Cash For Questions
Working with corpses, nipple ring malfunctions... the synth-pop titans are no pushovers. But were you brave enough to ask if any of them actually did work as a waitress in a cocktail bar?
Even for a city that gave the world Warp Records and now hosts music expo SynthFest, few rooms in Sheffield could challenge The Human League’s HQ for its treasure trove of electronic artefacts. Wall-to-ceiling with synthesizers, “patch” boards, Moogs and more, the band’s studio is full of analogue relics, testament to their unique place in British music. Formed as an avant-garde outfit in the late ’ 70s by Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, after they left to start Heaven 17, remaining frontman Philip (which he prefers to the “Phil” ’ 80s pop fans know him as) Oakey recruited singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley straight from school and set off to conquer charts and minds in the ’ 80s and beyond. It means there are synths in this room that have taken electronic music to the cutting edge; and ones that have mastered global pop music, not least with Number 1 smash Don’t You Want Me. That song still looms large, yet as Oakey, Catherall and Sulley arrive at their base tucked away behind various bars and pubs in Sheffield’s city centre, it is drinking, not keyboards, that is foremost in the trio’s minds… well, serving drinks. “I sincerely hope you’re not planning on asking me if I ever worked as a waitress in a cocktail bar?” Sulley asks, fixing Q with an icy stare that indicates, despite the lyrics, bar work is not on her CV. “I’m always asked that! Every interview I do. People think they’re so original but they’re so predictable…” Fear not, The Human League, with Q readers guiding this inquisition, predictability is the least of your worries…
Where’s the strangest place you’ve heard Don’t You Want Me played? Louise Neil, via Q Mail Joanne Catherall: They play it everywhere! At my friend’s 50th the DJ stuck it on. I always do the Bridget Jones thing and go to the toilet at that point and only come back once it’s finished. Susan Ann Sulley: Once I was going up the escalator in the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield and the couple behind us started singing it. My boyfriend was going, “What are you supposed to do?” I just ignore them. Philip Oakey: People still sing it when they walk past my house. Have I got double-glazing? Triple!
Phil, ever wondered how your life would have turned out if you’d stuck with the more arty electronic stuff and not gone pop in 1980? Brian Fletcher, Manchester PO: I have wondered that, yeah! Things would be very different; I’d be off in a different area. I don’t know exactly which, but I do believe in alternate universes, so there is one somewhere where that’s happening now. JC: The one where you drive a cab? PO: Yep!
What’s the most extravagant piece of art you own? Kate Jones, via Q Mail JC: I own one piece, which is me and Susan done by Pete McKee, who has just done the artwork for our DVD The Human League At The BBC]. I got it before he did that and it’s called Fitzalan Street Taxi axi Rank: The Night Phil Met The Girls – but Phil isn’t in it. He does lots of Sheffield bands. PO: I commissioned him to do a portrait five years ago, so I’ve got that.
How vicious was the worst fight you had with Martyn Ware?
James Milton, via Q Mail PO: Not very vicious. SAS: Handbags at dawn, I’d have said… PO: Absolutely. We did get silly sometimes, but it was more sneaking round and nicking things from each other’s houses really. I don’t think either of us were particularly physical. Is the story about me throwing milk bottles at him on Wikipedia true? Oh, that happened, yeah.
Phil, apparently it was your distinctive dress sense that first got you the gig in The Human League. What were you wearing? Leslie Parks, London PO: I can’t remember. I do remember sitting one day with Martyn Ware in a Wimpy and he said: “One thing I will always give you Philip is you always look messy!” I was wearing things with ribbons on them. I was pretty unisex. One of the first plans for The Human League was I would be onstage naked in body paint on a large branch like German artist] Veruschka. Did it ever happen? No, and then I got fat.
Arctic Monkeys, Pulp, Richard Hawley, Def Leppard, ABC, Tony Christie… who are the best musicians in Sheffield other than yourselves? Ryan Cross, Rotherham SAS: You’d have to knock half of them off the list because they don’t live in Sheffield any more. Only us and Richard Hawley are still here… JC: …and strangely, we all live within two miles of each other. Richard’s lovely and he’s an amazing songwriter. PO: He gave my dog half his dog’s stick. Arctic Monkeys are amazing musicians. If you see them live, it makes a lot of sense!
Susan, apparently you inspired Victoria Beckham to get into pop music. Is this a source of pride or shame? June McCall, Leeds SAS: I like Victoria Beckham, I like the Spice Girls – I’ve got all their albums – and I like the clothes that she makes. It’s great, if it’s true. But I’m not that cool; she’s more like Joanne than me. Joanne is the one, as she says herself, who looks like a schoolmistress who is about to tell you off. I’m the “Hello!” smiley, smiley one. So if she took any influence from us, it’s more from Joanne than me.
