Synth pop’s soulful survivors

Thirty years on, the Human League still dare to be different, says Ed Power

SUSAN Ann Sulley is discussing the song that changed her life. “It is partly thanks to Don’t You Want Me that I’m doing the job I do now,” says the Human League vocalist. “Thirty one years on, I still have a career because of it.”

Don’t You Want Me is considered a synth-pop classic. In 1981, the Human League resisted releasing it as a single. Phil Oakey, the band’s songwriter, considered it the weakest track on their album Dare, a throwaway trifle. Besides, they’d put out three chart-topping seven inches from Dare. He feared over-exposure “We didn’t think it was representative of the group,” Sulley says. “We battled the record company. We told them ‘no, don’t do this’. They overruled us’.”

The success of Don’t You Want Me brought as much heartache as joy. When it went to number one in the UK, the Human League’s label decided they were ready to crack America. Things went sour the moment they touched down at JFK.

“They wanted us to do a TV show and we refused,” says Sulley, the blonde singer of the trio. “They said, ‘you’ll never have a hit record in this country’. Four weeks later we were at number one. We were glad we stuck to our principles.”

With Don’t You Want Me ubiquitous on radio, the band became famous. They did not bask in the exposure. They loathed it. “Fame was not something we liked,” she says. “Nowadays, people cannot understand that. They genuinely do not comprehend how someone in a pop group could not like being famous. But that wasn’t why we got into music. We stayed in Sheffield rather than move to London, because we knew that would mean joining the celebrity circuit. We wanted to keep to ourselves, the way we’d always done.”

Dare sold five million copies and was number one in six countries. The band found the pressure to record a follow-up overwhelming. Encouraged by their record label, Virgin, they returned to the US to work with hit production team Jam and Lewis.

But the two sides didn’t gel creatively, and the sessions ended badly. This precipitated a falling out with Virgin.

“To be fair to Virgin, at first they were fantastic to us,” Sulley says. “It was a learning experience for them, because, at the time, they’d only really had one big record, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. At the start, they weren’t the powerhouse they became. They didn’t have big fancy offices. You could call in to see them at their place on the Portobello Road in London, just pop around for a coffee. It was only when they became much bigger that things changed.” By the early ’90s, the Human League were in a slump. Nobody wanted to sign them. Their music was regarded as a naff relic from the ‘new romantic’ era. Then, in 1994, they had a huge hit with the single Tell Me When and the accompanying album, Octopus.

“We thought it was all over,” says Sulley. “East/West Records threw us a lifeline. They wanted to work with us, believed in us. We had a much better time than when Dare came out. We knew how everything worked. We enjoyed it a little bit more.”

The apocryphal story of how Oakey recruited Sulley and her best friend Joanne Catherall at a Sheffield nightclub is part of music folklore.

Looking back, Sulley thinks it remarkable that, aged 17, they were allowed join a pop group and tour the world. “It’s funny — Joanne’s son is growing up now. She can’t imagine how her parents let her go and sing with Phil. There’s no way she’d let her lad do that. We all knew who Phil was when he came up to us. We’d actually bought tickets to see The Human League. Then, we ended up on stage singing with him.”

Three decades on, The Human League aren’t ready for the nostalgia circuit. In 2010, they put out a well-reviewed new album, Credo. In a perfect world, they’d get to play songs from that record all the time. However, they are realistic about their audience’s expectations. “We’d be silly not to play the old songs,” says Sulley. “That’s why people come to the shows. We are never not going to do Don’t You Want Me. What I will say is that we like doing the new stuff. It challenges us. You have to make an effort to remember all the words. Which isn’t always so easy, as we’re all getting on a bit now.”

* The Human League play Murphy’s Little Big Weekend in Cork on Saturday


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