The Human League - Britain's Most Wanted
The royal family of electro synth, The Human League, are returning to Australia with a special treat for fans: the trio will be playing their ’80s magnum opus, Dare, in its entirety. 3D’s Cyclone chats with the V Festival headliners.
The Human League stand as the most influential – if not mysterious – band of the new romantic era and, in 2009, they’ve lost none of their aura. The Brits, last here six years ago, are returning for V Festival to perform 1981’s electro-soul opus, Dare.
Not all of the ’80s’ lauded LPs have endured. Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84) is now deemed a synth-pop relic, but the minimalist Dare, produced by Martin Rushent, still sounds like a future manifesto. From the ironic The Things That Dreams Are Made Of to the fractured romance of Open Your Heart to the ’80s club anthem Love Action (I Believe In Love), Dare is the electro Sgt. Pepper’s.
The glamorous blonde Susan Ann Sulley, whose iconic status was assured when she starred in the video accompanying Don’t You Want Me, is disconcertingly modest about The League’s legacy.
The League refuse to be placed in an ’80s bell jar. That Australian Here And Now tour aside, they prefer playing contemporary festivals. “We don’t really do those sort of [retro] things at home,” Sulley says in her distinctive Yorkshire accent. “We try to keep away from that, because it sticks you in a box. We’ve got more to offer than that... We tend not to think of ourselves as being an ’80s group – although that was when we started.” Sulley doesn’t listen to ‘80s music, favouring RNB.
Fronted by ex-hospital porter Philip Oakey, he of the geometric haircut, The League had already issued two experimental albums before Dare. They premiered in 1978 with the proto-industrial single Being Boiled. Despite winning the endorsement of David Bowie, commercial success eluded them. Oakey, the only original member today, wanted to craft avant-garde pop, but co-founders Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh resisted, splitting to eventually form Heaven 17. Oakey spotted Sulley and her bestie Joanne Catherall, then high school students, in a Sheffield nightclub, hiring them as dancers-cum-backing vocalists. The League morphed into an electro ABBA overnight. (Oakey had a relationship with Catherall.)
The synth-heavy Dare reshaped pop. Nevertheless, The League met with hostility from rock dogs – even as acts like Def Leppard hypocritically deployed synths. Don’t You Want Me broke the band in the US and they’d lead a new British wave together with Eurythmics. The League also delivered one of the first ‘remix’ albums in Love And Dancing.
Following the monumental Dare proved stressful and Hysteria, presaged by the guitar-laden (and political) The Lebanon, didn’t materialise until 1984. The response was muted. At Virgin’s behest, The League teamed with American RNB types Jam & Lewis for the not wholly convincing Crash, spawning the hit Human. But the musical climate was changing with the grunge revolt. The League had spearheaded Sheffield’s electronic movement but, for a time, they were superseded. Their later albums floundered, though 1990’s poetic Romantic- is underrated to this day. In 1995 The League enjoyed an Indian summer with Octopus, Sulley assuming the lead on One Man In My Heart. By the 2000s, The League, their music too sophisticated for karaoke traps, were again hip with the advent of electroclash. They felt vindicated.
In 2001 The League presented the credible comeback Secrets, its marketing sabotaged when their new label declared bankruptcy. “It’s the album that I’m probably most proud of,” Sulley says. “We got the best reviews of our career with it.”
While they have a manager, The League are staunchly autonomous. Perversely, they don’t have a website. Regardless, the trio’s longevity is impressive considering that, as Sulley emphasises, she and Catherall fell into music, deferring their university courses. “We know each other so well, it’s a little bit like a marriage. We know each other so well that we know how to deal with each other – and that works really well. We know when one of us is in a bad mood, we know when one of us won’t want to do a certain thing, but also it means that, when we’re on stage together, we’re all very comfortable with each other because there aren’t any surprises. We’ve been doing this for a long time now and we’ve stuck it out together.”
Since Secrets, The League have focussed on live shows, even co-headlining with Heaven 17 (minus Marsh) on The Steel City Tour.
The notoriously self-deprecating Oakey has occasionally ventured out solo. In 1984 he partnered Giorgio Moroder for Together In Electric Dreams. Lately, he’s collaborated with Little Boots. Astonishingly, neither of The League’s girls, both younger than Madonna, have stretched their wings. “I don’t actually think we think we’re good enough,” Sulley demurs. “We’ve been asked lots of times, but I don’t think we have that much confidence in our abilities away from the group. We know that we’re good within The Human League. Joanne and I never wanted to be famous. We just loved the music, and we loved the music of The Human League, and that’s why we stuck where we were – and that’s made the both of us quite happy.”
Speculation is rife about a tenth Human League album. “Philip’s been doing some writing over the last 12 months. I don’t know whether that will end up being a Human League project or a Philip Oakey project. Me and Joanne are very happy for Philip to do it on his own, if that’s what he wants. He’s a very creative man and, when Secrets came out and it didn’t do so well, his confidence was hurt. But he’s got his confidence back. We’ve being doing a lot of live work and people have been saying some really nice things about us again. Philip did a vocal on the new Pet Shop Boys album and he’s got a lot of confidence back and he’s started doing some writing. He’s given it to me and Joanne, we’ve listened to the stuff, and it’s really good. I don’t know what guise it will end up [being released under], but there will be some new product from either Philip or the group by the end of the year.”
Many an ’80s auteur has published a book, yet The League won’t be shattering their mystique. “There’s too much to tell!” Sulley says. “I don’t think it needs to be put out there. It would be very personal – and we would all find it a little bit too personal. I don’t think we want to do it. We’ve been together for 30 years – it’s very personal to the three of us. There are certainly things that I wouldn’t like my parents knowing while they’re still alive. We only ever did this for the music and I think we’ve got a good enough back catalogue to let our music speak for itself.”
WHO: The Human League
WHAT: Perform Dare in its entirety at V Festival, Centennial Parklands / Play Enmore Theatre
WHEN: Saturday 28 March / Wednesday 1 April