After almost 40 years in the game electronic pop pioneers The Human League headline the opening night of this year’s Liverpool Sound City. It promises to be a memorable occasion with guests the Art of Noise and A Certain Ratio joining in the fun.
The Human League have continued to defy the critics and the odds and are now, quite rightly regarded as one of the most influential bands to emerge from the early 80’s post-punk era. As part of our Sound City previews we spoke to Susan Ann Sulley from the band about how Philip Oakey persuaded herself and her friend Joanne Catherall to tour with his band, their unexpected HUGE global success with ‘Dare,’ and why when bands play festivals they should give the audience what they want, namely, the hits. And the Human League have a back catalogue absolutely bursting with them!
Hi Susan, so imagine this scenario – you’re the singer in an underground cult band, you’re male, about 6ft and wear lipstick and heels. You ask two girls who are still in 6th form to join your band on tour, how do you go about persuading their parents that this is a “good thing?”
Ha- ha well Phillip came round to my house with his then girlfriend Susan and Adrian from the group. He was in full makeup and high heels and didn’t try and hide anything. My Dad knew what he looked like because I had all their albums and stuff, Phillip had a scrapbook with cuttings showing what the band had achieved so far. He explained that the band were originally looking for one singer to tour with them, but after seeing Joanne and I dancing together in a night club, he thought it’d be great if we could both join them for the tour. He explained as we were obviously good friends we could look after each other.
He didn’t actually ask us to join the band – it was simply for that one tour. The tour had a few UK dates including Liverpool, but it was mainly European and included major cities Joanne and I had never been too, so Phil explained the cultural aspect, stressing that there would be plenty of time for us to read and study on tour ( not that we did!). We were doing our A ‘Levels so we weren’t required to be in school full time anyway. After my parents finally agreed my Dad then took Phillip around to Joanne’s house and when her parents agreed our Fathers went to see our headmistress Mrs Green and it was agreed that we could both have a month off school!
And 37 years later …
[Laughing] Yeah, and he still hasn’t asked us to join the group!
The Human League have been written off many times by critics and yet have always managed to bounce back often against the odds, it must be gratifying now to be regarded as pioneers in your field and perhaps get the critical adulation your body of work deserves?
You know what, what really matters to us is the people who buy the music, and come and see us, the fans. I mean, no disrespect to what you do, but critics and people who write about music, it’s just one person’s opinion at the end of the day, isn’t it? The reason we are still here is down to the people who actively buy Human League tickets, CDs, downloads, T-shirts, whatever, they are the people that really matter and who we try to reach out to. We’re just normal people, I mean Phillip is a really great singer and songwriter but anybody could have probably have done what Joanne and I did. We were just very lucky and we appreciate that- I think coming from Sheffield helped keep our feet on the ground during the really mad years. So people have opinions which is fine, but for us, it’s the fans that matter. The only thing that does irritate me a little is when people go on about ‘nostalgia acts’. I mean when someone like Elton John plays a set and most of it is all his older work nobody says a word. My friend is going to see U2 in few weeks and she said they generally don’t play that much new material either, but we often get criticised for playing our older tunes. But hey, ho we’ll keep doing it as long as people still come and see us, even if we are getting on a bit (laughs).
The Human League were one of the first bands I ever saw live, at The Royal Court in Liverpool. I can remember all the visuals and projections which were really impressive back then. You looked and sounded like the future
Ooh, we were probably shit back then!! [laughs]. The projections were because Adrian was in the band at the time, that was his thing! We’ve only gotten really good live since about 1995 around the time of ‘Tell Me When’ And ‘Octopus’. Our manager at the time said the way the industry was going that the only way to survive was to play live and to get really good at it! So he made us practice and practice for months, Oh god it was interminable, we all hated rehearsing! But we did get better, so I suppose we’re not too bad now!
What would you say is the key factor in the enduring appeal of the Human League?
I think it’s basically got to be the songs, you know, having a body of work that people are prepared to come along to and see live. I mean we’re not the best looking people in the world, we’re not the greatest dancers, but we do really try to put on a real show. I mean we have costume changes, we work hard structuring the show to fit in with where we are playing. But ultimately yeah, it’s the songs, I mean we have a bucket load of songs that most people know. I mean there would be very few people, young or old who haven’t at least heard ‘Don’t You Want Me.’
And what keeps you guys motivated to keep on touring? I mean as we get older we do tend to like home comforts and touring can be an arduous experience.
