Liverpool Echo 2nd December 2005


The wanted me because I was tall with funny hair

Dawn Collison

AS THE front man of electro hit-makers The Human League, Phil Oakey became an 80s music icon.

The band was hailed as one of the greatest, most innovative of the decade and their album Dare was a staple of every record collection.


But the singer himself has a rather modest take on events, especially those which led to his role in the band in the first place.


"I've always said the reason they wanted me was because I was relatively tall . . . and I had funny hair," jokes Phil.


"And actually the hair was just a way to cope with my shyness. I was a really self-conscious person and the only way I could stop myself from hiding away at the back of a room was to look a bit different."


The 'they' in question were Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, two computer operators from Sheffield, who had a shared passion for German electronica pioneers Kraftwerk.


Martyn had been to school with Phil and his appearance prompted them to pin a note to his door inviting him to become their lead singer.


Phil agreed, quit his job as a hospital porter, and the rest is history. Although so, in fact, could The Human League have been had it not been for a chance meeting.


Still going strong after 25 years, Phil admits the band may not have survived more than a couple had it not been for the night at a disco which wrote itself into pop folklore.


In the Crazy Daisy, Phil spotted two teenage girls - Joanne Catherall and Susan Anne Sulley - going through their dance routines and thought they'd make a great addition to the band.


"And, to be honest, I don't think we could have lasted without them," he says.. "What we do is 10 per cent music and 90 per cent business and Joanne and Susan are the best business partners I could possibly have.


"Through everything that's happened to us, they've always been so positive and they've never failed to rise to a challenge.


"Mind you," he adds, smiling, "none of us had anything else to go back to. They were at school and I was a hospital porter and I don't think I could go back to that kind of money again. But if I say we were stuck with it then mainly it's been a pleasure."


Certainly for The Human League the 80s were heady. The arrival of their

"dancing girls" - though greeted with critical scepticism - ushered in a new era for the band and a new level of success.


They racked up eight top 10 singles, including a UK and US number one with Don't You Want Me? from the platinum selling Dare. Even their boss at Virgin Records loved them so much he bought Phil a BMW motorbike as a thank you for the label's first number one.


But, when their halcyon decade ended and the 90s gave way to dance music, The Human League found themselves facing a struggle. "At one time we had four guys.


working for us and the money had run out in November and we had to tell these guys they weren't getting paid at Christ-mas," recalls Phil.. "That is a horrible thing, really hard.


"But we had a lot of people to deal with. On Dare there were four writers and six in the band and as soon as you start splitting things up like that it's unusual to make a great deal of money."


Phil and Joanne, a couple for eight years, split but the band didn't and weathered the storm. "It was fine with me and Joanne," says Phil.. "She's very practical, very down to earth.


Susan and I can be a bit flaky, but for real solidity, Joanne's the one."


The turnaround for The Human League fortunes came in 1998 with a phone call from 80s mate Boy George and an invitation to join a lucrative Rewind tour of America.


Phil, Joanne and Susan said yes and it was the kick start they needed to remind fans just how special they were. The association with Martyn and Ian has remained loose ever since.


The band went on to headline their own tours worldwide and now they're in the midst of a major UK tour after a summer spent playing festivals alongside bands barely born in their heyday.


But, at 50, Phil says he still harbours an ambition. "To turn us into the best live act in the world. "We came out of David Bowie and Roxy Music and glam," he explains, "and we're never going to be able to not do the performance side of it. I think it's probably quite embarrassing, a bit like your dad dancing at a wedding, but it's what we do. We believe in show and we're lucky to have such a catalogue to perform.


"And we'd never get precious about doing those songs. I think we've always been a little too common and working class for that."