Mail On Sunday 25th October 2008

In a taxi with… The Human League

The feisty trio on planes, trains and the Sheffield music scene

Stuart Husbond

As we pick up the Human League from trendy Shoreditch House in East London, they’re talking about trains.

‘There are two major pluses with trains,’ says Susan Anne Sulley, in her sonorous Sheffield tones. ‘You don’t have to worry about parking your car. And you can get a drink.’

‘I don’t like trains,’ announces Phil Oakey flatly. ‘They’re rubbish.’


‘Oh, and planes,’ chimes in Joanne Catherall, ignoring him. ‘We love drinking on planes, don’t we? They usually bring us a full-size bottle. They don’t bother with those little ones.’


They continue to bicker as we’re driven to the ITN building where they’re due to appear on London Tonight.

If talking to the League (now essentially Phil, Joanne and Susan, plus hired musicians) sometimes seems like getting caught up in an irascible ménage à trois – the girls all giggles, with Phil as sardonic Greek chorus – then that’s pretty much how it’s been for the past three decades, since the original band split in half (with synth players Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh going off to form Heaven 17).

Vocalist and songwriter Phil recruited schoolgirls Joanne and Susan as backing singers straight off the dance floor at Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy disco. David Bowie once described them as the sound of the future, but today, anyone hearing the electro-pop beat of ‘Don’t You Want Me’ will be teleported back to the early 80s.


Many things have changed since then, not least the League’s personal circumstances (Joanne and Phil were once an item; she’s now married with a son) and their appearance (Joanne and Susan have swapped their asymmetrical cuts for bobs, while Phil’s swooping fringe has succumbed to a grey crew-cut).

Other things have remained the same, like their dedication to Sheffield (they insist on staying based there) and their contrariness; Phil says he ‘despises’ the 80s package tours that currently serve as pension funds for many of their erstwhile peers.


The League’s latest attempt to present their heritage in a more palatable way

comes with this winter’s Steel City Tour, in which they’ll share the bill with fellow Sheffield alumni Heaven 17 and ABC.


Does this mean they’ve buried the hatchet with the former at last? ‘There wasn’t really one to bury,’ says Joanne. ‘Well, only in the beginning, because we signed an agreement with Martyn and Ian that said we’d give them so much money from the next album, because it was them who’d originally formed the band. We didn’t think it would do anything, but it was Dare, which went on to sell six million copies. So that really annoyed us.’


‘But not making as much money as we should have done is a kind of recurring theme,’ admits Susan. ‘It’s quite vexing, as this is our life. We’re not part-timers. I got very offended a few years ago when someone asked me what I did when I wasn’t in the group. I mean, I don’t come offstage and go off to work in Dixons or something.’


Like any outfit who’s stuck around, the League has seen its influence wax and wane, but by the beginning of the 90s, the group was at a nadir.

‘It was awful,’ remembers Susan. ‘Our sort of music was the most unfashionable thing in the world. It was all guitars and grunge and talking about death and shooting up heroin, and we’re so far removed from all that. I had a breakdown and Philip ended up on Prozac. But that did turn around.’


‘I stayed in for about seven years during the 90s,’ says Phil. ‘But now there’s an exciting scene in Sheffield again. I’m even venturing out to clubs and our sound is back in vogue.’


Given that, will the League be around in another 20 years? ‘Jesus Christ,’ gasps Susan, ‘I’ll be 65.’

‘We didn’t think we’d be around this long,’ interjects Joanne.

‘But one of the greatest things,’ says Susan, ‘is that we can go on stage in front of 20,000 people, then wander round the city centre and no one knows who we are. I was in Aldi and the girl on the check-out said, “Has anyone told you that you look like that girl from the Human League?” And then she went, “I bet you wish you had all her money, don’t you?”’

Their laughter is still echoing round