Palo Alto DailyNews 8th August 2008
Pioneering synth-pop band League of their own

Paul Freeman

Humans are a resilient species. Pioneering English synth-pop band the Human League has managed to keep going for over 30 years.

"We didn't have much choice. We haven't got anything else we can do," founding member Philip Oakey quipped.

Best known for "Don't You Want Me," a No. 1 single in both the U.S. and U.K., the band influenced such artists as Madonna and Moby. Human League's songs have been sampled or covered by Ministry of Sound, Robbie Williams and George Michael.

The group continues to be a draw. They headline this summer's "Regeneration Tour," which also brings fellow '80s icons Belinda Carlisle, ABC and A Flock of Seagulls to Mountain Winery on Aug. 11.

Performers from that era are enjoying a revival. "In recent years, (the record industry) hasn't created many stars that you can go out and see. From about the mid-'80s on, recording stars either had one album and went away or became so big that they hardly tour," Oakey said.

"We're almost the last wave of proper pop stars. That sounds like I'm being rude to some other people, which I'm not intending to be. It's just that the format has disappeared. The record industry splintered and there were more entertainment rivals with video, then DVD and computer games. It's more difficult for people to build up a huge career."

Fans' ongoing fervor rejuvenates Oakey. "The weird thing to me is looking in a mirror and seeing an old guy looking back. I never quite expected that. I don't feel, in any way, different to how I felt when I was in my 20s. In my head, I'm probably about 15."

In 1977, Oakey formed the Human League with friends Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh. They earned a reputation for eye-catching live performances, which grew from a realization that they "were so incredibly boring" to watch onstage. "When we started, there were two guys playing keyboards. I stood at the front and sang. But I was really shy. So I didn't do anything at all. We immediately got into doing some slides, to try and turn it into something a little bit different," Oakey said.

"We were always very aware that we weren't a rock group and we tried to bring theatrical, cinematic elements to (our performances). We wanted to do something a bit more cabaret than rock."

The band helped popularize synthesizer-based sound. "At first, synthesizers looked like something that would come in, make a few noises and then go away," Oakey said. "But after about 15 years, people realized that this novel instrument had become part of the palette. It's as valid as, say, a trombone."

Their inspirations included Emerson Lake & Palmer, Giorgio Moroder, Kraftwerk and Walter Carlos' "Clockwork Orange" score.

"I was always looking for novelty. Pop music stands for popular music. But I always wanted just a little bit of innovation. ... We wanted to be able to surprise people."

After seeing a Human League show in the late '70s, David Bowie declared that the band represented the future of pop music.


"We loved David Bowie. But Britain was in the grip of punk. People didn't want recommendations from the last generation at that stage," Oakey said. "So the two most difficult things for us to get over were David Bowie saying he liked us and also (getting) signed by Virgin Records at (a) time when really you had to be on an independent label to impress people.

"We had done a couple of records independently, which were great. But then when we were on a proper label, people stopped buying the stuff for a little while, thinking we'd sold out."

When Ware and Marsh left to create the band Heaven 17, Oakey continued the Human League. He recruited two young women, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, to join him on vocals. The three have survived as a team since 1980.

"We're quite clever not to tread on each other's toes," Oakey said. "If there's a problem, we try to help out, but apart from that, leave each other alone to get on with what we do."

Each brings a distinctive personality to the mix. "We're incredibly different. I'm a bit serious and stodgy. Susan is loquacious and bright. Joanne, in a lot of areas, is quite quiet. But she's actually the most dangerous one. If you get on the wrong side of her, you will never be able to do anything with us. Luckily, she's a very good character assessor."

Oakey only developed a sense of security a few years ago, when he paid off the mortgage on his house. "Until then, I thought, 'This could still all go really badly wrong.'"

Oakey still resides in his hometown of Sheffield. "Mainly people don't recognize me, because that guy from the long ago had long hair on one side and a lot of makeup. I'm a grey-haired, grizzled old man with a stoop, who wanders around," he joked.

The Human League is working on a new album. Oakey believes he can still serve up surprises. "I find the world, in almost every way, has become more uniform than the world we grew up in. We've seen odd little changes, like people seem to accept gay people now a little bit more. But mainly, people are very conformist. It's actually easier to stand out."

He remains fascinated by music's infinite possibilities. "Music is the one abstract art that common people understand."

Fans remain enthralled by the Human League's music. "We were always a minority interest. The vast majority of successful music has always been rock. People had to go out on a limb to admit they liked us, because we looked that bit more theatrical and cabaret. But once you admit it, you're always going to admit it.

"So although we might not have as many fans as U2 or something, our fans are really great and really loyal."

Oakey appreciates the band's good fortune. "We are working-class people. Growing up, maybe we thought we wanted to be in a group, but we never thought we would. So we've been grateful to be able to do this job for the whole of our lives."