NME 20th September 1986

FLESH AND BLOOD

Born to make mistakes? THE HUMAN LEAGUE, CLASS of '81 veterans, saved Phil Oakey from a life on the bins. Jon McCready talks to the main mortal about life with Moroder, Jam & Lewis, and the survivors of 'Crash'. Oakey corralled by CINDY PALMANO

I'M LATE. Stuck inside a taxi crawling through London's lunchtime push and shove. And I'm nervous. What do you say to the man who is on first name terms with the canteen ladies at Top Of The Pops? A pull-out-pin-up poster star who made records that made school discos pop? A man who sported bold stripes of blusher and won the love and hatred of a dancing, lager-swilling generation? A boy named Philip who might have made a Phillipa had it not been for those Irn-Bru shoulders? A man who had his nipples pierced and lived to tell the tale? A star-struck fool who wants to do it all again?

You start with a hello.
Philip Oakey is 30 years old. He wears a suit and an open-necked shirt the like of which would never sit on your shoulders without the good grace of a finance company. He looks as normal as a pop person, with access to designer daftness, could look. The eye make-up jars. It dates him (about 1982) and it's unnecessary. But there are pictures to be taken and Philip is concerned that he should look 'good'.

He nods casually, dealing with a mouthful of shrimp sandwich in this Habitat-blank London room. Joanne and Susan, who together with Philip and some other boys make up a group called The Human League, are not here.

They don't want to talk to you. There was something in MNE. Something about having other people singing on the LP in place of them. It implied they weren't good enough. Well, I'm not doing all the male singing on the LP. Ian Burden's not doing all the bass and Jim Russell's not doing all the drumming but there weren't any attacks on the boys. It's like, pick out the girls and have a go at them. The musos have never liked them, they've never understood them. There's no one sounds like Joanne and Susan. They make it a Human League record."
That's sad I say. Joanne and Susan are precious to the Human League. They are a pair of diamante walking sticks for Philip. They would have stopped him from revealing too much. They would have shouted, "Keep Feeling Fascination!" when Philip went all Ian Penman on me.
The room is empty and quiet. I remember what I came for.
I start asking why? Why do you want to do it all again? Why are you hear fluttering your artistic eyelashes at those with cash to spare? Why are you risking your dignity, risking grazed knees trying to jump back on the pop roundabout?

There are some answers but they're far too cautious and suspicious to be of any interest to a seasoned nosey-bastard like you. Or me. The words are huddled in twos and threes. Why are you so defensive Philip?
"It's because you're asking awkward questions already. I've been doing radio all morning. I'm not ready for this."
I feel flattered, but we're not getting anywhere. What do radio interviewers want to know? What do they ask?
"How did you make such a great record? I like that one. What were Jimmy and Terry like? What's it like sounding like the S.O.S. band now?"
Do you prefer those sorts of questions?
"Er…yes…I'm never quite sure what you lot are after."
I explain that I'm after something special, a little bit of soul for some cheeky amateur psychology. He laughs and well he might.
So why do you do these things?
"I'm always willing to talk to someone who's worth talking to…and it's a very flattering situation. You've got someone listening to you and taking you seriously for two hours."
Do they really take you seriously, Philip?
"Well it seems that they're doing so.
At the time.

