Rolling Stone 8th July 1982
Human League's pop dreams
By Kurt Loder
NEW YORK CITY
NOW, These are thethings that dreams are made of: a soft spring night in Manhattan, luxurious lodgings at he Helmsley Palace, a late supper at the nearby Brasserie. Ah, the sudden pleasures of having both an album and a single bulleted toward the top of the U.S. pop charts. Between gulleting down iced Little Neck clams and sucking appreciatevely at the Brasserie's bulbous tropical drinks, the six members of the Human League, England's hottest new pop group, pause to contemplate their glittery good fortune - and their precarious past.
"Until recently, we were each scraping by on forty-three pounds a week," says Phil Oakey, 26, the band's cofounder and lead singer.
"I was on
thirty-three," sniffs singer-dancer Joanne Catherall, sitting, as always, at
Oakey dismisses these twitters of insurrection with a grump: "You should've paid us for educatin' ya." JoanneGives him an affectionate poke in the ribs. But Oakey does have apoint. Eighteen months ago, both girls were still in school and working nights as a coktail waitress in a provincial disco in Sheffield. Oakey spotted them there on a particularly propitious evening: the original Human League - a more artsy-electro aggregation than the current one - had just split up, leaving Oakey and Adrian Wright, another original member, with the rights to the group's name and little else. It might have seemed the end of a very short road, but Oakey chose to look upon it as a new beginning. And now, with the smashing transatlantic success of the Human league's hit-filled Dare LP - and of "Don't You Want Me", the first single culled from it - his faith in the eternal pop verities has been vindicated. None of this has gone to his head, though.
"It's worth remembering that we were absolute rubbish in the early days," he says earnestly. "We were a rotten group, making rotten records, looking terrible onstage and boring people to death."
Oakey was an operating-room attendant back in 1977, when he first hooked up with two fellow Sheffieldians, computer operators Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. At the time, Ware and Marsh were futzing around with "a sort of a band" called the Dead Daughters, and when the group fell apart, they asked Oakey, one of the band's few admirers, to join them. Inspired by the do-it-yourself ethos of the then-regnant punk movement, the trio moved some low-budget synthesizer and recording equipment into Marsh's apartment, jury-rigged a "studio" and started putting their song ideas on tape. Neither Marsh nor Ware was particularly adept on keyboars, and, says Oakey, "After a while it became really obvious that I couldn't play a syntheiszer at all. I was worse than they were."
Perseverance paid off, however. Thye played their first gig at a local art college and there encountered Adrian Wright, a former art student himself and a Star Trek fanatic with an extensive collection of slides of Spock and company. Totally lacking in the visuals department, the nascent band quickly recruited Wright to dress up the act with his slides.
Originally called the Future, the group swiped the name Human League from one of the contending teams on a Star Force video game and, in 1978, signed with the independant Fast Records. Although tending stylistically toward the starkly electronic, they built a songwriting reputation with such sides as
"Electronically Yours", "Circus Of Death", "Being Boiled" and "The Dignity Of Labour." They also acquired an avant-electro reputation that still puzzles Oakey.
"We were always electronics consumers, not electronics experts," he says. "I'm the best electronics expert who's ever been in this crew - I used to go round after the others and put the wires back in the plugs where they'd not screwed them in properly. We were that bad."
Although inspired by Kraftwerk and by producer Giorgio Moroder's synth-driven
work with Donna Summer, the original Human League never aspired to be
work with Donna Summer, the original Human League never aspired to be musical technocrats. "Right from the start," says Oakey, "all we ever wanted to be was a pop group. We wanted to have a Number One record. We wanted to be like the Beatles."
And they delivred the goods after signing with Virgin Records for their British debut album, 1979's Reproduction, and its 1980 followup, Travelogue. Critics raved, but Oakey was unhappy: since none of the band members could actually play, in the traditional, rock-virtuoso sense, they had come to realy heavily on prerecorded backup tapes for their live shows. Oakey felt this was hishonest, and in October 1980, after a concert in New York City, the band broke up.
Ware and Marsh moved on to form a pop entity called the British Electric Foundation (which spawned a group called Heaven 17). Oakey, faced with fulfilling some already signed European tour contracts with the Human League, quickly recruited bassist and synthesizer player Ian Burden from a Sheffield band called Graf, and then went in search of some sort of vocal backup to replace the melliflous Ware. When he spotted Joanne and Susanne in the disco that night, he just knew they were right. But had they ever sung before?
"School plays," Susanne
chirps, siphoning off the last of her pina colada.
The key, you see, is somgwriting. "That's one of the big differences between us and the the majority of electronic groups," says Oakey. "They expect their synthesizers to write the songs for them. People in Britain think we're very new and outrageous, whereas in fact, we're very, very old-fashioned. We're a pop group; just forget that we're using synthesizers."
So maybe the Human League's not
so new, but they are young and fresh and free of preconceptions about rock's
"I thought Jim Morrison
died quite a long time ago, didn't he?"
Joanne shoots him a
quizzical look. "Well, de did, didn't he?"