Rolling Stone 13th October 1983
Human League stumbles to the top
BY JAMES HENKE
Phil Oakey is perplexed. The twenty-seven-year old lead singer and song-writer for the Human League can’t, for the life of him, figure out why his group has been so successful in America. “It’s surprising, isn’t it?” the baffled bandleader said. “It’s a continuing source of interest to me just which records will get bought in America and which ones won’t. I’m never quite sure.”
The most recent shock came from the Top Ten showing of “(Keep Feeling) Fascination,” the first single from the Human League’s new mini-LP, Fascination! After all, it was only a year ago that the Human League, a Sheffield-based synthesizer sextet, went from being almost totally unknown in the US, to having a Number One single (“Don’t You Want Me”) and a Number Three album (Dare)
Naturally, Oakey never expected those records to do well either.
"We never had any intention of doing anything in America,” he explained. “We just didn’t think a British group could sell anything in America anymore.”
But, alas, times have changed, and, thanks in a large part to Oakey and the Human League, the U.S. charts are now in the midst of a full-scale assault by Brits. So does Oakey have any higher expectations for “Mirror Man,” the Motown-sounding dance tune that probably will be the second single from the mini-LP?
Of course not. “I don’t know how it will do over there,” he said. “Can you tell me?”
EARLIER THIS SUMMER, A GOOD many music-business observers were just as pessimistic as Oakey about the Human Leeague's chances of ever dominating the U.S. charts again. But for different reasons.
According to various reports, the League was a band in serious artistic trouble. Since recording Dare in 1981 (the album was released in England several months before its appearance in the U.S.), the group had managed to complete only the two aforementioned singles. And after spending five months in the studio with the band, Martin Rushent - the producer who had programmed all the synthesizers on Dare and who many felt was almost totally responsible for crafting the group’s chart-topping sound – had walked out.
“It was taking them a long, long time to write songs, and I was just getting really frustrated,” Rushent had said. “It was getting silly.” According to Rushent, the writer’s block was the result of the group’s succumbing to the preassure of trying to follow up the platinum success of Dare. “People expected them to make Dare II. And they forgot how they did it.”
Sitting on a windowsill in a furnished flat a few blocks from Hyde Park, Oakey, who was in London to work on the group’s next LP, begged to differ with Rushent’s interpretation of the split. “To be perfectly accurate, it did get us a bit. But our biggest surprise was that it got to Martin more than anyone.” Oakey paused and looked over at the Saturday-morning cartoon characters parading across the television screen. “We kept writing songs, and Martin kept saying they weren’t good enough,” he finally continued. “We didn’t agree with him. A lot of the songs were at least as good as the songs on Dare. So if you disagree, what can you say? There was an impasse.”
When Rushent left at the end of January, the League took a break from recording and tried to find a new producer. They finally settled on Chris Thomas, the veteran British knob twister who has worked with everyone from Paul McCartney to the Pretenders and the Sex pistols.
“We made a big list of all the different people who were good producers, and he came to the top because we think he’s very good with vocals,” explained Oakey. “And then when he remixed Fascination!, it turned out that he was just as careful with the instruments.”
Oakey leaned back against the window. On this unusually warm and sunny London morning, he was sporting a couple of days’ growth of beard and was wearing a pair of plain blue jeans and a matching jacket. It was an unusually untrendy look for a man who not only had worn lipstick in the past but who also once donned a apir of ladies’ shoes for an appearance on Britain’s Top Of The Pops TV show. Oakey, it seems, is no longer too concerned with keeping up with being fashionable – either in his dress or in his music.
In earlier interviews, for example, he had expressed his annoyance at the fact that the synthesizer groups that sprang up in the wake of the League’s success.
“Not that they sprang up,” corrected Joanne Catherall, the group’s dark-haired vocalist and Oakey’s girlfriend. (“Don’t You Want Me” is about Joanne, whom Oakey had met while she was “working as a waitress in a cocktail bar”) Up until this point, Catherall and the band’s other female singer, Susanne Sulley, had been unusually silent, busy as they were brewing a pot of tean in the kitchenette.
But they pinched a lot of our ideas,” Catherall continued. “Like getting two girls in. I suppose it’s a formula they know works.”
“But it doesn’t work,” insisted Oakey. “I mean, it’s transparent what they’re doing. I thin everyone can see.”
Even so, the Human League has responded by using guitars and other nonsynthesized instruments on their new material. Wasn’t that a reaction to the other synth groups? “Yeah, completely,” Oakey admitted.
“If we were still in the field on our own, we’d be happy carrying on. But now so many people have taken it, we might as well leave the field and try something else.”
PHIL OAKEY MIGHT TRY SOMEthing else musically, but he would never think seriously about leaving music behind. After all, what else could he do?
“The music business has treated me very kindly indeed,” he said. “I was in serious career trouble before I got into the group.” In fact, Oakey was working as an orderly in a Sheffiled hospital before he joined the first version of the Human League in the fall of 1977, with school chum Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, two computer operators who were interested in electronic muisc. Though Oakey had no musical background, he felt he was as qualified to be in a group as he was to do anything else.
"No one would take me in a laboring job," explained thw short, slight Oakey. "And I was unqualified to get any useful job. So Iwas stuck at the hospital."
As children, Oakey and his three older brothers never spent too much time in one place.Their father was employed by Britain's post office, said Oakey, and "in Britain, they move post-office workers around a lot to show they’ve got power over them.” His mother was a housewife, though she was “always determined to have a job.”
