NME Magazine 18th November 1995
Ah yes, who needs a 'new wave of new romantics' when the old lot are still so perky? Take the HUMAN
LEAGUE, still all glitz and mascara and, frankly, unwise facial hair, out on tour for the first time in nine
years. "We hated the '80s, it was horrible," they tell an awestruck and disbelieving ROGER MORTON.
In a Sheffield bar of their own: DAVID BANKS
Weird. It's the only way to look at it. One of those glitches in pop when the linear narrative backflips and the corners move in. How weird it is to be there in Averageborough UK, on a sharp autumn night in a treading- water phase of pop, as suburbia is once again drawn out of its comforting, self-done- shelved living room to put its tongue into the socket of a dreamy electrical supply.
A decade and a half on, and there's the dressy Human League
and the cul-de-sac crowd, getting on again like a house re-wired. Waitress!
Bring the neon cocktails!
Well not likely, Susan. Onstage, before a perplexed wedge of empty seats Susan is kung fu-ing the f out of her fellow pop legend. What becomes a pop legend most? Scrapping like urchins today. It's supposed to be a sound check but Susan is more interested in practising her kick-boxing.
Hop, skip, thwack! Oh no! careful now. Oakey has her by the
leg, dragging her towards the monitors with a nasty smile. But wait Susan's
escaped and she's twisting and laying into him and Oakey's running scared.
"She's not very good at fighting, "lies Phil later. "I just didn't want to
damage you before a gig," says the scarlet-lipped Avenger-ess. Susan Sulley,
right with the deft use of a backward elbow jab, is not to be messed with.
And neither, it would seem, are the
This is a band who trampolined to the peak of their world-touching 'Don't You Want Me', pure pop genius success 15 years ago; a band who were avant-electro-synthi-trance before techno had toe's; a band who last toured nine years ago; a band who have tarried long enough to find that their early 80's New Romantic milieu is threatening to revive itself at their feet. So how come they seem so plugged in?
"Blur are actually pros, I think," says Phil, off at a tangent. "It was so obvious that Oasis were better and raving at their records company for not having a Number One, and that's the sigh of real trouble. I remember when Adam Ant did it ringing up CBS saying, 'Why didn't you get Ant Rap' to Number One? And the answer, if a record company was ever truthful to an artist, would have been, 'Adam. You made a crap record'. They're in that kind of trouble. Whereas Blur are just pretending to fall over drunk but really doing alright."
Phil Oakey. Invented Sheffield Pop City. Floppy haircut. Watches several televisions at the same time. Northern Eyeliner Man. Kohl Not Dole. Rides several motorbikes at the same time. Person Of Age. Well, not so as you'd know it today, folks. Side of stage he flexes his toes in his casual climbing boots and radiates the alertness of a man in shape. Phil has worked out for his tour. He's skinny and on his toes, carrying the ludicrousness of his 'Long-serving pop Bloke' position well.
Out of the foyer, the merchandising display a viz cartoon strip Human League T-Shirt. The League leave Earth in a space Rocket, land on a planet at war with the neighbouring planet Krog, and save both worlds at once with a Peace Concert.
T-shirt was designed for people who might be a little embarrassed to admit
they liked us," says Phil astutely. Myself, I would have bought the comedy
Take Anita, sample fan. She looks like Susan would look like if she had never been dragged from the dancefloor of the Crazy Daisy disco by a scheming Oakey. While Joanne and Susan " ooh la la la'd" through the 80's, Anita got married to a estate agent, began using two types of barrier contraceptives at once, shopped, drank, refused kids and finally left him. Tonight she is here to tell us: "It's the old songs I like the best, luv. Have you heard the new 'Don't You Want Me'? Too fast that is, I like the original."
Phil is unaware of the nostalgia element.
I have a look at the crowd while Susan's doing ' One Man'," he says. "There are the people our age but there are kids as well/. The thing is there's no-one out there who hates us now. It's like an American crowd. The People out there actually like us! Very odd.
When you're really trendy loads of people go just for the trend. But it's like with me now, when I go through Sheffield, there's no-one that particularly wants to tell me that my group's crap or anything. Because if I've not got it by now I'm not going to get it. They're saving it up to tell Jarvis!"
How have the League weathered the storms? Firstly, the one that continually condemns them as a 'poofy synth group'. (Phil "People got this bizarre idea that if you strummed a guitar very quickly it made you macho. It's kind of a joke.") Secondly, the ongoing disparagement of Susan and Joanne as mere fluff
presence in the band. (Susan: "It used to absolutely infuriate me,and most of the time it
still does when people treat us like that.") Thirdly, post-punk yobbery, (Joanne: "People
throwing full beer cans at us.")
