Blitz September 1990

How will the Human League fare in the altered star systems of the Nineties?

Andy Darling

On a muggy, overcast day, the train pulls into Sheffield, and a hectoring, middle-aged salesman attempts to engage the traveller sitting opposite who has feigned sleep throughout the journey. "You always find in the north," says the salesman with relish, "I say you always find in the north that the women wear little more than swimming costumes in the summer!" There! Look!" He gestures towards Susanne Sulley of The Human League, who is waiting at the station in a straw boater, high heels and what could, in fact, pass for a swimsuit. Its as well she didn't hear the remark. At the League's new studio a ruling, instigated by Sulley, now exists: if a workman in the complex wolf-whistles once then he get's a stern ticking-off. Twice, and his P45 is in the evening post.
Redtape Studios, just up the hill from the station, is where the Human League recorded their eighth LP - eighth, that is, if you include the dance remix of Dare in 1982 and a Greatest Hits collection. Philip Oakey (who once claimed that he was the singer only because he was tall), and Joanne Catherall (whose father, a pistol shooting champion, threatened to kill Oakey if any harm befell his daughter), are waiting there, but suggest that it would be an idea to drive over to the nearby village of Bakewell. Would that be Bakewell as in Bakewell Tarts?
"It would," confirms a sans-maquillage Oakey, who - were he to rub some dirst into his Lee jeans and jacket and scuff up his cowboy boots - would pass for a tall Hell's Angel. "You like your food, then do you? I have a theory about what makes you fat. Now chocolate. Chocolate doesn't make you fat. Some things just don't," this is all delivered deadpan, and his enunciation - a flat, nuance-free combination of Solihull, where he went to school, and Sheffield - gives it an air of precision, as if he's been researching the subject.
"Philip, anything makes you fat if you eat too much of it!" interjects Sulley with cheery exasperation.
"Him and his theories!" mutters Catherall.
"No. Chocolate won't. You can eat as much chocolate as you like. It's the same with fruit. Not biscuits, though. Biscuits make you fat."
 

For nigh on ten years, Oakey, Sulley and Catherall have been the core of the Human League, and with Romantic? they've finally come up with a record that should prove them to be more than a one-album wonder. With tracks remixed by Mark Saunders and S-Express producer William Orbit, Romantic? is essentially the Human League again, after years of trying to pretend the 5 million-seller Dare never happened.
"The thing that wrecked our chances was that we weren't a career band," explains Oakey over a glass of flat mineral water. "We never were. No one ever told us to get on with it, to tour, do a single, then an album. You can be a career band and be good, like say UB40, but we never did it. Our main problem really, though, is that we've never made albums quickly enough."
The history of the Human League has been fraught with arguments, rows, tics and tardiness. The original line-up of Ian Craig Marsh, Martyn Ware and hospital porter Oakey bought synthesizers on the never-never in 1978 and issued a declaration of intent. "It was a crusade for us," he says. "We liked synthesizers, probably because of Keith Emerson and people like that, and we were told, 'you cannot make popular records just using synthesizers.'"
The non-musician ideology underpinned their every move, and Oakey castigated another 'futurist' band, Landscape, when in 1981 they demonstrated new instruments on Tomorrow's World.
"I must admit I took against Landscape. I mean, why on earth have you got a synthesizer you can play like a flute? I really resented them because it struck one that they were trying to take the synthesizer back to the musicians. Our whole experiment that evolved in the very first place was: is it possible for a group - people who have never, ever had anything to do with music - by using the brain and modern technology, then maybe they can get a record in the Top Ten?
"We were more punk than the punks, though they didn't realize it," Oakey reckons. Indeed, before supporting Siouxsie & the Banshees on their 1978
UK tour. The band - fearing spikey-headed conflagration - built a set of riot shields. As it transpired, they went down a proverbial storm: after one independent single; 'Being Boiled' - on Fast Records - they signed to Virgin, still their home.

