In what could've been seen as a bid to off-set the synthetic-foundations of their music, the ‘human’ side to the Human League was always overtly the central focus. The spotlight was on three radically styled and made-up vocalists - Phil Oakey, Susan Anne Sulley and Joanne Catherall – each presenting a strong individuality, yet functioning smoothly as unit, delivering warm, yet exclusively machine-made tunes. In the early days of electronic music, the embryonic Human League (Mk I - before Catherall and Sulley), were among a handful of groups who saw potential in dragging synths out of the underground clubs and into the mainstream. Once they shook-off a few computer programmers posing as musicians - and a Kraftwerk obsession found on first two albums, Reproduction and Travelogue - a band emerged that would set the blue-print for a whole new direction in music. In 1981, following a smart line-up change which remains to this day, The ‘League Mk II’ was born and it is they who are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the ‘new romantic’ movement’s first ever break-through record, Dare! - an album fashioned on the hope that ‘this synth-pop thing was gonna take off’.
Everyone either had or wanted a synthesizer in 1981 - or so it seemed - but it’s interesting to note now that this must-have addition to any band was treated with great suspicion by established artists in fear of redundancy. It was the marker of the times, forcing many acts who’d trail-blazed in the 1970s into an ‘adapt or die’ situation, which saw many four-piece rock acts suddenly scramble to work a bit of ‘new wave’ into their sound. Meanwhile artists like New Order, Vince Clarke, and Thomas Dolby were fast taking over as the ‘new innovators’, as their mastery of the synth gradually helped earn it acceptance. The Human League however, were young enough that this new synthetic sound was a mere formality and rather than make a ‘press-play-and-go’ programmable keyboard their main feature, it was simply the engine under their swanky hood, upon which leapt a wave of image-conscious front and centre singers, all reaching for the lippy and hairspray, while busting out robotic dance moves.
Ahead of Human League’s Australian visit for the ‘80s Rewind Festival, speaking with me today in defense of the humble synth - and dodgy robot-dancing - vocalist Joanne Catherall from her home in Sheffield begins by recalling the massive influence of, Dare!, and how her band had to fight to release the record that would ultimately define the new romantic movement.
“Our first record deal was for ten albums, which is just unheard of today, but the catch was, we were told in no uncertain terms, we could not make Dare! the way we wanted to.” Catherall says, “But we decided we had nothing to lose really by ignoring them (Virgin), I mean none of us owned a house or any of that, and so broke as we were, we went ahead and made the record that we had in our heads and it obviously became very successful. But we made Dare! almost in direct opposition to what the label wanted us to do. They wanted us to get in a full live band, but Phillip (Oakey) was only interested in using synthesisers, as that was how the first two Human League albums (Reproduction, Travelogue) were made, but the group was changing, myself and Susan (Ann Sulley) had joined, and I think the label thought we might as well get a guitarist and drummer too… Phil wasn’t having any of it, though.”
In what sounds like a quaint notion by today’s standards, The Human League was singled out at the start of the 1980s as reluctant poster stars for a campaign called ‘Keep It Live’. Using synthesisers was viewed by the media old guard as ‘cheating’ and some sectors of press launched attacks on the burgeoning new romantic scene, claiming the bands shouldn’t be seen as ‘performing live’ in the traditional sense. “It is quaint to think of that now, as you say when you have tours by artists like Britney Spears who, it is claimed, do not even sing live.” Joanne continues, “The dancing has become so elaborate that it must be impossible for them to sing and perform, which is why you always saw me and Susan just doing our sort of robot routine,” she laughs, “It was the only way we could sing live and dance at the same time!” Making their own mark within The Human League was important for Joanne and Susan, so as not to be seen as just ‘backing dancers who sang a bit’. So after fronting up as co-lead vocalists on Dare! single, The Sound Of The Crowd – which became the band’s first chart hit – Joanne’s confidence bloomed.
“I was genuinely thrilled that people reacted so strongly to that song, I mean, it’s very unusual in a lot of ways, and honestly Susan and I didn’t think it was going to be a hit at all, but our careers really did take off because of that song.” In Australia, The Human League enjoyed a level success on the back of Dare!, only rivaled by the UK. The band’s first tour in 1982, Susan remembers, was ‘akin to Beatle-mania’. “There were hoards of fans at the airport with banners when we arrived, and camping in the hotel’s reception area. I mean, we couldn’t even leave our hotel rooms without being mobbed.” She giggles, “It was like ABBA: The Movie!, and I can tell you, we hadn’t had that kind of reaction anywhere else in the world, so Australia will always be a bit special to us for that reason.” The Human League were in Australia just two years ago promoting a new album, Credo, yet their current billing on the ‘80s Rewind Festival places them squarely in the ‘coming out of retirement’ sector. Never in the past has Joanne been comfortable with the retro tag, but she is content to claim her band are nothing if not survivors.
“The thing about the three of us, is that we’re all too stubborn to just give up on The Human League. Never have we sat down and all said ‘let’s just call it a day’, you know, and we got a lot of strength by proving how wrong the people were who wrote us off as a ‘80s flash-in-the-pan act.” Surviving has also meant remaining close with her ex-partner, Phil Oakey - whom Joanne was romantically involved with for most of the 1980s - and enduring periods of declining interest. However, these days the trio are tighter than ever, and it seems, are rarely out of each other’s pockets. “We go away on tour so much together that even now there’s never more than two weeks in the year where we don’t see one another.” Joanne says. “But we couldn’t have stayed together as a band for 30 years if we didn’t get on though, and our secret to success has always been knowing our roles in the band and not stepping outside of those. I mean I would never go into the studio and start telling Phillip how to use the synthesiser – I wouldn’t know one end of it from the other – and Susan and I aren’t involved in the songwriting either, but we take care of the business of running the band, which means that we see each other pretty regularly when not on tour as well.”
The business side of things goes from typical band activities, to Joanne’s appointed role as Human League’s accountant. It became apparent that to get through the tough times, minding the band’s economy, as with all other aspects themselves, was essential. “We were burnt a few times financially, and there were some very trying years personally.” Joanne adds, “Our label went bust the day our 2001 album Secrets came out, and we obviously very depressed about it, but instead of walking away, we decided to tour extensively and reconnect with our fans, and it was tough at first, but it kept us going and we have hardly stopped since then, I’m happy to say.”