Phil, what was the worst thing you saw while working as a hospital porter? Rob Bean, Bristol PO: I’ve seen a lot of very bad things. I shouldn’t really go into detail because they were people – they made me swear the Hippocratic Oath every morning laughs]. I got used to seeing dead people quite a lot. I was a hospital porter out of absolute desperation. I’d worked at a bookshop for two years where the wages were £ 9.50 a week; at least with portering I was earning £ 50 a week. That was the only reason I did it – I was finished otherwise. Is it true you “borrowed” the concept for the Dare sleeve artwork from a fashion magazine? Paul Watson, via Q Mail PO: Yeah, German Vogue. That concept they’d done 18 months before and I used to collect old fashion magazines. I thought we’d probably get away with it and we did. They never came after us. They were probably contemptuous of a crummy pop band.
Joanne and Susan, what did Phil first say to you when he approached you at the Crazy Daisy nightclub in 1980? Kerry Baird, Sheffield SAS: He came over – he was very serious – and said, “I don’t know if you know but I’m Philip Oakey from The Human League. Our group has just split up but we’re contracted to do a tour of Europe in three weeks and we’re looking for a female singer. I saw you and your friend together and wondered if you wanted to audition.” Joanne didn’t speak to him that night, did you? shakes her head] You were still dancing, I’d just come off the dancefloor. That’s how it happened. He’s not a chat-up merchant. It was a business deal. PO: We wanted someone with a high voice to join the group. So we went female, and two is better than one. We went to that club occasionally, but I wasn’t a great clubber, so I think we were out to recruit. JC: A lot of fights used to happen there, so if you were like us and not into fighting you’d
hide under the picnic tables they had down the side of the room. PO: The trouble was townies. People who had their own identities didn’t start trouble. SAS: They couldn’t understand that a bloke would have eyeliner on. It threatened their masculinity or whatever…
Joanne, you’ve been tweeting about Brexit. What is your take on Sheffield’s vote in the referendum? Pete Mahoney, Clacton JC: I was appalled. I stayed up all night and when the Sheffield vote came in I couldn’t believe it. We’re part of what they call “The Socialist Republic Of South Yorkshire”, and for Sheffield to suddenly vote so far the other way… I was gobsmacked. PO: I think there will be another vote. That vote went the way it did because a lot of people thought “Leave” wouldn’t win. It was a protest vote. JC: People weren’t used to their “X” on the page being counted for something.
Is it true that Philip has a Sinclair C5 in his garage? What other ’ 80s gadgets have you got? Debbie Walsh, London PO: It is true. Joanne bought it for me at the time. I drove it into a door first time out and that was it. I’ve got all the gadgets: a Sinclair TV, a Sony flat-screen. Every gadget that’s ever been, I’ve got. I’m going to open a shop.
Have any of you ever played the “sci-fi board game” Starforce: Alpha Centauri, which inspired The Human League name? If so, what are the rules? Scott Moon, via Q Mail PO: I bought one recently off eBay. It was an Ian Marsh thing, he came up with it. I never liked the name The Human League. I insisted they change the name from The Future because that was just too pompous, but when they came up with The Human League… The game is a fairly crude Monopoly-ish space game. I’ve not played it but it seems to be overly elaborate. It would take you a week to complete it.
Joanne, when you played Ipswich Gaumont in 1981 I grabbed your shoe off your foot during the gig. You snatched it back and told me to “fuck off, you little shit” without missing a beat. You were quite punk rock back then, weren’t you? Todd Cook, Hammersmith JC: I would just say that you were lucky I didn’t have a microphone in my hand, because I once smacked someone in the mouth for doing something similar! People – a certain contingent of blokes – feel if they get near a stage it’s OK to start touching you or your leg, so I don’t feel it’s unacceptable to stamp back. We played Battersea Power Station on a small stage a few years back and some guy actually put his hand up my skirt! So I kicked him and I uttered the same phrase from 1981! chain attached between them? Didn’t that cause havoc in the shower? Danny Parks, Horsham PO: They’re still pierced in three places, although one fell out the other day. I think I did have a chain at some stage. JC: I can’t remember you ever having a chain. PO: I can’t remember, but a bit of havoc doesn’t matter. I was a hospital porter for four years, so I’m not bothered about a bit of blood or things getting pulled.
Phil, what was the thinking behind your asymmetrical haircut? George Hobbs, Brighton PO: I was looking for something to do with my hair when I saw this girl on a bus who was a hair model and I asked her where she got hers cut. This was before I was in a group, but all the people I liked had distinctive haircuts: David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart… Did my hair cause me to walk into things? Yeah, but hurting for fashion is how it should be! I miss hair. It’s hard to do things without hair if you’re interested in fashion. I wear a bit of make-up now, but make-up without hair is weird. Maybe I should finally do that Veruschka body paint idea…
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Joanne Catherall “A guy actually put his hand up my skirt at a gig. So I kicked him.”
League of their own: the band’s line-up at their peak in 1981. Milk: Philip Oakey’s weapon of choice.
Girl power: The Human League inspired Posh Spice, far right, to do pop music. The question about Philip’s pierced nipples went down particularly well.
Acceptable in the ’ 80s: Philip Oakey still owns a Sinclair C5 ( left); The Human League on Top Of The Pops in 1981.
Space oddities: they got their name from this board game.
Phil, is it true that you once had nipple ring piercings with a