Human League playing Dare
The Human League were the sound of the early 1980s, and now they are marking 30 years in the business by performing the whole of their best-known album on tour. Frontman Phil Oakey spoke to KEIRON PIM ahead of their gig in Norwich.
The trend for bands to play their classic albums live on tour from beginning to end has caught on in recent years.
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys has done it with his albums Pet Sounds and Smile, 1980s electro-pop star Gary Numan has done it, and now the Human League are preparing to do the same.
To celebrate 30 years on the British music scene, the Sheffield synth-pop group are gearing up to take their record Dare out on the road, playing it through on stage for the first time ever, along with a selection of their other hits.
The tour reaches Norwich on December 5, and frontman Phil Oakey can't wait to get started.
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“The first person I heard doing it was Gary Numan. I really like him, I'm a big fan.”
Along with acts such as Numan and New Order, the Human League provided the electronic soundtrack to the early 1980s and have a nostalgic appeal for countless people who danced to Don't You Want Me? at their school disco. At the age of 52 and balding, Oakey has long lost the famous lop-sided haircut but the classic line-up remains the same: he is lead singer and songwriter, joined by fellow vocalists Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley.
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They have eight top 10 singles to their name, including a simultaneous UK and US number one with Don't You Want Me?, which was the stand-out hit from the Dare album released in 1981.
The album made the band's name - it was one of the first to be recorded entirely electronically, without any traditional instruments and was considered technologically pioneering for its time. Oakey is credited with having guided the group in this direction after the departure of fellow founding members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who left to form Heaven 17.
Although they are content with playing live the songs that fans know and love, in the studio the band continue to try to explore new musical terrain, he said.
“We try to break new ground, though I'm never sure how possible that is, because you are always tied to the age you are in.
“I remember, maybe before I joined the Human League, one of the guys came up with a song called Destroy All Guitars. It was about what we are trying to do. Actually I like guitars, but we knew we didn't want to stand on stage with leather trousers on and long hair. ”
Although their profile was at its highest in the 1980s, the Human League have been in business ever since, managing to keep recording critically acclaimed albums and selling out arenas.
“We filled the Hollywood Bowl last year on a Saturday night in front of 18,000 fans. Courtney Love and Steve Coogan turned up. But it's so changeable now. About a week before we played a 400-seater venue in San Francisco. It's the next town along but they didn't find a huge place for us. Sometimes it's frustrating; we never know what we are going to get next.”
As well as Don't You Want Me, Dare also spawned the hits Love Action and Open Your Heart, and they saw a resurgence of interest in 1995 when Tell Me When made the charts, taken from their top 10 album Octopus. In 2001 their album Secrets came out to positive reviews but it sank without trace, owing to the fact that the record label folded shortly after it was released. Since then they have focused on playing the hits to pay the bills, and there clearly is a continuing audience. Besides Oakey reckons plenty of “people know the music when they don't know that they know it”. He thinks the time is ripe for a return to electronic music, though, given the current plethora of guitar-based bands.
“To be honest it's worse than it's ever been. That's partly because society is very scared now. For the first time since the late 1960s everyone is very conformist.
“The atmosphere is right for something very different.”
The Human League play UEA on December 5. Tickets cost £20. To book call the box office on 01603 508050 or visit www.ueaticketbookings.co.uk