Edinburgh Evening News 8th December 2005

Phil's glad to be back - he's only human

Liam Rudden



I'm only human, of flesh and blood I'm made . . . there must have been a time when that lyric from the Human League's US No 1 (the aptly named Human), seemed incredibly prophetic for lead singer Phil Oakey.


From being in the vanguard of the electronic music revolution of the 80s, the Human League had all but disappeared by the early 90s. And Oakey, who turned 50 last month, admits there were times he despaired of ever performing again, despite a back catalogue of hits that continue to influence the music scene today.


"The Human League never broke up, but basically there was quite a long time when nobody liked us," reflects Oakey ahead of the band's return to the Usher Hall on Tuesday night.


"Grunge had come in and taken over and there was a period from 1989 to 1995-ish when it looked like synthesisers had been a flash in the pan. The whole genre was dismissed as a novelty.


"We just had to get through that period and luckily, we still had our contract with Virgin at that stage and were still selling CDs. But then everyone big has had a period where things have gone pretty badly wrong for them."


Oakey confesses that it was a difficult time him personally and reveals: "There was a fair amount of despair going on then. I sort of had some version of what they used to call a nervous breakdown, where my whole life didn't have an aim.


"I think that's what it was. Because I'd decided not to have children, I'd walk in the house and look at things that I'd bought and wonder 'What am I doing this for?' That came just at the point that it looked like no-one was ever going to like the band again.


"I saw a few psychiatrists, I did the Prozac thing a couple of times, but now I just think it was about getting used to the fact that I was getting older and settling down.


"I've always wanted to fight a bit, I'd never wanted to be comfortable. I found I'd become a person for whom, when I was 22, I maybe would have had contempt."


At 22, Oakey had yet to find fame. But it wasn't far off. Formed in 1978, the Human League originally brought vocalist Oakey together with Ian Craig-Marsh, Martyn Ware and Addy Newton. And it was on the Edinburgh-based independent label Fast Product that they released their first single Being Boiled. It sold 16,000 copies and secured them a tie-in deal with Virgin Records.


"We had a lot of connections with Edinburgh. It was an Edinburgh record label that put our singles out, our manager was there as were most of our crew and my accountant is still based there," recalls the singer whose trademark geometric fringe has long since been replaced by a more easily manageable style - a shaved head.

By 1980 a change of band personnel saw Marsh and Ware depart while Oakey recruited the now familiar faces of Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall into the line-up. Bass player Ian Burden and former Rezillos guitarist Jo Callis joined soon after - a short time later they scored their first No 1 as Don't You Want Me? became the biggest-selling UK single of 1981.


"We really were out on a limb. Actually we are still right out on a limb. It's really odd but people still don't know what to do with us or what we are," says Oakey.


"For a couple of albums we were pretty obscure. A lot of people I talk to now think that we always wanted to be like Abba - they didn't even notice the electronics. But the fact is that when we started we were like the electronic Joy Division. We were that leftfield - more like The Cure than Abba.


"We came from the art school side of things and there was a lot of political comment in our songs. But I think our longevity is largely down to the fact that we can go out and perform hit after hit after hit."


Some of those hits include Love Action (I Believe In Love), Mirror Man, Tell Me When, Keep Feeling Fascination, Sound Of The Crowd, Lebanon and in 1984, Oakey's solo release Together In Electric Dreams.


Today, Oakey, Sulley (now 42) and Catherall (now 43) continue to fly the Human League banner to capacity audiences, discovering that nearly three decades on, the music they pioneered is as popular as ever.


"My aim over the last three years has been to make us the best live group there has ever been - but I don't think anyone will ever accept that because we're not rock," says Oakey.


"However, I feel like we've gone as far as we can with our current format and that this will be the last time that we do this.


"As I said earlier, we've always been out on a limb. At the moment we are a pop band that plays all the songs and now I want us to push it somewhere else and bring the mainstream towards us.


"We nearly did - for a couple of years it looked like all the other stuff had been left behind and we were what rock was.


"All the people who six months before would have been laughing at some of the synthy sounds on Don't You Want Me? suddenly went: 'Wow, this is great.'


"We thought we'd beaten rock, beaten the guitarists, but of course we were wrong."


Let battle recommence.