New Jersey Beacon 6th August 2008
Only Human

The Human League will join ‘The Regeneration Tour’ at Sovereign Bank Arena.

Susan Van Dongen

The Human League (Susan Ann Sulley, Phil Oakey and Joanne Catherall) is just one of the '80s groups on "The Regeneration Tour," appearing in Trenton, Aug. 21.

It  wasn’t the excesses of progressive and stadium rock that fueled the synthesizer-pop movement. Nor were the synth-pop groups rebelling against super-rich superstars in rock.

The genre blossomed because young musicians could finally afford a cheap keyboard. And, if they were too unmotivated to learn the guitar or take formal piano lessons, they could fake their way on a Korg — even program it to play itself. That gave them a chance to dance around the stage and check on their hair.

That’s what a young Phil Oakey and his friends did. Around 1977, he formed the Human League with Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh, modeling the group on the German synthesizer band Kraftwerk.

”It was all about the availability of synthesizers,” Mr. Oakey says, speaking by phone from England. “A few years before, only universities and Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) could afford them. Then suddenly, the Japanese made them and then we could afford them. We needed an instrument that we could program, something you could use to get your ideas in place and then play them at the right speed.”

Mr. Oakey describes the first incarnation of the Human League as a “fairly dour all-male band” that mixed electro-pop with multi-media presentations and elements of cabaret. Who knew that a change in personnel, a video and a little bit of good timing would launch the Human League into the pop stratosphere a few years later? The group also opened the door for a flurry of synthesizer bands, mostly from Britain.

Bands like A Flock of Seagulls, ABC and Naked Eyes were all the rage, which sent guitarists — and drummers and horn players — to the unemployment line, but gave hairdressers a boost. You can take a trip back to the times of the New Romantics when The Regeneration Tour comes to the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton Aug. 21.

The aforementioned ‘80s pop icons — along with Belinda Carlisle — will be together for the first time live and in concert on one stage. The Regeneration Tour will kick off with an “‘80s glam block party” featuring live music from New Jersey-based alternative/indie band Park Drive.


Except for a few years when “grunge rock” took over from the stylish synthesizer bands, “The League” has been going strong.

”Grunge happened really big and we were poison, especially in Britain, but we still had support from the gay community (in the U.S.),” Mr. Oakey says. “But here, we hadn’t a clue what to do with our lives. We had never learned


how to do anything else and we thought we’d have to look for real jobs.”


A tour in the late ‘90s supporting the Culture Club revived the Human League’s career and galvanized the group’s decision to stay in the business and grow.

”We’re thriving, really radiant in fact,” Mr. Oakey says. “We do between 50 and 80 live shows in a year and we thoroughly enjoy it. And we love being in America, especially in the summer.”

After the first version of the Human League broke up, it looked as though the group was going under for good. In fact, the story goes that they were going on tour broke, basically on a prayer and minus two key members. But then Mr. Oakey spotted two lovely young women — Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall — dancing in a nightclub and invited them to join the Human League. The sound and the look of the group was greatly improved and the public fell in love.

”We needed to go on tour and we needed people to sing and play instruments,” Mr. Oakey says. “I thought, ‘We should have high voices, oh wait, girls have high voices.’

”You have to remember, in those days, a lot of people (came to clubs) in the U.K. looking ridiculous,” he continues. “They’d dress up as Dracula or come in their wedding dresses. But Susan and Joanne looked classy, they were dressed in all black with red ties and trilby hats. They’ve been (more than decorative) — they’ve been my business partners for 30 years.”

Just on the verge of the MTV revolution, a high-quality video was put together and burned the image of the good-looking women and the fashionable Mr. Oakey into the public’s consciousness. He says this was another lucky coincidence.

The album Dare produced the single “Don’t You Want Me,” which topped the pop charts in the United States in 1982. Love or hate the sound, it was something very new and caused the members of the Human League a bit of angst.

”A lot of people didn’t like (our sound) because it was music that rejected the rock aspect,” Mr. Oakey says. “There was a great deal of anxiety because everyone was saying ‘You’re the future of music’ and we knew we weren’t as good as (our press). Actually, we’re not really very talented and we struggled to be as good as people thought we should be. It took us 15 years to learn our job.”

”That’s what it is for me — my job, and it’s a job that I really love,” he continues. “I don’t have a swimming pool or a Rolls Royce, but pop music has been my life. Since I grew up on the Beatles and Bob Dylan, I couldn’t want more.”