League lead­ers

The Hu­man League still dare to be dif­fer­ent, Phil Oakey tells Tony Clayton-Lea

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Front Page -

AND WHAT ex­actly, Phil Oakey, have you been up to in the past 10 years? It’s a fair enough ques­tion to ask of the Hu­man League front­man, con­sid­er­ing that the elec­tro-pop unit hasn’t re­leased an al­bum since 2001’s Se­crets. Oakey is talk­ing from his home in Sh­effield, where he lives with his girl­friend, his dog, his com­put­ers and – in a neat twist of the man-ma­chine aes­thetic that caused David Bowie to pro­nounce, in the late 1970s, The Hu­man League as the fu­ture of pop mu­sic – a gar­den speck­led with long­tailed tits.

“Maybe for a while it was whether we would do one again or not at all,” says Oakey, whose de­but ap­pear­ance on Top of the Pops in the late 1970s gen­er­ated WTF con­cerns from par­ents across the UK and Ire­land (the nip­ple rings, the high heels, the lip­stick and asym­met­ri­cal hairdo didn’t help). “And then the years crept up on us. Se­crets failed com­mer­cially, and it was the first time since the ’80s that we hadn’t any sin­gles in the Top 40. From then we couldn’t help but no­tice that the mu­sic busi­ness is not the same busi­ness it was in any way in, say, the late ’90s, so we took the op­por­tu­nity to play live in­stead of re­leas­ing al­bums.

“When we started back in the late ’70s, we made records and the money flowed in from those. Then you played con­certs to pro­mote them, los­ing money on the gigs in the process. These days it’s the op­po­site – you don’t make a huge amount of money from records, but you make enough from gigs and tour­ing. That means for peo­ple like me there is no cer­tainty of money flow­ing into the cof­fers – or at least not like it used to. Maybe that’s the way things should be. You get soft pretty quickly when you start earn­ing money – as soon as you have some in the bank, you get a mort­gage and a car, and then you take your eye off the prize.” They haven’t gone away, you know. Just when you thought it was safe to put away the guy­liner and the silk blouses, along comes the orig­i­nal of the species. But what of the other orig­i­nal New Ro­man­tic bands – the ones that had us all in a tizzy with their sculpted cheek­bones, their fringes just so, their syn­the­siz­ers and their lip gloss?

Well, a week af­ter re­lease Credo, their first al­bum in 10 years, along comes with All You Need Is Now. Orig­i­nally re­leased dig­i­tally last De­cem­ber, the al­bum is be­ing re­leased phys­i­cally to tie in with their up­com­ing tour, which starts at SXSW in Texas next week.

Other New Ro­man­tic acts on the come­back trail this year in­clude

who haven’t re­leased an al­bum since 1999’s Don’t Mind If I Do. Later this year, Boy Ge­orge and co will em­bark on a 30th an­niver­sary tour, with a new al­bum to fol­low

in 2012.

Ah, yes, but what a prize it was. Al­though they be­gan life in the late 1970s as a frugal elec­tronic pop act that fused the melodies of Kraftwerk with the in­dus­trial dour­ness of Joy Divi­sion, a mutiny in 1980 (leav­ing Oakey on his own, pon­der­ing his fu­ture) trans­formed The Hu­man League into a triple-rated cash cow. In a com­mer­cial and cre­ative mas­ter stroke (or drunken strat­egy – de­pend­ing on view­point), Oakey walked into Sh­effield night­club Crazy Daisy, walked over to two dancing school­girls and asked them to join his new band. Within a year Oakey, Su­sanne Sul­ley and Joanne Cather­all watched in won­der as the hits kept on com­ing. By the time 1995 rolled around, they had hit the UK Top 20 on 15 oc­ca­sions.

As Oakey has in­ti­mated, it hasn’t been all rosy since then. Their last UK Top 20 al­bum was in 1995 ( Oc­to­pus), their last UK Top 20 sin­gle was in the same year ( One Man In My Heart). The band’s fall from com­mer­cial grace was all about, re­peats Oakey, tak­ing their eyes off the prize.

“We needed that slap in the face, be­cause we were chas­ing the wrong things. A step away from try­ing to make re­ally good records is try­ing to make hit records, and then re­ally hop­ing they’ll be hits, so that ev­ery­one can see what you’re do­ing. We were try­ing to mould what we did to­wards what we thought peo­ple would like.” Pop acts be­fore and af­ter The Hu­man League have made the same mis­take, yet Phil, Jo and Su are still around, still bang­ing out the hits to an ev­er­ap­pre­cia­tive crowd. Oakey puts their longevity down to a mix­ture of luck, lack of so­phis­ti­ca­tion and hav­ing a healthy back cat­a­logue.

“If there was a rea­son – and I’m re­ally not sure there is one – then I think it was be­cause we re­ally loved pop mu­sic. We just did the right thing at the right time, and we got the right peo­ple. I also don’t think we were cyn­i­cal about what we did – we wanted to give

irish­times.com/cul­ture

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