Ipswich Evening Star 12th December 2004

Tell me when

THE Human League were and still are the superstars of synth pop. One of the biggest bands of the 80s, notably due to their groundbreaking album Dare and international smash hit single, Don't You Want Me, their success has continued to this day. On Monday their current UK tour comes to Ipswich. Entertainment editor JO MACDONALD caught up with Susanne Sulley.


DURING the 1980s era of synth pop one band reigned.


That band were The Human League.


Their groundbreaking album Dare was eponymous with the cultural climate of a generation while the international chart-topper it spawned, Don't You Want Me?, emerged as a classic of its time.


For years they were untouchable purveyors of a sound that distinguished a decade - and their reign did not end there.


Reborn in the 1990s, The Human League again returned to the top of the musical tree.


And even today, more than 20 years since their breakthrough, when it comes to music bursting with electronics and synthesisers few can match the ingenuity and finesse of Phil Oakey, Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall.


Surprisingly through it all the trio have managed to avoid the trappings of fame and the notoriety that invariably accompanies it to remain down to earth artists in the business for no more than the music.


"We made some great songs but more importantly we made some really great songs that people liked and people still like, songs that have stood the test of time. They haven't date; they still sound modern," said Susanne, from her Sheffield home where she was relaxing before the start of The Human League's current UK tour.

 

"People have taken us to their hearts and I think they have always known that we're not in this just for the fame. They were never going to see us in celebrity magazines. We're in this for the music.


"And when we're not working we go away and hide in Sheffield. We're quite ordinary. We're not like popstars. I'm like you and you're like me."


The importance of The Human League in the history of music has recently regained a degree of prevalence.


Their tracks have been sampled on a number of contemporary hits, perhaps most famously by Richard X who included the track Being Boiled on Liberty X's smash Being Nobody. Bands including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Depeche Mode have given them name check. And more recently their achievements were recognised with an accolade at this year's Q Awards, only their second gong in a career spanning three decades.


"We got a Brit in 1982 - for what I can't remember - but we lost it. We got a bit drunk and left it by the side of a chair and have never had it back," Susanne recalled.


"Apart from that the Q award was our first. It was very flattering and possibly the best award they could have given us.


"It was the Innovation In Sound award and that's what we do. It's all about the sound with us."


The award carries all the more importance when it is acknowledged that The Human League are being recognised by a music business vastly different to that which they knew in the eighties.


Today's industry is a much changed beast and Susanne is the first to admit that if she, Joanne and Phil were starting out in it today, they would not stand a chance.


"Today the music industry is about the quick buck. It's about making money fast and throwing away those who don't cut it," she scorned.


"When we started we signed for seven albums. Today record companies usually have the option of what to do with an artist after one album or single but they couldn't ever drop us. They didn't have that choice. Unless they bought us out they were stuck with us, even if we didn't sell any records.

 


"I still think it should still work like that now. It gives groups a chance to
mature. Instead today we have an industry in which if a single doesn't go top

20 the band or artist is dropped. It's ridiculous."


She continued: "Under no circumstances would we stand a chance starting out today.


"We're too opinionated and don't like being told what to do. We know what our music stands for and is about so we'd never survive with a big boss tell us what to sing.


"We were much more cantankerous when we were young."


It is now 24 years since Susanne and her friend Joanne became part of The Human League story.


The full story had begun a few years earlier when former hospital porter Phil joined forces with computer operators Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh. They signed to Virgin in 1979 but as everything seemed to be falling into place Martyn and Ian left the band, going on to form Heaven 17.


Phil was left with a contract to tour Europe with The Human League so one night in 1980 headed out in his home city of Sheffield to recruit some extras to join him.


"Phil went with his girlfriend to a nightclub looking for a girl or a couple of girls who would be able to jig around on stage and maybe do some vocals - and he saw me and Joanne," Susanne recalled.


"He said that in a nightclub full of very, very weird people we looked classy."


After encouraging both their parents and school to allow them to take up this once in a lifetime opportunity, Susanne and Joanne headed out on the road with Phil for four weeks. But their part in the tour did not make them fully fledged members of The Human League. They had been invited on tour, not to join the band.


It was not until the recording of album Dare that the two friends became bona fide, full time Human League members. And there they have stayed since through all the band's highs and the lows.


Throughout the 80s the band enjoyed huge success, including a number of top ten singles and numerous gold albums and became established as one of music's biggest names.


However, at the onset of the 90s musical tastes began to change and The Human League slowly fell out of favour with the music buying public.


The band never split, but they did take a break and it was not until 1995 with the hit Tell Me When and accompanying critical acclaimed album Octopus that they made their return.


Things have continued to go swimmingly for the band ever since. They may no longer be a regular feature in the British charts but the power of their music has endured through the years.


And most importantly, people are still willing to pay to listen to it live. They have broken away from the retro-tour packages performing alongside other survivors of the 80s to once again enjoy headlining fame all their own.


"I don't think about the low points," Susanne reflected. "I don't dwell on something that's been and gone as it just makes you unhappy and miserable.


"I'm just very, very happy and fortunate. Look at how great things are after 24 years.


"We may be playing smaller places now rather than big arenas but it's great fun and thoroughly enjoyable. It's a great job."


She continued: "To be truthful it's much more fun now.


"The band was too important to us in the early days for partying and we couldn't go and sit in the bar of our hotel because it would be full of people hassling us. We'd just sit in our hotel rooms.


"At least now we can go out and have a drink.


"And I know the pitfalls now. When someone is telling you that you're fantastic it's usually because they want something from you.


"It means I can enjoy it more now - and it's a lot of fun."