The Human League, once a household name like Domestos or Sting have released an album called 'Crash'. Philip hopes it will help them jog household memories. He looks worried when he talks about it.
He should be smiling because it really isn't that bad. 'Crash' has a song, now the single 'Human', which he describes as "the best thing since 'You've Lost That Loving Feeling' - only my singing spoils it". I can only agree.
'Crash' was produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. When the world was singing 'Don't You Want Me?' Jimmy and Terry were nothing more than a pair of Purple courtlers. Now they are more famous than The Human League but such is pop.
Let's start with the serious questions. So, Philip, what was it like working with Jimmy and Terry?
"They're really nice guys. You wouldn't believe how nice they are - total gentlemen. Terry, especially, is like me. He doesn't go out to clubs and stuff and he saved me from doing those things while we were in Minneapolis. I got very close to him…"
I can see that Philip's got something on his mind.
"…but I'm sorry we all parted the way we did. There was a disagreement over us wanting to play on things where Jimmy and Terry didn't want us to."
'Crash' is a record by The Human League. Why did you allow that to happen?
"It was difficult. We sort of had a go at saying no."
And what was the result of that?
"We left Minneapolis and they finished off the LP without us…As I said, it was difficult because I'm a big fan of theirs. I can't say there's one song they've ever done that I don't like. That was the problem from the start. Normally when you make a record there's a lot of push and pull. You say 'Take that off, I don't like that, we don't do that actually, that's not Human League' that's the one that really gets them…You push and pull a bit.
"We didn't do that so when we had this argument it was big because we hadn't had any practise for it. It was serious. I could have wept that day. I was going off in the taxi and the last thing Terry did was to put his arms around me and hug me. I was very, very close to crying. I don't think that it would be like that now. I've talked to them on the phone since and they're great."
So will there be another 'Crash', another collaboration?
"I'd like to think so, But we've tried to work with people again - with Colin Thurston after the first LP, with Martin Rushent after 'Dare', and it doesn't work, it just doesn't come off. And we need people to fill in the gaps. We need producers.
Is it foolish to let people have so much control over the end product?
Philip sighs wearily. "We don't have a choice. We've tried and we can't do it. We haven't got the talent. I've tried so hard."
"This time with 'Crash', we were glad to get away in a sense. We were glad to leave them to it. We went out there for six weeks and ended up staying for four months. We really wanted to come home. If you live in Sheffield and you've got a cat and a hamster that you want to see…And it's nice to go abroad and that, but after a while it starts to get on your wick. You haven't got the things you like, your record player and your records. It's good, room service and that, not having to clean up, but we wanted to get home.
Did you feel out of your depth working with those people, those friends of Quincy, and Michael and Prince, these five finger musicians?
"A little bit, yeah.They work with the best singers in the world. They work we Patti Austin and none of us can sing.
"They test you, stretch you and make you feel you've performed miracles. It took me a week to record my vocal for 'Human.' When you come out of the studio they'd say to you, 'Phil, you have performed miracles, we want to shake your hand' and they shake your hand and make you feel good. It's a different world."
When you think of people like Patti Austin, do you feel you have a cheek standing in front of a microphone?
"Yes I do, sometimes. But David Bowie thinks he's a bad singer. So I might be kidding myself. I might be alright. I think I worry more about performing. I've never had to do it without the slides and that. I just stand still.
"I've always done it. And this time round, without Adrian, we won't have the slides and that. And I haven't been on stage for four years. I'm frightened.

 

FOUR YEARS ago, the roundabout began to slow down, reluctantly, The

 



 

Human League got off.
"We were the biggest obviously and it was great. We were the only ones. And then Boy George came along. It was bloody annoying, that.
"We made a big mistake after 'Dare.' We believed the public was one person and that one person either liked you or they didn't. We thought we'd cracked it and our name would be remembered. So we spent a lot of time messing about, making sure 'Hysteria' was note perfect.
"We became obsessive about it. We all went a bit mad. By the time we were ready most of the people who'd liked us had gone and bought something else. They'd forgotten about us. And then we began to do so badly, you wouldn't believe.
"'Crash' is our way of saying 'We're still here'. I wouldn't say we were doing anything particularly new. We're just fighting to stop ourselves giving up."
So why not just give up? Why torture yourselves?
"Why should we give up? The British charts are full of absolute crap that's getting no one anywhere. We only have to look at that. However bad we are we're better than most of them. And I've thought about giving up. I'm sure everybody in a pop group thinks about it every day. But I couldn't do it.
"Except maybe if we were number one. Because there is no point in announcing you've stopped trying when nobody is listening anyway."
Philip is beginning to tell me things that perhaps he shouldn't.
"I worry about what I say in these situations but you can't examine every single word…"
He's beginning to trust me in that strange way that people trust cheeky tape recording interlopers and I feel like a bastard.
"I would love to go out and do another LP that was as afar ahead of everything else as 'Dare' was but doing it twice in a career is going to be very, very hard. I can't think what to do about it so in the meantime there's a bit of treading water going on."
Is 'Crash' a treading water LP?
"Yes…In the way that most people make them. Even Kraftwerk only made one really innovative record. The rest were just great variations."
Are The Human League capable of creating anything but variations on 'Dare'?
""I don't know. I'll just keep doing what I do. I just put words to other people's melodies and that's all I do. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes not. 'Electric Dreams' was really good.
I thought it was crap.
"No, it was really good. And I got to meet Giorgio Moroder who is a great hero of mine. And got paid for it."

