Galway Advertiser 7th November 2006

The Human League to bring their electric dreams to the Black Box

Kevin McGuire

IN 1988 Sheffield electropop group The Human League released Greatest Hits, the culmination of a very successful decade for them. Yet, only a few years later they were dropped by their record label and “couldn’t even get arrested”.

The new millennium proved kinder to the group and when they took to the stage at The Electric Picnic in Laois in 2005 they were again back on top and since then they’ve been touring the world. They play The Black Box Theatre on Saturday December 16 as part of their current world tour.

The Human League was formed in the late 1970s by computer programmers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh but they realised they would need a charismatic lead singer to front the band, so Ware hired old schoolmate Phil Oakey who “looked like a pop star”. In 1980 Oakey did the recruiting when he asked Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley, whom he saw dancing at a local disco in Sheffield, to join.

It was a masterstroke. The vocal interplay between Oakey and the girls was to make the band big! However Oakey had to convince the girls’ parents to let them go on an upcoming world tour.

“We felt we wouldn’t be allowed to go because our parents were quite strict,” states Catherall from her home in Sheffield. “I think that now parents like their kids to get involved in pop music because it’s seen as a very glamorous career and they can earn a lot of money out of it. However, at the time the opportunity arose for us in the early 1980s our parents just thought that we’d be going into this seedy business that was full of sex, drugs, and rock‘n’roll. Phil came round to my house and to Susan’s house and sort of charmed our parents. They said ‘Yes’ and that was the beginning of our journey.”

The 1980 European tour was to be a baptism of fire for the two new recruits but it did cement the motley crew as a unit and unprecedented success was to follow. In early 1981 they teamed up with former Stranglers’ producer Martin Rushent and the result of this collaboration gave The Human League their first hit with ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’. The group followed it with further hit singles ‘Open Your Heart’ and ‘Love Action’.

As Christmas 1981 approached they were to have their biggest selling single with ‘Don’t You Want Me’. It continues to be a massive hit even to this very day.

“We absolutely love playing that song,” says Catherall “We normally finish the set with it and we have done for years because we know that audiences love it. We would change the intro or the tempo sometimes to make it a bit different but we would never see it as a chain around our necks or anything.”

In early 1982 ‘Don’t You Want Me’ went to the top of the American charts but it also proved to be a very trying time for the band.

“The success of ‘Don’t You Want Me’ in America really surprised us,” says Catherall. “When we put it out as a single over there we went over to America and we were booked to go on a show called Solid Gold. The show wanted to put dancers on with us and we didn’t want that at all but they were really very stubborn about it. We tried to come to a compromise and maybe go on the show a bit later but we ended up not doing the show at all. The guy from the record company over there stormed off and said ‘Nobody will ever hear your music in this country again,’ and we thought that was it for us. However, about two weeks later ‘Don’t You Want Me’ went to Number One in America and we were absolutely delighted.”

However, the beginning of the end of their successful period was close by. In 1985 Oakey scored a solo hit with ‘Together In Electric Dreams’. The following year Oakey returned to The Human League fold. Their record label decided to team them up with hit American producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis leading to second US hit ‘Human’. However the partnership was short lived.

“When ‘Human’ went to Number One it was a total bolt out of the blue because we weren’t even in America at the time,” says Catherall. “Somebody phoned us up and told us that it was top of the charts over there and we all kind of looked at each other and went ‘Oh, here we go again’ sort of thing.”

The early 1990s was the lowest point for Oakey, Catherall, and Sulley as they were dropped by Virgin. “Grunge music took over and nobody was interested in pop music or in us,” Catherall admits. However it would be an old pal from the 1980s, Tears For Fears’ Ian Stanley who would re-launch them.

“I would credit Ian with turning our career around,” says Catherall. “He gave us a chance when nobody else would. At the time he was working with East West Records and came to Sheffield to see us. He had faith in us at a time when I don’t think even we had faith in ourselves.”

In 1994 The Human League enjoyed a having a hit single on East West with ‘Tell Me When’. Since then the group have not looked back. In 2003 they released their first album in 10 years. Performing at the Electric Picnic in 2005 was particularly exciting.

“It was great to be part of a festival that Kraftwerk were playing,” says Catherall. “They were such a big influence on us as a group in the first place. To think that 25 years down the line we’d be on the same line-up as them at a beautiful festival in Ireland was absolutely super.”