That is indeed true, which is one reason we didn’t want to commit to a U.S. tour this year. I mean when you tour America you have to travel on a tour bus and when half of the time of say a five-week tour is spent on the bus, it can be exhausting. So we don’t tend to do a lot of that now. But you know I can’t speak for everyone else but I love performing. I love being on the stage, that’s kind of how I communicate with people. As a group, we are all like family now, and despite the fact we all live near to each other we’re not in each other’s pockets so I rarely see Phillip and Joanne unless we are working. We’re all great friends but we have our own lives so when we do get together it’s like ‘ooh I haven’t seen you for ages how’s it going?’ And to be honest I don’t know what else we could do! I’ve been doing it since I was 17 and I’m 54 now, it’s all I’ve ever known!
It has been and amazing experience, I’ve been so lucky travelling the world, going to places you can only dream of. I mean it’s not all been plain sailing there were a couple of times we were nearly bankrupt and times when we’ve wanted to pack it in. But with it being the three of us, it’s never been the three of us at the same time wanting to stop, so we’ve always managed to talk the others round. There have been times we’ve been literally flat broke, like a time when my parents were still alive and they had to pay my bills. Fortunately, the tide has turned somewhat and we are making money. There have been times I’ve knocked it, but now I can’t think of anything I’d rather do. My partner often looks at me and says ‘oh god where are you off to now!” I mean last year we went to L.A. for 3 days to play a show, seriously, who just nips over to L.A. for three days? It’s great now because we aren’t chased by the press, so we can be fairly anonymous. So for example when we come to Liverpool, you’ll probably find us shopping in Liverpool ONE. Mind you we won’t go all together as that might look a bit weird and you might recognise us then. But that’s what we do, go to these amazing places, Joanne and I love going on those big red open top bus tours and then, later on, we get to go on stage in front of thousands of people. It’s amazing!
I remember an artist, who started in the mid 80’s saying recently that if you had asked him when he was about 20 if he’d still be doing music at his age, he’d of pissed himself laughing and yet they are still there doing it. Did you ever imagine that The Human League would still be performing all these years later?
To be honest, when we started off I didn’t think I’d be doing this when I was 25 never mind in our fifties! But these days things have changed you don’t suddenly stop when you hit a certain age. It’s different with our generation to the previous one, I mean I remember my nan when she was my age and she was like an old lady! We’re just not like now, we still like to go out and do things even if we look a bit older. Although it must be said there are those, who somehow manage to look strangely younger, but we won’t go into that eh Madonna! But we’ve grown up realising that when you get older you don’t have to give up! I mean I still pop into Top Shop, there’s a different attitude now.
The internet has totally changed the music industry, do you think it’s been a good thing for bands like The Human League whose back catalogue and videos are available at the click of a button.
I think so, it’s there for all to see and I think and the other thing is despite everything being so available online people still want to get out and hear music and interact with other people. When I was young there were 20 nightclubs in Sheffield, now there are only about two left, so a gig is an ideal event. And also many of our original fans are still wanting to get out and see live music. Also, they have a bit of spare money, their kids have grown up and they are back out enjoying themselves. There’s a great couple who come to every show, they said they missed out the first time around as they had young kids so are making up for it now. It’s like their holiday, coming to see all our shows, I mean their kids think they are mad, but they don’t care they are having fun and why not? !!
We mentioned earlier about the Human League being written off, and even before ‘Dare’, the critics didn’t really give the new incarnation a chance. Did the incredible success of ‘Dare’ feel like some sort of vindication, and did its success take you by surprise?
The success certainly took us by surprise, and daft as it sounds we didn’t have a chance to even think about the other stuff. I mean for at least eight months after ‘Don’t You Want Me’ hit number one we just didn’t stop! We were flying around the world promoting it, playing live all over the show, on TV, we never had a chance to take it all in. If truth be known I didn’t really enjoy that time, I mean the fame side of it, it wasn’t something I’d expected or particularly wanted. I’d joined the group because I was a fan of the music and had been a fan before I joined, but I never expected to be particularly famous. I don’t really get these people seeking fame for its own sake, I mean why would you put yourself out there for all that scrutiny ? Especially these days with the internet! I don’t know how people cope!
So not being part of the industry before, you and Joanne found the scrutiny quite difficult?
Back at the height of it all, it could be quite scary. I remember the first time we arrived in Sydney, and the airport was just full of fans. It was like when The Beatles arrived in America, and we were all like ‘oooh, so who are they all here for? ‘and then we saw they had big signs up for us and we were like ‘Oh my God!’ So there we were, in one of the most beautiful countries in the world and I could not leave my hotel room. I wasn’t even allowed to open my hotel door or order room service as fans were managing to sneak into the hotel! Everywhere I went I had to be chaperoned, so I couldn’t do something as simple as sit in the hotel bar, as there’d be so many people trying to get to us. So no, I didn’t really enjoy that it could be quite frightening! I suppose being in a mixed group with men helped us at the time, and this is by no means meant in a sexist way, but the lads in the band, who were a bit older than us really looked after us. And the fact that there were men in the band seemed to put other guys off from hassling me and Joanne.