 

THE CLASS of '81 were pop stars in the great tradition. They were BIG and then they were nothing. What does Adam Ant do with his time now? What does Martin Fry do to make the days go by? What will Philip Oakey do if the world doesn't want The Human League anymore? A question that can be dealt with in a number of ways. Philip chose to see it as a question about money.
"I'd probably be able to live for a while on what I've got. I'm quite careful with my money. If I had to get a job, I wouldn't work for a start. I'd go and join a record company or be a journalist or something.
"I'd be alright so long as people didn't recognise me. It'd be horrible working on the back of a dustbin cart and having people shout - 'Ha, you thought you could be a big popstar, didn't you?'
"I was very nearly a dustman, you know.
"But whatever happens, I'm going to make ten Human League LP's. I'm going to be like Peter Hammill in my little eight-track studio. I'll beg people to put them out if needs be.'
Do you think that will happen?
"No not really, but I'm always worried that things will come to a stop."

 

ASIDE FROM the money, and that can be a very big aside, what makes someone like Philip Oakey carry on? What makes him risk his dignity, his self-respect, his sanity?
Aside from the fame, and that can be a very big aside, what makes him dance like a painted fool, a pawn, a tart. Aside from the sex, and that can be a very big aside, what makes these people want to bother?
Is it this thing called pop?
"It's communication. It talks to people. It's irresistible. It takes you somewhere beyond. If you've got your headphones on and you're listening to K.C. it's…indescribable.
Pop can move mountains. It has miraculous power. So let's take it to the bridge, I say. Let's use it to change the world.
No, says Philip, that's not a good idea.
"I desperately want the Labour Party to win the next election. There's no one else. But if you're in a pop group, the best thing you can do is keep quiet about your political allegiances. I think Red Wedge will probably persuade a lot of people to vote Conservative. Why? Because the country doesn't like pop groups.
"Look, if you have one hit record, there are probably a million people that really like it, a million people that are indifferent and 54 million who say, 'Who are these berks on the TV with the silly long hair on one side and the make-up on. And now they've got the cheek to tell me what I should vote for. You're joking. Look at them'. The best thing we could say that we love the Conservative Party and Margaret Thatcher is our heroine…"
But wouldn't you like to be taken seriously?
"I would love to be taken seriously…Look, it's like a racing driver coming out and saying 'vote Labour'. All he's proved he's good at at is going round a circuit. He's not proved he's a deep understanding of British Society. All we've proved is that we can write catchy melodies. That doesn't give us the right to say that we know how the country should be run."
In 1984, The Human League released a record called 'The Lebanon'.
He has a point of course. You may think that Billy Bragg is a learned man of letters but it doesn't mean your mum will too. But that isn't really what it's about. Red Wedge and pop's uneasy alliance with parliamentary politics are based on the naked value of celebrity.
Celebrity and pop are vices of the young. Where Paul Weller puts his 'X' The Style Council follower is also likely to put his.
That's cynical, I know, but that's life.

The Human League are a remnant of another time, a time of Adam Ants and ABC's. Why not sink with them? Philip Oakey will never want for eye shadow 'Dare' has seen to that. He suggests the lure of fame and the fear that comes from being wrapped in the swaddling of success that makes him still try.
"I'm not very famous. I don't get recognised in Sheffield. I have a very average face. No, really. I'll be sitting in a café with Joanne who's very recognisable, she just looks like herself, and they'll ask for her autograph, and I'll hear them saying, 'Is it him? Nah, he wouldn't look like that' and then they'll go off. I can't say I'm pleased. I've got enough of that vanity, and it's a very male thing, to want pretty girls to look at me."
And the fear…
"I once worked in an office. I don't know how people do those things. I did it for about two weeks and I was so unhappy, I was going out buying chocolate bars and eating them in the toilet just to escape it…I don't know how people do those things."
So Philip Oakey says, "OK ready, let's do it" one more time. CRASH. "I suppose I'm trying to amass as much money as I possibly can. But I've not really found a good way of doing it yet."
Laughing, I say, you could always charge people to view your pierced nipple.
Laughing, he says, "Yeah, it's funny…I don't seem like that person anymore do I?"
No, I say. All things considered you seem a very, very sane Philip.
"Oh good. I'm glad you said that."