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
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
"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
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
"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."
right, that," agrees Sulley.