Only Music 1986

Sheffield, England is not the sort of place you would expect The Human League to come from. Far off the beaten track of trendy London, the pace is a bit slower, and the people more down-to-earth. The house that Philip Oakey and Joanne Catherall share is situated off a main road, and it hasn't taken the fans, who peer through windows and scatter roses on the drive, very long to find it.

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, either.
"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 crashing success.

"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
embarrassing, really.”

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 us."
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 and
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 down!
"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 them.”
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 songwriting.
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!" injects Philip.

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.
That was it."

"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, perfection...
"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 best.
"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 Duran.”
Even without such foibles, they'd still be only human.