Human League: Enduring appeal of the band that never went away

The Human League
The Human League
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The Human League are coming home to Sheffield for a sell-out gig. Sarah Freeman on the band that never forgot its roots.

The last few years has seen a rash of 80s reunions.

Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Heaven 17 might not trouble the top of the charts any more, but with their original fans now of an age when they are willing to hand over hard-earned cash for an evening of nostalgia, they’ve all staged lucrative comeback tours.

So it’s easy to understand why when The Human League, forged in Sheffield in the decade that fashion forgot, announced last year that they were to release a new album, Credo, many assumed it was the beginnings of yet another 80s comeback.

It wasn’t. While the band’s output might have slowed over the years, Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley have, in fact, never gone away. Untroubled by the usual artistic differences and jealous rivalries which have brought a premature end to many a musical career, for the last 32 years the Human League has been selling out tour dates not just in the UK, but across Europe and America.

“I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve read that we have announced a comeback tour, but it’s just lazy journalism,” says singer Joanne Catherall. “The truth is that we’ve never split up and we’ve never gone away.”

Catherall, along with her friend Sulley, were famously plucked from obscurity by frontman Oakey. It was 1980 and in desperate need of a backing vocalist for a forthcoming tour, he headed to Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy nightclub. That night Oakey got two singers for the price of one and for the last three decades or so, they have proved a pretty formidable trio.

“I honestly can’t believe it’s been 32 years, it’s just flown by,” says Catherall, speaking from her Sheffield home.

“I guess when you are lucky to have spent your life doing something you love, you don’t necessarily count down the days and weeks.

“In this profession you’re allowed to act and feel young, even when you’re getting on a bit. Basically the music business is perfect for people who don’t want to grow up.”

With their distinctive electronic sound, the Human League were part of a movement which threatened to sideline the rock guitar bands like Status Quo and Queen which had dominated the Top 10 in the latter part of the 1970s. Not that they viewed themselves as musical revolutionaries. At least in those early days Catherall 
saw the band as little more than a distraction from Frecheville Comprehensive School.

“People from Sheffield aren’t arrogant enough to think they are the driving force of a movement and when we first met Phil I don’t think Susan or I ever thought that this would be it. We were so young, we were still teenagers and, to be honest, we just saw it as a bit of a fun. When our parents agreed to let us go on that very first tour, we weren’t thinking, ‘Right, that’s it, we are going to come back stars’. All we were thinking was, ‘Great, a couple of weeks off school’.”

For Oakey and his new band members, their look was just as important as the music and while it was tracks like Don’t You Want Me and Together in Electric Dreams which attracted a loyal fan base, their stylish videos didn’t do them any harm.

“We were all very glamorous,” says Catherall. “God knows how many hours I spent in front of the mirror in the 1980s, but it was a lot. I’m a great believer in never looking back with regrets, although there were probably a couple of outfits from back then that I’d prefer to forget.”

These days, the make-up may take substantially less time than it once did, but their touring schedule remains pretty hectic. Last month saw them perform in Germany, Holland and Denmark, before heading back to the UK for a further 15 dates before Christmas.

“We are fortunate in the sense that we don’t feel pressured to bring out a new album each year and we can set our own agenda,” says Catherall, who turned 50 this year. “We were away travelling lots last year and when you are away from home there comes a point where you’ve just had enough, you need what I call some ‘leave me alone time’.

“Eventually it gets to the stage that we feel we have been playing the same old stuff for too long and that’s when it’s time to get back into the studio.”

Homecoming show promises to be extra special

After being forced to cancel a December show in Sheffield during the heavy snow of 2010, Human League’s gig next week at City Hall will be the perfect early Christmas present

Joanne Catherall says: “There are bands who insist on only playing tracks from their latest album, but it wouldn’t be a Human League gig without Don’t You Want Me and being able to perform it in front of a home crowd feels as special as the 1980s.”

The Human League, Victoria Theatre, Halifax, December 1. 01422 351158; Sheffield City Hall, December 4. 0114 278 9789.