Human League’s Phil Oakey opens his heart

by Josh Rotter

Electronic pioneers The Human League, deservedly called the “future of pop music” by David Bowie, have gone down in music history as the band that took synth-pop from Sheffield, England,worldwide via “Don’t You Want Me.”

Aside from the single’s marriage of innovative musicianship and pop catchiness, what’s kept this track on permanent rotation for nearly 30 years, aside from its high danceability quotient, is a heart-wrenching depiction of post-relationship disorder that anyone who has loved and lost can relate to.

In an audio liner notes interview on 1995′s “The Very Best of the Human League,” band member Susanne Sulley waxes sentimental about the enduring single, saying, “We’re talking to a lot of people at the moment who say … ‘I remember on Christmas Eve of 1981, I kissed my girlfriend for the first time to the tune of ‘Don’t You Want Me?’” Vocalist Phil Oakey rebuts with “They’re all divorced now.” Even when Sulley compromises with “Yes, but it still holds dear memories for them,” Oakey can’t restrain his matrimonial mistrust: He says, “It holds expensive memories for them now.”

For Oakey, about to launch the Regeneration Tour 2008 with The Human League, fellow Sheffielders ABC, A Flock of Seagulls, Naked Eyes and Belinda Carlisle, this sentiment still rings truer than wedding bells for both straights and gays.

“I’m not that fond of marriage, myself,” he told Gay.com. “I got married quite young and it went wrong; I let her down, and I feel wrong about it. For a lot of my friends who’ve broken up recently, it’s been very hurtful. That being said, I don’t think people should be divided up. But getting the acceptance of society is a different matter. I don’t need approval for who I go out with. If they don’t let me, and I want to, it’s no one’s business. I’m not sure that gays want to end up with what’s been a mess for heterosexuals.”

Expect “Don’t You Want Me” and other lovelorn anthems when the band takes the stage as part of the package ’80s tour.

“It’s the same as we always do when we go out and play live,” he said. “We’re going to try and do songs most people like to hear. We really do a greatest hits set.”

And boy, do they have decades of material to choose from. Formed more than 30 years ago by synth players Martyn Ware and Ian Marsh, vocalist Philip Oakey and visual wiz Adrian Wright, The Human League released the groundbreaking hit “Being Boiled,” “The Dignity of Labour” EP, and LPs Reproduction” and “Travelogue” before divorcing Ware and Marsh (who went on to form Heaven 17) in 1980.

“As far as I can see, I don’t know if it was that we wanted to be more pop than the lads,” Oakey explained. “But it seemed to be around a photo shoot; Martin Ware didn’t want to do a photo shoot. It was as little as that. I think our manager at the time thought that we couldn’t have a group with two big heads. Then Martin said he would never appear onstage with me again — I think because Bryan Ferry had said that about Brian Eno. So he wanted to be like Bryan Ferry. He’s very funny and witty that way.”

Ware and Marsh’s departure placed Wright on synthesizer and necessitated the additions of bassist Ian Burden, ex-Rezillo guitarist Jo Callis and teenage vocalists Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall.

Their breakthrough came with the 1981 “Dare!” album, which featured “Sound of the Crowd,” “Love Action,” “Open Your Heart” and the indelible classic single “Don’t You Want Me,” which was the second video ever filmed.

When asked why this song remains a favorite on radio, in dance clubs and on Best Video lists to this day, Oakey speaks in modest understatement.

“I think because we didn’t manage to spoil it,” he said. “We went into the studio and had a few good ideas. We left the good bits and not the bad bits.”

In 1983, the band scored a pair of hits with “Mirror Man” and “(Keep Feeling) Fascination” off the “Fascination!” EP, and three years later, they would achieve their first No. 1 in the United States with the Jimmy Jam/Terry Lewis-produced “Crash” and its pleading single “Human.” But the album’s title would soon prove prophetic as The Human League, now consisting of Oakey, Sulley and Catherall, were relegated to retro-band status until the 2001 album “Secrets,” which saw the group undergo a sonic overhaul, generated a bit of press coverage.

But according to Oakey, in good times and in bad, the one constant for the band has been their gay fan base.

