Melody Maker 11th October 1986
THE HUMAN TOUCH
Was Crash really a load of old disco cobblers or is there more to it than that? Steve Sutherland travelled to Sheffield, home of THE HUMAN LEAGUE, to discover whether Phil Oakey really has lost that lovin' feeling.
looking handsome again?"
I'm in a Pop God's kitchen in a nice suburb of Sheffield. It was his idea - something about seeing his group as they really are, how they really live. Or, more likely, something about avoiding sitting down to another interview, being asked the same questions, contradicting himself, being caught out.
I'm here because I love his band and...
"We shouldn't be talking to you. You hate us don't you?"
Perverse or what? The first time I met Philip Oakey, four years ago, backstage in Bradford, I adored everything he'd ever done and all he said was "Hard luck"...And now, here I am in his kitchen, on his girlfriend's birthday, sipping champagne ("Not for me, I'm tea-total"... "Ooooh Philip, you liar!") getting on nicely because his album stinks. This is the first time the band have deigned to talk to us for years because a photographer once burst into their dressing room or some cub reporter ignored in them in a restaurant and talked to Devo instead or...
"Oh no. We just think you're Jonahs."
Charm itself. That was Phil talking. This is Susanne.
Phil nods: "Yeah, I keep hearing bad things about Run DMC. A lot of people
told me that single was great
And a lot of reviewers, hungry for an interview after two years' silence, told me I'd like "Crash" but I can't get on with that either. It's an album of almost unadulterated disco drivel. I mean, I have to ask, after the epoch-making "Dare" and the smart-if-safe "Hysteria", whether this is really a Human League album at all.
"Yeah," says Phil. "It says Human League on the front."
But between the grooves it doesn't. Between the grooves it says Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam, the Minneapolis mafia behind Janet Jackson, Cherelle and the SOS band.
"What you're saying is true," says Susanne, a Sheffield Wednesday supporter
boyfriend problems ("My Dad says it's because I talk too much"). Between
discussing whether the guy who
stood her up last Saturday was a hunk or a gorilla, she elaborated: "Jimmmy
and Terry took over far more
And so I say again, where are The Human League? Where's the technology used in a patently untechno manner that once charmed our pants off? Where's that authoritative, almost fascistic voice up front which, without saying much, said everything pop's ever likely to say, big and brash and understated, unafraid to deal with the big ones like love and life and longing? Where's that cute marriage of man and machine, that harmony, that - yes - human element? I don't hear it. Why? Don't they care? Are they lazy? Or maybe, in awe of the Jam/Lewis talent?
"We had a musical difference of opinion," says Susanne. "They wanted to do
something that we didn't agree with, so we thought 'What's the point of us
staying? they're gonna do what they wanna do anyway.'
"We gave them the production," Oakey agrees. "There's no doubt about that, it's their record. That's what I did with the Moroder record as well."
Ah yes, "Electric Dreams" - just Oakey and Giorgio but The Human League through and through.
"But totally different. Every Human League album up to then, I'd been in the
room for every note or
drumbeat that had been recorded whereas, with the Moroder stuff, I wrote all
the words in a week and
sang them in two days, even to the extent that he didn't care if I sang in
tune or not. He said that
the public don't notice and don't mind and he's right.
Talking of Moroder, what about Sputnik, Phil? I'd always reckoned the League had collared post-modernism but the James' gang are even tackier.
"If I think about it intellectually, I've got to admit that I'm totally amazed, it just doesn't sound anything like I'd have expected. It's not well-produced and I'd have thought that, at least, he would have made sure it worked in a disco but I presume it doesn't. (Phil never goes out.) There's no bass in it, is there? Still, I like it. I bought the album."
I come from an era in which production values were way down the list and I naively adhere to the notion that a good song could be recorded in garden shed on a four track and still be brill. Producers in control seemto me an excuse to formularise talent.
"The difference is that Jimmy and Terry see themselves as artists in the
same way as we do," says Susanne.
As confrontations go, this is turning out to be mighty friendly. Indeed, I'd
say The Human League had grown
a mite cynical were it not for their amiable straightforwardness. It's time
I asked the big one.
"I think I do, yeah. I've got to really."
It's out, his name's on it and they'd already recorded an album with Colin
Thurston which didn't work out, so "Crash" was recorded with borrowed money
from Virgin and it's really a case of like it or lump it. Still, Phil
maintains, it's not state of the art or anything, not a final arrival, just
another album, nothing to
"What worries me," says Phil, "is that I think you fall into the Virgin Records way ofthinking about The Human League, which is 'They should carry on doing those great records like "Louise" and "Life On Your Own" and I don't wanna do them records."
