you - not as the show's producer but as a person…please do it."
"You've got the main billing in the TV Times this week. The
by the fact that we have The Human League live for the very first time on
"You're one of my favourite bands…I think you should do it…I
you to do it…"
Silence. And the shifting of feet.
This is Philip Oakey's dressing-room in Newcastle on the eve
of The Tube's regular Friday evening live transmission to the nation. With
less than 24 hours to go before broadcast, The Human League - the show's
headlining attraction - have decided to pull out because they are not the
closing act (Alison Moyet is) and so, as they see it, they are not the
headlining attraction at all.
"It's perceived status," Philip Oakey tells the television
producer. "I know what
think. I know that when I see the last band on that they are the most
"We said we wanted to do the show if we could have last
slot," bass player Ian Burden, Oakey's right hand man, tells the television
producer. "If you are saying that the slot we're in now is the most
valuable, then go and try it on Alison and see if she wants to do that
"I don't want to seem cavalier about it," Philip Oakey tells
the television producer, "it's just that we have our set of rules and we
have to stick to them in the belief that we are the best band that there's
ever been in Britain."
And a distraught sigh from the television producer…
Philip Oakey is a man of contradictions: dry charm and immovable obstinacy
in equal measure. Minutes before this tense and embarrassing dressing - room
encounter, he had been telling me that, far from believing that The Human
League are " the best band that there's ever been in Britain", he was
feeling - "for the first time", that "we are quite a good group. But we
never think we're good enough: we're riddled with self-doubt every step. We
can't be actually positively
though, or we would have spoiled all those records." He had been telling me
that he cannot, and never could, properly sing - "in the studio, with the
headphones on, I'm all over the place" - and that The Human League girls,
Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley, cannot, and never could, properly dance.
And that The Human League are indecisive and lazy and self-destructive like
you would never believe. And that he feels like packing the whole thing in
almost every other day…And here he is now, putting on an exhibition of
petulant arrogance for a TV producer and saying, "We are The Human League
and we cannot bend our principles."
The producer departs, shaking slightly, with bloodshot eyes. An awkward cuss
is Philip Oakey. "This kind of thing follows us around the world - we always
have this problem with TV," he says calmly.
calmly it's as if he isn't really angry with The Tube at all, it's just the
stubborn game he plays. The Human League bear the standard of punk
"ideology": We Shall Not Be Compromised. " We always have this problem with
TV" and The Tube is by no means the first programme to suffer the
non-cooperation of The Human League.
There was a show in Germany on which The Human League were required to
perform their 1984 hit The Lebanon before a grisly backdrop. "God, that was
horrendous," says Joanne. "It looked like a reconstruction of a Lebanon
street with all the barbed wire and the houses with the fronts blown out and
the furniture still in. But there were we, a pop group from Sheffield
singing a song that was really important and it sort of made a mockery out
of it. It was so tacky. They'd even got a car that was burning or a dustbin
"They'd got smoke and everything," says Susan.
They didn't do that show. Nor did they do America's enormous Solid Gold - at
a time of their US hit single, Don't You Want Me - because they were
expected to be joined in performance by Solid Gold go-go dancers.
"We don't have dancers - that's a rule," says Philip.
dance. We don't need other dancers," says Susan. " We weren't trying to be
stroppy but we said we wouldn't do it with the dancers and they started
trying to blackmail us with money - an extra
$1,500 or something - and we said we don't give a damn about the money and
they said, you can't walk out of Solid Gold - your record will
Six weeks later it got to Number 1…"
But what has The Tube issue got to do with all this? The Human League are
not trying to bow out of
The Tube for reasons of "artistic control". This issue - which act goes on
last and closes the show - is one of ego. Star billing, pure and simple. And
Philip Oakey, moved by the sight of "a grown man crying", is beginning to
falter in his principles. "Do you think he (the producer) was trying it on?
He asks. Well, if he was, he's a damned fine actor. The Human League - a
wide seam of warmth and
decency beneath the cold and brattish front - agree, finally, to play The
Tube in their designated, mid-show spot.
They are terrible - a performance that confirms that Philip's voice can
often be "all over the place".
The Human League first hit it big in 1981 with the LP Dare - a thing packed
with splendid synthetic - yet - soulful dance hits and high street glamour.
Before this The Human League had been sons of the post-punk avante garde -
Oakey, Ian Craig Marsh and Martin Ware making noises - but now Marsh and
Ware had gone and this new Human League was a very unlikely pop group
indeed: the lunking Philip Oakey with a ludicrous haircut (short on one
side, tossed mane on the other), the two girls, picked for fame off a dance
floor, in their less than chic Tesco-shelf-fillers-on-a-big-night-out best,
the rather faceless boffins - Ian Burden, Jo Callis and Adrian Wright -
tinkering with machines in the background.
