The Guardian December 2004

Caroline Sullivan

Nobody under 25 will appreciate the pain of seeing the Human League on the Christmas circuit. Shouldn't they leave this kind of thing to lesser 80s rivals while they fade into dignified obscurity? Though the League's axis - sonorous baritone Phil Oakey and ever-foxy sidekicks Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley - look and sound better than they did at their electro-pop peak, their younger selves would have recoiled at the idea of prancing in the name of nostalgia.

The League reunited as a touring act seven years ago, and have spent the time buffing up their show. If old romantics are to claim a share of the live market, it may as well be this bunch - with their beautifully plinky synthesisers and female-led choruses - as this was the best example I've seen of the burgeoning revival genre. I even found myself snuffling during The Lebanon, as the girls, deadpan as ever, crooned implausibly about "1969, before the soldiers came".

Money had been invested in 80s stage decor: white sci-fi keyboards, metal arches criss-crossing the stage and coordinated clothes (black for Oakey, red and white for the women). Back then, this look was known as "futurism". Twenty years on, it felt mistily retro, priming the crowd for 90 minutes of greatest hits, with the emphasis on "great".

With one of pop's best back catalogues at their disposal, the League were all killer, no filler. Despite attempts to update some songs - statistics about the Iraq war scrolled down a screen during Heart Like a Wheel - they primarily did what they were paid to do. Sulley, a key figure of many men's formative years, was, of course, wailed at during Don't You Want Me? She came close to stealing the show, but Oakey - still handsome and lugubrious - wrested it back during a double whammy of Love Action and (Keep Feeling) Fascination. The only option, really, was to enjoy it.

4/5 January 2005

Jennifer Nine

Even the best nostalgia gigs are only half-triumphs. No matter how good the songs or flattering the light, no matter how polished the bonhomie or affectionate the audience, the jollity’s always slightly strained by everyone trying hard to Have A Great Time.

Then there’s the Human League. Whether or not they’ve been consistently this excellent or have just hit their middle-aged stride, they deliver a show so vital, hip and contemporary-sounding it could trump gigs by bands formed next Wednesday. Sure, electroclash and boystown club culture may be the reasons the house is packed with hipsters, but you don’t have to be wearing a Scissor Sisters fedora to do the “I’m not worthy” shuffle tonight. From the deadpan mechanical savagery of 1978’s “Being Boiled” or “Empire State Human” to the beat-nicked menace of 1999’s All Seeing I collaboration “1st Man In Space”, you leave dazzled. And - if you’re anywhere near the age of the three principal Leaguers - hugging yourself with fellow-oldies.

Somehow, they’ve got their hands on some unfair advantages. There’s the hits, of course, served up with sharp precision and crystal-clear sound. And what hits! Swaggering opener “Mirror Man”, only slightly undercut by Phil loping onstage in what looks alarmingly like a cassock before he changes into a long, lean suit. “Open Your Heart”; “Tell Me When”; “The Lebanon” (cackhanded lyric and all); Susanna’s sultry serving of Jam & Lewis“Just Be Good To Me”. “Heart Like A Wheel”, updated with a keenly polemical backdrop of Iraq war statistics; a stopwatch-timed “Love Action”; the magnificently era-defining “Don’t You Want Me”; the soaringly sweet “Electric Dreams”, as durable as its parent film was forgettable.

All this you hope for, but the added-value extras seal the deal. A stage full of shamelessly retro gear: ludicrous synth-drums and vocoders; that funny-looking keyboard shaped like a guitar (and a puppyish, bondage-trousered metal kid attacking it). A groovy white stage set constructed with care and more cash than your average retro act (or Yorkshireman) bothers to splash out. And – we must be frank – the jaw-droppingly fit, foxy and fashionista-fierce duo of Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, making grown men weep and trend-ettes half their age sulk and take notes.

In short, a charming triumph. Only the most scrupulous inspection suggests anything but a band at its championship peak. Ninety five per cent of the time Oakey’s voice is ripe, rich and powerful; when it goes croaky in an otherwise pristine and shimmering “Human”, you get an endearing glimpse of the determined paddling going on under the glass-smooth surface.

They said it wouldn’t last, you know, this plastic disco music. When well-designed and properly constructed, however, plastic takes about a million years to show its age. 2005 new

Rob Dyer
I only own the first two Human League albums on CD, plus the compilation of material from its predecessor The Future. I do have other stuff on vinyl from the Dare period - but that's it. Yet, as a result of those first two albums, The Human League remain one of the most important electronic music acts of all time. It also demonstrates the limits of my affection for this legendary UK act. Therefore, tonight could have been just one big mistake, since only one original member remains and they've been releasing material in the intervening twenty years. Nevertheless, having read favourable reviews of their last tour which repeatedly mentioned, a) not only how good they still were but, b) that (crucially for me) seminal early tracks like Empire State Human and their first single Being Boiled were still very much part of the repertoire, I decided to risk the £50 for a couple of tickets.

The verdict? Worth it alone to hear a brilliant rendition of the aforementioned debut single.
It's true that much of the night felt a bit like having gatecrashed a private hen night, gay club, or hardcore fan-only event (I've never see just SO MUCH hand clapping and arm waving), but there were a lot of plus points. Phil Oakey's voice is as strong and impressive as ever it was (even if his 'dancing' looked oddly nervous), Susan and Jo added a air of glamour (with several costume changes) if not much in the way of decent vocals (but, hey, did they ever?), and many of the sounds were either pitch perfectly accurate copies of the originals or were simply sampled from the source tapes - sending the appropriate shivers down one's spine. Perhaps most surprisingly for me was, barring just two, that I knew every song. Okay most came from Dare onward but it couldn't have been much beyond as I simply wouldn't have known them. And like Duran Duran earlier this year, it was previously uninteresting songs that worked well live. Here it was The Lebanon - a song I really didn't like when it was released. It was basically a night of 80s hits, and even I wouldn't deny the guilty pleasure in hearing undeniable classics like Don't You Want Me Baby?.

But it was Empire State Human and especially a superbly authentic rendition of Being Boiled that put me in rapture. The mood for these clearly set after Susan and Jo disappeared for ten minutes leaving just Oakey and the competent backing band on stage.

It was also good to see that they hadn't lost their edge entirely with a stream of damning statistics about the war on Iraq (e.g. the USA has 10,000 nuclear weapons compared to Iraq's 0 - yes, that's 'zero') scrolling behind them. Low point was probably a cover by the two girls (still can't help calling them that!) of Dub Be Good To Me - a track they said made them travel to the Minneapolis to work with producer Jimmy Jam in 1986. But this was more than offset by material from the first three albums.

Oakey said that Reproduction (the first Human League album that took just two weeks to record - "with weekends off") might soon be remastered by original member and Heaven 17 founder Martyn Ware. I look forward to that. Measured on the entertainment scale this was a definite 9/10. In terms of quality the result was certainly lower simply because of the song choices. Sure, I'd love to have seen them in 1980, but even if I never get to see The Human League again, I will forever carry indelible memories of Being Boiled with me.