Susanne agrees: " I get the impression that you don't want us to be a musical pop group. We've always had this naivety and, as you say, the story-telling bit, the fact that Phil doesn't sing normally and that me and Joanne aren't particularly fantastic singers and the plonking on the synthesizers and everything but, all of a sudden, we're all coming together. We've been doing it for so long together now, me and Joannehave got much better, Philip's singing differently, perhaps that's..."
Hang on. I've never been one to subscribe to camp, to the so-bad-it's-good mentality. It seems to be you've tried to do something DELIBERATELY different.
"Tried to, yeah. The rule is, every Human League song should be good and should be different from every Human League song before," says Phil. "It doesn't matter if it sounds a bit like The Banshees like, say, 'Lebanon' did or a bit like KC, like 'Party' did, I just want people to say about Human League recordswhat they said about The Beatles. They didn't say every Beatles record that came out sounded like 'Paperback Writer' because they didn't. They were all different." Sounds like a recipe for disaster, not playing to your strengths.
"We've put out songs that I don't like."
And I don't like "change" for the sake of it. It's not as good as the rest. I can remember when a Human League release was crucial somehow to the zeitgeist, a reflection of the state of things and a stand for new pop standards. Now you're not even modern anymore.
"We're EXTREMELY modern. That's why people don't like this LP, they've not caught up with us yet. I think it's more modern than people know."
No, you're following fashion, not discerning it, not dictating it. Maybe that's too much to ask...
"You're looking at things as if some sort of decision's made and then we stick to that and write songs that conform to it. That doesn't happen. We just write songs in DESPERATION because we've got to write songs and that's it."
You sound as if you don't like doing it very much.
"I've not liked the way we've worked for the past two LPs, no. We got completely confused and I hope that, seeing the brilliant way that Terry and Jimmy work, will change us."
"Yeah, they get on with it, they don't mess about. If the guitarist isn't in the studio, they play guitar themselves. I think that's a good thing." Susanne stops and puzzles. "Well, I'm not sure, I'm trying to work it out."
"We took two years to write six songs" says Philip, "and that means, if we had hated this LP, what would we have done? We'd have to put it out anyway. That's why I say I think I like it, I HAVE to, I haven't got anything else."
But surely you could have come up with something that expresses desire or dread or even despair - anything but this sound of defeat. "Crash" is so lyrically banal...
"Yeah, it's banal, partly because lyrics are a real problem. I think that
people have four or five beesin their bonnet that they really care about but
we're half-educated enough to say 'I don't wanna do the same
thing twice' whereas you ought to either be completely banal or prepared to
repeat yourself. One of my big
things is people saying 'I want it'. The word 'Want' is the biggest word in
the human language and it's
about everything that everyone does but, now, if Iwrite a record that's got
'Want' in it, I think 'Oh my
God, everyone's gonna say I'm trying to do "Don't You Want Me" again' and I
don't continue. That's occurred
It's hard to believe this of a man who, looking around me, appers to have
such impeccable taste. Okay, so he doesn't like the first "Steptoe" film -
thinks it's cruel. Okay, so he watches "Sorry", rates Ken Dodd
and Jimmy Clitheroe and is keen to build his George Formby collection ("I
can't believe the innuendo in
He, too, has rumbled Frankie Howerd (saw his cue-cards on "Wogan") and yet maintains great admiration for "Up Pompeii", he rides around Sheffield on a bloody ridiculous big motorbike and is well into "The Dark Knight". He even tells me he's got a list somewhere of video cliches The Human League won't use - "Smashing light bulbs, that sort of thing" - so how come, with all this going for him, he's succumbed so willingly to lyrical cliche?
"The lyrics are the last thing that go on and, as far as I'm concerned, they aren't important really, it's the music that's important. Y'know, criticising from a lyrical point of view is like criticising Beethoven because it hasn't got any great poetry in it."
"There WAS one song we recorded that we just couldn't put on the album
though," Susanne admits, "because Jimmy and Terry's lyric was so offensive.
They had the man as the dominating person, the woman
subsurvient blah blah blah and it was so bad that me and Joanne, who were
doing quite a lot of the vocals,
just couldn't have let it go out because it would look as though we
believe in that sort of thing. I agree
JUST a pop song? I can't believe this fronm the band who took "Lebanon" onto "Top Of The Pops". The day you admit pop ceases to matter is the day you
betray all those people who care.
