The Sunday Herald 26th
League ahead of the rest
By Sarah Dempster
There aren't many pop stars who could get away with day-glo make- up and C&A dresses but, Susan Sulley tells Sarah Dempster, that's what makes The Human League so special It's been snowing in Sheffield for days now. But, much to Susan Sulley's chagrin, it hasn't been lying. Instead, the steel city has become hostage to a freezing deluge of endless grey slush. "It's horrible," shivers Sulley, peering at the streets from the heated safety of her flat. "Snow's supposed to be lovely. It's not supposed to do this. Its absolutely freezing too."
Sulley has lived in Sheffield all her life. Even during the early 1980s - when her band, The Human League, became so successful she could barely leave her house without being mobbed - the singer has never wanted to leave. Why should she, she argues, when all her friends and family live there? "We've never been showbiz types," she explains, "and I think that was always one of our saving graces. Living in Sheffield kept our feet on the ground and we never got caught up in the social scene of being in a pop group. I've probably been to about three celebrity parties in my life."
Sulley, 36, was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when she first met Human League singer Phil Oakey. In 1980, The Crazy Daisy Disco was Sheffield's coolest nitespot, a plush hangout where the city's hippest kids could share eyeliner tips and Gary Numan gossip. Sulley was working there with her best friend, Joanne Catherall, when Oakey spotted the duo dancing and asked them to join him on tour. For fervent fan Sulley, it was to be the opportunity of a lifetime. "My friends were all rooting for us. Everybody was dead excited. I think, like us, they thought it was only going to last six months or a year at the most. We had no preconceptions that The Human League was going to be a career.
"It's hard to explain to people these days, because they've grown up with pop bands such as Boyzone and the Spice Girls and Westlife. Nowadays if you told your parents you wanted to be in a pop group, they'd go great, go for it! But when I came home and said to my mum, 'This man's asked me and Joanne to go on tour with his band', she told me to go to my bedroom. I was grounded!"
Perhaps surprisingly, Sulley ended up convincing her concerned parents that joining a highly stylised electro-pop band fronted by a man with strange hair and big earrings was a good idea. She wanted to be in a pop group, and there was nothing anybody could do about it. The parental seal of somewhat hesitant approval thus obtained, 17- year-old Sulley and her friend Catherall, who would soon begin a lengthy relationship with the much-older Oakey, dropped out of school and officially joined The Human League.
Over the next four years, the group went on to score 10 top 20 hits and one legendary number one, Don't You Want Me? Their 1981 album, Dare, sold more than six million copies and is now listed by many, including fellow Sheffield son Jarvis Cocker, as one of the finest pop records of the 1980s.
Their huge success was understandable. Their look was unique. In the days when new romantic pop groups attempted to out-spangle each other, The Human League kept things to a bare but stylish minimum. Phil Oakey may
have worn diamante earrings and had a carpet-sweeping fringe, but Sulley and Catherall ensured The Human League look was always accessible. With their frosted lipstick, day-glo eyeshadow and C&A dresses, the image was straight off the high street. They couldn't really sing and they danced like gauche robots, but the Sheffield teenagers rapidly became role models for daydreaming schoolgirls everywhere.
"I think the reason we were so popular was the fact the general public could relate to us, especially the fact me and Joanne were just out of school. We were never arty-farty or poncey and we proved anyone could make it," muses Sulley in her strong Yorkshire tones. "Our image always came from us, too. We never had stylists and nobody ever told us what to dress or what kind of music to make. Me and Joanne are not the greatest singers in the world, but people liked the fact we were down-to-earth and ordinary."
The Human League's approachability also flowed from their music - a whirling compote of catchy electro beats and memorable synth flourishes that, when accompanied by Phil Oakey's intensely personal lyrics - much of their early material dealt with the break-up of his first marriage - proved there was a very real heart pulsing beneath all that static techno minimalism. Where many of their contemporaries dwelt so heavily on their rigidly futuristic image that their music, at times, appeared merely incidental, The Human League seemed so much more well, human. Perhaps that's why their participation in revival tours such as Culture Club's Club Sandwich event seems less sad than that of their pop star peer group. In setting themselves up as approachable human beings first and pop stars second, their current status as dependable underdogs is infinitely preferable to that of deluded panto dames such as Duran Duran.
Nevertheless, The Human League's massive initial success, followed by frequent comebacks, has not come without a price. "I found it very difficult to cope with fame at such an early age," sighs Sulley. "But what I found even more difficult was coping with the lack of success. We'd been very, very successful, and then when that suddenly went away it was very trying.
"Nobody teaches you how to cope with it. You're on your own and I would argue with anyone who says fame is not difficult to deal with. You end up getting cocooned in your own little world where you only have contact with the people you work with and then you realise you have to get back to real life. I certainly had a struggle with it. Speak to anyone in a group - especially one which has been going as long as we have - and they'll say the same thing. You have to be very strong to deal with everything. One minute you're number one and are famous all over the world and the next nobody knows who you are. It's hard."
Not that Sulley is bitter. Indeed, she and best friends Catherall and Oakey have loved their life in a top band, she says. They've never wanted to split up because "we always felt we had more to give". At the moment the trio are in the studio preparing for a new album which they hope will be released in 2000. Phil is also cutting tracks with Sheffield's acclaimed dance-tinged popsters, The All Seeing I - a collaboration that, claims Sulley, is already having an influence on The Human League's sound.