Select Magazine February 1995

DON'T YOU WANT ME BABY?

THE HUMAN LEAGUE, top pop sound of the early Eighties, are back in the charts. Miranda Sawyer talks to singer Phil Oakey about SYNTHESISERS, PSYCHIATRY AND HAIRDOS

You wonder, when you see the Human League, if they exist outside pop.They are so studied and they seem to take it all so seriously. What do they do when they're not in videos? The video which accompanies their latest hit, 'Tell Me When' (taken from the band's new album Octopus), is classic Human League: meaningful over-the-shoulder glances, inch perfect hairdos, inch-and-

a-half-perfect make-up, chorus swept out in a dimly lit ballroom, whilst our angst-ridden hero and heroines stare dramatically, unironically at a half-shut patio door. The song, too, is pure League. Call-and-response between Phil Oakey and the girls Joanne Catherall (dark) and Susan Sulley (blond), with a hookline that is as basic as it is brainwashing; it's all so familiar, you forget it ever went away.


'Tell Me When', however is the Sheffield group's first Top 20 hit since 'Human' eight years ago. These days, there are only three of them - the one's you
don't remember have conveniently scarpered - and the 'girls' are thirtysomething. This year Phil turns 40. He's had 18 years of the pop life. How has he stuck it out? 'I don't think that we ever generally thought we could do anything else,' he says gravely. 'We decided a long time ago we'd only give up when we went bankrupt.' And there have been times, he admits, when the debt collectors were leaning noisily on the front door bell. Over the past six years the 'joint partnership - not quite a limited company' that is Phil, Joanne and Susan has only survived thanks to the deftness of its solicitor, Stephen Fisher.


The group were not flash but, over the years, the cash has been spent: on employees; on building a recording studio; on the break-up of Phil' and
Joanne's eight year relationship (I'm mortgaged up til the next century,' he says, without bitterness). Plus of course, they never quite matched the mammoth success of their third album, 1981 six-million selling Dare, with its glam, vogue- style cover and definitive number-one anthem of hairstyle pop, 'Don't You Want Me'. The singles 'Mirror Man' and Fascination' followed; but

 it wasn't until three years later that the album Hysteria appeared. It was commercially disappointing, and the 1986 LP Crash sold even less - although its first single, 'Human', was a US number one (number eight in Britain). At

that stage, although the commercial curve was definitely downhill, the band's future did not seem irrevocably dumped-bound.

 

They had, after all, outlasted New Romanticism and held their own against
Madonna and Wham!. So it must have been an appalling shock to realise, in
the early Nineties, that apart from a singalong Greatest Hits package - the
public really didn't want them baby. At all. We watched Romantic [the band's 
seventh album] disappear without a trace,' recalls Oakey, evenly enough.
'Gone, gone into the pat with all you've hoped for. So you go into the studio
and throw a few more songs together... About that time, I think, I had a low-
grade nervous breakdown.' His digestive system went haywire. Having just
passed his driving test, he found he couldn't drive. ' What else? I've got a
habit of throwing knives up in the air and catching them by the handle and I
stopped being able to do it. Oakey went to three psychiatrists.

The first pointed out that he'd spent a long time working very hard: 'She was the 
first person who'd ever said that to me - everyone thought I was just taking
limousines to stand by a piano and go, "Yes that's alright I'll sing a bit later, now
take me to a restaurant. " Shrink number two didn't help; the third, a drama
therapist said, as a drama therapist will, that she saw Phil 'as a tree on a hill
without roots'. She meant that he wasn't really settled. Phil was single, without
children, living in a house that few people visited. 'I thought, who did I put
pictures on the wall for, who are they supposed to impress? I didn't know who or
what I was doing anything for.' Though he tries to keep his house neat, Oakey is
a compulsive hoarder: of hi-fi equipment, of videos, motorbikes, Star Wars
figurines and, strangely, the Radio Times. His psychiatrist insisted that was his
attempt to create stability, to build a world of his own. Phil now thinks she's
probably right.

His parents belong to a generation still affected by two world wars, and Oakey, 
born in 1955, feels their attitudes have passed on to him in some way.
'Whatever they are [his mother, whom he adored, died two years ago, at 82; his
dad - the most fantastic person that ever lived - is still alive], I feel them sitting
with me,' he admits. ' I think the whole British society was twisted to give an
artificial authority in order to win those two wars - and now those structures of
authority have gone. It freaks me out when I turn on Radio 4 and I hear'
swearing.'  The Human League are the sounds of 1980,' opined David Bowie in
1980. And so they are. Fifteen years later, the League recording rules stand
unaltered. Every single noise on a Human League LP, apart from the vocals,
must originate from a synthesiser, 'It has purity,' insists Oakey.

He believes that the reason the band lost their way with Hysteria and Crash was 
because they dared to stray away from their own creed; and he says this, as he 
says almost everything, in utter seriousness. In a arch age, when even Take
That perform with a knowing nod and sideways wink, the Human League
remains entirely sincere. Pretentious was too modest a word for their lyrics.
Morbid too jolly for their painted demeanour. It must have taken a massive
humour bypass to be serious about those clothes, that one-curtain-drawn-one
-curtain-open hairdo.

'Probably the second most famous haircut in pop,' says Oakey, with - yes! - a 
trace of a smirk. 'The Beatles' mop- top being the first. But Ken Dood had a few 
hits, you know.' Phil Oakey now wears his hair slicked back. His face is fuller. 
But his voice is still dramatically ropey. His lyrics are still spectacularly
laboured: 'I've got a pile of rhyming dictionaries at home. The penguin's the 
best, ' And he and his band somehow still manage to make tuneful, strange,
memorable records. Proper pop music - the type that Neil Tennant once
describes as making you utterly happy and indescribably sad at exactly the
same time.