• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

The Human League's Phil Oakey is a man of letters

"I find it hard to get excited by new music now, even when it's good.

I normally go 'it's great. I've heard it before'." This is Phil talking. Phil Oakey. Former fringe-wearer. Science-fiction fan. Frontman of arty 1970s Sheffield electronic outfit The Human League, alongside Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh, recording songs condemning the silk industry and being called the future of pop by David Bowie. Then, after a falling-out with the other two, frontman of arty (and hugely successful) 1980s synth-pop stars The Human League, alongside two girls he met in a Sheffield nightclub, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley.

Three decades on from the days when he was the mainstays of school discos, Oakey is still touring, still making music, still talking. This is his story, from A to (nearly) Z, in his own words.

A IS FOR ABBA

"That's what people think we were. We've ended up being thought of as sort of a British attempt at Abba, which is a little bit odd. I think we were more like Joy Division or New Order."

B IS FOR BALLARD

"I like science fiction. I still think JG Ballard is the greatest British writer of the last century. We did a tribute song to JG Ballard very early on. Because Roxy Music had done 2HB for Humphrey Bogart, we did 4JG. Was science fiction an influence on The Human League? I'm afraid that it was. I try to pretend that it isn't and I try to look like a sophisticated urbanite. I hide all my toys and science-fictiony stuff in the attic now, so if anyone comes round they think I'm a BBC Two type. But when Amazon recommends anything, it's amazing how science-fictiony it is."

C is FOR COMPUTERS

"Don't really like them. It's possible that they're part of what has finished the business that I enjoyed being part of. We managed to get in on the last bit of the 50 years of pop music. We had a wonderful time. You could do something that was a novelty but it could still be mass-market. Now there's great stuff about, like Skrillex, but it's never going to be mass-market."

D IS FOR DARE

"Funny album. Bit bleak. Bit miserable. I'm surprised people often put it as our peak. I would say our peak is the Greatest Hits album really. Dare was fairly rough, alienated stuff with a couple of warmish singles."

F IS FOR FAME

"Lovely stuff. I would do anything to be famous again, I suppose. But I'm of an age to know that it's absolutely worthless. There's seven billion people in the world and every one of them is as good as someone else. If they smile at you at the door of the Groucho Club, so what?"

G is FOR GIORGIO MORODER

"Just the greatest synthesised pop producer. When Donna Summer died I suddenly realised she's my favourite artist. Those are still the albums I go back to. When I get the old synths out I will often go and try to emulate the stuff Giorgio did around that time. I've not really moved on. I don't think anyone is going to do it better than he did. Better than punk? We were never that impressed by the musical side of punk. We loved the rejection of authority but we knew straight away that the records were Eddie Cochran."

H IS FOR HOME

"That place where we got stuck in. Sheffield. It's just a place really. We have this strange relationship with home. People think of us as a Sheffield band, but the whole of Sheffield never thinks of us first. The local council decided they were going to be really up-to-date and put names in stars on a pavement near the town hall. And in the second year they came and asked us. We said 'too late'. The only thing wrong with Sheffield is that it's sort of quiet. It's not cosmopolitan in any way but, now I'm a dog owner, I really appreciate the fact. And if you want to work you can get on with it because there's hardly any distractions."

I IS FOR IMAGE

"A really great thing, I think. I was almost coldly clinical about making sure I got on top of an image. I'd done that before I had a chance to be in a group. Because I loved David Bowie so much, because I loved Marc Bolan and Rod Stewart so much and they all had haircuts, I had started looking for a haircut. Maybe also because I was shy. I wasn't very good at speaking to people at parties and I needed something to make them come to me."

L IS FOR LOVE

"I don't know if that had anything to do with the group really. For some reason people think Don't You Want Me is a love song, and it's not. It's a power song. Mostly there wasn't a lot of love in our records. They tended to get a little bit mawkish if they got toward that. Our songs were about disputes. Love in the band? It happens. [Oakey had a relationship with Catherall]. Romance in the workplace. I think we're lucky to have gone beyond it and still get on really well."

M IS FOR MARTYN WARE

"Good guy. Very, very funny. Very very clever. I don't think either of us were particularly instrumental in splitting the group up. I think [record label boss] Bob Last sort of arranged that. He thought if me and Martyn were in the group we'd spend more energy trying to top each other. And he was right. We're both pretty big-headed."

N IS FOR NOSTALGIA

"Oh, I wish I could get away from it. My natural feeling is that you must move forward. I've always thought I'm a creative person and what I want to do is novelty. I want to give people things that they've never heard before and I want to impress them. But nostalgia is a huge thing. It creeps up on you."

O IS FOR OAKEY

"I'm healthier than I've ever been in my life because I've got a dog. Suddenly I'm a guy who can run up hills for three miles. My girlfriend's a veggie, animal-rights type and she said, 'We don't want children, we should look after a dog.'"

P IS FOR POP

"I think it's gone. I grew up with Matt Munro and the Shads and Cliff, but the genius bit was The Beatles and Dylan, who popped up and said, 'This is us. We stand here. We write this stuff.' Now pop is done by nice-looking people who take a nice photograph, do a nice interview and there's whole teams of people writing the stuff. A lot of them come from musical theatre. I never thought that would invade pop again. Maybe that's being sour because I haven't listened to Ed Sheeran. What if Ed Sheeran is as good as Bob Dylan?"

R IS FOR MARTIN RUSHENT (producer of Dare)

"The most fantastic guy. He had technical skills to rival every other producer but it's dead easy to forget that the skill he had to rival that was diplomacy. Previously he'd had big hits with The Stranglers. Obviously they're musicians who actually knew what they were doing. We walked in not knowing what a hi-hat was, with some horrible noises coming out of synths. And he managed to turn that into records that the public would understand as music, without insulting us."

T IS FOR TRIO

"If we're strong, it's because there's three of us."

Y IS FOR YOUTH

"Maybe that's something that's gone, like pop. I don't see young people. We're back with the new puritans."

The Human League play the O2 Academy, Glasgow, on December 5.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

127169