The Human League still dare to be different, Phil Oakey tells Tony Clayton-Lea
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
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
Simon Le Bon: still going