sounds are great. In this E-driven world of smiley faces, the sounds
produced by a sweeping synth filter are enough to rush any self-respecting
club goer into a world of manic delight, Four-on-the-floor beats from drum
machines released over a decade ago are still pounding from the PA rigs
within these under-watered and over-crowded happy places.
Analogue is in,
digital is out.
But for some reason,
the analogue thrill did not start with swallowing a pill back in 1987 with a
thousand other funksters in a field in the middle of nowhere. It took root
back in the 70s when Roxy Music and David Bowie were the nearest you could
get to innovative, and electronic instruments were alien gadgets used by a
bunch of clever German blokes or half hour solos artists from pomp rock.
Then a new breed of
British artist picked up the crumbs from punk and plugged them into the
mains, to inspire a completely new sound that would breed an altogether new
era in music; an era that everybody from the techno acts of Detroit, the
house acts of Frankfurt and the warp acts from Sheffield owe at least a
passing nod of gratitude to.
But, while the
Foxx-driven force of Ultravox and the Numan-angst of Tubeway Army made the
transition to the synth over a respectable time period, there was only one
UK band that immersed itself, from conception, entirely in electronics for
'pop'. Enter The Human League. These four lads could give Kraftwerk a run
for their money in the IQ stakes. Grabbing the synth by its knobs, they
created two of the starkest, yet emotional, futuristic masterpieces ever
And so, in that
confused world of late the late 70s, the forces of image and melody became
the antidote to punk. The guitar was suddenly yesterday's spit-ridden
corpse, lying under a sheen of disparate chords and mohicans. The synth was
the new law and the crass haircutted, frilly-shirted pretty boys of New
Romanticism were the sheriffs.
And The Human League were ready...
IT WOULD BE EASY TO SAY THAT THE REST IS HISTORY.
The Human League had, by late 1981, lost two members to Heaven 17 and gained
Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley who are still in the line-up today.
After faltering slightly with the single Boys And Girls, success arrived in
the shape of the
mega-selling album Dare which firmly established the band as the
of synth pop. They were massive - hit followed hit, and their success seemed
assured. But towards the end of the 80s, a combination of changing musical
fashion and the re-emergence of indie sent The Human League out into
a wilderness where even thir record company seemed ashamed of them.
Today, you could say
that the synth revival has saved them. You could say that the underground
dance culture is now paying its respects. You could say that 30-something
journalists, responsible for much of the band's initial criticism, are now
harking back to their youth. Whatever the reason, The Human League are back,
charting at no.6 in 95 with the
album (on East West) and four top 40 singles:
Tell Me When
One Man In My Heart
Filling Up With Heaven
(no.36); and Stay With Me Tonight (no.40). And this re-found success
has come by use of the technology the band started out with all those years
In the Beginning…
So why the synthesizer back in 1978?
"The fact was," Phil Oakey remembers, "that we (the original line-up of
Phil, Philip Adrian Wright, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh) really liked
what pop had turned into with David Bowie - suddenly there were new sounds.
I lived my life for Bowie and Roxy Music for four or five years - I don't
think I could have got through my adolescence without them, but they were
instruments because that's all there was. We were interested in innovation.
Suddenly, there was the synthesizer and we were knocked out. Hearing Walter
Carlois' soundtrack to
A Clockwork Orange
totally launced us in to it."
This early interest
led Ohil to his first experiences in programming synths - more through
necessity than choice…
"I had to learn it
otherwise I'd be useless," he explains. "I went mad on it - did things like
take DX7 books on tour. I can program DX7s and most people can't."
But despite the fact
The Human League were one of a small minority of bands experimenting with
electronics, they weren't aware that they would be that influential.
"All we knew was that
it was fantastic and that we liked it. Occasionally I get requests to hear
those tapes and it still amazes me to hear what (Ian and Martyn) were doing.