“We’ve always had massive gay support,” he said. “We might have gone bankrupt if we weren’t doing shows in gay clubs. I’ve not really pondered on it. I come from an ordinary family in Sheffield, and a lot of my friends have been gay and transvestite. It sort of seemed ordinary-ish to us. Is it because if you’re gay, you had to be more open-minded — not just drifting down the path that most people do?”

“In my case, that was rock music, where I wanted more alternatives,” he continued, remembering his need to break out during his teen years in the mostly conservative, gray industrial town of Sheffield.

“We were a big steel town so there was a lot of that,” he said. “But it was also European and left-wing politically, and those things got themselves together. The (city government) was good at supporting people who were out of work, so people who wanted to start bands didn’t have to kill themselves to do it: Maybe you could really be like David Bowie if you really tried. Since rock got us down, and we grew up feeling not-fitted-in, when I thought what would be a scene for me, I thought of Roxy Music, David Bowie and T-Rex, because you don’t have to be that macho. I was always interested in wearing makeup and different clothes. One of my key moments was seeing The Sweet. I remember thinking, ‘I want high heels and Lurex. I want to express myself.’ Of course, it turned into a uniform in no time.”

But that was only within the confines of the glam and post-punk scene, as Oakey and other glammed-out scenesters were well aware of as they headed to and from the clubs.

“I don’t know why, but I seemed to get away with it,” he said. “Maybe because I’m six feet tall and don’t smile. I’m really a happy sort of person, but I looked like a brooding idiot. But as soon as David Bowie came out, I started wearing glitter on my eyes and going to town. At that stage, you had a lot of skinheads, who were racist, anti-gay and violent. But I learned really early on that you don’t turn away, because then they’d chase you. So I would march right through them — that sort of thing. But it never seemed like there was anything wrong about it to me. Maybe times had moved on enough. I mean, what’s the problem? Let people do what they want. Maybe it’s because David Bowie had said he was gay.”

While tolerance toward gender-ambiguity and even homosexuality in Britain has markedly improved in decades since, Oakey also sees a developing conservative backlash.

“I would say it’s sort of established and I feel like it’s all settled down,” he said. “But people generally are still more intolerant. Our guitarist would go to bars wearing a bit of makeup, and people started hitting him. It’s not something I can explain myself. People are drifting to racism that I thought I would never hear. People go on TV and make jokes about disabled people.”

Oakey sees this burgeoning conservatism reflected in the general style today, in which figuring out what to wear involves choosing between Diesels and Sevens.

“I would ban blue denim and say that people should do something different instead of deciding which of 15 pairs they should put on today,” he said. “You’ve got to be more creative. We were bold people from quite a bold time. When we went into a nightclub, we wanted to be the most looked-at person. Now people want to wear the most anonymous clothes, and no one even looks up any more.

“Well, I thoroughly enjoyed wearing makeup,” he continued. “But since I’ve gone bald, it’s stopped me from doing those things, because it makes it look like I’m trying too hard. If I could be glam now, I would be.”

Oakey said the band is now recording their 10th studio album, which is certain to have a more electro feel, if recent collaborations with Kraftwerk and Goldfrapp are any indication.

“We’re trying to write new material, which has been going very well, so then we’ll figure out what to do with it,” he said. “We’ll see if any record labels are still left. But here, it’s raining again. We’re working too hard. We do somewhere between 50 to 80 live dates a year. I thought I was as busy as can be, and then my girlfriend persuaded me to get a rescue dog, and then I’m running to keep up. It’s been two months of aching. Every day is hard work. It’s stronger than me. I try to take it on walks, and it’s hard to get work done.”

While marriage may be out of the question for Oakey, at least he can say that his professional partnership with Susanne Sulley and Joanne Catherall is made in heaven as — after almost three decades — they continue to play crowd-pleasing music together.

“We do 50 to 80 shows a year,” he said. “Right now, myself, Joanne and Susanne, we’ve been doing it since 1979, and we’re sort of beginning to know each other [Laughs] We always get audiences singing along. People always want more.”

PlanetOut/Gay.com
July 24, 2008

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