www.bbc.co.uk 1st August 2001

MTV's League success

Phil Oakey, lead singer of the definitive 80s group Human League, says pop video channel MTV was vital to the band's global success.

Human League's glossy, geometrical look made them stand out. And 1981's Don't You Want Me was their biggest and most memorable hit.

But Oakey is adamant that their impact would have been minimal without the video they made for the track - spurred on by the advent of MTV in August the same year.

"It was absolutely critical for us and we were very lucky," stresses Oakey in an interview with BBC News Online.

"If MTV had not happened along then, we would have had a very much smaller hit - it was perfect for us."

Film

For those growing up at the time, that atmosphere-laden video is emblazoned on the mind.

And, along with Oakey's kohl-rimmed eyes and lop-sided hair-do, it is how most people would illustrate Human League.

Oakey says the video was professional because it was made on film.

But, like most other bands at the time, Human League had hardly heard of promotional videos - let alone make one.

"We were very lucky. We happened to have our most important video made by a guy who had been to film school.

"The fact that we got a really classic look was absolutely critical. And it also fitted with our music because our music's like a sound track."

Along with Oakey, Human League still consists of Susan Anne Sulley and Joanne Catherall.

All agree that MTV was the principal reason they made the video in the first place. Although not available in the UK, the cable channel's reputation spread fast.

 

'Embarrassing'

Especially attractive to British bands was that MTV finally gave them a realistic chance of success in the US.

Therefore Human League had no choice but to make a video - although they all say they found it pretty tough.

"It was a pain in the neck," says Oakey, though he is able to laugh about the experience now.

"We loved films but we never thought we were good enough to do that sort of thing.

"It involved long days, everyone in the band fell out. Then when we saw it, we hated it."

But as a result, Don't You Want Me became a pop and dance smash in the US in 1982.

Oakey is uncertain whether MTV - and its promotion of the video - can be held solely responsible for the increased involvement of the marketing men in pop.

But he adds: "There is no doubt the rise of the video has coincided with music becoming very corporate and with people being either insignificant or massive."

And thoughts of video were naturally on the group's mind as they prepared to release Secrets - their first album in five years.

Out on 6 August, Secrets shows Human League have lost nothing of their polish. And, Oakey finally admits, the group's aversion to making videos has not gone away.

"We hate it - it's embarrassing. Nine or 11 people watch you jigging about to a song. It's idiotic," he cringes.

"And in my world there wouldn't be any videos - music is about so much more than just a background to pretty pictures."

www.bbc.co.uk 2001

Human League talk about the highs, the lows and the eyeliner...
 

Do you think that current electronic dance music is inspired by you? Does it annoy you that a new generation of artists are making a success out of what you've been doing for years?

 

Phil Oakey: No, not at all really. I don't think anyone else thinks that about us either. Bands like Daft Punk have developed their own electronic sound, which is why they're a success. To be honest, I don't think anyone really remembers us anyway. All I ever do is bump into Depeche Mode fans! Everywhere I go, everyone loves Depeche Mode. I think because we're pop, we just pass in and out of peoples' consciousness.


Joanne Catherall: I think because pop is so disposable, people just assumed we were disposed of along the way.


Can you really say you're disposable when you've had so many successes?


Susanne Sulley: We don't think our stuff is disposable...it's just that pop music generally is these days...it's just one of those things. I got a new window cleaner last week, for example, and he said, 'didn't you used to be in that band?' And of course I said, 'well we still are, actually'.

You're obviously not still together for the money though, because didn't Moby want to remix one of your classic tracks recently? You could have just run off with the pay cheque, so why are you still taking the harder route?

Phil: We can't afford to have Moby remix our tracks...and although we've heard that he's been talking about working with our material for some time, we're not sure he'd be right for our tracks. It's really nice when someone like that talks about you, but it was the record company that pointed it out to us...we're just not sure what he'd do with our tracks really.
Joanne: Mind you, you never do know what someone's going to do with the tracks you give them. You sort of give them to people and they can often come back with something that's completely off.

 

Is it true that you recorded a follow up to 'Octopus' that never got released?


