In dublin magazine 12th January 2006

A League Of Their Own

They can’t dance and they can’t really sing – so what has given The Human League the longevity that has them spanning over three decades?

By Clara McDonnelll

Who would have thought during the early eighties that fans of The Human league would spawn children who would happily dance around their handbag in (now retro) eighties chic to Don’t Yu Want Me Baby? After what realistically was a tumultuous assault on the pop community during a decade that embraced the weird and the wonderful, emphasizing the fantastic and virtually banging the colour beige, they have managed to systematically carve audiences out of decades that shouldn’t like their music.

Madonna said they helped her through her formative years, Moby says they changed his life – but how does a band that is so lacking in talent manage to enthral such a vast audience? What is it about Philip Oakey that makes both men and women go wild, and how do two average looking women become world-renowned sex symbols with little or no effort?

As I waded through the mountain of material written about The Human League in preparation for this piece, the one recurring theme was that of a band hard done by, which aside from the occasional diva-like blow ups (famously making the producer of The Tube cry because they refused to go on stage until the billing order was changed being a particular highlight) was quite justified really. They have faced bankruptcy a few times, most of which they attribute to the fact that they never had any money, so when they were given lump sums from their management company, they went mad spending until there was no wedge left. The lack of regular cash coming in eventually forced the group (then Ian, Phil, Susan and Joanne) to reassess their situation and invest in building their own recording studio – something that they could hang onto as a money making endeavour should everything go wrong.

Formed back in the 1970s, The Human League was originally a band called The Future, and didn’t include any women or indeed, Philip Oakey, who was recruited after the original lineup was decided and the name change organized. Signed to Virgin as record industry newbies, the guys had no idea what they had gotten themselves into – they were virtually owned by the record execs put in charge of propelling thir career into the stratosphere.

The row with Virgin began as such. Disappointed by the lack of sales, Virgin reacted swiftly by cancelling the League’s proposed UK tour in November and asking the band to support Talking Heads instead. Reluctantly, the group agreed, releasing a press statement that revealed their plans for the upcoming performance. With tongue firmly in cheek, the League suggested that they wouldn’t actually be on stage for the performances and that their place would be taken by backing tapes and a slide show hinting that they would occasionally view the show as members of the audience. Virgin bigwigs failed to see the funny side and the League were dropped from the support slot.

By the early eighties The League were being hailed as innovators by the music press but the band were never earning more than £30 a week each. Tensions also began to run high between Martyn and Phil whilst Ian was unhappy with Adrian being invited to share song-writing credits. Disagreements over their creative future and the fact that Gary Numan scored the first major electronic hit single having disowned his recent rock past, proved to be too much and November saw the departure of Ian and Martyn, who both went on to create the BEF (British Electric Foundation).

The next event in League history would be destined to go down in pop folklore, forever referred back to and sometimes doubted. With time running out to find new members for his band, Phil spotted two teenage girls dancing at the Crazy Daisy disco in Sheffield and reckoned that they would be ideal as dancers and both were invited to join the band. Joanne Catherall and Susan Sulley accepted immediately, despite the fact that both were still in school at the time. The arrival of the Dancing Girls was met with typical scepticism by the music press, who were now convinced that the League were finished, but the

girls ongoing contribution to the future success of the band would ultimately prove invaluable.

Dare, the defining album in Human League history, premiered in late October 1981 together with its pastiche of a Vogue magazine cover to enthusiastic reviews, but few could have foreseen the ongoing effect that the album was to have on popular music history. Dare represented cleverly crafted pop with multi-layers of melodic lead synths while computer driven bass lines using a technique pioneered by Martin Rushent gave the album a sense of power and urgency that electronic music had lacked prior to the release of Dare.

Delighted by the success of the album, Virgin suggested that Phil and the girls go after the Christmas number one slot with Don’t You Want Me Baby. The League were unimpressed; the track hadn’t been a favourite during the recording of Dare and they were positive that its release would herald the end for The Human League. Virgin persisted, and by the end of December Don’t You Want Me was enjoying a five-week stint at Number One. The video to the song was a stylistic film within a film, and would dictate how future pop videos would be made as well as generating a whole wave of male appreciation for Joanne and Susan.

Over the next few years The League released a number of hit songs, spending more and more time in the studio and creating a perfectionist attitude that ultimately would be their downfall. The fact that most of their material comes about as the result of a number of arguments, and many discarded half songs (former Haircut 100 singer Nick Heywood famously revealed that he had recorded his debut solo album in the time it took the League to program one drum machine) meant that the accountants at Virgin were having many a sleepless night. Worried by events taking, execs tried introducing new producers to bring about a sense of discipline to recording sessions, but eventually they ended up abandoning release dates for newmaterial because they quite simply had no idea when the band would get their act together.

Hysteria was released to little fanfare in 1984, and dropped out of the top ten after only two weeks. In 1986, the classic sound of The League was back, with the release of Human, a song that seemed to breathe life back into a drifting band. The 1980s ended ina somewhat deflated manner for The League – they had peaked and fallen so many times during the decade, that by the time it was over people were sick of waiting to see what they would do next. Their anthemic tunes preceded them, but live they weren’t great shakes, and although they had enough charisma to fill a battleship, essentially they were missing the key ingredient… hardcore talent.

During the 1990s they made a comeback, releasing several tracks and the critically acclaimed Octopus. They began gigging again with a more updated image, but to me, they outplayed their welcome. While The Human League absolutely deserve their place in musical history (they helped to created what we know today as pop music), they have carried on for too long. Over the last few years they have become a tribute band to themselves, gigging all over Europe to the extent that people have started to expect a Human league gig on their yearly event calendar. Whether this is a good or a bad thing is up to you, but I think that a great band has its audience begging for more, hoping that they will have a chance to see them live once in their lifetime, rather than every July in the local theatre.

Having said all that, they absolutely kicked ass at Electric Picninc, and if it’s a retro vibe you’re after, then quite honestly, you couldn’t get any better. Rather than look forward, with The Human League you’re better off looking into the past, and as long as you stick to that way of thinking you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a great night. If anything else, the opportunity to see a man who still wears Max Factor crimson lipstick is too much to miss.