The Human Leagure credit their home town with ensuring the fane game of the 1980s never went to their heads, writes Ed Power
THE early 1980s did not lack for unlikely pop stars. Even by the mascara-smeared, epaulette-sporting standards of the time, however, the Human League stood apart. Influenced by Kraftwerk and Can, they were nonetheless at home on Top of the Pops and on drive-time play-lists.
Racking up hits such as ‘Don’t You Want Me’, ‘Fascination’ and ‘Mirror Man’, the Human League were the original outsiders who conquered the mainstream.
“We didn’t really care about the fame side of it,” recalls Susan Ann Sulley, the vocalist famously recruited, along with bandmate Joanne Catherall, by songwriter Phil Oakey in a Sheffield nightclub after he had fallen out with the rest of the original line-up (who would go on to form Heaven 17). “The key was that we always stayed in Sheffield. We went to London strictly to record and made sure not to be sucked into the goldfish bowl of celebrity.
“Remaining in our home town kept us grounded. In the long run that was essential. That’s why we are here.”
Incredibly, it’s nearly 34 years since the Human League’s mega hit ‘Don’t You Want Me’. In November 1981, this retro-future masterpiece shot to number one, going on to sell more than 1.5m copies (the instantly iconic video was directed by Dubliner Steve Barron).
Nobody was more surprised by its success than the band, who had assumed it would be the latest in the string of critically-adored, yet commercially underwhelming releases. To say they were gobsmacked is an understatement. “We didn’t think the band would last more than a couple of years,” says Sulley. “It’s been an extraordinary journey. People still listen to the music, which is more than we ever imagined possible.”
The Human League broke boundaries by creating pop music that was intended to be taken seriously. As a lyricist, Oakey was influenced by Philip K Dick and JG Ballard and even the group’s most throwaway tunes pulse with intelligence and seriousness of intent. Without making a big deal about it, they brought the avant-garde to the top 10.
“It’s very kind of you to point that out,”says Sulley. “Of course, we weren’t operating in a vacuum. Abba had done that [fused pop and artistic ambition]. As did Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder. For us, the songs were just there. They got written and stood the test of time. We didn’t think too much about it.”
The Human League came together in the late ’70s, when local scenesters Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh invited friend Phil Oakey, a hospital porter notorious around Sheffield for his flamboyant dress sense, to collaborate. Early on the trio traded as ‘The Future’. ‘The Human League’ came from characters in a science fiction war-game of which Ware was a fan.
Initially their sound was aggressively arty, early releases such as ‘Being Boiled’ and ‘Circus Of Death’ steeped in the electronic underground. By 1982, with a commercial breakthrough no nearer, relations between Oakey and Ware had begun to break down (one apocryphal account has Oakey pursuing Ware up a street, flinging milk bottles at him).
As the bad blood reached boiling point, it was agreed Ware and Marsh would form their own ensemble and that Oakey would become custodian of the Human League (retaining all the group’s debts and obligations).
This gave the singer the freedom he had craved, yet also left him scrambling to put together a band 10 days before a contracted tour. Together with his girlfriend, he scoured Sheffield’s artier nightclubs, where he discovered Sulley and Catherall. The rest is electro-pop history.
Sulley was 17 when she joined. Does she look back and wonder at the improbable direction her life took?
“At 17 you don’t know much of anything. do you?” she ventures. “You are still working out what it’s all about. One thing that I’m glad is that I went into it for the right reasons. It was for the love of music, not for fame or wanting to be on television.”
Throughout their career Sheffield has remained central to the group’s idea. A post-industrial city with a celebrated arty streak, it is just the sort of cauldron from which a group such as the Human League would emerge.
“Sheffield is an odd place in many respects,” Catherall observed recently. “On the one hand it is extremely arty. It’s a university town. But because it’s outside London, you don’t get sucked into trends. Creatively, it has its own micro-climate. At the same time, it is an industrial town — you’ve got vestiges of the steel industry. And that keeps things grounded. It’s hard to get away with taking yourself too seriously.”
The Human League tour on and off nowadays, their activity largely dependent on demand (2015 is relatively quiet, with the band performing mostly at weekends). Live shows are a breeze, they report, their mostly digital production a contrast with the rickety analogue set-up they brought on the road in the ’80s, when disaster was always merely a blown fuse away. “The first time the Human League went on the road, we were really bad,” said Catherall. “It was in 1986, after the Crash album. Things were so much more primitive back then. You had to take these enormous analogue synthesizers with you — they were the size of a grand piano, almost. I don’t think technology had quite caught up with us at that point.”
Sulley counts herself lucky to have entered the industry when a long-term career was still viable. She fears for younger musicians, trying to support themselves in an era when music is regarded as something that should be available for free, regardless of the cost to the artist.
“We wouldn’t be here if we hadn’t worked in an industry where people actually sold units of products — records and CDs. In those days music wasn’t very throwaway. People bought their records and cherished them and listened to them a lot. Nowadays music is a plaything — you listen once or twice and then probably forget about it for all time. “
The Human League play Bulmers Live At Leopardstown on Thursday
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