Electronic pioneers The Human League, deservedly called the "future of
pop music" by David Bowie, have gone down in music history as the band
that took synth-pop from Sheffield, England,worldwide via "Don't You
from the single's marriage of innovative musicianship and pop
catchiness, what's kept this track on permanent rotation for nearly 30
years, aside from its high danceability quotient, is a heart-wrenching
depiction of post-relationship disorder that anyone who has loved and
lost can relate to.
audio liner notes interview on 1995's "The Very Best of the Human
League," band member Susanne Sulley waxes sentimental about the
enduring single, saying, "We're talking to a lot of people at the
moment who say ... 'I remember on Christmas Eve of 1981, I kissed my
girlfriend for the first time to the tune of 'Don't You Want Me?'"
Vocalist Phil Oakey rebuts with "They're all divorced now." Even when
Sulley compromises with "Yes, but it still holds dear memories for
them," Oakey can't restrain his matrimonial mistrust: He says, "It
holds expensive memories for them now."
For Oakey, about to launch the Regeneration Tour 2008 with The Human
League, fellow Sheffielders
ABC, A Flock of
Seagulls, Naked Eyes and Belinda Carlisle, this sentiment still rings
truer than wedding bells for both straights and gays.
"I'm not that
fond of marriage, myself," he told Gay.com. "I got married quite young and
it went wrong; I let her down, and I feel wrong about it. For a lot of my
friends who've broken up recently, it's been very hurtful. That being said,
I don't think people should be divided up. But getting the acceptance of
society is a different matter. I don't need approval for who I go out with.
If they don't let me, and I want to, it's no one's business. I'm not sure
that gays want to end up with what's been a mess for heterosexuals."
You Want Me" and other lovelorn anthems when the band takes the stage as
part of the package '80s tour.
same as we always do when we go out and play live," he said. "We're going to
try and do songs most people like to hear. We really do a greatest hits
And boy, do
they have decades of material to choose from. Formed more than 30 years ago
by synth players Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh, vocalist Philip Oakey and visual
wiz Adrian Wright, The Human League released the groundbreaking hit "Being
Boiled," "The Dignity of Labour" EP, and LPs Reproduction" and "Travelogue"
before divorcing Ware and Marsh (who went on to form Heaven 17) in 1980.
"As far as I
can see, I don't know if it was that we wanted to be more pop than the
lads," Oakey explained. "But it seemed to be around a photo shoot; Martin
Ware didn't want to do a photo shoot. It was as little as that. I think our
manager at the time thought that we couldn't have a group with two big heads.
Then Martin said he would never appear onstage with me again -- I think
because Bryan Ferry had said that about Brian Eno. So he wanted to be like
Bryan Ferry. He's very funny and witty that way."
Marsh's departure placed Wright on synthesizer and necessitated the
additions of bassist Ian Burden, ex-Rezillo guitarist Jo Callis and teenage
vocalists Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall.
breakthrough came with the 1981 "Dare!" album, which featured "Sound of the
Crowd," "Love Action," "Open Your Heart" and the indelible classic single "Don't
You Want Me," which was the second video ever filmed.
why this song remains a favorite on radio, in dance clubs and on Best Video
lists to this day, Oakey speaks in modest understatement.
because we didn't manage to spoil it," he said. "We went into the studio and
had a few good ideas. We left the good bits and not the bad bits."
In 1983, the
band scored a pair of hits with "Mirror Man" and "(Keep Feeling)
Fascination" off the "Fascination!" EP, and three years later, they would
achieve their first No. 1 in the United States with the Jimmy Jam/Terry
Lewis-produced "Crash" and its pleading single "Human." But the album's
title would soon prove prophetic as The Human League, now consisting of
Oakey, Sulley and Catherall, were relegated to retro-band status until the
2001 album "Secrets," which saw the group undergo a sonic overhaul,
generated a bit of press coverage.
to Oakey, in good times and in bad, the one constant for the band has been
their gay fan base.
had massive gay support," he said. "We might have gone bankrupt if we
weren't doing shows in gay clubs. I've not really pondered on it. I come
from an ordinary family in Sheffield, and a lot of my friends have been
and transvestite. It sort of seemed ordinary-ish to us. Is it because if
you're gay, you had to be more open-minded -- not just drifting down the
path that most people do?"
