www.playlouder.com April 2005


Oakey Cokey!

John Robb



What happens to a band when the future catches up with you? What do you do when you were once so far ahead, and then the world caught up? You thrill at festivals, like the upcoming Homelands bash, knocking out a greatest hits set to a whole new generation getting off on their futures past.

The Human League's earliest records such as 'Being Boiled' were so fantastically perfect, so cooly futuristic, so witty, so weird and yet so pop that they still sound modern; like Kraftwerk they somehow contrived to make something perfect and futuristic that no remix, no meddling, nowt, could ever make them sound any better. When they first emerged in the late seventies from Sheffield, a city that seemed to pulse to the neon of Kraftwerk's dreams, they were the latest post punk weirdoes meddling with keyboards. Whilst
fellow steel city future botherers Cabaret Voltaire bent and distorted sound to fuck, the Human League did the same thing and turned it into strange pop music.

They may have been three blokes fiddling about with synths and another bloke with lopsided hair showing slides, but in those post-punk days everyone was destroying rock 'n' roll and doing multi media stuff - that was what people did in those days to strut their stuff.

Don't panic now dear reader, most gimps arsing round with post rock were pretty dull people and are probably all bank managers now, but the Human league were funny and they had great tunes, and Phil Oakey was a great pop star. Girls fancied him, he had mad hair, and he had a great lugubrious northern baritone. And when half the band fucked off to form Heaven 17, Phil Oakey drafted in two brassy birds from a nightclub dancefloor and the bloke who used to write the tunes for The Rezillos, and created one of the biggest pop band of the eighties - now that's pop genius for you!

Like all the best pop bands of their era they had roots deep in the Seventies underground. It might be a mighty long way down a dusty trail from prog rock to Top Of The Pops but prog is where Oakey's heart is.

"I used to think of us as being a glam band but recently I've been telling people that we a progressive band. When we were growing up we were listening to things like Van Der Graaf Generator or early Genesis. We liked The Nice, Emerson Lake and Palmer - that was a big influence on us and we never talked about that."

But it was the wam bam thank you glam of Bowie and Roxy that almost inevitably really made their mark.

"Bowie, Roxy we loved them. They saved our lives. We would have had a miserable time if they had not come along when we were 17, 18. We were desperate to find something that would apply to us and one day we went to the university and saw Roxy Music and thought - yeah that's it."

Roxy Music became a formulative influence.

"What I always felt proud about was that we didn't copy them directly. There was a band in Sheffield called The Extras and they liked Roxy Music and they got a saxophonist and guitarist and a synth player and were very much like Roxy Music. We said that we wanted to be Roxy Music if they started now rather than emulate what they did then."

A nouveau Roxy Music without the fox hunting, Human League managed to stretch out their hits till the mid nineties. They survived the death of synth pop and still survive 25 years deep into the future they were plotting years ago. It's down to their pop skill and sheer Sheffield steel that they have battled on. These days they are festival favourites playing all over the world from South America, to South Africa, to Istanbul. With the amount of hits they've had it makes sense and with the faintly wiffy electroclash scene, and really cool bands like Ladytron making their mark on the underground. Human league find themselves accepted as mentors.

"We have sort of come back to be part of the landscape now. There was few years when it from 1988 to 1995 when we were poison. People hated us. Laughed in our faces. I believe the same thing happened to people who played saxophone in the late twenties and thirties."

They were fucking with pop but they went on to be one of the eighties most enduing hit machines and one of the few bands from that era that sounds good today. 'Don't You Want Me' has become one of those pop classics that sits neatly in car ads, karaoke's and drunken weddings.

Brilliantly, obstinately ver League have remained in Sheffield. Its a great city, always has been. The post punk ear had great clubs like The Limit and of course The Leadmill; there were always quirky bands from Pulp, to the avante jazz of The Box.

"We stayed in Sheffield. We never fancied London really. I liked going to London but I wouldn't want to live there. It's an interesting place but it can be the kiss of death unless you are fantastically talented and focused. We would have been drunken and drugged to death if we moved there. If we had the money we would have gone to Los Angeles and get in the film business there but the money was short because there was six of us, I guess we earned the same money as if we had a conventional job but it was not a swimming pool level like money - haha. And I like my money, I'd like to have a swimming pool and a Rolls Royce to show off to my friends - hahaha."

Back in Sheffield the last great gasp of acid house went with Gatecrasher, the club where the kids dressed up all wacky had a great time and pissed off the earnest overpaid wanker DJ's who forgot that the crowd was the star. Naturally Oakey was a fan of the place.

"Gatecrasher was great. Sheffield is a little bit boring at the moment. I suppose everything quietened down when the bars opened and killed the club scene. Our studio was 200 yards away from Gatecrasher. We knew the guys that ran it, we sort of lived there. There's quite a healthy music scene at the moment - lots of decent bands. It's all gone a bit guitary. The guitar bands have won although we got some good electronic bands like Fat Truckers and I Monster who are really good. Its much more of a friendly scene these days. When we started all everyone wanted was for everyone else to fail - hahaha."

Failure doesn't seem to be an option for the League, Oakey is about to start work on a new album, relieved that there is no pressure to have hits anymore. It's time to fuck about again and make the music that he wants to make. Looks there may be another future.