When Joanne Catherall played her
debut gig with The Human League in a Doncaster nightclub in 1980, the idea
of playing to 16,000 people in the unfeasibly glamourous amphitheatre that
is the Hollywood Bowl was, like so many things in the depressed north of
England at the time, an impossible dream. Up until the Doncaster show,
dark-haired schoolgirl Catherall and her blonde best friend Susanne Sulley
had escaped the grey, post-industrial depression of their Sheffield home on
the dancefloor of their local palace of neon naughtiness, the Crazy Daisy.
Within a year, they'd be Top Of The Pops regulars, performing hits from the
mega-selling album Dare - including the ultimate kitchen-sink Christmas
number-one duet, Don't You Want Me?
More than a quarter of a century on, Catherall, Sulley and frontman Phil
Oakey are still the core of a thoroughly grown-up, re-made and re-modelled
Human League. They are currently on a greatest-hits tour for audiences of
not-quite-so-new romantics, which arrives in Glasgow this weekend. The
ever-optimistic Catherall describes the show as "an extravaganza."
"There'll be seven of us onstage, and we're just getting the clothes
together now," she says. "We've got this set designer to do this great big
white set, so people have something to look at. It's all going to be very
Human Leaguey glamour, Human League styley."
In her gravy-thick Yorkshire accent, such self-defining jargon makes
Catherall sound like the teenage party girl of old, regaling Smash Hits with
the band's latest plans. In fact, the band has been without a record deal
since their last album, Secrets, merely scraped the charts in 2001 - despite
best-of and remix compilations, and the patronage of voguish producers such
as Richard X, who have sampled the League in new releases. The brief recent
wave of electroclash acts may use digital technology, but they modelled
themselves on the analogue image of their eighties forebears.
It might be showbiz bluff, but Catherall sounds cheerfully nonplussed about
current reinterest in The Human League. "We need to make the money to keep
the group going," she says pragmatically. "We've got a studio in Sheffield,
and that just eats the money up. We're hoping to get an album out next year."
It was for similar reasons that, a couple of years back, The Human League
were persuaded to sign up for one of the ubiquitous 1980s package tours that
pack out the nostalgia circuit. Again, Catherall is upbeat and workmanlike
about the experience. "The offer was so good," she says, "and it's actually
so much less work, especially as we were headlining. It was great going
round in this big gang of people, and when Kim Wilde's on before you doing
Kids In America, the crowd were already warmed up by the time we went on."
It's all a far cry from The Human League's origins as a four-man sci-fi
synth combo who'd illustrate live sets with slides of cult TV shows such as
Captain Scarlet and The Prisoner. The band were picked up by Edinburgh's
Fast Product record label, run by the band's future manager Bob Last, who
would go on to influence their direction.
After two singles on Fast and gigs with The Rezillos and Siouxsie and the
Banshees, The Human League signed to the major label Virgin - and, over the
course of two albums, frustratingly under-achieved. After founder members
Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh broke away to form their own glossy-'"
sheened major label act, Heaven 17, a chance meeting in not a cocktail bar
but the Crazy Daisy saw The Human League reinvented.
"Clubbing in the early eighties was all about being on show," Catherall
recalls."We had this gay and transvestite circle of friends, and it was all
different outfit every night and being the first one on to the dancefloor.
We were really big Japan fans, David Bowie, all the glam-rock stuff."
With a tour pending, Oakey and remaining Leaguer Philip Adrian Wright were
in the Crazy Daisy drowning their sorrows. Needing to act fast, they were
struck by Catherall and Sulley's distinctively quirky dance moves, and made
them an offer they couldn't refuse. Pending a hasty meeting with the girls'
respective parents to reassure them that no rock-star funny business was in
the offing, Doncaster beckoned.
"Most of the people we knew were there," Catherall recalls. "Afterwards I
remember my mother saying, 'Did you really need to put all that make-up on?
inherited down-to-earthness would go on to inform the best of The Human
League's material. Because, for all their retro-future stylings, there's
always been a whiff of working-man's-club cabaret about them. It is a trait
common to many bands from Sheffield, right up to the Arctic Monkeys and the
lip-glossed romance of The Long Blondes. Pulp's back-street frustrations and
the gold-lamé-clad gloss of ABC both explored the contrary nature of doing
what they did while being where they were from.
From Catherall's own experience, the fact that The Human League were called
"the puffy synthesiser group" by friends sums it up. "What we were doing was
so different. It was fairly grim in Sheffield then, so when you turned on
your TV and T-Rex came on, that's where the kick to do something came from."
However, she adds, knowingly: "In those days there wasn't some sort of work
ethic involved. It was more like a big party."
When success quickly followed, any fancy London ways were frowned upon. "I
don't think there was as much drugginess or luvvieness going on," says
Catherall, "or the idea that, because you work in music, you all have to go
out and hang out together. Well, why? If you work in Barclay's Bank, you
don't go out with a bunch of people just because they work in the Royal Bank
of Scotland, do you?"
The last man drafted in to the new-look League was former Rezillos guitarist
Jo Callis, who would go on to co-write much of Dare. An album full of
glittering pop melodramas, it remains one of its era's defining moments,
despite becoming something of an albatross around the band's neck as they
attempted to follow it up. By the time 1984's Hysteria appeared, their
moment had passed, and, while subsequent albums have contained flashes of
wonder, Dare is the yardstick by which The Human League are measured.
The album is currently celebrating its silver jubilee and Catherall blithely
states: "We never really liked it much. I don't think I've listened to it
for a while. Actually, we prefer things the way they are now, with no record
company telling us what we can and can't do. We're not young like the Arctic
Monkeys. We don't have to be desperate to be on every radio show.
"We've been through amazing times and we've been through hellish times. We
can sit back and relax now," she says. "It's a more chilled-out League these
Especially now they've played the Hollywood Bowl. (Headlining, Catherall
stresses, on a bill with the Psychedelic Furs and former ABC frontman and
fellow Sheffieldite Martin Fry.) She talks about the sensation she felt
looking out on those 16,000 people as she performed. "Watching them dance,"
she says, perhaps thinking of her teenage self, first up on the floor with
Sulley at the Crazy Daisy. "It was special."