"They could have made
those tapes in 1977/8 for listening to as the dawn of the synthesizer sound
in 1996 and they are exactly the same atmospherically as what we have now."
While we're on the subject, considering the current crop of dance pioneers,
have The Human League ever felt left behind?
"Not really because we
don't think anyone has ever used the stuff in a more up-to-date way than we
did," challenges Oakey. "They've got nice tunes and they've got nice sounds,
but then, so had we years before. It's only when someone takes it further
that you fell left behind. I still think that we work harder on our synths
than any of the people in dance. They've got that brave attitide and they
bang it down in five minutes and that's brilliant,"
So if The Human League's early work is so similar to much of today's sound,
what about revisiting it with the intention or re-working it for the 90s
"I've got a
compilation in mind of what we did before
using stuff on Virgin and putting it on a good value CD. I had an idea to
get a certain amount of remixing done with good packaging. Some of the
originals did not have mastertapes. I've always wanted to (remix tracks) but
that sort of went wrong with the
we have just done on Virgin Records. It cost a lot and although it was very
good, it didn't really take off."
"People have got a
love of the way things were. That wouldn't apply to the pre-Dare stuff. On
Dare, it was much more chordy which makes it harder to remix. I would love
to do it, but the people at Virgin probably aren't going to rush into it
although they are very nice now - it's like the company is coming to life
But if those tracks were to be revisited, then surely this would mean
consulting the members of the band that left before the world-wide success
of Dare? Surprisingly though, Phil does not see this as a problem…
"Ian has still got
some bits of gear in our studio. He's been in a lot. I've not seen Martyn as
he sticks in
London. He was amazing at what he did. The way he played the keyboard
without any training was great. Ian is also a great
programmer, our inticate programmer in the old days."
So, two eras of electronic music could be merged to produce stark new
recordings. By this stage, you get the impression that Phil is much more
interested in rough and experimental doodlings than the synth pop for which
he and the rest of the team are now famous for. Why not producxe some then?
He is, after all, only a stones throw away from Warp Records in Sheffield,
home of Autechre. B12 et al.
"We don't have a
choice of what we do," Phil reveals with some exasperation. "We do what is
expected of us and it fills up the time. If you heard our demo tapes (for
they sound a lot like LFO or something. We have to layer it up and we have
the chords and we have to turn it into a pop song. The bit that I really
enjoy is making daft sounds from synthesizers."
It is a shame then that commercial concerns are standing in the way of
"Who does what they
want to do? You do what you want to do for a couple of years in your life if
you are lucky."
But surely Phil Oakey, now the comeback king of synths, is in a better
position than most to use his time in a way that he wants?
"No I'm not. I've got a mortgage and I can see the money running out all the
Wrestling with technology
Over the years, The Human League have appeared to have had an on-off
relationship with technology. For Dare they embraced it but then the
aspects of playing and working as a band came to the fore while the
electronics got pushed into third place.
"It was just that you lose your guts as you get older," reveals Phil. "You
know everyone turns into a Tory. For three LPs we said, 'We are going to do
it with synths, we are not even going to put a bass frum on', despite the
fact that thousands of people stood in front of us and said, 'You can't have
a dance record without a bass drum'. We said, "We are not going to, we are
going to make our own or fail', and it didn't matter because we had no money
"But eventually you start giving a bit of respect to the people you work
with which is a bit of a mistake. You make a compromise because you work
with fantastic musicians and let them do what they want after a while."
So does Phil regret any aspects of the ensuing low period in the 80s?
"No, I don't regret anything. I didn't enjoy it but I don't regret it. In
Christmas 1984 we really had no future left - it could easily have been all
over - and in Christmas 1995 were at least there in the game. We had a
really hard time but I think that's what happens to people when they succeed
beyond their expectations,
especially when you are succeeding in an area that you have always thought
of as being a bit silly."
…we get to Octopus, the album that has heralded a return to form for
Human League and, not perhaps by coincidence, a return to the technology,
now given vintage status, that they started with. And as Phil Oakey
explains, they do not have a problem with being seen as one of the late
arrivals on the current analogue-hungry music scene.
