Melody Maker 15th September 1990
The Top 30 single, ’Heart Like A Wheel’ signalled the re-emergence of Human League after almost fours years of silence. DAVID STUBBS travelled to Sheffield to discover how the perfect pop band of the Eighties has finally regained enough confidence to release their new album, ‘Romantic?’ in the Nineties.
THE HUMAN LEAGUE ARE BACK AMONG US, MORE SERIOUS THAN ever, not for a last gasp, but completely reinvigorated and rewired – after what practically amounts to a six-year hiatus, if you discount 1986’s somewhat underconfident submission to the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis hit factory that produced the excellent “Human”.
With the brisk, brighty, brassy and anything-but-baggy “Heart Like A Wheel” they have implicitly restated their bold inversion of the punk dictum. It’s not so much anyone can do it, rather if anyone can do it, we can.
The upcoming album “Romantic?”, is good too, from the frank sexual politicking of “A Doorway” to the echoey, irony-drenched lamentations of “The Stars Are Going Out”, it’s busy, funky stuff in which the orgy of bleeps and buttons never sound anything less than fleshy. It’ll probably never match “Dare”, but then “Dare” is more than an album, more, for some of us, a part of our pop lives, the epitome of a giddy moment in the early Eighties when pop seemed to tatter momentarily, of dancing and drinking and dark intentions.
IN a way, however, there was charm about the League in the way that they failed, as they were always bound to over-reach. All the best pop stars of the Eighties – ABC, Frankie, Boy George, the League – failed. After the split that also produced Heaven 17, they appeared to succeed in becoming great by sheer force of will rather than ability to play (which in their was non-excistent). It was as if Phil Oakey, by an act of sheer concentration alone, had become in pop terms, tall, tall, tall as big as a wall.
There was something about the league, over and above the nifty synth pop hooks of “Love Action” and “Dare”; a certain, literal bluntless about their vocals and lyrics. But although Oakey seems to think non-stop about the nature and purpose of the League and regards pop as an areato be investigated rather than a means of unburdening his soul periodically, the League never came across as cynical strategists.
Their epic stabs at pop sincerity always smacked charmingly and conspicuously of self-consciousness. Thus, there were was always a certain deadpan humour to their work which never smacked of sarcasm about pop, in spite od their methodical approach. Who can ever forget the line “This is Phil talking”? They just honestly wanted to be stars. They still do. And for a while they were the stuff that dreams were made of.
The interview takes place at the League’s new studios. It’s just Susanne, Joanne Catherall and Phil. The latter two apparently split some time ago, but that, I’m told, is off-limits for discussion. Fair enough. Not the sort of thing a gentleman asks about, anyway. To say that this lot are garrulous is like describing the Niagara Falls as damp.
THESE days, it seems The Human league only release records in World Cup years. What have you been doing since 1986?
“Building this,” says Susanne, gesturing at the studio.
“We had to come in every single day to check in on the building work,” Phil explains.
Susanne: “It’s like Phil says about every band going through a lean phase in their mid-career. I think it’s because with their first three or four albums they just go along to the studio, they’re very naïve about it all and don’t take al the business side of it. Then they say to themselves, ‘Hang on, why should we give someone else hundreds and thousands of pounds to make an album when we’re just going to have to spend the money again on the next one? So we invested in this place. It’s virtually bankrupted us, but even if we can come out this breaking even at least we’ll have something to show for it.”
And yet, for all these metallic banks of keyboards, twiddely bits and a sufficient array of knobs, one would have thought, to beam up journalists from London, the band were still obliged to submit their latest recorded product to outside hands compulsory “remixing”. The album tracks have been reworked by a cluster of names, including William Orbit and various 12-inch versions are also on the go.
Why couldn’t they do it themselves?
Susanne: “It’s just that record companies are very fussy about the idea of having a name remixer. It’s just the fashion at the moment. I don’t think it’s something people are really that interested in at all. Still, we’ve had to spend an awful lot of money having a 12-inch remix of a track done by some guy in America which we couldn’t do ourselves just because we’re not known as a team of remixers. And in my opinion, the mix he’s done is second rate.”
Couldn’t they have resisted?
Phil: “If we had £100,000 in the bank, we could tell them to get stuffed. But we’re not rich enough, we’re not prolific enough, we’re not the career band we should have been. Not like UB40, who keep churning it out because they’ve got mouths to feed. And we thought we were too arty for that. And we were wrong. So we’re begging every step of the way.”
HUMAN League belong to a time when pop music seemed temporarily in our hands, a theatre, a playpen for young men from Sheffield to forge new shapes, new possibilities and make exaggerated gestures. Today, there appears to be practically no pop left – the only idea left in the air is for rock bands to pretend to be dance bands.
Phil: “I think that pop music is again held in contempt. I can remember the outrage 10 years ago when we said we wanted to be like Donna Summer, Kim Wilde and Abba. And 10 years on, people are doing it again. You can be deep House, heavy metal, gospel, but pop music? God, that’s Kylie Minouge. But we’ll say it again. There’s nothing wrong with pop music, you can communicate through it as well as any other medium and reach more people.
“I think the most significant differences these days is that you don’t have groups any more. There’s no such thing as a group.”
EXACTLY. No more faces, no more haircuts, no characters. These days, it’s brickies rather than pop architects. The lukewarm prevails over the cool. Even the boys don’t wear lipstick. Just a list of monikers, a mere means of indexing floppy discs. I mean, does anyone actually remember who the lead singer of Technotronic is?
All: “Ya Kid K!”
All right, all right. You’re pop scholars, you don’t count.
