The Face December 1982
|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: What are you working on at the moment?
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!
Completely. For a long time I was getting £31 a week, then it went up to £40. Unbelievable!
How did you get by?
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?
Do you save it?
You sound very sensible. How old are you?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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".
I don't really know what the difference is between us.
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.
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.