Vox Magazine February 1995
Truth or dare?
Floppy fringes, synthesized pop and cocktail waitresses – the ‘80s were made for The Human League.
Yet, if the band had only watched less telly, they could have been ‘90s contenders, too. Thirteen years
on from ‘Don’t You Want Me’, Phil, Joanne and Suzanne are back, hoping the answer is still yes…
IN 1981, THE OLD boards of Sheffield's Victorian Lyceum Theatre creaked with the
octopus-like shuffle of dancers/singers Joanne Catherall and Suzanne Sulley, while
Phil Oakey squinted through this lop-sided haircut at the stalls packed with
young,panstick smeared faces. The dilapidated venue was playing wizened host to
The Human League's bright electro-pop, which the band had just taken to the top of
the album charts with Dare.
"We were at our peak," recalls the burly singer as he stands inside the same
auditorium 13 years later. Beside him, the eight-stone frame of Suzanne shakes
with bullish Yorkshire humour as she declares "It"s hard to believe now, I but for a
few months in 1981 we were I bigger than "Take That."
These days, the Lyceum shows off its original decor after an expensive restoration.
Its boxes are entwined with gold leaf and draped with red velvet, providing a
luxurious backdrop for Sheffield's greatest pop band as they meet up for a rare
photo session. Oakey has even tried to enter into the spirit of the place by bringing
along a silver-tipped cane,a top hat and an antique magicians box.
However, although a touch of make up hints at his foppish past, the singer loses,
confidence in his own idea of playing a Victorian music-hall star and he hides his
props under the stage. His conservatism may be rooted in the knowledge that The
Human League's latest album, Octopus-which confirms that they've lost none of
their enthusiasm for unabashed pop music-could be their last chance to recapture
the glory days of Dare. They're afraid to make a wrong move, with Oakey well
aware that in the past they have been their own worst enemies.
"We were lazy and easily distracted in those first few years after Dare," he says "I
spent too much of my time front of the telly when I should have been working. If
you're lucky and you get a bit of money, you think Wow, how fantastic I can havea
great sound system, a wide-screen TV and every single episode of The Avengers if
I want. It's like being a kid-you can't quite it believe that such a thing is possible.
But what you can't know at the time is that once you have these things they lose
their value," he says, with the look of a disappointed fan. "So I've got a big collection
of videos that I don't bother to watch anymore. Meanwhile, we haven't followed up on
our success because we weren't in the studio when we should have been."
There's a song on the new album, called 'These Are The Days', which captures the
band's determination to get it right this time and become "contemporary". It opens
with the line: "Here's a song about living in the past/if it was so good how come it
didn't last." The forward-thinking mood is tempered when Oakey sings: "Now I'm not
saying that everything is really great/After 16 years of legalised class hate."
Suzanne suggests an alternative explanation for the group's inability to capitalise on
their early success. We worried about taking advantage of people. We come from
the socialist republic of South Yorkshire and it's really hard for us to get away from
those values. We wanted to be as big as Duran Duran but we didn't want to have
that kind of lifestyle. We've never moved away from Sheffield and to a lot of people
that probably looked like we were hiding away when we should have appeared more
Dare was the first album that the trio of Phil, Suzanne and Joanne worked on
together. Before the 17-year old schoolgirls joined in 1980, The Human League were
fuelled by their boyish obsession for gadgets, sci-fi and cult TV. The results were a
bizarre mix of mono-recorded electronic pop songs such as 'Being Boiled' and
experimental tracks that were inspired by everything from the heroic qualities of TV
cop Steve McGarrett (Hawaii Five-O) to the BBC theme tune from Dr Who. Their
first two albums, Reproduction production and Travelogue (which featured Ian Craig
Marsh and Martyn Ware, who left soon after to form BEF and Heaven 17) were
praised by David Bowie as innovative, and dismissed as the work of "trendy hippies"
by John Lydon.
Meanwhile, Siouxsie Sioux insisted that they tour with the Banshees in 1980,
because she recognised that Oakey had a "real voice". Less than an two years
later, he was equally famous for his haircut and pierced nipple, and Suzanne had
found her place in pop folklore as the cocktail waitress turned protégéé in the band's
promo-video for their Number One Single, "Don't You Want Me". Fans were satiated
by follow-up singles, 'Mirror Man'(1982) and (Keep Feeling) Fascination' (1983),
which both charted at Number Two in the UK. But, as Oakey now admits, the band
were already struggling.
