One can't help notice the perfectly manicured lawn "We have someone come
around and do it," explains Philip. We make our way into the kitchen for a
cup of coffee and the eye is suddenly blinded by intense white. White stove,
appliances, floor, walls, table...everything, spotless and white ["We don't
cook," explains Joanne]. So this is The Human League: perfect house, perfect
lawn, perfect LP….and most people say they weren't responsible for that,
"It's like a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis record featuring The Human League," a
British rock-press wag recently commented. True, the sound is strangely
familiar. The wunderkind production duo of ex-Time bandits Jam & Lewis have
graced records by Janet Jackson, Force MD's and now The Human League. But
that's not necessarily a bad thing, nor one easily accomplished: It's taken
two years, two producers, two cities, and one last stand to make Crash a
"We first did the album in London with Colin Thurston," Joanne explains. But
Thurston, veteran production meister for Duran Duran, didn't pan out. "We
worked with him for nine months, and then we realized it just wasn't turning
into a really good dance record. So we split with Colin and went with Jimmy
and Terry who luckily wanted to work with us. We didn't think they would,
because we come from England and everything."
But if the Jam & Lewis sound is what they originally wanted, why not start
out with Jam & Lewis in the beginning? Wasn't there some discussion in the
original planning of the album as to what it should sound like?
Of course! "We wanted it to sound like Jimmy and Terry, "Philip says. "Now
that I think about it, it's a funny thing, because I was listening to their
records and one day someone said, 'Why don't you get Jimmy and Terry?' It's
Philip, Joanne and Susan Sulley (who has just arrived apologizing for being
late, but she was 'watching a video of Dallas') all agree they learned a lot
from Jam & Lewis. But Philip insists that Jam & Lewis probably learned
something from working with The Human League. "They aren't traditional
producers, because they're performers and songwriters as well. In the area
that they work in, mostly with black acts, you tend to get a singer in to do
their bit and then a bass player, and then you stick a name of it at the
end, whereas we've always held the concept of The Human League very dear to
Joanne adds, "They found it strange that we were around listening to what
they were doing. They kept saying, 'You haven't got anything to do this
week. Why don't you go home?' "
Of the ten songs appearing on Crash, six were written by The Human League.
The others, one of which is the American Number One hit single "Human," were
penned by Jam &Lewis, who had definite ideas about what their songs should
sound like. It's a well known fact that producers can suddenly become
dictators once they enter the studio, and Jam and Lewis aren't exactly known
for making compromises with their artists. That wasn't the atmosphere The
Human League was after, but that's the situation they found themselves in.
"We like to be in control in the studio. We don't like giving that up to a
producer," Philip says. "That's why we had a big, final argument, and we
just decided to go home and leave them to finish it off. It just got to the
point of who had the power, and in that instance..."
"They were the men behind the mixing console, so they have ultimate
control," Joanne chimes in to finish Philip's thought. "It could happen with
any producer, but it's never happened with us, because we've always said
'this is our record, and it will be made our way. ' But it was quite
different with this record because they wrote some of the songs."
In that case, was it wise to leave? "We waited until our six songs had been
finished and mixed," Joanne says. "Their songs had been recorded but not
mixed. What happened was, they said they would mix our songs the way we
wanted, but their songs would be mixed their way, and we wouldn't have any
say in the matter."
As Philip says, there was little they could do "short of staging an armed
attack on the studio."
Susan: "We considered it..."
Joanne: "We'd go in with tanks, like Rambo!"
They all begin to laugh, but Philip turns serious. "You mustn't get the
impression that we had an argumentative time with them. We had four months
of recording and one morning of argument. Apart from that, it was great."
Aside from giving them a new sound, Jam & Lewis also gave them much-needed
confidence: that's eluded them throughout their existence. They can't play
any instruments [that's a simple fact], but how can they, as singers, insist
that they cannot sing? Once again, they break up with laughter; Philip says,
"We are extremely average singers." But they sound great on the record, yes?
"Yes," says Joanne, "but you don't hear the slogging, the weeks and weeks of
'do it again! Do it again!' "
Susan stresses that they had not become better singers Jam and Lewis made it
seem that way. "They make you feel like you are a good singer, even when you
know you're not. They refuse to give up. They never say, 'Oh, you're never
going to get it, are you?' They just keep urging you, saying, 'That's
better. You've nearly got it.' "
Jam & Lewis were obviously all-important in the creation of Crash, and
Philip says he wouldn't mind working with them again if the opportunity
presented itself. He adds that working in their Flyte Tyme studio in
Minneapolis was a great experience. "Now that we've come back from America,
I think even more of them. In fact, whenever I'm depressed about the record,
I phone up Jimmy and he says, [adopting his own version of a Northern black
voice] 1 don't know what you're worried about, Phil. Record's doing great
here!' And he's right, it is."
