Scotland On Sunday 6th July 2003
'Don't you want me?' asks Phil
I ONCE had a great idea (or so
it seemed at the time) for one of those books-that-never-get-written.
‘Whatever happened to the Human League?’ In the early 1980s they dominated
the music charts, fusing the cheesy pop sensibilities of Abba with
state-of-the-art electronica to make emotional, yet danceable records like
‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’. Phil Oakey’s melancholy vocals floated above
singalong choruses and backing from two girls who sounded like they learned
their scales working in a Sheffield chip shop. The League’s combination of
major chords and soaring synths was calculated to make you pine for lost
youth and failed teen romance. They had a number called ‘Soundtrack to a
Generation’, and that’s exactly what they were.
Then it all went wrong for the League, starting with their album Crash in 1986. After that flawed collaboration with Minneapolis producers Jam and Lewis the gaps between records grew to lengths surpassed only by the Blue Nile and Peter Gabriel. Five years elapsed between Crash and Romance, then another five until Octopus, then six more until Secrets. Musicians and marriages came and went. Nervous breakdowns and financial troubles were reported by the few journalists who still gave them coverage, and the quality of the music deteriorated steadily, along with record sales. They played a blinder at Barrowlands in November 1995, but only by focussing on the old classics. By the end of the 1990s, when I turned up to parties with a copy of the League’s Greatest Hits under my arm, people just laughed.
Remember Abba, I warned, and how uncool they used to be. Nowadays, every Abba song ever recorded is available in expensive box sets, every demo and discarded out-take treated with the reverence normally associated with the Beatles. Just you wait, I’d say to those who thought my love of the League bordered on the obsessive, though even I had my moments of doubt. Whatever happened, I asked myself, to the pure pop genius that lay behind a song like ‘Love Action’? Where had it gone? And why, in the name of humanity, hadn’t anyone stepped in to preserve it? In my dreams this book-that-never-got-written was going to answer those questions, and ask why it is that so many giants of pop culture, for no reason apparent to the outsider, disappear one day up their artistic arses.
Now, though, we know what happened to the Human League, and it’s an
appropriately happy ending.
They’ve survived the lean years to re-emerge as celebrity guests to the
champagne and strawberries brigade at Ascot this coming Saturday, where they
will be playing three concerts for the race-goers. Suddenly Phil and the
girls are in again, and they’re hip with the kids too. Richard X & Kelis
release the single ‘Finest Dreams’ in August, which liberally samples the
League’s ‘These Are the Things...’. He worked with Liberty X to pay similar
homage on ‘Being Nobody’, while ‘Don’t You Want Me’ features prominently in
a recent car ad. Upcoming Sheffield band KHLA feature Oakey on their ‘Rock n
Roll is Dead’, and the League themselves will be touring the UK in the
autumn and winter.
The Human League are the most visible beneficiaries of the 1980s revival. The decade after the decade that taste forgot largely escaped both the mockery and the affectionate remembrance afforded the 1970s. That’s partly because there wasn’t much that was funny or cute about Thatcherism, and the chart music of the era was, with exceptions, too bland to be truly loved or hated. Visage, A-Ha, Curiosity Killed the Cat, Ultravox - after the punk and new wave years 1980s bands were too glossy and professional to provoke the kind of extreme reactions regularly dished out to the Sex Pistols and their ilk in the 1970s. We simply forgot about them as we moved into the 1990s.
Until recently. The cult movie Donnie Darko has a lovingly compiled 1980s-style soundtrack which makes you want to re-evaluate that Tears for Fears album sitting in your attic. Record shops are full of 1980s compilation albums and DVDs through which you can relive the delights of A Flock of Seagulls and the Thompson Twins. Why? Maybe because after years of grunge, Britpop and retro guitar bands we’re ready for a bit of glam again - guys with make up and funny hair cuts, sullen girls with pencil skirts, synthetic drums and club culture ennui.
My young cousin turned up at a recent family gathering with a 1980s compilation album on his discman, currently the summit of cool at his school. We played it, and added to the ambience of the occasion with a track or two from my Human League collection. Thirty years separate us, I thought, but what goes around comes around, and the future is Phil’s.