When around Christmas 1981, Don't You Want Me spent it's several weeks at
Number 1 and The Human League became the biggest thing since Adam Ant and
Beyond, it all seemed like some grand, infinitely - planned pop design - but
really it was mere accident. Five years later The Human League are out on
the road looking the same they ever did. "I'm going out wearing the same
clothes, you know," says Oakey. "It's quite good because we're all wearing
the same stuff we were wearing on tour in 1981. We still look the complete
nanas but people seem to be accepting it." The surprising thing is not that
people are accepting Philip - still in a ridiculous stringed waistcoat with
an adequate midriff poking through - or the girls - in their nasty matching
red and yellow British Home Stores tops and cheapish skin-hugging black
slacks - but that The Human League are back on stage at all. For giving the
seemingly slovenly approach - unrivalled in its indolence - that The Human
League have shown towards their own career, you'd imagine that they'd buried
themselves long ago.
"Before Crash, a hell of a lot of people thought we were dead," says Oakey.
"And quite a lot of the time we thought
were dead…or wished we were…"
It took The Human League well over two years to follow-up the huge-selling
Dare. Why? Philip: "Because we all went bonkers." Ian: "I
didn't go bonkers. I got ill. I don't remember going bonkers. I remember
getting extremely bored and ill." Philip: "That's because you were bonkers."
Ian: "I thought
were bonkers, sitting there playing with that Synclavier every day…" (The
Human League bicker about everything - from music, to the price of knickers
to who is the maddest of them all…)
Philip: I think everyone was noticeably bonkers apart from Joanne and Susan.
It happened to me and Ian and Jo and Adrian. You could see it happening. We
got over-analytical and we were trying to do things that we didn't know how
to do because we were under pressure to do something bigger and better than
Dare. And we misinterpreted that as doing something slower and more
painstaking than Dare. I mean, the very first Human League LP (Reproduction)
was recorded in just two weeks and then we had the weekend off. But with
Hysteria, we spent the first two weeks just looking at the tape recorder.
And all that was crap because music is about getting a good tune down…"
Joanne: "It got crazy in the studio when we were doing Hysteria. It would
take the boys three weeks to programme a drum machine and we'd just have to
sit there and watch them."
Susan: "But we had the added advantage that we will go out shopping or
something and forget about it. But the boys can't do that. We were recording
in London so we used to go back to Sheffield at weekends just to get away
Joanne: "We often said, For God's sake, can't we just shut up talking about
music? But they chose not to. They'd be saying, the drum sound's wrong, like
it was the end of the world and it built up to where people were getting
absolutely ridiculous about one drum beat being two milliseconds out of time
and we were sitting there saying, But you can't
it! Do you think someone's going to sit and watch Top Of The Pops and go,
Ooh dear oh dear, that drum beat is two milliseconds out of time. Tut tut
tut… The boys were showing definite signs of madness. They don't really do
anything apart from music. They don't have hobbies…"
The slow progress of Hysteria was not helped by the fact that producer Chris
Thomas had to leave mid-project (to be replaced by Hugh Padgham) for
"personal reasons" that have never before been explained. These reasons, it
turns out, are bona fide. Joanne: "His mother-in-law who is Japanese was
dying and he wanted to go over to Japan because his wife was over there and
we said, 'Well, can't you stay a little bit longer?' and he said, 'Well,
alright, I suppose so', and she died in the time he stayed with us longer.
So he was really upset and we felt responsible and we would go into the
studio about 12 or something and do one thing - maybe a keyboard line or
something - then go back to the hotel bar. And we'd all still be sitting
there at eight o' clock in the morning with the people hovering around us,
getting depressed for Chris and feeling guilty. It was awful.
Hysteria emerged finally. And when it did, the critics hated it, the public
didn't seem to care for it and
The Human League seemed reluctant to promote it. Joanne: "We didn't do a
thing." Susan: "We thought we were so popular. We thought we didn't have to
do anything. We were so big-headed."
