The News And Observer 22th August 2008

Crowds want Human League again

Craig D. Lindsey

Whenever they get a chance, the Human League always try to come to America.

"We're always telling our manager we want to go to America," says lead singer Philip Oakey. "And it gets increasingly hard because of the finances. There's not the money about anymore that there used to be."

When stateside promoters gave the U.K. synth-pop outfit the opportunity to appear on the Regeneration Tour, a retro Reagan-era revue featuring the League along with Go-Go's frontwoman Belinda Carlisle, A Flock of Seagulls, Naked Eyes and fellow Sheffield-based band ABC, they immediately went home to start packing.

Says Oakey, calling from St. Louis, "This gave us a chance to just come up here in America for a moment, do a bit of touring and a little bit of sightseeing."

Oakey, 52, has been the flamboyant frontman for the group since the late '70s, when the group consisted of him and founding members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh (who left the group in 1980 and formed the new-wave band Heaven 17). He's quite surprised that he is still out there performing with longtime co-vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Anne Sulley.

"Really, I think that until maybe '95 or so, we thought we were finished as a group," he admits. "We sort of thought that, since [our] music looked old-fashioned and no one was interested. And suddenly, there was a bit of a resurgence."

So just where did this resurgence come from?

"It started in Britain, really, because Britain doesn't make any pop stars now that tour very much. And people wanted to go out and see people whose faces they recognize from the TV. And it just started from there.

"I think that America started doing the same thing and, really, America's very big for it now. Although we go to really odd places. We go to Brazil. We do '80s shows in São Paulo that go very, very well."

Over here, Oakey is pleased to find actual younger faces in the crowds, along with those soccer moms and NASCAR dads who idolized the group back when they were at that age.

"[The audience is] a little bit younger than we expected this time," he says.

"I'm not sure why that is, whether maybe younger people are going out more. But yeah, a lot of young faces there. It's strange -- we toured with Culture Club in '98, and it was primarily middle-age people. This time, it's sort of a good mix."

Whether you're a youngster getting into them or a middle-ager who has been down with them forever, you've got to admit that the League came up with some of the new-wave era's most recognizable and danceable hits.

Tunes like "Don't You Want Me," their first No. 1 single, and "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" were heavy rotation faves in the early '80s. They found No. 1 status again in 1986 when they recorded the aptly titled ballad "Human," written and produced by superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

"They saved our lives, really," says Oakey. According to Oakey, the band was in a slump creatively, and their label suggested they hook up with Jam and Lewis -- who were generating buzz for producing Janet Jackson's star-making LP "Control" -- for their next album.

"We haven't got any good songs," Oakey remembers. "We turned up [in Minneapolis]. They said six of the songs of about twelve were worth doing and, quite frankly, they were right.

"They added four very good songs of theirs, including 'Human.' And I'd always said I didn't want to do a ballad unless it was as good as 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'.' And when they played 'Human,' we said, 'Well, it's not quite as good as 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'. But it's close.' "

Oakey says there will be more new songs to go along with these favorites on the way. The man just feels that as a dance band, especially one whose sexy, synthesized sound can still be heard in most of today's dance music, they have a civic duty to come up with tunes that will make people of all ages move.

"I think we were very lucky to be using synthesizers when people weren't using them much," he says. "So some of the distinctive sounds that just come from them are associated with us, and certainly in dance music now. They're doing a very similar process to get their records that we were doing. So we're really quite happy to be a part of it.

"All great bands," he says, "I think, have been dance bands, right back to the Beatles. People forget now, but they were a dance band."