In 1970, the family moved to Sheffield, in Britain’s northern industrial region. There, Oakey did fairly well in school, especially with subjects like maths. But more liberal-arts-orinted topics, like language, literature and art, appealed to him, and when he began to specialize in those areas, he began to flounder. By the time he was seventeen, he’d had enough of school.
The period from 1973 to 1977 was not a productive one for Oakey. He worked in a bookstore for a while, then in the hospital. He also was married for “a couple of years.” But he wasn’t happy, and he knew he was going nowhere. A band sounded like the perfect escape.
The original Human League – which eventually came to include Adrian Wright, a former art student and Star Trek devotee whose main job was to show slides during the group’s performances – was a rather eccentric, seemingly untalented outfit. The main problem was that no one really knew how to play an instrument. (“We were absolute rubbish," Oakey has said) Even so, the idea of an all-synthesizer band had a certain kind of charm during that do.it-yourself, late-Seventies period of British music.
After gaining something of a name for themselves through various local gigs and a couple of independant record releases, the Human League signed a long-term British deal with Virgin Records. Two LPs, Reproduction (which contains what must be the most pitiful rendering of "You've Lost That Loving Feeling" ever commited to vinyl) and Travelogue, followed in 1979 and 1980, respectively.
Understandably, the stark synthesizer noodling and gloomy lyrics on those albums didn't make much of an impact on the record-buying public, and Virgin was beginning to get a little nervous about its investment. The label thought the band should go in a poppier, more commercial direction. The group split down the middle: Oakey and Wright agreed with Virgin, Marsh and Ware didn’t. So the two synthesizer players left to form the British Electric Foundation and its spin-off group, Heaven 17, while Oakey and Wright, who’d retained the the rights to the Human League moniker, set about looking for replacements. (Marsh and Ware didn’t exactly get a bad deal; in exchange for the rights to the group’s name, they received a portion of the royalties from Dare.)
First, Oakey plucked Sulley and Catherall from a Sheffield disco to serve as singers – though neither had had any previous experience and both were only seventeen and still in school. Then, to beef up the musical end of the League, he added Ian Burden, a bass and synthesizer player who had been in such littleknown Sheffield bands as Graph and the Musical Janeens, and, later, Jo Callis, a guitarist who had been the leader of the Rezillos, a quirky British pop group.
The next move was up to Virgin, and the label decided to team the group up with producer Rushent. It proved to be a perfect match. Initially, they recorded a single, “The Sound Of The Crowd”, which became the hit Virgin was looking for, reaching Number Twelve on the British charts. After that, they set about recording Dare.
“It tokk just a few weeks to make Dare,” recalled Rushent. “It was fairly simple, and everyone had a good time, because there was really nothing to lose – no one was expecting anything of the record.”
Not only was the album a smash in England and America, but it also did well in several other countries around the world. That success, however, created another difficulty for the group, which suddenly found itself under a lot of pressure to tour.
“We were rotten,” Oakey said. “We went out as a group that had never played together before. Even when we did the record, we didn’t play together – everybody recorded his part separately. And we had Jo, who is a great guitarist, playing keyboards – and he’d never played keyboards in his life before.”
But despite those dismal live shows, the Human League has not come down with a case of stage fright. In fact, Oakey is eager to get back out on the road as soon as the group finishes its next LP. And this time, he promises, things will be different: “To start with, we’ll try and play in tune and sing in tune.”
“I’VE ONLY EVER BEEN OFFERED drugs once,” chirped Susanne Sulley. “A guy came up to me and said, “Two speed for a pound.” And I said, ’What? ‘What’s speed?’ And cocaine- well, I really wouldn’t know what it looked like.”
Sulley was saying how terrible she thought it was that so many successful rock groups seemed to condone drug use and thereby encourage their fans to do likewise. Naturally, it’s hard to take her comment at complete ly at face value, nut then that kind of ditzy naiveté is part of the charm of both Sulley and Catherall.
Still, it is true that the members of the Human League aren’t your typical rock stars. They’re not part of the London music scene, preferring to live in Sheffield. They say they don’t have many friends and that they’re only close to one another. Basically, they seem so down to earth, so absolutely normal, that they could almost pass for the kid next door. Even Martin Rushent agrees that success hasn’t altered that admirable aspect of the group: “They’re still just as nice as they were when they started.”
That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes brought about by the bands’s success. For one thing, they finally have some money.
“We were still earning thirty-five punds [roughly seventy dollars] a week when ‘Don’t You Want Me’ was Number One in Britain,” said Sulley. And now? “We’re not rolling in money. We still earn a basic wage.”
“Yeah,” quipped Oakey. “A thousand pounds a week – but it’s still a basic wage.”
However much they’ve earned, it’s enough to have enabled Oakey to buy a house in Sheffield to equip it with a twenty-four-track recording studio. “it’s not a mansion, “ said Oakey. “It’s what you in America would call an average house. But it’s bigger than the average house in Britain. It’s big enough for a large family.”
And do Oakey and Catherall have any plans for a family? “No,” said Oakey. “We thought about that, but it didn’t seem to make sense. We’re really fond of each other, so we don’t need anyone else.”
Right now, the group’s main priority is to complete the album with Chris Thomas. Though the band has recorded several tracks, the album doesn’t have a title yet, and several lyrics still have to be written.
Even so, Oakey hopes to have the album out by the year’s end. And if he makes that date, one thing seems certain: he won’t have any idea of ho well it will do in America.