Dare had made The Human League a fortune. With Hysteria they had all but
lost it (£7,000 for an album cover session which they scrapped is but a drop
in the ocean of expense). But any lesson had escaped The Human League. Crash
was to prove another two (plus) year saga featuring further signs of
They began recording in the studio Philip had built in his and Joanne's
Sheffield home and…
Joanne: "It was horrendous. We had Jim the drummer staying with us so as to
save on hotel bills and Colin Thurston (the producer) was there all the time
well and it was like a madhouse. There were people coming and going all the
time and everyone was a bit embarrassed because it was our house and no-one
likes intruding so everyone was tip-toeing around trying not to annoy
everyone else. We spent about three months starting it off there. It was a
Then they went down to London for further work in Air Studios and…
Philip: "It was a painfully slow process. Nick Heyward was there recording
at the same time and he mentioned in an interview that he recorded an entire
album while we were recoding a bass line…After a while we couldn't face
being in London for a long time and we were ending up feeling so miserable
we were sitting in bars at night drinking which we don't usually do. I mean,
I don't drink at all."
Susan: "Colin Thurston was no good for us anyway because he was as
indecisive as we are. He'd say, what do you think boys? What do you think
girls? What shall we do now? And we'd all sit around saying, "Ooh,
don't know. What
we do now?" We spent months and months and months on it and everyone knew
that it just wasn't happening."
Joanne: "The last four months were the worst."
Susan: "Yeah, we all knew that we should just give up but we couldn't make
the decision. It was really horrible. It sounds really silly but that's what
we're like. There's no one person who's really decisive."
Susan: "It's all, Oh, I'm not bothered, Well, I'm not bothered, and it goes
on like that for days. I think that's why, really, we can't produce our own
So after a further period of inactivity in Sheffield (Philip: "I was sitting
in my house. I was sitting videoing every programme on TV with four video
recorders - one for each channel. I was even videoing programmes that I
didn't even want to watch,"; Ian: "Now that
bonkers."; Philip: "But I've only got two video recorders now. I just turn
them on to catch Grange Hill…") The Human League left for Minneapolis, on
the recommendation of the head of urban music at A&M records in America, to
record their album all over again under the production guidance of Jimmy Jam
and Terry Lewis…
Joanne: " From the pictures you see of them, they always look like gangsters
and so all the way on the aeroplane me and Susan were going, Oh my God, if
we don't sing proper they're going to threaten to break our legs. And then
they arrived at the airport and they were dressed like that, like gangsters,
and me and Susan were going, Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, what are we
And they come up, Mmmmmmm hellooooo, sort of
could have knocked us down with a feather!"
Philip: "We thought, what are we getting into? It's going to be gangsters
and drugs. But they run such a clean shop and they're such likeable chaps.
They won't have drugs in their studio because smoke down your faders buggers
them up, they sneer if you drink coffee…They're remarkable. They're
brilliant. They're just like us. The only difference is that whereas we'd
have endless discussion about what to do next, what
do is they start recording things and in the same time that we would have
been having a discussion about how we should approach doing the drums or
something, they would have done the drums, the bass, the keyboards, and have
gone into the next track. They just get on with it."
The backing tracks for Crash took just three weeks to record. The vocals
took a further two months. And in that time, one of The Human League's
strong principles had gone out of the window. "As soon as we make a rule we
break it," says Philip. "One of our rules has always been that The Human
League write their own songs…"
But only six of the songs from the Colin Thurston-produced sessions were
saved for Crash: the rest written by Jam and Lewis including the recent hit
single Human. Philip calls Human a "great
song" (even though he admits that "on the first half of the verse my singing
is out of tune"); "On the first Human League LP we did You've Lost That
Loving Feeling and we sort of said, Why can't we write a great ballad like
that? And now Jimmy amd Terry have and it's a bit of a kick in the backside
But The Human League had actually finished an album. Almost. Bar the mixing.
And they had to leave most of that to Jam and Lewis.
Philip: " We'd mixed all our songs and then there was a little point on the
mix of their songs that we disagreed with and Jimmy said 'I feel I have to
do it my way, Philip', which was a brilliant answer. So
we thought we'd leave them to do it and come home. It was a great relief to
see the home town again."
Susan: " Minneapolis is boring. Oh, it's incredibly boring. It's very cold,
very boring, there's nothing to do."
Joanne: "Hardly anyone drinks there. They go into a bar and they have one
drink and then they go home. We'd be sitting there for hours and hours
drinking in the hotel bar and in that time there'd be about 50 people just
been and gone."
And so with great relief ("It was the pressure of spending four months in a
hotel room away from your personal possessions," says Philip. "It's crazy
little things like you want to hear your favourite record but you can't get
it out and play it.") The Human League had actually finished an album.
Almost. Bar the cover photograph.
