Sydney Morning Herald 14th November 2003
Don't you want me, baby?
Well, we don't have much say in it. The Human League are back as part of an '80s nostalgia-fest, reports Bernard Zuel.
He never wanted to be a star. Phil Oakey never even thought he'd be a singer. He was drafted in when nobody else wanted to sing. Oakey, a shy, quiet type, was just the least antisocial of the bunch.
The Human League were never meant to be hit-makers, either. In the dour post-punk Sheffield scene of the late '70s, the band were socialists, stern young insects and like, they assumed, their heroes, Kraftwerk.
But in 1982, after founders Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh had left, Human League Mk II (Oakley, Jo Callis and Ian Burden joined by backing singers Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall) became so big with their third album, Dare, that Oakey's lopsided hairdo suddenly became de rigueur for young men of a certain disposition.
"It was very baffling," says Oakey, who comes to Australia with Human League Mk III (Oakey, Sulley and Catherall plus backing band) as part of a nostalgia-fest called '80s Here and Now. Sharing the bill are Mondo Rock, Kim Wilde, Paul Young, Belinda Carlisle, 1927 and Go West. "In the long term, it certainly didn't do me any good. I actually found it very hard to deal with. I ended up going to psychiatrists, on Prozac for a while and all that sort of stuff.
I never did understand it."
But Oakey, who turned 48 last month, never had much choice. Not when the Human League found themselves one of the first bands to break the US via videos played on the then-nascent MTV. Oakey couldn't even watch himself in those things, but plenty of others lapped it up.
"After a while, you don't even think about that sort of stuff," he says. "If we could have made it 10 or 12 years earlier, it would have been fantastic to be in Pink Floyd, who in a way were my model of what a band should be - where they could even do a show and not turn up for the first couple of numbers, have someone in a mask doing it. We just got born into an age that did that sort of thing."
Of course, the hits stopped eventually and the public forgot them for a while. That's OK, though, because Oakey, Sulley and Catherall got a second
chance, as well as a second wind. The best part of it? Oakey, who recently confessed that he didn't go out in Sheffield for 10 years because he was sick of having drinks tipped on him, is having the time of his life.
"I'm more 'party' than I've ever been," he says. "Maybe it's because of not going out for 10 years. We started going out again in about 1995, doing the club scene in Sheffield, which is one of the few good things about Sheffield, and really started enjoying ourselves.
"I'd be going out every night if I could.
I would be slumped against the bar every night. I couldn't stay in on a Saturday night, I'd feel like I may as well be dead."
That attitude extends to the retro tours, which top up the band's coffers, along with a couple of British club hits in the past five years and the steady stream of royalties from the glory years.
Oakey isn't too precious about it all, although he does draw the line a bit further back than some of his colleagues on this tour.
"We take what we're given now," he says. "It's all part of surviving for years and years. I think [the retro tours] are a little bit odd. We use our own band, of course, whereas most of the other people tend to use a house band and the singers just come on and change. Whatever works for them, I guess. We couldn't leave our band behind; they're too important to us."
That's not something you would have heard in the Sheffield rehearsal rooms back in 1978, as Oakey cheerfully admits.
"We weren't very good, I have to say. We were a fairly rotten band until '96 or so, when we decided we better learn how to do it properly. Because we came out of punk we thought you shouldn't rehearse and it didn't matter - the spirit was what mattered.
"In '96, we were so grateful to be having hits again that we thought, 'Hang on, let's add a bit of professionalism'."