"We have thought about breaking up The Human League for about ten years," he
declares. "It's a bit of a breakthrough to stop thinking about it, actually. It used tobe
on my mind four or five days a week".
FINALLY IN 1984, the band released a new album, Hysteria which was greeted with muted enthusiasm at a time when Frankie Goes To Hollywood were pushing
electronic-based dance music into more controversial territory. Meanwhile, claims
Oakey, Culture Club's success had destroyed the credibility of pop music in the years
"Boy George killed pop music," he rants. "He took the bizarre visuals that had been
carried right through from The Beatles, David Bowie, Lou Reed and Roxy Music and
he allied them with music that even Marjorie Proops found attractive. He sold us all
out. Until then if someone looked outrageous you could rely on them making weird
music that your parents would absolutely hate. Instead everyone thought Ahh, isn't
he sweet. He was the end of rebellion because mums and dads started telling their
children that pop music was a respectable career"
"And all the time he wasn't really being very honest," butts in Suzanne, because he
was actually a heroin addict."
According to Oakey the power of pop music received another fatal blow a year later
when Bob Geldof orchestrated his Live Aid benefit. "It was the other nail in the coffin,
although perhaps it's the only thing worth killing pop music for. You can't knock them
or their intentions but it was a change in the way things were done. Bob Dylan stood
in front of The White House and said: 'You bastards, you're doing it wrong.' Geldof
stood with his hand in Charles's hand and said 'Let's get together we all like each
other now '"
The global promotion received by artists involved with the project also effectively put
an end to Suzanne's dreams of The Human League being "as big as Queen or Elton
John". However as Oakey reveals it could have been different. "We were asked to do
so many benefits and people would use all these excuses. You get all this: 'Can you
just do this for us, it's my brother's birthday,' or 'My uncle's in a wheelchair,' and
they'd always tell you that David Bowie would be turning up to do it. So when
someone rang up and said 'You've got an opportunity to go on a song written by Bob
Geldof and Midge Ure, and David Bowie's doing it,'I was like: 'Are you serious? So
now you want me to go and sing on a Bob Geldof record, do you?' So we said no."
"He pauses, "It just happened to be the wrong decision."
In the latter half of the '80s, the band became increasingly isolated and reclusive.
Internal disputes blocked any chance of new material as competing band members
all thought to have their songs recorded "You earn more money that way", states
Oakey in his flat monotone. They overcame this particular problem by teaming up
with Minneapolis producers/writers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who composed all
the songs for their 1986 album, Crash. However by this time their company, Virgin
had lost faith in their long-threatened comeback, and morale within the band hit an
all-time low as new financial worries loomed. Joanne remembers "moments of panic
when it's like: Oh God, we haven't got any money what are we going to do? Financial
stress is hard on people especially if you have to go to the building society to ask for
your mortgaged to be frozen".
Some of their debts were paid off when Virgin released the band's Greatest Hits album
in 1988, but as band members came and went the question of "who owes what to
whom turned us from musicians into accountants", says Suzanne. "And some of the
people we've been involved with, well, basically they tried to bankrupt us."
The slow countdown to Romantic? released at the end of a decade that had turned
sour for them increased their insecurity. "I looked at the Pet Shop Boys and thought:
That should have been us," says Oakey. By now U2 were trading on the Americana
roots of their Rattle And Hum album and the growth of the Manchester baggy scene
left little room for the league's polished, old-fashioned electronic pop. Neither did the
SAW produced kitsch of Kylie Minogue offer solace to a band determined to retain
some "sense of weirdness and depth".
"I couldn't see a place for us at all," says the singer. "We're pro-synthesiser and we're
pop. We can't say we've come out of the blues. Sometimes people don't want to wear
a pop badge on their jacket. They want to look as if they have gone into some
musicological background and know their craft. That's what happened at the end of
As Oakey owns up to "feeling nervous" about the reception awaiting Octopus, it's
clear that 1995 could be a make or break year. Yet, if it all goes wrong again, the
threesome are resolved to continue, no matter what.
"Pop music is so different now," considers Suzanne. "All the groups are
choreographed. It's very uniform and they've all got their hats on back to front. I've
thought: God is this what it's come to? I still don't know whether there's a place for us.
But if we have to release our albums independently, then we will. If we have to play
the pub circuit to keep going, then that's what we'll do. We love being in The Human
League and want to stay together. After all Joanne and I have never done anything
else." "No, and we never want to either," comes the instant reply.