Manchester Evening News 24th November 2006
Why Oakey is still top of the League

Lawrence Poole

A FORMER porter who swapped delivering patients to their wards for delivering some of the 1980s most innovative and striking music, Phil Oakey's transition to pop star wasn't a pre-meditated one.

In fact, aptly, considering the hospital career he left behind, it was an accident.
Sheffield computer programmers Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh wanted to form a band but needed someone to front it. Spotting Oakey's star quality, they asked him to join.

Sharing a passion for futuristic, synthesiser-based acts like Kraftwerk, Human League were born in 1977. But did Oakey share their vision?

"I think, maybe, I did stand out from the crowd," he says. "I was living a bit of a gloomy existence and then, one day, I saw Roxy Music and a little thing ignited in my head and I thought, `I can be a little bit different' - so I moved in that direction."

This early incarnation didn't last, however, and Ware and Marsh left to form another of Steel City's big hitters, Heaven 17. Thankfully, fate would again put the band on an upward trajectory. After famously spotting teenager clubbers Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley in a city nightspot, Oakey saw the - dare we say it - X-Factor that Ware had previously seen in him.

"At a time when new romantics were the rage, Joanne and Susanne stood out in black shirts, red ties and trilbies," says Oakey. "It was a classic look."

When the girls turned out to be good singers, he had the unenviable challenge of convincing their parents, which was understandably tough going.

"Especially when you consider this man had walked into their front room wearing stilettos, with hair down one side of his face!" he laughs. "I just had to convince them that we didn't have some heinous plan to take the girls abroad and sell them."

Trademark haircut

The groundwork, and that trademark haircut, proved worthwhile. In 1981, the

band released the seminal Dare LP, a five-million seller. It spawned Human League's signature tune, Don't You Want Me, plus the much-mimicked petrol station-set video.

The nineties saw the genesis of music nostalgia and, once again, they bleeped back on to the radar, thanks to the yearning electro anthem, Tell Me When.

Now a circuit fixture with a flourishing following, the trio recently played the Hollywood Bowl. Although being in charge of wardrobe and mastering the idiosyncrasies of the hotel trouser press was a challenge Oakey is glad he doesn't have to face here.

"They have them in most hotel rooms, but they're really not very good," he quips. "I like to be quite formal and have two suits a night, so it's quite hard work. "I can't really moan about still going on American tours though, can I?"

With uncharted cities being pencilled in every year, the financial importance of new material is no longer paramount. Surprisingly, he does envisage a studio return.

"We've got our own studio and we're writing, but we didn't want to for ages, because of the failure of the last record."

So, with his hometown currently in the grip of a musical renaissance, what does Oakey make of fellow social commentators the Arctic Monkeys?

"I've seen most of the new acts, and the Artic Monkeys seem to have it sussed.
"They're great players," he says. "I was sad to see the bassist leave, as the rhythm section is so key to their music. He looked like a nervous rugby player, yet the bass was so good!"

With new material in the offing next year, the Sheffield veteran could still give the young scamps a run for their money yet.