Q Magazine January 1996


The Human League: it's been a long time

Sam Taylor

November 1, 1995


"What's happened since we were last here?" muses Phil Oakey after a spot 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.
On stage, things are a little different. The set appears to have been beamed straight from the gleaming deck of the Starship Enterprise: there is a small, triangular plastic mountain occupied by four musicians; banks of fake computers with flashing diodes; and most impressively, three giant paper phalluses that pump slowly up and down.

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 expectant.
A little roar goes up for Love Action (I Believe In Love) and The Sound Of The Crowd, but any audience member attempting to dance is sternly re-seated by the security guards, and it is not until Mirror Man, eight songs in, that there is any notable response to Sulley's pouting, grinning exhortations for movement. Bravely, if a little stupidly, the group kill off this wave of dancing with a version of the po-faced Blind Youth from their ill-fated debut, Reproduction. The song is notable only for its self-mocking lyrics "Dehumanisation is such a big word…. Dehumanisation- it's easy to say…" The spectre of Gary Numan hovers over the stage.

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 Human 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.
(Keep Feeling Fascination) does conform to that blueprint, but it too is a weird one: full-fat cheese, with the bass line loping around in slow-motion Caribbean party mode and Oakey's voice descending a full octave beneath it's natural range. Some kind of perfection is reached with One Man In My Heart, the
second hit single from this year's Octopus album and Oakey's favourite song.

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 the antithesis of their machine-led arrangements in the early '80s.
Now with an updated and heavily promoted Greatest Hits album in the charts, analogue synthesizers back in vogue and a new wave of New Romantics
allegedly sprouting up in trendy London nightclubs, The Human League are on the crest of a small wave.

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 consciousness."
Still, being able to pay off the bank manager must be something of a relief. The group frittered away most of their Dare dosh on the making of it's follow-up,
Hysteria. "We were in Air Studios every day, at £1,000 a day, for over a year," grimaces Oakey. Later they would go more deeply into debt in order to build their own studio.

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."
Re-activated by being unceremoniously dumped by Virgin after their first Greatest Hits set and the less than popular Romantic? The Human League opted for the long haul back to credibility. "We've had to make that decision not to become Gary Glitter or Bucks Fizz, "reasons Oakey. "We want to create new records all the time."

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 time?
"They probably are," declares Oakey amiably. "What everyone predicted would happen is starting to happen. You start out really young, when you've got fans who live and die for buying records. Then they get families and it's tight for a few years, and then suddenly they've got a bit of spare money and they go back to you. Classic Elton John/Queen sort of stuff, it's the pay off."
In America, however, where The Human League have just spent two months slogging around doing PA's with Duran Duran and the Real Mc'Coy, the response was less enthusiastic.

"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."

Their second US Number 1, Human is another incongruity: sentimental AOR, like The Cars with a Yorkshire accent, it is a decidedly non-League moment. However, Don't You Want Me, which topped the charts here too, remains the biggest crowd-pleaser, although, inevitably, they are tired of living in the song's shadow and are cheered that this year's Top 10 hit, Tell Me When, goes down just as well.
The final encore is a resplendent version of Oakey's hit with Giorgio Moroder, Together In Electric Dreams. By this point, Oakey is wearing a bizarre white nipple-ripple shirt and Sulley and Catherall are unable to stop themselves from grinning. The group, perhaps even more than the audience, appear to be having the time of their lives. It's obviously a lot of fun. Later, Sulley will stare icily at this suggestion:

"It's not about having fun, through, is it? It's about being good."