The Face September 1981
BOYS & GIRLS
THE HUMAN LEAGUE FIND SUCCESS AND BREAK THE GOVERNMENT’S GUIDELINES WITH A 38 PER CENT PAY RISE
INTERVIEW BY STEVE TAYLOR
RURAL Berkshire, Royal Wedding Wednesday, benign sunshine. Halfway up a hill which forms one half of the valley of the Thames, above the neat little village, is a group of buildings; a large rambling cottage-like house, a fibreglass dome covering an outdoor swimming pool, and two slightly temporary-looking long, low huts. It is lunchtime and in the more ramshackle of the huts three young men are getting up to the accompaniment of a huge colour television.
One, with a grizzled brush of hair and a stocky figure, looks like a hungover ferret. This is Jo Callis, formerly of The Rezillos, Shake and Boots For Dancing. Another sits quietly watching the events on the screen, unremarkable apart from his inside-out t-shirt. This is Adrian Wright.
The third is doing what a significant percentage of the population do when they prepare for the day ahead. He’s making up. Practicality, clearly, doesn’t come into it. After all, the three have ahead of them nothing more than a listless wait while producer Martin Rushent sleeps off yesterday’s transatlantic flight and then a long evening’s night in the recording studio.
This doesn’t put Philip Oakey off his morning ritual. Thick pale brown powder covers his face, from which shiny black hair is severely tied back. He’s perched on the arm of a chair cradling a small compact in one hand, crudely sweeping lipstick onto his his chops with the other.
Complaining that he’s holding the only mirror in the place, he swings round flashing an ear that’s bisected by a gold chain connecting pierce-holes at the top and the bottom. Underneath a very feminine black blouse, both nipples are also pierced and ringed.
Phil Oakey’s appearance, the tacky glamour of a familiar old tart, and the study in contrasts between him and Adrian Wright are stable features of the Human League along with a stubborn and imperfectly realised mission to make massively successful pop records using just voice and synthesisers.
Somewhere along the line, sometime last year the mission aborted. The League split in half, a few days before a European and British tour that had to go on, on pain of litigation.
In the middle of a year during which, according to manager Bob Last, the band’s record company Virgin lost faith to the extent of withdrawing much essential financial support, they had a week and a half to devise a way to honour their contractual obligation to put on a show in a string of huge auditoriums.
There were two choices – either Philip and Adrian could have hit the road with a tape recorder and microphone, though, as the former says, “the stage at the Hammersmith Odeon would have looked a bit empty”. Or they could go the other way, sod it, cut their losses, go grandiose. They did.
The Human League’s regimental motto ought to be Over The Top. Skin-of-the-teeth style, they rallied. Oakey’s then girlfriend – not his wife, that was even earlier – spotted two girls, bright as Boots checkout lasses on a Saturday night razzle, in a Sheffield disco performing well-sussed dance routines. Just over a week to go, they were recruited as on-stage jivers and backup singers.
Three days from the off Oakey encountered a keyboard player in a friend’s house. He was in. Bolstered by platforms, catwalks and scaffolding, the show went on. What a bunch of troopers!
In place of these two lonely figures cowering in the wastes of the Hammersmith Odeon stage there were girls dancing on top of a tower while Oakey scurried from level to level in magnificent voice.
Wright’s impeccable slide show was visually superb; the mainly taped music thundering along – though it was mostly old, beloved songs. As Wright says now, “We had to do it, show them we could go on, even though everyone had always assumed that it was the other two who had done all the work.”
Survival was established, but despite Wright finding a promising vein of songwriting in himself with “Boys And Girls”, Top Of The Pops looked as distant as ever. Survival wasn’t enough. The hits had to come; that’s where the story really starts.
IAN Burden, the keyboard player hastily recruited for that tour, and Jo Callis, who they met through mutual manager Bob Last, are now integral parts of the Human League mark II; songwriting imputs can come from any one of the four. Although Wright and Oakey had pitched themselves undauntingly into composing straight after the bust-up, had they needed new blood, new musical life?
“I think we did,” Oakey admits, “even though we didn’t know it. It was never a deliberate thing: “Oh my God, we can’t write records’. Ian (Burden) never really liked the old Human League, he’s a much artier sort of person. I think he was very surprised he even got on with us; his background’s art school and we’re just interested in pop records, basically.