"Who are these people," asks Phil, "and where were they when we brought out 'Hysteria'? You say there's a lot of people but there isn't, there wasn't. I would have presumed that a Human League fan would probably be a Phil Oakey fan but the last single I put out with Giorgio Moroder got to 98! That doesn't smack of hoardes of loyalty out there to me."
You sound bitter.
"No, they're right and I was wrong to think that there ought to be."
You were presumptuous?
"Yes, certainly - until we put out 'Hysteria', we just thought everyone would buy everything we put out."
Will they buy the dumb disco of "Crash"?
"I thought we always made disco albums."
"We always aim at the dancefloor," says Susanne. "'Sound Of The Crowd', 'Love Action', 'Hard Times' were dancefloor hits ages before they were hits in the charts. And, years before me and Joanne joined the group, they always said they wanted to make records like Donna Summer; they just didn't know how to do it."
Philip: "Still don't."
But, in my fondness, I always considered you were doing something with disco, something slightly wicked. Like "Mirror Man" was a brilliant Motown pastiche, affectionate, efficient and cheeky, using its model for its own ends. I don't think you're doing that anymore, I don't think The Human League have survived the deliberate mechanisations of disco.
"We have lost one member of the songwriting team - that could have a lot to do with it. Jo Callis used to blatantly rip things off and he didn't care because he could do it in such a way. This is the first thing we've ever done without Jo." Susanne looks sad.
Adrian Wright's also taken a walk, it seems. An original member, the one who messed with the slides and gave the original League their wacky sci-fi overtones, has just gone missing, presumed retired and yet, on "Wogan", on "Top Of The Pops", the band still looked classic - Oakey imperious and impassioned, the girls slinky and natural as ever.
The look of the League's still a talking point where I come from.
The clothes and everything just come together on the day," says Joanne, being made up for the photo-session. "It's not really thought about - we don't all dash down South Molton Street."
When Joanne and Susanne joined up just before "Dare", plucked from the
obscurity of a local disco and pushed straight into the limelight, The Human
League became about as perfect as any pop group I'm ever likely to swoon
over. They were nervous, no-one could play, the moves were all wrong and yet
they had the SONGS, they
SUCCEEDED - a sexy, smart and exhilarating mix of genius, guts and gumption.
These days, though, the girls resent the role they've been manipulated into.
The wisecrack never came. Philip's too busy arguing with Joanne about her jeans. "They make you look like a SKIN girl from the Seventies."
"If there are any prats to be interviewed by, me and Joanne always get 'em," Susanne continues. "I think they feel as though they can insult us."
"They don't think they're insulting you," Philip interrupts. "They think they're flattering you."
"Yeah, I suppose so. It's really nice now though, me and Joanne being able to go on a radio tour of the Midlands and Yorkshire and people don't say 'Where's Philip, we want to talk to HIM'."
"I don't think that's nice," says Philip. "I don't think that's nice at all." I think it's even harder for men than for women to look different these days.
"Yeah, I'd like to wear more make-up but since Boy George, it's not worth it. He spoiled it, he made it acceptable to grannies, it's neither attractive nor outrageous anymore. There's a lot changed in that seven years. I was just thought of as weird - I don't think anyone thought I was effeminate despite the fact that I wore a ridiculous amount of make-up and had a VERY silly haircut. Now it's just sort of queenified."
We drift into talking about Julian Cope, a man who, through madness or cowardice, traded in his position as crown prince of the early Seventies' new pop dream for the less demanding role of court jester, cult casualty and psychedelic fool. He's on the come-back and Oakey thought he looked great on "Wogan", especially when he ended up spread-eagled on his perch as if crucified. I thought he looked a prat, the typical 30-year-old male's idea of what's good-looking, a real hangover from the Sixties when the tortured consumptive artist look was de-rigeur. I reckon kids of the Eighties find those hollow eyes and cheekbones a daft affectation when half their mates are smacked out and look like that anyway. We argue a little and put it to the girls who, I'm glad to say, agreed with your truly. Susanne says Cope looked druggy and daft and that her ideal man is the hunk who plays guitar in Go West. I'm horrified. I thought she'd say Prince but then everything's so much more NORMAL these days because normality's the only reaction that's new. I this, I wonder, good or bad?
