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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011

The Human League know you still want them


Special to The Japan Times

Emerging out of the late-1970s new-wave scene in the English industrial town of Sheffield alongside fellow electronic and synthpop luminaries such as ABC, Cabaret Voltaire and Heaven 17, The Human League was one of the bands that defined the sound of the '80s, with their distinctive plastic-glamour fashion sense and icy, synth-led sound.

News photo
League of their own: Joanne Catherall, Philip Oakey and Susan Ann Sulley comprise The Human League.

The origins of the band lie in The Future, a group formed by eventual Heaven 17 members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who did minimalist, avant-garde synth-based pieces with titles such as "Dada Dada Duchamp Vortex." The Human League came into being after the duo recruited vocalist Philip Oakey, who wrote the lyrics for the band's first single, the industrial-tinged "Being Boiled."

The Human League peaked in the 1980s with the departure of Marsh and Ware and the arrival of vocalists Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall.

"When Joanne and I first joined, we did a tour of army bases in Germany, and there were audiences there who were expecting four guys but ended up seeing three guys and two girls," explains Sulley. "They were understandably angry because they didn't get what it said on the packet. Like if you bought a pack of biscuits and it said they were chocolate chip but they were actually something else."

After the release of the new lineup's first single, "Sound of the Crowd," things started to fall into place for the band. A string of hits followed, including The Human League's most enduringly famous song, "Don't You Want Me" — a track now way beyond the status of mere pop tune and firmly in the iconic karaoke/wedding disco territory occupied by megahit sing-a-longs such as The B-52's' "Love Shack" and Don McLean's "American Pie." Rather than bowing under the weight of its popularity, however, The Human League is still fiercely proud of it.

"I don't get it when artists say that their most popular song has become an albatross," declares Sulley. " 'Don't You Want Me' made us an international band and it's a big part of what's given us the success we've had that allows us to tour all over the world. It's heartwarming when you go to a show, like one we did in Santiago. We were playing there for the first time and there was a sell-out crowd who knew every single word."

The band is visiting Japan for the first time since 1986 to promote "Credo," their first new album in 10 years. Produced by Sheffield electronic duo I Monster, it features songs that mix both modern electro and analogue synth sounds that are more reminiscent of The Human League's older material, held together by the band's signature call-and-response male/female vocals and Oakey's occasionally tongue-in-cheek lyrics.

"Philip says it's the hardest thing to do; he doesn't really like writing lyrics," explains Sulley. "We'll be booked into the studio on Tuesday morning and he'll be up all night on Monday, getting lyrics out of magazines, dictionaries and things. They don't really mean much."

When I read back the line, "Leave your cornflakes in your freezers / leave your chocolate and your cheeses," Sulley laughs. "You'll notice Philip always gives those lines to me and Joanne."

From the peak of their fame in the '80s, to the brink of destruction in the early '90s (a dark period for the band, broken partly by a sudden and unexpected collaboration offer from Japanese techno-pop legends Yellow Magic Orchestra), then taking in a late-'90s revival and the group's current more stable and respected position, The Human League has survived through a lot of ups and downs.

"I've never done anything else," concludes Sulley. "I joined The Human League when I was a schoolgirl and it's the only job I've ever had. It's life, you know, and nothing's plain sailing. There were times when we've thought it was over, but then you see a glimmer of light. I think what it comes down to is that we're a stubborn group of people and we don't know what else to do."

The Human League plays Billboard Live on Oct. 17 and 18. For more information, visit www.thehumanleague.co.uk.


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