Phil: We did six months work in Sheffield and that was crap so we threw it away. Then I went to London to work in Battersea with Ross Cullum. We did a really intense six months and some good ideas turned up there. We listened to a load of other stuff for inspiration. Ross was also playing around with different distortion techniques, so from that work we ended up with like a table of effects really. More ideas developed from that and had a lot to do with the final sound of 'Secrets'.

 

So essentially you spent a year or more working on the album?
Phil: It was 13 months with Toy, but then we were dropped by East West, just after the stuff with Ross. We were basically costing them more than they were making them.

Joanne: The record company got completely restructured, the managing director left and most of their bands were just dropped. They were disposing of bands that were in the Top 10 at the time.

 

It seems odd that they would drop you. 'Octopus' had gained fantastic success, and didn't Virgin release your greatest hits off the back of it?

 

Phil: Well...I hate talking about the Spice Girls, but it is the all time apochryphal tale that Mel B was dropped with a No.1 hit in tow.
Joanne: 'Octopus' was a success, but again the decision to drop us had nothing to do with how good we were doing. At the time, East West also had Simply Red, they were earning bucket loads but were dropped all the same. I think they got rid or more or less everyone...
Phil: Except, I think the American stuff. I think they wanted quick turn around. Specifically, we were signed up by Ian Stanley for East West and he and his best friend, the managing director, both left. At that point we might as well have left anyway. There's no point being there without anyone to support you.
Joanne: We've done that before as well. When we were with Virgin, there was no one there that understood us, supported us or really knew why we were on their label. That doesn't help your career at all..it's not productive.
Susanne: It had been taken over by EMI as well, it was just massive...

 

Do you think tracks like 'Shameless' and 'The Snake' on Secrets are quite reminiscent of some of your earlier stuff on Dare?

Phil: Possibly, although it wasn't intentional. The instrumental stuff was meant

to relate to different times in our careers and the different material we've produced. It's interesting that you mention 'Shameless' though, as that track was completely transformed by Toy. We had a bit of a dopey Euro-disco track, a tiny bit like The Pet Shop Boys' 'It's A Sin'. We had no idea what to do with it, but he just came in, kicked it around until it was one of my favourites really.

 

People have said that your latest album is probably your finest offering since Dare. Do you ever feel that you will always be expected to emulate Dare's success?

 

Joanne: I don't think it's like an albatross around our necks or anything, but it is all that people ever want to remember us for. It's as if they don't want us to move on...they want us forever to be that group that sang 'Don't You Want Me' or 'Mirror Man' and they don't want us to change...

When you were recording Dare, were you aware of what a success it would be?

Joanne: No we weren't...we didn't really think about that sort of thing. All I remember is doing it in the middle of the night, being fast asleep and then being woken up to do some vocals.

 

After 'Sound Of The Crowd' you came out with 'The Lebanon', with the kind of guitar riffs that you might find on an Oasis record...were you trying to shock people by taking this new direction?

 

Joanne: Well, we had a guitarist in the group at the time and he wrote the backing for 'The Lebanon'. I think it was just felt that at the time we couldn't stop him... But more than that when you have had such big success at first, you do find yourself experimenting with ways to recreate that success. So, you decide to change things in some way...it was probably a huge mistake in our case. People who liked Human League wanted to listen to Human League records and not rock tracks...and those that liked rock weren't going to take it from Human League...the pop band.

If you think that 'Lebanon' might have been a mistake, then how do you feel about its follow up?

Susanne: Well 'Crash' saved our career really...if it hadn't been for Jam and Lewis, we wouldn't still be here. We were in a bit of a state, we'd started recording it with someone else and it wasn't working out, so the managing director of Virgin asked us who we'd like to work with. We were listening to the SOS band and a group called Change at the time, so we hoped to work with them. We approached them and they really liked 'Fascination'...they even wanted to write a few songs for the album. One of those tracks turned out to be 'Human', which was one of our biggest hits.
Phil: I was quite surprised that it was liked as much as it was really, it was quite a smoochie track.


Then your first greatest hits came out. Did you think at that stage, 'well we've made our money now...that's it'?


