FHM August 2001

Phil Oakey

The Human League frontman talks battery-cooled waistcoasts, rare crabs and incinerating human bodies…

Chris Bell

You’ve often said Gary Numan and Spandau Ballet stole the Phil Oakey “look” – were you annoyed when Gary Oldman appeared in The Fifth Element with your old geometric haircut?
No – it cheers me up. It was all styled by Gaultier, who’s always sort of referred back to our era. I like that there’s a little bit of it still alive. I looked in the mirror recently and realised my hair was thinning and falling out a bit. So I went to my hairdresser and he said, “Phil, cut it all off.” It gave me a whole new lease of life. I changed all my clothes and my hair was short. The only problem is that I can’t be effeminate anymore. My girlfriend still insists I’m gay. Every couple of days she’ll tell me I’m gay.
When you first met League co-founder Ian Craig Marsh, he was wearing women’s tights, a 13-amp plug around his neck and a baked bean tin on his head. What was all that about?
Martyn (Ware, other co-founder) and Ian were in a theatre group called Meat Whistle, set up by
Sheffield council for people who’d cause trouble otherwise. Ian was a thoughtful man, but pretty da-da. At one stage he wanted to get himself a huge suit with a waistcoat, but have a tiny battery cooling system – so he could walk around in the summer. And it was Ian who built the plexiglass cage thing to house himself and the synths on tour. He said it was because people were throwing things – but I think it was just because he was a stylish man.
What kind of things did people throw at you?
Just name it. We toured Germany with Iggy Pop when there was a lot of anti-English feeling. The programme said we were “England’s Leading Gay Group” and I thought, “Great, that’s really going to help us.” British flags were burnt in front of us, and in Hanover the crowd were running to the toilet, ripping out the chrome toilet roll holders and lobbing them at us. Iggy’s drummer Klaus – who was German – was knocked out by a flying lager can. But it was worse with Siouxsie And The Banshees. In Aylesbury, people were flicking lit matches into my turn-ups, then chewing the inside of their mouths and spitting blood. I used to wear this black suit – one that I got married in – and it had to be dry-cleaned every day. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, though.
Were there any countries that just didn’t get The Human League?
France, definitely. In 1979, we opened a club there called the Van Douche. So there we were, doing our Judas Priest covers – and within three feet of the stage, people were playing pool. They just ignored us. But it was great to be somewhere you can be as rude to them as they are to you.
You’d have to admit, though – synth bands don’t have wild rock reputations...
No – although around 1975, we really got into Apocalypse Now. I remember arriving at a Midlands hotel in ex-military fatigues, with our odd haircuts and make-up, and deciding to scale the outside of the building. So we climbed up the trellises and jumped over the balcony – and found ourselves in the dining room, scaring the hell out of the diners. But I’ve never been a big drinker. In fact, I’ve only become a drunk over the past five years. Just after I became single. It might become a problem, actually.
If your electronics went down on stage, what would you do?
In Manchester we did carols. Last tour everything went down in the Ardwick Apollo, and as it was near Christmas, so our guitarist Russ wandered to the front and began singing carols. Everyone joined in. He’s also a stand-up comedian – his dad’s one of the few professional ventriloquists left in Britain. But I’d be lost. I’m not a natural on stage – I should never have been put there. I’m a shy person.
What was it like working as a hospital porter for five years beforehand?
Brilliant, but where do you go? They don’t pay you much, and it’s not like you’ll get promoted and be a doctor. I was partly the boilerman, and partly the theatre porter. So I’d get in at 8am and shovel a ton of coal into these massive hoppers that heated the hospital. Then I’d have a shower, change into whites

and move dead people about. It was a children’s hospital, too – so when they called me, they’d say, “We’ve got one for Rose Cottage,” so as not to cause a panic. If it was a little child, you’d take it in your arms and your job was to get it away without causing distress. Then I’d prepare the body for when the parents turn up. That was the worst bit – saying, “Hi,” knowing their lives were about to be shattered.
How did you feel about the bodies?
Actually dealing with them – burning parts they’d cut off and so on – was alright. It was slightly fascinating. I used to toss a part into the incinerator, and you’d have to have a look. Crispy – you couldn’t tear yourself away. But doctors do some things that you just don’t want to think about. In order to do a post-mortem on a baby, for instance, you have to fix it up on something called a lollipop. It’s stuck in the air with its head up, and they open it from behind. That is slightly sinister. You only want to think of kids playing football and being happy – that’s disturbing.
Nicely understated. So what freaked you out?
Working in the plastic surgery hospital. I was walking past the theatre, and they were doing something called dermabrasion. When people have bad skins, they can take off the surface with this sandpapering device. I walked past, and there was an 18-inch mist of blood drifting away from this patient. Pretty freaky. Most of the time, though, we used to hide in the hospital library and look at medical photos. Just seeing what they do to people is horribly fascinating. Like that book you gave away with FHM – cool.
Speaking of bodily mutilation, you’re the proud owner of two nipple rings. Do you have problems with airport security?
Yeah. They’re really sensitive in
America about bombs and guns. I used to set them off every time in Texas. I’ve got a Prince Albert as well, you see.
No! It’s the one I’m proudest of. I sometimes stand next to people in pubs covered in piercings and think, “Yeah, you’ve got hundreds, but I’ve got the good one.” I did it about six years ago.
So installing metal in your own meat whistle didn’t hurt?
No. If you’ve seen a kid go through open-heart surgery – and have their middle ripped open, with clamps to keep their ribs apart – and they don’t complain, you shouldn’t be bothered. It was embarrassing though, because most piercers are butch skinheads. I got rejected by one lot. I went to this shop in
Chesterfield, and made the mistake of wearing my frilly shirt, perfume and so on. The guy just looked at me and said, “Nope.”
Finally, we hear you have a collecting habit...
I’m way too much of a collector. I’m spending far too much money on old synthesizers at the moment – I’ve got an attic full of the stuff. I start buying something, then can’t stop. I had every Star Wars toy. Every issue of the Radio Times. Every Smash Hits – including the regional specials. Even every issue of Playboy since 1978 – and that’s a bloody awful magazine. It’s this weird little tick in my mind. During the recording of the new album, I had a thing going with Cadbury’s Yowies. Inside every Yowie, there’s a hand-painted model of an endangered species. We stuck them everywhere: we even took the knobs off the mixing desk and replaced them with Fennec Foxes. But there are 50 of the bloody things – and I’ve got 49. So if any reader of FHM has a spare Fiddler Crab, I’d be very grateful.
So if your house caught fire, what would you grab?
Apart from the girlfriend, maybe not anything. I’d quite like to see everything in my life that’s not a sentient creature go up in flames. I think it’d be a fresh start. Metaphorically speaking, my life is too packed with Fennec Foxes. It’d be good to begin again… with a few Fiddler Crabs. FHM

Wasn’t The Human League named after a board game?
We were desperate – you don’t want to end up with Hear’Say, do you?