The Human League (Susan Ann Sulley, Phil Oakey
and Joanne Catherall) is just one of the '80s groups on "The Regeneration
Tour," appearing in Trenton, Aug. 21.
It wasn’t the excesses of progressive and stadium rock that fueled the
synthesizer-pop movement. Nor were the synth-pop groups rebelling against
super-rich superstars in rock.
The genre blossomed because young musicians could finally afford a cheap
keyboard. And, if they were too unmotivated to learn the guitar or take
formal piano lessons, they could fake their way on a Korg — even program it
to play itself. That gave them a chance to dance around the stage and check
on their hair.
That’s what a young Phil Oakey and his friends did. Around 1977, he formed
the Human League with Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh, modeling the group on the
German synthesizer band Kraftwerk.
”It was all about the availability of synthesizers,” Mr. Oakey says,
speaking by phone from England. “A few years before, only universities and
Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) could afford them. Then suddenly,
the Japanese made them and then we could afford them. We needed an
instrument that we could program, something you could use to get your ideas
in place and then play them at the right speed.”
Mr. Oakey describes the first incarnation of the Human League as a “fairly
dour all-male band” that mixed electro-pop with multi-media presentations
and elements of cabaret. Who knew that a change in personnel, a video and a
little bit of good timing would launch the Human League into the pop
stratosphere a few years later? The group also opened the door for a flurry
of synthesizer bands, mostly from Britain.
Bands like A Flock of Seagulls, ABC and Naked
Eyes were all the rage, which sent guitarists — and drummers and horn
players — to the unemployment line, but gave hairdressers a boost. You can
take a trip back to the times of the New Romantics when The Regeneration
Tour comes to the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton Aug. 21.
The aforementioned ‘80s pop icons — along with Belinda Carlisle — will be
together for the first time live and in concert on one stage. The
Regeneration Tour will kick off with an “‘80s glam block party” featuring
live music from New Jersey-based alternative/indie band Park Drive.
Except for a few years when “grunge rock” took
over from the stylish synthesizer bands, “The League” has been going strong.
”Grunge happened really big and we were poison, especially in Britain, but
we still had support from the gay community (in the U.S.),” Mr. Oakey says.
“But here, we hadn’t a clue what to do with our lives. We had never learned
how to do anything else and we thought we’d have
to look for real jobs.”
A tour in the late ‘90s supporting the Culture
Club revived the Human League’s career and galvanized the group’s decision
to stay in the business and grow.
”We’re thriving, really radiant in fact,” Mr. Oakey says. “We do between 50
and 80 live shows in a year and we thoroughly enjoy it. And we love being in
America, especially in the summer.”
After the first version of the Human League broke up, it looked as though
the group was going under for good. In fact, the story goes that they were
going on tour broke, basically on a prayer and minus two key members. But
then Mr. Oakey spotted two lovely young women — Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne
Catherall — dancing in a nightclub and invited them to join the Human
League. The sound and the look of the group was greatly improved and the
public fell in love.
”We needed to go on tour and we needed people to sing and play instruments,”
Mr. Oakey says. “I thought, ‘We should have high voices, oh wait, girls have
”You have to remember, in those days, a lot of people (came to clubs) in the
U.K. looking ridiculous,” he continues. “They’d dress up as Dracula or come
in their wedding dresses. But Susan and Joanne looked classy, they were
dressed in all black with red ties and trilby hats. They’ve been (more than
decorative) — they’ve been my business partners for 30 years.”
Just on the verge of the MTV revolution, a high-quality video was put
together and burned the image of the good-looking women and the fashionable
Mr. Oakey into the public’s consciousness. He says this was another lucky
The album Dare produced the single “Don’t You Want Me,” which topped the pop
charts in the United States in 1982. Love or hate the sound, it was
something very new and caused the members of the Human League a bit of
”A lot of people didn’t like (our sound) because it was music that rejected
the rock aspect,” Mr. Oakey says. “There was a great deal of anxiety because
everyone was saying ‘You’re the future of music’ and we knew we weren’t as
good as (our press). Actually, we’re not really very talented and we
struggled to be as good as people thought we should be. It took us 15 years
to learn our job.”
”That’s what it is for me — my job, and it’s a
job that I really love,” he continues. “I don’t have a swimming pool or a
Rolls Royce, but pop music has been my life. Since I grew up on the Beatles
and Bob Dylan, I couldn’t want more.”