“Human” has become a Number One song on Billboard's Hot 100, and Crash has
moved into the Top Twenty. In the past, they've been lazy about capitalizing
on their success in America, but not any more. "We had a Number One record
[1981's "Don't You Want Me"] and did seven concerts, but then we came back
to Sheffield and didn't do anything.
That's why I'm so very frustrated sitting here in Sheffield now, when we
should be in America doing things. This time we should go for it."
Remaining in Sheffield while other groups head for the warm glow of the
American limelight has kept their feet on the ground. But now the time has
come for a major decision: Do they stay in 'boring' Sheffield, or move to
L.A.? The camp is divided, but Joanne can definitely picture zooming around
Hollywood in a red Mercedes. "Oh, one of those little open-top jobs," she
purrs. "I'd love it!"
But Philip's the practical one of the group. If life in Sheffield isn't
exciting, he insists, then it's up to them to change it. It's their
hometown, and they shouldn't desert it now that they've become successful.
"Isn't that a bit like flogging a dead horse?" Susan asks him.
Philip: "No! Sheffield will explode suddenly after years of dullness. There
are three people starting up 4-track studios, and we have one of the biggest
trucking and PA companies in Britain..."
Joanne cuts him off. "What good will that do, with the music scene like it
is...no one caring?
"Philip: "Look at it this way: we're here, and we're selling loads of
records in America, and we didn't have to go to America to do it!"
We could probably return a year later and find Philip, Susan and Joanne
still arguing this point. As they readily admit, nothing happens very
quickly for The Human League. "We were asked to do that Band Aid record,"
Philip says, "but the entire thing from start-to-finish was two days. It
takes The Human League months to get around to doing anything!"
The Human League that exists today was a long time in the making. The long
and arduous history of the group has roots back to Sheffield in '77 or so,
when the band (who lifted their name from a sci-fi board game) were all-male
rather avante-garde. In one grand
and enormous split in 1980, two of the group left to form Heaven 17,
essentially leaving Philip, the two girls and two
additional members to carry on. Remarkably, the 'less musical' side of the
Human League split rocketed to instant stardom. Dare, the "new" League
debut, sold more than five million copies. It was followed by the
Fascination EP, the title track making it to Number Eight in America.
But their next release. Hysteria, nearly marked the end of the group. They
loved the album, but no one bought it. "When we finished Hysteria, I
thought, 'now here is a record that is better than Dare,' " Philip says. "I
know that the songs are better."
"In many respects they were. "The Lebanon," "Louise," and "Life On Your Own"
all cracked the Top 20 in England, but Hysteria was a letdown considering
their previous success. Joanne says it wasn't the music but the timing that
was wrong. "If we'd finished the album a couple of months after we started
it, like most bands do, it would have sold as well as expected. When we
started it, people were ready for a change, but by the time we put it out,
they'd gone through one change and then they'd gone through another one. So
what they wanted was something totally different. We were putting out an
album that people wanted six months before.
"Hysteria, just like Crash, took two years to record. They simply got bogged
down in its recording. Rather than bring in keyboard players, they tried to
program the keyboard parts themselves on a computer. It often took three
days to program three notes.
"I remember it once took us two weeks to get a bass drum recorded properly
off a drum machine," Philip says. "It was so ridiculous. As a matter of
fact, one prominent musician made a comment in one of his interviews that he
could put out an entire album in the time it took us to get the bass drum
"The situation grew more comical as they recorded reel after reel of guitar,
bass, and keyboards. "No one would decide if they should end up on the album
or not, so they'd just go on a shelf. We'd say, 'We'll sort them out later,'
" Joanne confesses. "It sounded a right mess when we finally listened to
Once the turbulent recording of Hysteria was complete, band member Jo Callis
left the League. More recently, Philip Adrian Wright departed after
contributing to Crash. Joanne said that while Wright's leaving hasn't had a
serious affect of the group, they were all doubting the future of The Human
League when Callis left. "We knew we could carry on after Adrian, but when
Jo left... he was such an important member... we were all a bit shakey.
That's why we didn't tour with Hysteria, which is probably why it didn't
sell as well. He had gotten married and he just wanted to settle down. We
were all quite worried, though. It was like, 'Oh, no! What will we do now?"
