’80s icons aim to be top of the League

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Band wouldn’t be Human if they didn’t look to the future...

‘YOU were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when I met you.’

As first lines to songs go, they don’t come a lot more recognisable.

Add into that Phil Oakey’s unmistakeable baritone and synth backing, and you have a key part of any 1980s playlist.

“It’s very kind of people to say I have a distinctive sound,” says Human League frontman Oakey, “But I just think my voice sounds like a low, gruff rumble!”

Of course he’s being characteristically modest, but low gruff rumbles don’t sell almost 1.5 million copies.

Don’t You Want Me is the 25th best-selling single in UK chart history, and can be found on Dare, the band’s hugely successful, genre-defining 1981 album.

Fast forward 30 years and Human League – now just a three-piece consisting of Oakey and the singers he met in Sheffield’s Crazy Daizy club in 1980, Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall – find themselves in a very different position.

Credo, their new album, is their first in a decade and sees Oakey getting back to what he always wanted to do: write songs.

“I don’t consider myself a singer, never have done,” he says. “The thing I am most proud of is that I had a hand in writing those big hits – Don’t You Want Me, Together In Electric Dreams (his solo hit with producer Giorgio Moroder), Tell Me When, things like that.

“After our 2001 album didn’t do very well, we were a bit shocked.”

That’s perhaps an understatement.

Secrets didn’t make the Top 40 when it was released, and dropped out of the charts completely a week later.

For a band that had sold more than 20 million records and been consistently in the charts since the early 1980s, it was a disaster.

“Luckily we have a manager who is very down to earth and just said: ‘Look, things are changing, you can make money going on tour now’.

“When we toured in the 1980s, it used to cost us money, whereas now that’s how you earn it.

“During the last 10 years, we’ve really majored in that. We’ve worked hard, rehearsed a lot and concentrated on making sure that everyone who came along to our shows enjoyed themselves.”

It’s a fine way to make a living, but after seven years, Oakey was itching to record new material.

“I thought, ‘But I’m a songwriter, I want to write songs...’

“I saw a South Bank Show on Herbie Hancock – and I accept that Herbie Hancock is 100 times the musician I could ever dream of being – but it irked me that no one was interested in us like that any more, that we were in danger of becoming a footnote of the 1980s.

“I thought we were worthy of being taken seriously as songwriters, that we’d done enough to be considered in that way, so that was that – I started writing songs again.”

Oakey came up against something of a stumbling block at this point. By his own admission, he was something of a Luddite, unfamiliar with modern recording techniques and, crucial for an electro outfit, the technology involved.

Electric guitars have barely changed since the 1950s, but 30 years is a long time in synthesizers. The analogue equipment so beloved of Human League, and so fundamental to their sound, had long since fallen by the wayside in favour of computer-based programmes.

“I love synths,” he enthuses. “Flashing lights, rotary dials and faders, that’s my thing. When everyone started playing music on laptops I lost interest completely, and could never get on with the programmes you needed.

“Thanks to different producers and friends, though, I found one I liked and dived in. It took me about a year to feel fully comfortable, but I had to do it.”

This was almost three years ago now, so once that was out of the way, it was just a matter of writing the songs for Credo.

“It was hard work – I’ve never worked as hard as I did last year,” he says. “But by the end of the album, we’d be recording vocals in one room, I’d be editing in another and talking to producers who were finishing bits off. It was very productive.

“There weren’t the arguments we used to have, and I was writing with our drummer. I think a lot of people are scared, because they think of me as the bloke who wrote all these hits, but our drummer Rob wasn’t bothered.

“If I wrote some bad lyrics or did something he didn’t like, he’d tell me it had to be better.”