Joanne: We never have made our money... Susanne: We probably would have done if we'd made our money![Laughs]

Do you ever cringe at what you wore?

Phil:
Never...but the girls might disagree with me. You wore what you wanted to then, it was about being bold. Most people now are terrified of standing out. We live in a very modest time now, it's amazing how much things have changed. We have a guy that helps us out from time to time, he's 21 and wears eyeliner...he's totally unusual. Years ago we wouldn't trust anyone that didn't wear eyeliner! And if you didn't, you were a rocker or something was wrong with you. These days you have to look like you haven't made an effort, that's the problem. Everything's extreme as well, it's either a question of having hair a millimetre long or it's right down your back and matted. But it all looks like they've not bothered.

Finally, what have been your proudest moments to date?

Phil: 'Tell Me When' was our best achievement for me...against all the odds
Joanne: Our second No.1 in America with 'Human'.
Susanne: It's got to be my first Top Of The Pops experience...I'll never forget that.

 

 

www.bbc.co.uk 6th August 2001

Human League reveal Secrets

By BBC News Online's Olive Clancy
 

If the Eighties revival really gets beyond a batwing sleeve here, a hip-slung belt there and somebody makes a movie about those years, Human League will head up the soundtrack.

Back then Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley (spotted dancing at Sheffield's Craisy Daisy nightclub) were the girls we wanted to be, Phil Oakey was the man we wanted to know.

Don't You Want Me, Mirror Man, (Keep Feeling) Fascination, were the songs we were humming.
Those who lived through those years may turn their noses up at batwing sleeves and full on eye-liner, but guess what? Human League are back and they are as cool as they have ever been.

They are feted by Moby and Craig David, the important Ministry of Sound label are to re-issue chunks of their back catalogue and now Human League have a new album Secrets.

"It's not different to what we've done before - it's just longer," says Phil Oakey, still as devilishly handsome as I remember him, if with considerably less hair.

"I think we've done the album we always wanted to do. This is it. And to an extent I don't even care if people like it, its what we wanted to do."

The press treatment has been remarkably positive and Human League look like they could be making a comeback, at the ripe old ages of 45 (Oakey) and 38 (Sulley and Catherall).

They still look fantastic - if not nearly as flamboyant as in the 1980s - and now, as then, the look is all their own work.

"We've never been styled or told to have this haircut or whatever," says Joanne.
"We just dress the way we would've in a night out in Sheffield."
Oakey famously came across the women enjoying just such a night out in Sheffield and he immediately recognised a look that would be a large part of the band's attraction.

"They looked stylish, very directional. It wasn't haphazard, it wasn't extreme," says Oakey.

Some might argue that they were just a touch extreme - Joanne would wear a cloak, while Susanne wore a dyed wedding dress and Oakley admits to looking like an "extra from Macbeth" complete with doublet.

Success was almost immediate, the look fitted perfectly with the nascent MTV trend, the abstract computerised sound chimed with the times.

Don't You Want Me? was the Christmas number one and found its way to the top in America and the band were on their way, though if the success was a surprise, it did not bowl them over.

"We never really thought about it," says Sulley of dramatic highs which lasted throughout the decade.
When the time came to analyse it, things were not good.
"Later we became very withdrawn and didn't know how to go on from that," agrees Catherall.
By the 1990s their music was out of vogue and Human League had a giant hangover.
There are tales of financial mismanagement, depression and breakdowns.
This said, their bounce-back is all the more impressive and the darkness is only really evident on one album - Romantic - which Catherall describes as "gloomy", quickly adding "but it was only the once".

They certainly seem to be on the crest of another wave though resolutely down-to-earth about their own celebrity.
They are not afraid to criticise the music industry, the constant styling of bands to meet a market and the way music gets lost in between the two.

And unlike many bands who claim it is all about the music - you do actually believe them.
"We do feel like we've made the right album," says Oakey.
"We never sit in the studio and think what will the fans like or what will people buy. We make the music we want to."
In interviews and in person they are very modest about their own success and their own abilities, something that puzzles me given their profile.

When I ask them about it, Oakey snorts with laughter.
"The media only ever write the half of it down," he says.
"We're not very good, but we are better than everybody else."