Q Magazine January 1996
The Human League: it's been a long time
"What's happened since we were last here?" muses Phil Oakey after a
of Love Action. "End of Apartheid, Berlin Wall down …" Yes, it's been nine
years since the British public was last treated to the peculiar,
choreographed experience that is The Human League live. So much has changed,
and yet so little. Back at the hotel they are greeted by two grey-haired New
Romantics-polite, frilly-collared Welshmen who tell the group that they
waited for them in exactly the same place back in 1986.
This, as Joanne Catherall admits, is a response to audience demand.
"Everything's changed now. Money's become more important to people, they
expect more of a show. When we started, the punk thing was still going and
you could get away with being absolute rubbish. But that's certainly not
true any more."
Still some things remain the same. Many of tonight's songs are golden oldies and the holy trinity of the floppy-haired male singer and two glamorous. Oddly-pitched backing singers is intact. Oakey stands centrestage, looking svelte and single-chinned once again, his voice mutating from hysterical robot on Don't You Want Me to velvet-lined baritone on Human. To his right is Susan Sulley, blonde and outrageously thin ("I'm hungry all the time, but this is how I want to look"), camping it up like Marlene Dietrich at a Sheffield disco. And to Oakey's left stands Catherall, comfortably voluptuous but suffering a bad hair day, unperturbed by the fact that she can't fasten the top button on her silver jeans. Throughout the evening's performance, there are at least three costume changes. Boredom is, therefore, not a problem.
Before this corny cornucopia of musical and visual delights unfolds,
however, there is the beginning. Being Boiled, the League's tuneless, solemn
debut single, played in complete darkness, is about as uncompromising an
opener as they could have chosen. The crowd sits and watches, bemused but
Seconds reactivates a few people, and then suddenly the big beat and fizzing
guitar of The Lebanon causes a spontaneous rush to the front. We have
lift-off. All the same, The Lebanon is a strange song- more U2 than The
League, its rock feel a million miles away from what Oakey repeatedly refers
to as the "original concept" of the group: minimalist pop perfection using
only synthesizers, a drum machine and vocals.
Sulley sings it solo, her voice wobbling in an affecting manner, but she's
brutally realistic about it afterwards: " I realise now that people don't
want to do ballads. They think they're ok, but what they really like is the
faster, dancey songs."
Yet none of Human League's songs are really fast or dancey in a
modern sense; their beauty comes from their frailty, humour and imperfection
- the very warmth and humanity they've always proclaimed but which seemed
antithesis of their machine-led arrangements in the early '80s.
So is it just pay-off-the-bank-manager-time? Sulley is vehement in her
denials. "We're just beginning to re-establish ourselves. We're at the
bottom of a big ladder, and maybe in four or five years' time we'll be a
third of the way up. We're not gonna be that fashion band that we were in
1981. We've got to gradually work our way back into the public
According to Oakey, The Human League "stepped into a cryogenic chamber"
after the relative failure of Hysteria. "We were lucky that we had Crash
made for us by Jam & Lewis, so it looked like we were still living and
breathing - but we weren't. We were in suspended animation somewhere."
Nevertheless, the audience at St David's hall id decidedly bereft of
teenagers. Aren't these the same 2,000 people who came to see you play last
"We learned that we are completely insignificant in America," smiles Oakey. "We had a few hits there, but we didn't mean anything; they never loved us."
"It's not about having fun, through, is it? It's about being good."