"You can feel the pull of fashion. I tend to use fashion in a bigger sense
than most people. I think everything we do is related to fashion and now
that synths are the thing unless you want to be old-fashioned. To be honest
we got back the bandwagon mainly because Vince Clarke was the first to go
publicly back into analogue and we just sort of joined in."
Why worry about being late to the party when you started the party in the
first place? Newer bands may have been using their analogue gear more in
recent years, but The Human League used it first and kept most of it for
this second phase.
"We expanded the things we've got. While Ian Stanley (the producer) was here
he bought a Roland System 700 which we used a lot. We borrowed 808 State's
(ARP) 2600 and that's when we got into Oberheims. Tony Wride brought over
the SEM (an Oberheim module). Fantastic for your crisp old-fashioned sounds.
Totally different filters and different from anything we'd used. We'd never
had a synth with a 3-way filter - always low-pass - apart from the Yamaha
CS30 which we never learned how to use."
According to the popular music press, we are in-line for the rebirth of New
Romanticism, In fact, along with a new breed of Romo bands, there are also
rumours of new material from the likes of Heaven 17. All we need is Spandau
Ballet and Adam And The Ants, and those haircuts will be back…
"It would be great to be able to resist it. I don't know if any of the bands
who are in it want to be involved. We took a band on for the first half of
the tour called In Aura who everyone told us were Romo but I think they said
they weren't. But
they have some big shirts! They were really good - I'm listening to their
demo at the moment. It's great if some good music comes out of it. I don't
care what they look like anymore."
Still on the press topic, The Human League used to be ridiculed in some
quarters. Now, however, they are very much the darlings of the weeklies…
"It's nice getting good reviews. You can really take a lot of notice of what
people say. The worst thing you can do is try and please the fans. The
journalists are probably right. They were probably kids when our biggest
stuff was coming out so they have an affection for it. That's one thing. The
other is that people are beginning to realise that whether they are good or
not, the Oasises or the Blurs are still dinosaurs. If you really want to go
and listen to folk music or go to a museum and see people playing a lute,
you might as well go and see Oasis or Blur. It's old-fashioned, the
instrumentation is old fashioned. If you've got a stupid interest in
innovation, then it's no good. Synthesizer music is still the most
up-to-date music and that includes almost throwing all the sampler stuff
away that came along, because that is just a clever way of using old
And the next step?
"We've got to do the album that Octopus should have been. It's got to
have more tracks. I think Ian Stanley wants to get more involved in the
writing so he'll be a big component. We've all got the songs, the subjects
and the titles, which is
how we start.
"It took four years to write the nine songs on Octopus. We gave them to
Virgin and they said, 'Do you want to leave the label?'! That's alright
though. They did us a favour, although we were a bit miffed at the time.
They had a tape with Tell Me When on…it did so well, I still can't
believe it. It was up there for weeks. Just brilliant."
It's this kind of almost naïve surprise that typifies The Human League of
1996. Susannne Sulley comes in as we are finishing off the interview. She
and the rest of the band are at the end of an endless PR round for the
latest single from Octopus and will soon be going straight back into the
studio to start work on the next album. She talks as if it were 15 years ago
and this is the first time 'round. What comes across is the renewed
enthusiasm for the task ahead and the fact that nothing is taken for granted
anymore. Fashions, dictated by the press and the pill, maybe more important
than anything else in 1996, but it's always nice to
see and hear one band sticking to their guns and being genuinely surprised at
success, even after 15 years. And it seems that there's plenty more to
What Phil has found to be true…
On analogue synths
It's easy to program your standard stuff which people will say 'Oh yeah,
Kraftwerk' which is in fact the sound of synths. It's harder to push it a
couple of steps beyond this. I think Vince Clarke has cornered the market in
not over-processing the synth sound, getting the pure sound of a synth out
and accompanying it. He's a brilliant songwriter. There's no point in us
doing that. We are synthing it but going a little bit harder taking it
through two or three synths and two or three effects, and then putting it
through a vocoder."
