Norwich Evening Standard 26th November 2001

Still top of the music leagues

Rowan Mantell

THEY virtually invented the sound and the look of the 80s. White make-up trowelled on. Pop-perfect synthesisers. And when half the band walked out, the replacements were picked not for their musical skills but for their looks and their dancing.

Joanne Catherall was one of the two teenagers famously plucked from the dance floor of a Sheffield nightclub to become part of the Human League. It probably shouldnt have worked. But it did and within a year the innovative Oakey/Catherall duet was the biggest selling single of the year.

Twenty years on Joanne is still one third of The Human League and the synth-sound made famous by the group is inspiring some of todays top acts.

Tonight Phil Oakey, Joanne (the dark one) and Susan Sulley (the blonde one) will be in Norwich belting out the old hits, and mixing in the new songs which should soon be riding high on the current 80s revival.

Weve never split up, weve stayed together in the background all that time. Now this new interest in the 80s is fantastic for us, said Joanne.

Our new album is getting the best reviews weve ever got in our career.

I think its partly that people are more accepting now that you can just do it with a synthesiser and vocals. You dont have to have a guitar.

The whole atmosphere at the moment is quite good for us. The journalists who are reviewing now were the people who were growing up back then. Its their kind of sound.

Its also the kind of sound that the brightest young dance acts around are listening to. The glamour and high-tech of the Human League was submerged for a while by the guitars and grunge of the mid 90s but it is surging back big time in 2001.

Joanna is now 39, married and mum to a four-year-old son. Phil he of the pierced nipples and asymmetric hair is 46. Sometimes she wonders what would have happened if she had not been dancing at the Crazy Daisy disco in Sheffield that night more than half her lifetime ago.

I was going to go to university to study sociology and psychology, she said. Instead, Phil Oakey, who had already taken the original Human League line-up on to Top of the Pops, decided to fill the gaps in his band with two girls who knew next to nothing about the music business, had never sung professionally and were busy studying for their A levels. Joanne and Susan had to get special permission from their school to swap studying for stardom.

Within one extraordinary year The Human League had scooped the 1981 Christmas Number One spot with Dont You Want Me, which then went on to become a Number One hit in America too.




Just occasionally Joanne thinks of going back to that truncated education.

I sometimes think that I should really do something more with my brain! she said. Ive thought about the Open University but I need the motivation of working with other people.

It is that connection with other people which she loves about touring and which means that however many times they play the old favourites she never tires of them. I dont think you could get sick of a song that, when you launch into it in front of a crowd, they just go mad, she said.

Touring is our only chance to see the people who have bought our records and love our records. Its fantastic to be out there after all the hard work of the studio.

The top crowd-pleasers are Dont You Want Me, Mirror Man, Life On Your Own. . . but Joannes personal favourite is Tell Me When from the 1995 album Octopus.

And exactly 20 years on from that first Christmas Number One she (and the all-important critics) have high hopes for the next single.

We are talking about putting one of the songs from the new album out just after Christmas, she said.My personal choice would be Love Me Madly. Phil has called that new album, Secrets: Probably our best album ever. The death-mask-perfect pictures, the studio-pure songs have led to accusations which range from artificial through aloof to pretentious.

But talking to Joanna it is hard to believe the warm, friendly northern voice coming down the telephone is that of the stiffly painted icon posed on the front cover of the albums.

We have had that reputation of being difficult. People have said that they were terrified of meeting us and working with us, but were not like that at all. I think that its because we look a bit aloof and because we are actually a bit nervous.

Despite 20 years at the forefront of pop Joanne and Susan and Phil still all live in their home town. Moving to London never really came up, to be quite frank, said Joanne. We were born in Sheffield. Its our home.

This will be the first tour that Joanne has had to leave her son behind. It will be really hard but we have planned it so that we are only away for a week at a time and then we can travel back to Sheffield, she said.

They play at the University of East Anglia in Norwich tonight. Fans can expect to party along to the old tunes from the 80s and be pleasantly surprised at just how good the inevitable tracks from the new album are.

But dont expect Phil to be sporting that famous geometric haircut. He hasnt really got a lot of hair these days! said Joanne.