"In my case,
that was rock music, where I wanted more alternatives," he continued,
remembering his need to break out during his teen years in the mostly
conservative, gray industrial town of Sheffield.
"We were a
big steel town so there was a lot of that," he said. "But it was also
European and left-wing politically, and those things got themselves together.
The (city government) was good at supporting people who were out of work, so
people who wanted to start bands didn't have to kill themselves to do it:
Maybe you could really be like David Bowie if you really tried. Since rock
got us down, and we grew up feeling not-fitted-in, when I thought what would
be a scene for me, I thought of Roxy Music, David Bowie and T-Rex, because
you don't have to be that macho. I was always interested in wearing makeup
and different clothes. One of my key moments was seeing The Sweet. I
remember thinking, 'I want high heels and Lurex. I want to express myself.'
Of course, it turned into a uniform in no time."
But that was
only within the confines of the glam and post-punk scene, as Oakey and other
glammed-out scenesters were well aware of as they headed to and from the
"I don't know
why, but I seemed to get away with it," he said. "Maybe because I'm six feet
tall and don't smile. I'm really a happy sort of person, but I looked like a
brooding idiot. But as soon as David Bowie came out, I started wearing
glitter on my eyes and going to town. At that stage, you had a lot of
skinheads, who were racist, anti-gay and violent. But I learned really early
on that you don't turn away, because then they'd chase you. So I would march
right through them -- that sort of thing. But it never seemed like there was
anything wrong about it to me. Maybe times had moved on enough. I mean,
what's the problem? Let people do what they want. Maybe it's because David
Bowie had said he was gay."
tolerance toward gender-ambiguity and even homosexuality in Britain has
markedly improved in decades since, Oakey also sees a developing
"I would say
it's sort of established and I feel like it's all settled down," he said.
"But people generally are still more intolerant. Our guitarist would go to
bars wearing a bit of makeup, and people started hitting him. It's not
something I can explain myself. People are drifting to racism that I thought
I would never hear. People go on TV and make jokes about disabled people."
this burgeoning conservatism reflected in the general style today, in which
figuring out what to wear involves choosing between Diesels and Sevens.
"I would ban
blue denim and say that people should do something different instead of
deciding which of 15 pairs they should put on today," he said. "You've got
to be more creative. We were bold people from quite a bold time. When we
went into a nightclub, we wanted to be the most looked-at person. Now people
want to wear the most anonymous clothes, and no one even looks up any more.
thoroughly enjoyed wearing makeup," he continued. "But since I've gone bald,
it's stopped me from doing those things, because it makes it look like I'm
trying too hard. If I could be glam now, I would be."
the band is now recording their 10th studio album, which is certain to have
a more electro feel, if recent collaborations with Kraftwerk and Goldfrapp
are any indication.
to write new material, which has been going very well, so then we'll figure
out what to do with it," he said. "We'll see if any record labels are still
left. But here, it's raining again. We're working too hard. We do somewhere
between 50 to 80 live dates a year. I thought I was as busy as can be, and
then my girlfriend persuaded me to get a rescue dog, and then I'm running to
keep up. It's been two months of aching. Every day is hard work. It's
stronger than me. I try to take it on walks, and it's hard to get work
marriage may be out of the question for Oakey, at least he can say that his
professional partnership with Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall is made in
heaven as -- after almost three decades -- they continue to play
crowd-pleasing music together.
"We do 50 to
80 shows a year," he said. "Right now, myself, Joanne and Susanne, we've
been doing it since 1979, and we're sort of beginning to know each other [Laughs]
We always get audiences singing along. People always want more."