On S + S
"I'm not interested in samples. If it's got samples then forget it. The
whole idea of The Human League, right from the start, is that we make the
sounds and that we avoid the use of microphones. We don't record it, we make
On physical modelling
"We haven't found these synths very exciting. Even the new ones, like the
Nord Lead, trying to reproduce the old sounds. As soon as it has a load of
control things, and aftertouch and polyphony, I'm sort of turned off
immediately. I've never tried programming (a physical modelling synth).
I'm not fond of software as a sound-producing thing. We've had too many bad
experiences with software. It's a big cloudy area where you have an expert
saying 'this is going to be better than anything else - it's in the
software', and they are usually talking crap. The amount of times I've heard
'our next digital synth is going to sound like a Moog…'
"They say it's easy and that you can take the characteristics and turn it
into software. That' is so naïve. I think they underestimate the depth of
the analogue instabilities and how really random 'random' is.
"They also underestimate the psychoacoustic effects - joe public out there
knows the difference between a good hi-hat and a bad one. It's the most tiny
of details but they don't take that into account."
"We use it as part of our recording process. If we have made a great bass
drum which takes a bit of time then we are not going to put up with what we
used to put up with where two beats would be good and three would be bad. We
get the good one and record it using the sampler.. We don't take other
people's recordings. We don't really use the sound of the real world, that's
The Oakey File
Describe each track on Octopus with the first word that comes into
Tell Me When:
These Are The Days:
One Man In My Heart:
Filling Up With Heaven:
House Full Of Nothing:
John Cleese: Is He
Cruel Young Lover:
Love And Dancing:
"A good plan"
Phil’s Top Synths
(In alphabetical order)
Exclusively Analogue: The Aviator
(only 30 custom models in existence)
"It has a lot of Oberheim stuff in it. It has both the Oberheim and Moog
which a lot of people are using at the moment."
"It is incredibly smooth. We have to be dense about what we do and this is
full of modulations."
Roland Jupiter 6
"A compromise between the 4 and the 8. The 4 has a
fantastic sound and the 8 you can do a lot with."
Roland System 100M
"Because you can build it forever. You can keep going and never run out of
what you want to do."
"It is interesting conceptually; it shows the difference between Japanese
and Western instruments. We think that if things are defined then they are
easier to use and the Japanese think it if they are all the same. The
modulator and oscillator on the DX7 are the same and the Japanese thought
this would make it easier.
it made it harder."
On Tour - it is live!
"The Times said 'Go and see Phil and the girls with their backing
There were no backing tapes on the 95 tour, of course. There was a little
bit of sequencing but the majority was played. We had some terrific players
and they worked themselves into the ground."
How easy were old songs such as Blind Youth and Being Boiled to rework?
"They were really easy
and educational. To realise that in those days synths were so wide that all
you needed was a bassline. I didn't even realise that Blind Youth was a
bassline and that was it. We couldn't find anything for people to play!"
What other problems were there?
"I'm scared of my
memory going because it is going and I had to learn one-and-a-half hours of
songs and I didn't want to get the words wrong. It went surprisingly well.
We are not particularly cocky anymore so we make a real effort to
What about the technical aspects?
"We took two OBMXs on
tour - to take advantage of the way synth sounds were 10-15 years ago and
also add programmability, polyphonics and so on but without a keyboard, so
you don't end up with a guy who's got a grade whatever in piano coming along
and taking over!"
Dave Beevers, the band's engineer takes up the story…
"We used the
Bassstation rack for every bass sound - absolutely brilliant. The Vintage
Keys, a bitch to programme but it saved a lot of work. We got into the
Oberheim OBMX and that did a load of stuff. We know the Roland Super IX
inside out and that also did a load - it's amazing. We took a Roland JD-800
for a remote keyboard and a few sounds. Neil Sutton took a JV-90 which he
knows inside out. And that's about it.