“One of the things that’s changed since ‘Dare’ is that you have to be technically very clever, or should I say, very experienced in all this,” Phil says gesturing at the banks of studio technology.
“Seventeen-year-olds simply can’t walk in and pick up all this, which is why there are no groups any more and it’s all down to the backroom boys. Kids from school can’t come in and work a Fairlight. I’ve been at it 13 years and I certainly can’t. And the other point is that music now is better than it’s ever been. I get bored with this thing where whichever period you’re in, you say that the music is terrible. I don’t think music’s terrible at the moment, I’m currently spending a fortune on records. I like LFO, I like Tricky Disco, Prince, Tackhead, KLF…
“The problem now is not that there’s a load of crap about, the problem is that there are a load of excellent records about – they’re all in tune, they’re all in time. And they didn’t used to be. They were crap records before”.
You’re referring to technical excellence, of course.
“Oh, yes. Is there a difference? The technical excellence is such that they’re all seductive. We’re looking for a way to put the performance on top of the technical stuff.”
IN spite of starting out after the first Human League split with three vocalists and a chap who did the slides and apparently being in need of someone who could play a musical instrument, it’s the musicians who’ve always melted away through the years as if they were somehow peripheral to the essence of the League. Their newest musical recruits, Russell Dennett and Neil Sutton, aren’t present at the interview and Phil admits that they’ve felt stitched up by former members of the band in past interviews. But he assures me that the newest batch are “a great bunch of lads”.
Joanne: “We’ve had problems in the past because people have tried to control us, come in and tried to tell us what the Human league should be. There are still terrible preconceived ideas about women participating in groups above and beyond being backing singers. It’s all right starting off as a solo singer, but if you dare to climb the ladder, step out of the background, then people can’t handle it.”
Susanne: “Whereas the point has been proven. Our biggest singles have been the ones which Joanne and I have made the biggest vocal contribution. It’s not a slag-off of Phil, it’s just the truth. Look at the sales figures for ‘Fascination’, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and ‘Human’.”
Phil: “The musos who more or less control the music business underestimate the communications aspect of what we do. Pop music is about communication between people. It’s not about great singers. The people who succeed are the ones that are so good that they don’t sound too much like Michael Jackson, or the ones that you know what they’re talking about, or just from their voices. Like John Lydon, or Neil Tennant. Ordinary people. We’re ordinary people.”
JOANNE and Susanne are clearly integral to the League – they help aruge the thing into being (which is what a band like the Human League are all about, the product of a good deal of gab), even if they don’t play any musical instruments. They’re also fiercely resentful of anyone who downgrades their role.
Joanne: “It’s gradually evolved over the years in that we rely on each other, depend on one another and back each other up in situations.”
Phil: “We’re more fiercely and almost irrationally loyal than almost any other group. We haven’t worked with people in the past where there was any possibility the might have proved divisive. Basically, it wouldn’t be The Human League any more without the three of us. I sometimes think The Human League has gone on too long, but…”
HAVE you always had a pure, grail-like notion of the ideal Human League?
Phil: “Oh, totally. But we were totally mixed up by the hits. We went on this tour of the music industry, starting out as the band that woulnd’t even have photographs taken of them and ending up as puppets of the American music industry for Jimmay Jam and Terry Lewis. Which is what you are with them.”
Phil: “It was a general period of crisis for us. To me, the pictures of us on the ‘Greatest Hits’ album are a joke. I’ve got this neat little short hair looking like an image built up by the outside. And that was a joke. We’ve got to stop making records that I wouldn’t go out and buy. I mean, things like ‘Love is All That Matters’ are nice, but I’d rather have heard Alexander O’Neal singing it.
“God, I’d like to be rich,” concludes Phil. “Then we could behave the way everyone expected us to.”
WHAT went wrong? Why didn’t you become mega after “Dare”?
Phil: “We needed to push the live side of it, which we didn’t. There was a great lost album, there. We did two great tracks with Martin Rushent and then fell out. But we could have had an album that would have had ‘Mirror Man’, ‘Fascination’, ‘The Lebanon’ and ‘Louise’. But we thought we should be fair to the public and not put singles on the album from a while ago. We should’ve.
“Instaed, we did the quiet album. We decided that big production jobs were a thing of the past. So we kept it right down, insisted it wasn’t over-produced and out out ‘Hysteria’ at exactly the same time as Frankie Goes To Hollywood put out the most gloriously over-produced single ever!”
And you were blown out of the water. Were you, are you the Last Pop Band?
Phil: “I’d like to think we were, but Frankie came after us and I think they were the last. It was Live Aid that destroyed pop as far as I’m concerned. All those pop stars becoming to sickeningly, unbearably preachy and pompous… did you see them the other week at Knebworth? They really are beginning to look physically disgusting. And they all like the Royal Family! I can’t believe it!”
But the League’s current rallying cry is “Kiss The Future”. These are the days. Phil’s grown back his fringe, always a sign that he means business. And, having just spent four years building a studio, they’ve little choice but to do business.
Phil: “This studio is an investment, but it’s also a trap. We can’t leave Sheffield, for instance. Can’t swan off to Minneapolis for four months. That room is like Flyte Time. Great records can be made in there. That is what we’ve always been waiting for. The days of us being an album-every-four-years band are over. We’re gonna whack ‘em out by the year from now on.
“We’re not gonna run away from subjects. We’re gonna be dead arty from now on. We’d never have done a song like ‘A Doorway’, which deals with territorial games between lovers, a few years ago. We’ve been rehearsing for too long. It’s time we took responsibility for our own careers. We’re just beginning to believe in ourselves again. And it hasn’t quite come off on this LP but it will on the next. The next album is going to be incredible because at last we know who The Human league are.”