The premier League

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 October, 2011, 12:00am


The 1980s were a decade when male pop stars preened. The aesthetics of the New Romantic meant androgyny was culturally sanctioned, spectacular outfits were more likely to appear on men than women, and pretension was encouraged: pop stars actively tried to look like they came from another planet.

And of all the preening 80s frontmen, perhaps the most decked out, the most other-worldly - the most pop-starry - was the Human League's Philip Oakey. With his eye-catching asymmetrical hairstyle, later to be joined by full make-up, earrings and gender-bending outfits, Oakey was only invited to join the Human League because the band members believed he already looked like a pop star. His appearance in the 80s was so outre he said the father of then 17-year-old band member Susan Sulley only allowed her to go on the band's 1980 tour because 'he wasn't entirely sure I was a man'.

So it's somewhat surprising, when talking to Oakey, to discover he's just about the most down-to-earth bloke you could ever wish to meet. Utterly devoid of celebrity pretensions or artistic temperament, he's never moved away from his adopted hometown, Sheffield, still has the same friends he had before he was famous, and sees being a pop star as just another job, one that he says he's incredibly lucky to have. He even admits, without a hint of false modesty, that he doesn't consider himself to be very musical.

The Human League will make their first visit to Hong Kong on October 13 when they play at Kitec in Kowloon Bay. Before that was a US tour on the back of a summer mostly playing festivals in Europe. Oakey, speaking from California, where the band had just headlined Los Angeles' Hollywood Bowl for the second time, says it's a relief to get back to playing to his fans.

'I don't like festivals as much. With solo performances, you know they're there to see you, and you know they know your material,' he says. 'The festival thing has got so big now that people go to them without even knowing who's on, and it can get a bit X Factor if they don't care for you. But the good thing is that you get a chance to impress people who didn't know you before.'

The band have never really stopped touring. No one could accuse them of hopping on the 80s-revival bandwagon, because they've never split up. Even when they hit their commercial nadir in the early 1990s, they ploughed on, kept touring - because this is what they do for a living.

'We're on the bus rather too much at the moment,' says Oakey (who's very much Philip rather than Phil: using the abbreviated version of his name was a short-lived experiment that unfortunately coincided with the 1980 release of Love Action, one of their biggest hits, with its lyrical declaration that 'this is Phil talking'). 'But every day we look at each other and say 'I am so lucky'. Pop music is quite working class. All of my friends have proper jobs, and this is just my job. I like the job a lot and I know I'm privileged. I shouldn't even be a musician - I'm not all that musical.'

For someone who claims not to be musical, he's made his living from the music business for a long time. Oakey joined what was then The Future in 1977. The band became the Human League the following year, taking the name from a society in the science fiction board game Starforce: Alpha Centauri. Under the influence of the band's founders, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, they produced two albums of art-house electronica, to modest success. But there were tensions between Ware and the more pop-oriented Oakey. The band split in the 80s, with Oakey retaining the Human League name, and Ware and Marsh forming Heaven 17.

With a British and European tour planned, Oakey found himself without a band and faced the prospect of personally honouring the band's obligations to promoters should the tour be cancelled. The next bit of the story is quite well known: a few days before the tour, Oakey walked into the Crazy Daisy Nightclub in Sheffield city centre, desperately scouting around for a female backing vocalist. He found two. Upon seeing schoolgirls Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall dancing together, he walked up to them and asked them to join the band. They're still in it.

In fact it's Catherall, with whom he had a long-term relationship lasting for most of the 80s - they split but remain on good terms - that Oakey credits with the band's longevity and work ethic. 'Myself and Susan can be quite volatile, but Joanne seldom is,' he says. 'She's sensible. She says, 'we've got a job - let's get on with it'.' Catherall was the main reason the band never broke up, he adds, even when their popularity was at its lowest ebb. Also, he says, 'we never wanted to be beaten - we're quite stubborn'.

The band reached its critical and commercial high point with 1981's Dare, the first album recorded with the new line-up, silencing critics who had sneered that the musical talent in the band was walking off with Ware and Marsh. From that album came the standout single, the song that's universally associated with the band's name: Don't You Want Me. Released as a single in December 1981 at the insistence of record label Virgin and against the wishes of Oakey, who considered it the weakest track on the album, it became a Christmas No 1 in Britain and catapulted the Human League to worldwide fame, selling more than two million copies.

Being so totally associated with one song has its good and bad sides, says Oakey, but he's certainly not going to get all pampered-artist about it. 'It would have been nice to have some others as big; it's the one song people know us by who don't really know us. But it's done us a lot of good.' That's particularly true, he adds, when the band play live. 'We can rely on it - can play it near the end, and we know it'll give everyone a lift and make the crowd happy.'

As a stylish synth-pop band that came to prominence in the early 80s, the Human League have always been lumped in with the New Romantic movement, but Oakey says the soul of the band resides in an earlier era. 'It's always surprising when people call us an 80s band. I think of us as a 70s band - we were influenced by glam. The one thing that we never were is rock', a classification he says still gets spuriously attached to them.

These days Oakey has ditched the glam trappings for a stylishly suited look, with the crazy hair replaced by a shave - partly a case of making a virtue of necessity, he says. And, in a sure sign of ageing, he admits that after playing a couple of festivals with 80s jazz-funk blandsters Level 42, he revisited their music and found himself liking it. But then Oakey has always been an unabashed fan of pop music, and he still is - sort of. 'Sometimes I wonder if it's all been done. It's very hard for people now to do something new and exciting. When I started out, there were new instruments like synths to use, so we didn't have to try so hard. I didn't expect the synth to become a proper instrument.'

And that's the great irony of the Human League: a band that made their best-known music on synths that they didn't consider to be proper instruments, that were encouraged by their record label to put guitars on their songs to give them greater commercial appeal, turned out to pretty much foreshadow the way most commercial pop music is made today. In other words, their influence extends far beyond Don't You Want Me, in a way they rarely get much credit for.

Not that Oakey's complaining: after all, he has a job, and he loves it.

The Human League Live in Hong Kong, Oct 13, 8pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$480-HK$680 HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2989 9239