So now the second time around, or the third or fourth in our case it’s great, you do a show, most people have an idea what hotel we’ll be staying in, and we’ll be in the bar after the show as we all quite like a drink, and it’s all fine!
At the time probably because of the massive success of ‘Don’t You Want Me’, there was a suggestion in some quarters that The Human League had, not sold out as such, but transformed from an experimental avant-garde electronic group into a commercial pop group yet ‘Dare ‘is a strange album. On one hand hopeful and yet on the other pretty dark in places – there’s a spooky ‘Get Carter’ cover, the angst of ‘Darkness’ the dystopian sounding ‘ I Am The Law’,’ Seconds’ about the assassination of JFK, hardly the stuff of mainstream pop.
You know what, my partner Martin was laughing about this, Simon Mayo on Radio 2 is a huge fan, but he never seems to play the obvious radio tracks like ‘Don’t You Want Me’ or ‘Love Action.’ One of his favourites is ‘Sound Of The Crowd’ and Martin said, ‘you know what, this is such a really really weird song isn’t it !’ The truth is we never wanted ‘ Don’t You Want Me?’ released as a single. I mean it had been written, and we only really put it on the album as we didn’t quite have enough songs. We all thought it was a bit like our ‘Des O’Conner moment!’ That’s why, if you have the vinyl you’ll see it’s the last track on side two, and there’s also quite a long silence between that and the previous track. That was intentional because we wanted to subtly say, this is just another side to The Human League. Of course, radio picked up on it, yet we still definitely didn’t want it released as a single, but the record company overruled us, and thankfully so.
But in terms of the Human League being pop, Phillip and Adrian when he was in the band would always say they wanted to make pop music. Not in the Abba sense which some people weirdly compared us to at one time, but like Roxy Music, Donna Summer, you know stuff like that. And looking at the success of Dare, I suppose in some ways we were lucky with the timing – music was changing, society was changing. People were sick of rich artists who’d been to music school and they were looking for an alternative, a kind of glamorous version of punk – The Human League kind of came out of that scene inspired by a sense that you could do it yourself, but you didn’t have to look as threatening or aggressive as Sid. It was a time when people wanted to escape, to dress up, have fun, I know Liverpool suffered as much as Sheffield at that time, all the factories were shutting down there were no jobs and people had nothing to do. So we arrived at the right time, we had dark music but also hopeful music. And I think it also made people think, y’know what? If that load of bozos can do it why can’t we!
But you were seen as quite a glamorous group, and Phillip’s look became pretty iconic at the time. Big burly blokes were going into the Barbers asking for a ‘Phil Oakey’ cut.
[Laughs] well Phillip admits that he stole it from a girl in Sheffield. He saw her on the bus asked her about it, went to hairdressers and started growing and getting it styled to look like this girls! But he was glamorous, what was different maybe about Phillip was that even with the stilettos and the makeup he was still very manly, he wasn’t regarded as effeminate. A bit like Bryan Ferry in one way with makeup and daft clothes and hair but still obviously a bloke.
‘Credo’ was the last new material in 2011, which was very well received, any new material in the pipeline?
I’ll leave that to Phillip, he does enjoy being in the studio but also finds it hard work, and there are times he’s quite happy to just go out and tour. So I’m sure when we meet up in a few weeks he’ll tell us what he’s thinking! It’d be great if we did, I mean with ‘Credo’ we got some of the best reviews of our career, obviously as an older group we know that Radio1 won’t be playing us, but we take it on the chin, we know how the system works .. it is what it is. We’ll see what happens.
And for Sound City, will the set be it be a mix of old and new?
When we do our own shows when people have just come to see The Human League we can put whatever we like in the show. But at a festival, we tend to keep it familiar. So in these situations, we like to give the audience what they want and keep ’em entertained, we’ve been doing it a long time so we’re very aware of what the expectations are at festivals . . . You do get the odd artist at festivals who are, erm perhaps a bit up their own arse who decide to experiment, but it’s not really the right place is it? I mean I’ve been at festivals and thought – do we really want to hear fifteen tracks in a row from your brand new album?
Yes, you do occasionally get the tumbleweed moment when an artist announces, “and here’s a brand new experimental song we’ve never played before, and this is the dub version !”
Yeah and a ten-minute version at that! And I won’t name names but another no-no is when an artist decides to completely rework their biggest hits. There are several artists who do that! I once walked out of a concert of an artist I really love and admire because I was like ‘why are you doing that, it sounds nothing like the original, it’s not what people want to hear.’ So don’t worry ‘Don’t You Want Me’ will sound exactly as it should, we aren’t going to do some weird jazzed up version! I hope we’ll put on a great show for you all in Liverpool!
GET TICKETS FOR THE HUMAN LEAGUE At Liverpool Sound City HERE