Port Folio Weekly 26th August 2008
Human League Fascination
By 1981, The Human League had
experienced minor commercial success on the pop charts in its native Britain
but was relatively unknown
That all changed in a flash when MTV aired a video for "Don’t You Want Me."
The mass exposure rocketed the Sheffield-based synthpop group into
superstardom status. The song, which was actually the fourth single released
from Dare, remains The Human League’s biggest hit with more than two million
copies sold worldwide.
With Dare certified as a triple platinum seller, The Human League, comprised of singers Philip Oakey, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall, went on a hit producing spree that included "(Keep Feeling) Fascination," "Human" and "Mirror Man." They’d come a long way since Oakey started the group as an electronic music experiment in 1977.
I have an old compilation album featuring Gang of Four and The Human League. Your sound was quite experimental early on, wasn’t it?
Yeah. We were sort of two very different groups. I always thought what we were closest to was an electronic Joy Division. We used to do shows with Joy Division. So that’s what we were, but I grew up really loving pop music. I wanted to be glam rock to tell you the truth. I wanted to be Slade. Then when Donna Summer came along with ‘I Feel Love,’ we knew that was exactly what we wanted to do.
What were those early days like when you were performing as an avant-garde electronic music group?
It was a really scary time. I ended up being the singer because I wasn’t as good at playing keyboards as anyone else. None of us were very flamboyant. I was a shy person, and I just stood there not doing anything. Luckily, we knew a guy who had a collection of slides of the ’50s and the Kennedys, so we ended up developing a slide show. I think it was more theatrical, and that made us stand out from the other bands.
How was Joy Division at the time?
It was strange because we all thought we were grim and industrial ourselves. We used to dress in army fatigues and things. We were also quite boyish. I remember when we went to a military surplus place and we bought all army gear. We got to the hotel—I think we’d just seen Apocalypse Now—and we climbed over a balcony and realized that everyone in the restaurant was looking at us thinking, who are these idiots? They could tell we weren’t dangerous; they just thought we were idiots.
After Ian Curtis died, the surviving members of Joy Division carried on as New Order and incorporated synthesizers into their music. Do you think it was partially due to the relationship you had with them?
I think everyone was hunting around that area. I know they’d always been interested in that stuff. We run into them occasionally. New Order is one of those groups that I’m always interested in what they do. Maybe they had to be quite doomy while Ian Curtis was around, and they could lighten up afterward. ‘Blue Monday’ is a track I wish we had done.
How did the transformation from experimental band to pop group come about?
We lost two of the guys from the first Human League. I think there was a bit of a personality clash because I really wanted to do pop music. One of the guys that we drafted was a bass player. One of the guys was a guitar player, although we made him play keyboards. Perhaps, critically, the producer had been a commercial drummer. Suddenly, we had a band. Without ever knowing it, we had guys who could do all the things you’d do in a standard band. Then
we were able to make the pop records we were trying to make. With massive luck, we got Joanna and Susan, who not only represented that we were as friendly to women as we were to men, but were also very good judges of what we were doing. We would play them a few songs, and they would tell us which
the hits were.
How important was image when Dare was released in 1981?
Image was massively important to us. We had been so arty in the band before, and I wanted to get rid of a lot of the nonsense. We had been doing posters, for instance, where the lettering was so arty that you couldn’t read it. We actually had a little set of principles that we were going to make the letters on the album very readable. We weren’t going to do any drawings or paintings; it was going to be photographs so anyone listening to the record would know who was doing the record.
"Don’t You Want Me" was your first major hit song. How did this newfound popularity change the band?
I would guess that it’s the one song that means we’ve carried on with what we do, and it’s probably why I get the chance to be in America now, touring with the likes of ABC and Belinda Carlisle. It was a song we managed not to spoil. Somehow it talked to everyone around the world. It made it possible for us to have a proper career and not be a flash-in-the-pan.
Some songs sound very dated, but "Don’t You Want Me," even though it’s synth-pop, still holds up as fresh and fun. Why do you think that is?
I don’t know. Somehow there is a standard in that song, almost like a Sinatra song or a Dylan song. Although, oddly, it’s a song that people don’t cover. We were always hoping Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton would do it and sell 25 million copies so I could retire. It’s funny how synthesizers of that period have become a standard sound. Even if you listen to a Def Leppard track, they actually sound a little more dated than we do.
How influential would you say The Human League was back in the early 1980s, and has your music influenced contemporary bands like Franz Ferdinand and Metro Station?
At the time, we were running scared. We said we were going to try to make synthesizer albums but suddenly people were having big hits around us. When we first started doing that all the papers were saying we were the great breakthrough, and David Bowie said we were the future of pop. Suddenly, in Britain, people like Gary Numan and the Flying Lizards were having much bigger hits than us, and we thought we’d missed the boat.
The pop music world changed dramatically in the 1990s. Was that a period of struggle for The Human League?
We had a pretty bad time from 1989 to 1995. I think grunge made it look like synthesizer music was a flash-in-the-pan. We were a bit like Poison; no one wanted to even talk to us let alone go and see us. We struggled through personal problems. A couple of us were having nervous breakdowns as we tried to work out what to do with our lives. Luckily – maybe about the mid-’90s in Britain – dance music came back again with the big clubs. They were using very similar instrumentation and loops and samples. At the same time, we became established as recognizable stars. Britain doesn’t make very many stars anymore and the stars we do make tend to not tour very much. Suddenly, we have a chance for people who grew up with us to go and see us on a stage. We try to do a good show for them.
How excited are you to be touring America again as part of the Regeneration Tour?
It’s just absolutely great. We fight to get on these tours. When we started we were still in a pioneer business where everything was done in big sweeps. You’d go, ‘We’re going to go to America. We’re not really going to get the money together but we’re just going to get there, and we’re going to stay in the best hotels and we’re going to launch ourselves.’ Now, you go through the littlest financial detail and, honestly, the price of a bus can be the difference in going to a country or not going. So, we just kill ourselves to get there. We’re really glad to be with our mates like Martin Fry of ABC. Belinda’s doing a fantastic show. I’m really looking forward to seeing A Flock of Seagulls.