Adrian didn't really have a part in the group anymore. His biggest part was
the slides we used as a backdrop when we played live, and even he had
decided he didn't want to do them anymore. It wasn't like we talked it out
amongst ourselves and then went to him, and said, 'We don't want the slide
show anymore.' He decided it wouldn't be right for the music we were doing.
There wasn't a big falling out or anything. Things like that don't happen
with us...people just seem to go. One day we turn around, and they're not
there anymore. ' ' For the time being, the League is rounded out by longtime
bassist lan Burden and newcomer keyboardist Jim Russell, who assisted in
Pop music is not something Americans think much about. Or even much of. Pop
music is simply there. It's in the car, the restaurant, the office...it's
everywhere, omnipresent. But for British youth it seems to have a stronger
purpose: it sets guidelines for fashion and behavior. "Pop music should be
something that children can turn to away from their parents," Philip
comments. "That's what it's for, but it's been taken away by the likes of
Boy George. He's given it back to the parents."
Joanne adds, "When we first went on TV in England, there was Philip with his
long hair on one side of his face, and his makeup and lipstick...then along
comes Boy George and he's dressed really outrageous, but he says, I'm really
normal. I like cups of tea, and I love little old ladies,' and all of a
sudden mums and dads are saying. Isn't that George a nice boy?'"
"It took all the threat out of it over night," Phil says. "If you wear a lot
of makeup now you're a clown, whereas before you were a monster,"
Susan adds, "I don't know; maybe it's because I was a lot younger, but pop
music seemed to be so much more exciting then."
Joanne: "When we were 16, everyone stayed in on Thursday night to watch Top
of the Pops. It isn't like that anymore. Pop music, in England, has become
totally disposable. If a record like that Peter Cetera thing can start doing
well, and' Human' is three places lower, to me there's something wrong."
Susan continues that, although "Human" got to Number Eight on the U.K.
charts, it was finished after only three weeks. "That's the way it is at the
moment in England. Your record has a life span of about four weeks."
"And you spend three months killing each other trying to put it out!"
But if they're still confused about the record buying public, at least they
have themselves sorted out. Yes, they spend too much time recording, and
each time they swear they'll do it more quickly. But have they really
learned anything with their four releases after the 'big split'?
"We didn't learn anything with Hysteria, although we learned a lot with
Dare," Philip says with a degree of certainty. But Joanne disagrees. “No, we
did learn a lot with Hysteria, really.”
"No, we didn't, because we tried to do it again, and it didn't work," Philip
argues. "We tried to do it the same way, which, after working with Jimmy and
Terry, it's like having your eyes opened. They do everything in such a
straightforward way, and we always try to make things difficult. If you have
a keyboard part, they'd say, 'Well, get in a keyboard player...' Oh, what a
great idea, why didn't we think of that?" Philip mocks. "We'd have gotten a
computer and it would have taken weeks to get that part right. They'll
record it in ten minutes and then go onto the next bit."
Joanne says that another problem they've constantly found themselves
confronted with was their own narrow view of each members' role in the
group. Each person had a part, no one else was to be brought in, and no
member stepped outside their role. "It was silly, really, but Susan and I
were the backing singers. The boys were the writers. Philip was the singer
and lan was the bass player.
"The strange thing is, we're a keyboard band, and none of us can play
keyboards," says Philip.
So Jimmy and Terry have taught the laziest band in the charts how not to
waste time, and now they have a keyboard player and drummer in the wings to
help out. Now if only they could curb their desire for absolute,
"We tend to concentrate on one little thing, and suddenly that thing is
magnified to proportions that are taking over the world," says Joanne.
"We'll listen to a keyboard line, and say, 'that third note is half a second
early.' When you first listen to it, it's okay, but we can't stop there. We
listen to it over and over." Philip says that they were seriously into
“milliseconds”, and they practically fall about the floor with laughter when
Susan brings up a story about The Time They Tuned the Tuner. Philip jumps in
to tell the story.
"That was the most ridiculous day. I was tuning an instrument with my
electronic tuner, and Jim walked up with his tuner and said, 'Are you sure
that tuner's in tune?' I just looked at him absolutely amazed and said,
'What?' I thought for sure we had all gone totally mad at that point."
By the time you read this The Human League will be starting their first
major tour of America, and Philip has little doubt it will be less than the
"I like Duran Duran. They've got their own style and sound...but we're
better than Duran. We're more interesting people and we make better records.
But look at the success they've had. Why? Because they work at it. Our
problem is we've allowed ourselves to become a studio group, and people want
a live group. Now that we're finding ourselves, it's taken awhile, but it'll
be worth it. If we can become a live group, we'll be huge….we will be Duran
Even without such foibles, they'd still be only human.