards and Adrian couldn't do either. We decided at this stage to do three singles to test the reaction of the public. The third single went to number three! We just did a few songs that became "Dare", we never set out to do an album. This time round we did set out to do an LP and had a very bad session down at Martin Rushent's studio where we did three songs we threw away because we got so confused. Martin thought they didn't work. Everyone was so confident, whereas before they'd been so tentative. Suddenly we were a band that had got a number one in the States…but we just weren't coming together. No-one would compromise or allow other people to work on their songs - I was the worst! Now we're trying to find a new way of working together.

What do you think of Martin Rushent?

Strangely enough I think he's fabulous. He's one of those modern guys who wants you to think all he cares about is money. He's always going on about how his business does this or his company does that and he doesn't care about people. Then he turns up at the hotel with his wife and kids. He doesn't go anywhere without his kids, this hard man.
Did it really take Rushent to make the Human League?

Yes…then Burden and Callis.

There was a rumour that you were going to work with Quincy Jones…

Shall I tell you why we did that? It was just to worry Martin, so he might reduce his rates, but it all worked out in the end anyway.
Are the new songs different?

All successful songs are the same really, aren't they? You have to have a good vocal line and lyrics that stir something inside people with an instrument that can support that, but basically it's about communication - being able to listen to a record and say "I know exactly what Barry Gibb meant when he wrote that line".

How do you feel about your voice?

I like it better on the new single than ever before. I've never had a single singing lesson and I need some. The girls go and if I weren't so lazy I'd go with them.

Do you see your pop music as an art form?

On a record we care about we'll fight each other to the point of walking out. We won't do anything cheaply or wrong and after all that the best you can hope for is three weeks at number one and two months later everyone's forgotten the record. I sometimes wonder why we work so hard because pop music in Britain is throwaway. In America they care much more about records.

What do you mean?

Soul records do better than they do here, but they never get to number one. It's nice that the best soul group in the world are British - Imagination. I remember we were in a limo in New York going round doing the radio stations and our driver was an ultra-cool black guy, you could tell he thought we were just a weedy limey group with synthesizers. Then Imagination came on and he said this is real music and I said "Yes, they're British, you know." It was fabulous.

You've often proclaimed your hatred of hippies, what's that about?

It's because I actually was a hippy and got let down by it. I don't know what age I was in 1967 but I thought "this is great, no-one's going to have to work that doesn't want to, there'll be no racism, we're finally putting things right". All the people that were hippies then are now the worst kind of businessmen.

Are you happy now?

Yes I am for the first time, but I've been in this business long enough to see lots of new bands come along thinking they're going to be the next big thing and then it gets taken away from them. I wasn't going to take it seriously enough to be hurt if it disappeared. Look at what's happened to Altered Images, it's an evil business.

If you could bring someone back from the dead, who would it be?

It would have to be Philip K. Dick.

Have you made enemies in the music business?

Apart from BEF, I don't think so. We've made a point of not slagging people off and keeping our opinions to ourselves. If you badmouth someone and they get a top ten record you look like an idiot.
What do you do to relax?
I go out on my bike, see the occasional film and I've got two video machines. We stay at home.

Are you going to marry Joanne?

I don't know, I think I've asked her. Have I asked her? I don't think she wants to because she doesn't think I'm a very good risk because I've been married before. I believe in marriage, you have to, don't you? Well, you do if you've been married before.
No, you might well have been completely disillusioned.

I suppose it's true that you don't need a piece of paper but when it comes down to it I'd want to get married so Joanne won't run off, though it had the opposite effect in my first marriage.

Do you want kids?

I don't know; I think they're great, but I don't know if I could cope with them all the time. I love Martin Rushent's kids, but they really wear you out, they're completely out of control: you can't tell them what to do, Martin being who he is.

Do you go to gigs?
Only if it's friends like Bucks Fizz.

Do you consider the Human League to be a showbiz band like Bucks Fizz?

I'm not even sure that they are. I can't have an objective judgement of them anyway, they're such good friends and not at all the prats you'd expect them to be. We met them at the time of "Sound Of The Crowd" when they had a number one, that would have been a good enough reason for them to snub us, but they didn't. We went to see them and it was the best show I've seen for ages and afterwards I said to Bobby "You must be a professional dancer" and he said "No, mate, I was a bricklayer".
What's the difference between the Human League and Bucks Fizz?

I don't really know what the difference is between us.
Does being in the Human League put a great strain on your relationship with Joanne?

It puts a lot of strain on Joanne, but it doesn't do me any harm. People we work with every day, people that should know better still assume that she goes everywherewith me and can't even manage an interview on her own. That really gets her back up, people refusing to treat her as an individual.
Was it love at first sight?

Yes, it was. The moment I set eyes on her in that disco I knew she was for me. I knew there was trouble brewing.

What do you think of fashionably radical sexual politics?

I'm not interested, in fact I'm not very interested in sex at all, it's boring. The next time the Daily Mirror asks me about my sex life, I'll say "Go next door, there's a bloke there who's 50 and he does the same as me, oddly enough." Sex was built up a few decades ago and it's just about to fall to bits.

What question are you surprised at never being asked in an interview?

I'm always shocked that no-one ever asks me to explain specific references in my lyrics because they're so personal and enigmatic. Like no-one's ever asked me who "the old man" in the chorus of "Love Action" is. In fact it's Lou Reed and "I Believe In Love" was a song of his I really liked.