And fourthly, a frightening downhill decent from the superfamous five million-selling 'Dare'
album at the start of the '80's into neurosis, exclusion incomprehension, relationship
chaos, over-spending, self-loss, near bankruptcy and (briefly for Phil) the psychologist's
waiting room. Susan recalls the band's Golden Decade thus: "I hated the 1980's. It was
What, all of It?
"Absolutely all of It."
IN 1995, the League have, however built a playground from their past. Way over the
hump of insecurity, they revel in their back catalogue. On a white set, with a discreet,
keyboard-twiddling band and a pair of flashing computers at the top of the stepped
backdrop, they are stars of their own musical Susan a streak of red silk. Joanne, a
jogging jump suit. Phil a dashing cartoon charmer. They are Abba In Computerland and
at the end of the never-ending run of synthesiser'n'snogging hits, when they climax with
'Together In Electric Dreams', the surge of love'n'electricity blows the fuses of the
massed ranks of suburban couples. Oh, the office party.
"I'd like to try and do a techno or a really hard German Europop album, or something,
but the League just takes up all the time," says Phil, later. "It's really the synthesisers
that I'm interested in. But you have to end up trying to turn it into the sort of things that
people are going to buy from the Human League." Oakey nowadays may be a lot more pragmatic than the pierced and freaky youth who
made the avant -garde tilted pop fusions of early League, but he is not simply a career
an either. No-one in the League seems to be exactly jumping up and down about the
prospect of a League-loving New Romantic revival.
"I never really understood the first New Romantic movement," says Phil.
"We never thought that we were New Romantics, "says Susan. "I thought that was
Brushing a fleck of dust from his ankle-length Biba-original black velvet priest's coat,
Oakey considers the matter more closely. After all, alleged 'Romo' band In Aura are
supporting the League on their tour.
"We can't really slag that off can we because we've got In Aura on the tour, and there're
good. They could be something, and they're Romo."
Susan, however, has a more sociological take on the prospect of Numan's Revenge.
"I don't think it'll work,"she' says. "It's not actually just about music when it comes to
something like that, it's about a whole lifestyle, fashion politics. The New Romantic
thing was acting against punk and wanting to be glamorous and tuneful.
But we were all sort of optimistic in the early 80's. We thought that there was so much
going for us and nothing could go wrong. Now we know that, say, we're never going to
have a coal mining industry, or that governments still wage wars. We've been a bit worn
down as a country and I think that's the reason kids aren't into being peacocks now. I
think they want to fit in and get on with life and not make radical statements."
Phil stirs his raspberry tea and sighs: "It's a very discreet generation. It's quite odd to
us. Like that shirt I wore tonight, I think the kids out there would think it's in rather poor
He might well be right. For all that the Anitas of Averageborough are still with the
League, the slipping of pop progress means that they're actually a far weirder prospect
than most of the straight rock bands holding centre stage at the moment. The past has
just overtaken them.
"England going through a massive wave of nostalgia," says Susan. "I mean, The Beatles
were on the 6pm news tonight! If that's not nostalgic I don't know what is. "The world around then may be slipping back, but for the League their refusal to keel
over and consign themselves to yesterday is starting to look like more than mere
stubbornness. They've had their hard times in the past, but…
"It's really bizarre," says Phil. "Just by surviving, and just by keeping that far away from
the mental home, we've actually hit the pay-off. We can see 'Greatest Hits thing to me
is that' released and we can march ahead and do our 'Rumours'. The great thing to me
is that when I was at school I brought a record called 'The Greatest Hits Of Fleetwood
Mac' and that was before Buckingham and Stevie Nicks had joined!"
Joanne looks up with a sly expression. "So are we getting them in next month?" She
sniggers. "Absolutely," says Phil. "Do you think we can deal with Stevie Nicks in the group? And
we thought we were weird!"
They are. That's the best thing. In his mad coat, and mascara'd mini-goatee, Philip
Oakey heads for the backstage exit, with his longtime partners clicking along either side
in fake fur and glam. The faithful have been waiting outside for an hour in arctic
conditions and the first one is slightly hysterical. "Pop legends! This is amazing!" he
yelps as he nuzzles up to Phil while a friend takes a photo.
"Excuse me, "says Phil loftily "You are obscuring the view of my best coat."
The League, eh? Very together, and still in eccentric dreams.