“His effects on the music has been the same as Jo’s, mainly rhythmic. The Human League have always had good tunes and quite interesting words and good concepts. Rhythm, though, is very much something you learn: you can’t just go out and do something rhythmic unless you’ve got the right… feel. Ian’s basically a reggae guitarist. We’ve always hate reggae.”
“I still do,” chips in Adrian.
Shades of the unrelenting bickering which seemed to sap up so much of the original quartet’s creative energies, according to most of their close colleagues? Do these four get on any better?
“I think we’ve come to a sort of understanding,” says Oakey, “on almost everything. A song belongs to the person, or at most two people who originated the song. A contribution will be considered, but you’ve got to go back to the people who thought of the song in the first place.”
Sounds like a dose of healthy mutual respect: “I think the arguing in the old Human League was a good thing,” Oakey continues, “and the bad things were the things that weren’t said.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been in a group that didn’t argue ‘til it was blue in the face anyway,” adds Callis.
The girls, Joanne and Suzanne have been smoothly incorporated in to the new co-operative spirit too. Wright admits that they’ve been “taken in by the glamour of it” while Oakey is keen to explain that this is because “they’ve led a very sheltered life.”
“We had to go round to their parents,” explains Wright, “to reassure them, let them see that we were normal people.”
Oaky confirms that “both sets of parents have been really fantastic.”
“They weren’t like the average sort of girls you get in a pop group,” the singer continues, “very forward. They’re just a very very nice couple of girls.”
“He came round to me the day after his girlfriend found them,” recalls Wright, “saying ‘Great idea, great idea; two girls.” What did Wrihgt say? “Shut up, I’m watching Kojak?”, suggests Callis. “Something like that,” affirms Wright.
“Actually,” says Oakey, “he said, “No, Oakey. Not girls, not girls. Oakey You know what you’ll be doing.” And has he been? “No, of course not.” This is despite the fact that one of the girls, Joanne, is now the vocalist’s girlfriend.
Their singing ability, according to Oakey, only became apparent when the recording of “Sound Of The Crowd” became imminent.
Before that, he says, it had been irrelevant – even on the tour: “I don’t think people are concerned with things like singing when they go to see a show. They want to hear quite a loud noise; if it’s got a good rhythm behind it that’s alright and if it’s in tune it helps. But they don’t really care, they go to see who
makes the record.”
Besides, says Wright: “I think there are certain things that even if you can’t do it really well, if you do it long enough you can get it right – you only need to doit once. It’s like playing something you’re going to record; you can play it a hundred times until you get it right, but it doesn’t matter – that’s the only one anyone’s going to hear.”
“I’d hate to have anyone in the group just to perform a certain role, anyway,” continues Oakey. “I’m a bit disappointed in the back of my mind that they both can sing, ‘cos then it would have been interesting foinding something for them to do. We’re not a group as such in the old-fashioned sense: everyone has to do everything. The ultimate deal, I suppose is that whatever there is to do, there should be someone in the group to do it.
“That’s the point about synthesisers. With synthesisers I can write a brass section. But I can’t play the trumpet or anything. There are only a few exotic instruments that you can’t imitate; it’s impossible to get a good saxophone sound, for instance.
“We had a big confrontation with Virgin Records when we said that we would use other instruments because they were intimating that they wouldn’t push us unless we did. Though we agreed that we would we’ve found since then that it’s just not necessary.”
Virgin were worried, Oakey thinks, that the drum tracls weren’t powerful enough “to, say, carry over a disco record or something.” It’s significant that the only previous Human League release to come anywhere near their current “Hard Times/Love Action” in rhythmic power and dance sensibility was “I Don’t Depend On You”, a twelve-inch they released as The Men and on which they were, refreshingly, backed by conventional flesh-and-blood disco bass and drums.
It has taken The Human League a long time to acknowledge this basic deficiency in their work, to adjust to a changing market which demands hard-nosed sounds and well-made radio-worthy records in preference to the home-made legacies of punk.
Independence is great, as Cabaret Voltaire imply elsewhere in this issue, but you have to ask yourself very clearly whether you also really want independence from success and popularity.