"It's just that I knew what the pop that I went into was for," says Philip.
"It was to help people grow up
What's pop for now then?
Susanne goes into a rant about how the business has ceased to care about acts anymore, record companies now are perfectly prepared to sign up groups, wack out their two best tracks, get a couple of hits and then drop them because there's plenty more in the woodpile. She bemoans the lack of record company support and the reluctance to help groups gtow and develop. I say it's always been that way, that the healthy survive and the process ensures novelty and sometimes, revolution.
"It's exactly the opposite," Phil disagrees. "The new groups coming in are
able to be pressured to fit
Bands like The Human League? Is that your motivation?
"That's so hard to tell now."
"We started out as six people against the world and I miss that. I now feel very lonely in this job."
Why not pack it in then Phil?
"We've no money, we HAVE to make records. We can't do anything else."
Are you still interested in pop? Do you read the gossip columns or anything?
"No. I don't listen to the radio often either."
Don't you think you should?
"Yes, but that's your fault."
Why? Because we're not good enough?
"Yeah, and it's pop music's fault because it's not good enough either. In America it's fascinating, you turn on the radio and you'll hear two or three great tracks in a row but not here."
"It's really strange that the only people who are making decent records are
people who've been around
for 10 or 15 years," says Susanne. "People like Queen, even Bryan Ferry."
Every hit's from a film soundtrack now.
"Yeah, it's all backhanders and dirty little deals. I shouldn't say that
should I? I was on one once." He
grins. "No, there's horrible dirty little deals and you find groups being
managed by people with interests
in films and suddenly groups that have got about as much music in them as
our cat's bum are having Top 10
"There are a few people I like," says Susanne. "I really like Madonna but she doesn't make INSPIRING records does she? They're just great to sing along to in the car..."
Which makes it all the more unforgiveable that you've released...oh hell, we've been all through that. What was the last record you bought?
"The two Five Star albums. I'm so sad we're not gonna be here next Tuesday. I wanted to go and see them but we're in Italy."
"You know their latest single, the one I thought I didn't like? Well, I heard it on the radio this morning and it IS good."
Philip also likes Zapp, Cameo, those couple of Noo Shooz records, the first Sly Fox single, although the follow-up, he says, was terrible. Farley Jackmaster Funk...
"You say we should be interested in music," says Susanne. "Well, I don't know what it's like in London - perhaps there's a more healthy scene - but in Sheffield there's nothing. You can't go to a nightclub and listen to decent music. You turn on the local radio and it's just adverts, you listen to Radio 1 and all you'll hear is Peter Cetera and Huey Lewis 94 times a day."
Philip says it's because there's no competition here, that, in America, the radio stations have to experiment and choose the commercial cuts off an album because they're in combat with one another whereas here, the record company decides.
"That's part of what goes wrong at Virgin - they send the record round and everyone likes the most wimpy Simon and Garfunkel crap that we put on it. No-one wants any of the funky stuff cos they don't know what it is."
As we speak, they're in dispute over the next single. What can they do?
"We don't let them put it out. We don't give in. We can't legally stop them of course but they'd have an empty video and no-one on 'Top Of The Pops'."
Al least the League are dtermined, as always, to do things their own way -
even if it means making
mistakes. For the forthcoming tour, they've recruited a band locally rather
than session men from London.
"We wanna make a scene. If there's anything good we can do, we can start a
Sheffield scene again. I wanna
be able to walk around the centre of Sheffield and be recognised and for
people to look at me and for me to
So you must still care.
"I care much more than ever before," says Susanne, "because I think we've got much more to lose than ever before."
"Yeah, but we've already beaten that," says Philip. "We're here now. The
success of 'Human' and the LP
proves we're here, we've now made it. Up till this point, I've always
thought we might pack it in soon
"Because seven years on, we're still doing it, we haven't given up yet. If no-one had bought this record, I think that would have been in doubt. But enough people have bought it, even though it should have been number one."
"I think money's really only secondary in most of The Human League's minds. We want success and we want to get through to the most number of people and we want to beat all the other creeps who are making those terrible records."
But you won't do that by making terrible records yourselves. I wonder if you know what goes to make a great record?
"If we knew that," says Susanne, "we'd have made enough money to never have to do it again, surely."
Oh, I dunno. You've made a few... "Seconds", "Fascination", "Love Action"...
"Yeahs" says Philip, "we've made a few but that was totally by accident.
What time is it?"