"We didn't take computers, mainly because of the cost thing. I'm the eternal
optimist - I didn't mind taking Macs as they are so easy to use. But the
only thing sequenced on the tour was the bass drum. The hardest work was on
the Octopus stuff because there is so much going on. It was a matter of
taking it down so there wasn't much left - but keeping what was left
ARP Axxe, Odyssey (White)
Casio CZ-1, CZ-101 (x2), VZ1
Korg 770, Mini 700S, Delta, Micro Preset, MS 10
Oberheim 4 Voice
Roland: AX-1 Remotes (x3); JD-800; Juno 106 (x2); Jupiter 4; Jupiter 6;
Jupiter 8; JX-3P; JX-8P x 2; SH-1000; SH-2000; SH-3A, SH-7; SH-101; System
100 Model 101 (x2); 180 3 -octave; 181 4-octave; 184 Poly 4CV
Yamaha: CS15; CS30; CS50; DX1; DX5 X2; DX7; PF 10
Boss: DR-P1 (x3); DR-P2( x2); DR-P3; DR-P4 (x2)
Linn 9000 (x2); LM-1
Roland: TR-727; TR-808; DDR-30; Drumatix (x2); PAD 5; PAD 8 (x2); R-8; R8-M
Simmons Analogue Drums
Yamaha DD10; MR10
Pearl SY-1 Syncussion
Peavey Heritage amp
Roland Bolt 60 amp
Vox AC30 amp
Roland: GR-707 (x2); GR-303; GM-70; GR-33B; GR-300; GR-700 (x3)
Quadra 650-32/500 CD; Quadra 650-24/500; IICX 24 /250; SE/30 10/100;
MacPlus; 5300 CS16/750
Audio Media II; Sample Cell II 32Mb; Sample Cell II 16Mb
Blank Soft Alchemy
Galaxy Universal Librarian
MOTU Digital Performer
Opcode Studio Vision
Passport PRO 5
Steinberg Cubase Audio
Doepfer MAQ 16/3
Roland MC-4B (x2); System 100104 (x3); TB-303
Exclusively Analogue 16 STEP SEQ (x2)
Akai: ME10D MIDI Delay; ME15F MIDI Dynamics controller; ME20A
Alesis: Enhancer; Alesis MICRO EQ (x2); Microverb (x2); S31Q
Aphex Aural Exciter
A + D Copyrite SCMS Stripper
Behringer Studio Parameteric (x2)
BSS DPR-402 compressor/
DBX 120X Boom Box, DBX X160 comp/limiter (x2)
Drawmer DL-241 compressor
Eventide H910 Harmonizer (x2)
Fostex 4030 controller (x2)
GB Spring Reverb
Kenton Pro 2 (x3); Pro 4 MIDI-CV convertors
Kepex 2 TR 804 8 Gates
Lexicon LXP 1 Multi effects
MXR Delay System 2 (x2)
Opcode Studio 5LX (x2)
Quantec Room Simulator
Roland: A110 MIDI Display (x2); MD-8 MIDI-DCB; MPU-101
SMS Jambox 4+
Urie 1176LN compressor
Yamaha: MEP4; MSS1; Q2031A Graphic; R1000 reverb; REV7 Multi effects
Technics SL1200 MK2 turntable (x2)
AMEK Angela 28 Input
Ampex A100 8-track
Fostex A-Series Desk, A80 8-track
Mitsubishi X-400 16-track
Otari: MTR 12 MK2 1/2"; MTR 90 24-track
Revox: B77 1/4"; PR99 1/4INC
Sony: TCD-D3 Portable DAT;, F1 PCM
Tascam DA30 DAT
Trident Flexi Desk
Yamaha ProMix 01 (now Yamaha Programmable Mixer)