Oakey is very candid about the length of time it’s taken for the band to look like a serious pop proposition:
“We were making bad records for such a long time. It was down to arrogance, thinking that we knew everything there was to know although we didn’t.”
“’Reproduction’, the first album, is not too bad; ‘Travelogue’ to me is a joke, I wouldn’t recommend anyone bought it; I think it’s that bad.”
Ironically, in the wake of the interest incited by the chart showing of “Sound Of The Crowd”, both of those albums are selling well. Some Virgin Records daily sales figures which fell into the hands of THE FACE showed anything between one and five hundred copies shifting nationally per day. Apparently this has been going on now for a couple of months.
Wright concurs with Oakey about the way the back catalogue is selling: “I wish it wasn’t.”
In order to change tack, Oakey reasons, “We had to meet someone like Martin Rushent.” Rushent produced “Sound Of The Crowd”, underpinning what was basically a weak song with computerised, synthesised drums put together in his highly equipped Berkshire studio. Since then he has introduced them to the drum machine, the three-thousand odd pound Lynn, a relatively recent revolution in synthetic drums which is already in use by the likes of Steve Winwood, Peter Gabriel and Richard Burgess.
“We’d had this arrogant attitude ,” Oakey confirms, “but when it comes to things like the whole basic balance of a record, we don’t know it. Martin Rushent does. I hope if we continue working with people like him we will know more. We spent I don’t know how long on it before we met Martin, we’d bodged it so badly. Virgin Records said ‘You ought to try a producer, you’re not doing this properly’ and I said “I like old 999 records, try Martin Rushent’. Simon Draper (Virgin MD) said he’d just been in the office that morning with the Pete Shelley solo work he’d just produced.”
We came down here, re-recorded the lot and learnt more in those four days than we’d learnt any year previously.”
THE upshot of the last few months’ upheavals has been a whole brace of changes for The Human League; not so much a shift of direction or plan, but a more reasonable assessment of strengths and wekanesses and a more rational attack on their long-term goals. They are all enjoying working together, a feeling Oakey can’t remember since their very early days.
He’s also prepared to brook a shift in image, moving the attention away from a focus on his lop-fringed face: “I think the days of all-male white middle-class white boy groups are over, anyway, I don’t think it looks good.”
Correspondingly Adrian Wright wants to push the entertainment value of his slide and film contributions further. Oakey explains for him that “It’s letting people down who come to see you for an hour if you just stand there on stage and look like a group.”
All three agree that, musician friends aside, they would “much rather see a movie than go to a gig.”
In his leisure time, Oakey admits to drinking in “quiet local pubs” or going out with his girlfriend “sometimes”. Though the group’s individual wages has recently undergone an affluent rise from £31 to £43 pounds a week, he’s homeless and currently sleeps rough in the studio which the band still share with their previous partners Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware.
Adrian Wright hates pubs – and clubs – loves going to the cinema on his own in the afternoon and is an obsessive collector of books and toys, especially Sixties science fiction playthings. It’s a passion which curiously, Callis shares and the two of them plan to compile a book on the subject if there’s ever the time. Wright is something of a loner, but he has his own, judicious choice of the good things in life – a choice which is thoroughly documented in a song he’s written for the next Human League album called “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of”.
For all the image-wielding that takes place between the group and its public, they’re warm and thoughtful people with an unusual – in rock circles, at least – degree of self-possesion.
“It’s difficult, isn’t it Adrian,” says Oakey, “’cos we don’t take drugs or do any of those things you’re supposed to do if you’re in a group.”
“There’s something really sick about the whole rock and roll thing. It’s summed up by when we go on Top Of The Pops with the girls – you look down the list of other bands who are on and you say ‘which one is going to try and pick up the girls tonight?’.”
If the large scale success that threatens the Human League in the very near future does happen, then their ambitions are as down-to-earth as their social habits. They’d all like to get mortgages, partly as Adrian says “because it’s good for the tax, anyway.” When they’re thirty-ish, they’d like to be making feature films – “good commercial feature films” – probably starring Oakey and produced by Wright, who has a degree in film-making behind him. They’d probably start off with a horror flick.
Most of all, though, success would mean more money to plough back into the Human League projects, whatever form that should take. In Oakey’s words their aim is simple: “to continue to work together, and to do things that even more people would like.