Emma Pinch talks to Phil Oakey about
life in one of the most iconic electro bands of the ’80s
IT WAS the haircut that we all remember. It took guts, some might say
foolishness, to totter down the streets of Sheffield touting one long black
curtain of hair, jaunty earrings, candy-striped eye shadow and a slash of
Because, despite teens pulling on their day-glo vests and bobbing along to
“Acceptable in the 80s”, Phil Oakey can attest to the fact that even then,
looking the way he did carried a fair amount of risk. And having ashtrays
lobbed at his head, in his words, “became quite tedious”.
But the urge to stand out from the crowd was more primal then, and stylists
“When I was growing up, I wasn’t really very macho,” explains Phil.
“Although I wasn’t gay, I didn’t really want to go around pretending I was
some aggressive ape. I looked round for something that would say ‘I’m not
like everyone else’ and finally I saw a girl on a bus with her hair long on
“She happened to be a hair model and I went and asked her where she got it
done and she told me, and it became my thing. I had it before I was in the
The group began life in the late 70s with computer programmers Martyn Ware
and Ian Craig Ware. Their search for a vocalist led them to old school
friend Phil Oakey, who was working as a hospital porter at the time.
The clincher was that he already looked like a pop star. Their live
performances built momentum, and led to them supporting Iggy Pop and
Siouxsie Sioux on tour.
When Ware and Marsh quit to form Heaven 17, Joanne Catherall and Susan
Sulley were recruited, handpicked at a Wednesday night disco in Sheffield
dancing round their handbags.
A barrage of hits followed, including Don’t You Want Me and two US number
Phil’s dry, self-deprecating manner cuts through any pretension like
Sheffield steel through butter.
“We were just chancers stumbling along,”
he says simply. “I happened to be in a group because I couldn’t play the
synth, so they let me be the singer. Joanne and Susan joined up because they
fancied doing that rather than going back to school.
“We were very aware when we were number one here and in America, that we
were just not that good.”
The emergence of sampling marked the Human League’s cards. In 1992, they
were dropped from their record contract.
“Everyone gets dropped, but we were lucky enough to have had a string of
hits until 2001. When we went bankrupt, we kept our heads down and mooched
“We finally learned our jobs. On a
record label we would have an engineer and producer there, but I’ve sort of
become the engineer and I’m really quite enjoying it.”
He’s happily settled now with his
girlfriend of 12 years and their dog, called Max. His girlfriend is “some
sort of manager at BT”, and not at all showbizzy.
“As far as I can tell, she doesn’t like the group, she’s never said anything,”
He’s lived in the same Sheffield house since 1983. “Joanne and Susan’s
parents were here and we never saw the point of moving them away from their
parents to London,” he says.
“In London, no-one would take any notice of us at all because Michael
Jackson would be walking along the other street. Here we’re medium-sized
fish in a littler pool.”
And “cracking” America certainly never appealed.
“A lot of bands that are pretty big-headed, like the Paul Wellers, the
Clashes, the Oasises of the world, have crawled on their bellies for the
Americans and got nowhere,” he says with evident satisfaction. He really
doesn’t approve of Oasis.
“I don’t like rock. And I don’t really like cover bands. And, as far as I
was concerned, they were a tribute band to The Beatles. They promoted
themselves as swaggering Mancs, but it was amazing how quickly they became
what they pretended to despise.”
Despite all the ridicule, Phil’s proud to have been a fixture of the 80s.
“I think we were quite a brave generation,” he says. “I was born in 1955,
and the Britain I grew up with was a pretty grim place and we fought against
“We were going to have shoulder pads, colours and trousers with one leg
“Now all the guys I know now have short hair, the women have got long hair,
everyone wears jeans. It’s a bland time.
“If you stand out from that, people will pick on you. I know guys who wear
make-up who have quite a lot of trouble now.
“I miss those days. I knew they would go but I still miss them.”
Gone, too, is his hair. He now sports a shaved, surprisingly butch look.
“I didn’t have any choice, really. I started going bald and the hairdresser
said to me one day ‘Look, Phil, this is ridiculous, there’s no point in
trying to hide it, just cut your hair off.’ I’m 52. I couldn’t really dress
up, I couldn’t wear make-up, I had to accept all that.
“And I sort of accept that I was never really very good looking,” he adds.
“I used to con people. Because I was bold-looking, people assumed that I
must be good looking to get away with it. I was 6 ft tall and that helped,
but I was always a pretty ordinary guy.”
Not that ordinary. A middle-aged guy who was once in one of the world’s most
“I’d still like to have stayed as big as U2,” he says wistfully. “I think
people’s interest drifted away from our kind of music, but I think there’s
an alternative universe somewhere where electro is still the biggest music
ever and everyone hates guitar bands.”