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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
"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.
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
"'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
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
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."
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
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
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
"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
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.
good. I'm glad you said that."