 

Recruiting Adrian Wright, who collected slides of sixties TV shows and projected them at concerts, the band managed two LP's, Reproduction in 1979 and Travelogue the following year. Reproduction was stark, cyclical and modernist, attempting to forge new sounds for new times in the wake of Bowie's Low. It was Bowie who enthused in 1979, "Listening to the Human League is like listening to 1980!" There was wit, too - notably on 'Circus of Death', which opened with an TV continuity man announcing, "In just a few minutes we'll be off to Hawaii to join Steve McGarret and the team for their adventures", whereupon a brooding synth pattern that could only have been constructed in frostbitten Europe commenced. An early single, 'Empire State Human', also elicited laughs with it's "I would be tall, tall, tall, as big as a wall, wall, wall" hook, but it defined Oakey's lyrical leitmotif of society's miniaturizing of the individual. 'Blind Youth' expressed this too, although one has to question a song with the line "Dehuminization, it's such a big word/It's been around since Richard the Third". Shortly after the release of Travelogue, after one argument too many, Marsh and Ware excited and formed the British Electric Foundation, which evolved into Heaven 17 with former actor Glenn Gregory singing. Knowing nothing about synthesizers, Oakey and Wright had to think fast. A tour had already been scheduled to begin just 10 days after the schism, and Virgin kept faith with the loss-making act only because MD Simon Draper liked them.

 

With time running out, Oakey and his then wife went talent scouting. At the Crazy Daisy Disco in Sheffield they spotted Catherall and Sulley doing "different dancing", ie staying put, moving just the torso and arms, puppet fashion. Life was never to be the same again for any of them. The school girls left school to sing and dance on the tour, and Oakey left his wife to move in with Catherall, a relationship which was to last several years. Hooking up with producer Martin Rushent - whose work with 999 and various Factory bands had impressed Oakey - they recorded 'Sound of the Crowd', the first in a series of hit singles. The nascent components were there, the computerized handclaps, the intoned lead and backing vocals from Oakey and the girls, and the melody-by-numbers played icy cold.

 

'The Sound of the Crowd' reached number 12 in the UK and was the first of four

 

 



 

hits in 1981 culminating with 'Don't You Want Me', the Christmas Number 1. The Human League were now not only championed by the in-crowd at The Glamour Club, Croc's, Rayleigh, Essex, but also by the British public. Dare sealed it, with it's pastiche Vogue cover and two sides of what then amounted to perfect pop, loved by Smash Hits readers and Sociology lecturers alike. Oakey, the man who played Top of the Pops with that asymmetrical hair, that old Mother Riley slap and that pierced nipple, denies that the band were steeped in irony. "I don't like kitsch, I don't believe in it. It's the easy way out. The whole thing is to put Van Gogh on your wall and say 'Actually I like it, I'm being honest'".
Nevertheless, one can equate their aesthetic with that of the Pet Shop Boys, a similarly detached group who produce some of pop's most affecting moments. Oakey's voice, like Neil Tennant's, will always sound resigned, bored, distanced from the throng, yet when this is combined with dancefloor rhythms and cold machine music, a pleasurable tension ensues. It's pop that knows what it's about.
With Dare, the Human League were the biggest band in Britain, but - two singles aside -disappeared from sight until 1984. Beleaguered in the studio, the band began to worry and argue.
"It all started falling down after Dare, I think," says Catherall. "When we went to record Hysteria we were completely lost in what we were doing. We had the material, but instead of just recording it we sat around for ages, pondering every little thing, saying, 'Is this as good as on Dare?'"
"And we thought we were great," adds Oakey.
"I think we started having what can only be described as mental problems, mental problems that still exist now. Everyone, the manager, the producer, everyone went strange."
Martin Rushent resigned during the making of Hysteria over arguments over the quality of the material, and the mix levels of the vocals. A syclavier sampler, one of the first, was bought, and the boys spent several weeks attempting to turn it on. Eventually, in June 1984, Hysteria was released into a pop firmament now ruled by Duran Duran, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Wham! and Culture Club, most of whom acknowledged the inspiration of Oakey. Despite being badly received, Hysteria has aged well, the guitars and bass they brought in (after proving that you could reach the Top Ten with synths only), sound fine and funky. Ironically, it sounds more off the cuff than any of their other efforts. And of course they learned nothing. The follow-up, Crash, was recorded in three different studios and took two years to complete.
"I think we reached our lowest point with Crash. We weren't providing any decent songs, we were so low in confidence. Jimmy and Jerry saved our bacon by writing them." (Jimmy and Terry are the legendary producers Jam & Lewis of Flyte Time Studios in Minneapolis. They'd produced Prince and were soon to mould Janet Jackson's Control into one of the finest examples of dance coercion ever). "It was great, people would just wander in and bang a track out," recalls Oakey. "and we learned that if you don't like something you ditch it and go onto something else, something we never did before."
Crash's release was still delayed, however, partly due to a disastrous cover shoot. As ever, the band demanded control of the packaging, and they contacted top Vogue photographer Guy Bourdin. The session was ruined when he spent all his time trying to coax Sulley into doing handstands wearing a miniskirt. And so when Crash appeared, Control was already out, and it appeared that the Human League had missed the boat again. Although it's not a bad album and has the outstanding track, 'Human', the group themselves are lost in the production, in other people's songs, and Philip Oakey is plainly not a rapper.