Philip: "We thought we would go for glamour this time and I collect
magazines. I've got a lot of the Paris Vogues and we looked through them and
every time we came to a picture that stood out from the rest it had Guy
Bourdin under it so we thought we'd go over to Paris to work with him
despite the fact that he was very, very expensive. And he looked exactly
like Benny Hill so I got the wrong
impression of him. I thought he must be a really nice bloke. He refused to
take a picture of me. He spent most of the day taking pictures of the girls
and he wanted Susan to do hand stands against the wall in a mini skirt which
Susan didn't want to do, obviously. And he just exploded and started running
round in circles, screaming and saying he wasn't a carpet - working with us
had made him a carpet - and he started calling Susan names that I won't
repeat. We spent a lot of money of that little… We spent two days there, it
took nine hours to set up one photograph and I daren't tell you how much
money we spent. Virgin money we spent. Virgin are very unhappy at the money
that was spent.
Nothing could be salvaged from that session and the cover had to be reshot
by Gavin Cochrane. The cover of Crash is, apparently "glamour" but to the
untutored eye it just looked like an ineptly focussed and rather garish
Virgin Records have shown the patience of job towards Philip Oakey and The
Human League. "They can be absolutely infuriating but we sort of love them,"
says a Virgin insider. And one of the group's more infuriating traits is
their "policy" of remaining steadfast in their hometown, Sheffield.
Philip: "It's a policy. We've never wanted to be part of the London scene. I
sort of run myself on aggravation, like I hate most of the other people in
pop music and that's what keeps me going. It's quite useful having contempt
for people it's a force. Benson said that in soap once: I
aggravation in my job. And it's so disappointing when you meet people that
you hate and they turn out to be all right. It's horrible, so we insist on
keeping our distance."
Joanne: "When you're cut off from the outside world, you don't have to have
conversations with your record company about what's going to be your next
single or when you're going to do the next video. We're cut off from all
that. We can unplug the telephone and they can't get in contact with us
unless they want to go to a lot of trouble getting on a train or driving up
to Sheffield which is three hours from London. If we were in London, people
could nag us into doing things more easily but this way it's really easy for
us to pick up the phone and someone says, Will you do this photo session
tomorrow? And we say, yeah, yeah, yeah, phone us later on. So you know
they're going to phone you back so you just ignore the phone. That is a
really good excuse."
Susan: "Or, yeah, we will do the photo session but they're going to come up
to Sheffield, aren't they?
ain't moving. It's amazing how many people don't want to make the effort…"
For some, however, the infuriations of The Human League have proved too much
to bear. Jo Callis left after Hysteria to spend more time with his wife in
Edinburgh. After Minneapolis, Adrian Wright just disappeared (Philip: "I'm
not sure that he wanted to go as disco-ey as we did but he enjoyed himself
in Minneapolis playing ping-pong. So it's all guess work what happened with
Adrian. We keep hearing reports that he's in London but he never told me he
was moving to London which I thought was unusual. He likes to be mysterious
Adrian, if he can possibly manage it.").
In August 1985, the group's manager, Bob Last, resigned because, he says, he
felt The Human League needed to "reassess the way they dealt with things.
There was always a resistance to new ideas. Philip is a notoriously
difficult person to work with - he has a very strong vision but he's not the
most articulate person when it comes to conveying that vision."
As for the girls: "They were very strong-willed, I would say, but there was
never a lot of stamping of feet as everybody imagines. There really wasn't.
Their perceptions were very important to the success of The Human League.
They were in touch with real life which the boy boffins certainly were
most of the time…"
I ask Last, who is now attempting to revitalise the singing career of Clair
Grogan (former singer of Altered Images), whether he misses The Human League
and he replies, "I suppose the answer to that would have to be no…"
One week after The Tube fiasco, The Human League are in Margate for a show
at the Winter Gardens. Susan is slumped back on a comfy chair in the
dressing-room complaining about her kidneys which are feeling a bit wonky.
Joanne sips nasty white wine and talks, in her pronounced Sheffield accent,
about how well this tour is going.
- "Last night we missed Human out of the set by mistake. It was really
funny. We got into a right old flap about it…" - and how often over the last
five years she's thought "right, that's it. I'm going home, I'm getting into
bed and I'm never going out again" and how she's not thinking that now.
Soon the girls will be popping on the make-up to transform themselves from
Northern homebodies into fetching, tartly go-go
They will waft their hips from side to side while Phil stalks the catwalk
and they'll be The Human League for 90 minutes of greatest hits delivered to
a loving audience who would, no doubt if he were to tell them - as he's just
told me - that "even when we're wrong, we're better than 95 per cent of
other pop groups. We are doing it for the right reasons. Everyone else does
it for the wrong reasons."
And at Margate, The Human League
do it right. They are actually in tune and they are splendidly joyful and
they look like complete nanas as only they know how. Sometimes - just
sometimes - The Human League really
believe that they are the best band there's ever been in Britain…