 

And now in 1990, Romantic? has finally been completed in the studio they were inspired to build after the Minneapolis sojourn. Having been stung by management they're stony-broke. Only Oakey has received any money in the last six months, and that's been from songwriting credits. Catherall has had to sell her house, and keeps ringing her dad about moving packing cases into a new, smaller flat.
Romantic? is their best LP since Dare. Just as Depeche Mode are now hailed as prototype house artists, so this album should finally see Human League recognized for their inspiration and influence. "You listen to Snap," says Oakey. "It's Human League, a bit funkier because that's what happens now. I actually think this is the best time for music in ages."
Oakey is now 34, Sulley and Catherall 27. Haven't they mucked things up once too often? Is there an audience out there for them? Catherall - who's becoming increasingly worried that her white trousers have split a the back - avers, "We don't know who's going to listen to the new album, but we do know that we feel great about it."
"Our James, my brother, is 19," says Sulley. "He wears the right trainers and spends all his money on records, and it does seem like all the best music, the most progressive stuff is very faceless, you don't know what the people who make it look like."
"Which is no bad thing," adds Oakey. "For a long time if your group was doing way out music, the idea was to look way out so the two sort of mixed. There then came a point when the weirdest-looking people started making music that fitted beautifully on Radio 2, and they were on the cover of Woman magazine. That was the end for me. The last group was Frankie Goes To Hollwood, they were alright. As far as I can tell they were berks amongst themselves, but that was it. It's never happened since."
 

And so to the Nineties' somewhat altered star systems the Human League return, once more with those awesome beautifully gauche lyrics - "The world's a massive place but we ran into each other/just one small happening/An accident of fate or the work of co-conspirators," rates along side the lines of 1984's 'The Lebanon', "Before he leaves the camp he stops/He scans the world outside/And where there used to be some shops/Is where the snipers sometime hide" - and a motivation that seemed unlikely to return. Philip Oakey attempts to explain it, this unexpected and unprecedented renaissance. "The atmosphere in the studio was simply the best I've known, better than before Dare even. We suddenly wanted to be doing it again. I know how the Human League should sound, I am the one who makes that sound. In the studio now we're a team, a great little team."
"We're a proper group," concurs Catherall. "We're all vital parts now, not like loads of fake bands these days. Say I broke my foot or something, the rest of them would take the time off."
"That's right, that," agrees Sulley.