The Human League
The Human League are so credible it’s incredible. In fact, they’re probably more highly regarded in 2011 than they were in 1981 when they released their landmark album Dare!
They’re used to everyone from Madonna to Moby, Pet Shop Boys to Robbie Williams, citing them as an influence. Now the dubstep generation – notably, the acclaimed Darkstar, who cover the League’s 1982 B-side ‘You Remind Me Of Gold’ on their current album, North – have begun to pay homage to the original sound of Sheffield.
But they’re about more than esoteric infiltration – there has been mainstream penetration, too, commensurate with a band who gave us the greatest ever Christmas Number 1 single with 1981/2’s ‘Don’t You Want Me’, who have had four Top 10 albums and eight Top 10 singles in the UK as well as two US Number 1 singles and sold 20 million records worldwide: the most lauded TV program of recent times, time-travel saga Ashes To Ashes, based one of its main characters on Joanne Catherall, while the mighty Philip Oakey appeared in a recent episode of Top Gear at the personal behest of Jeremy Clarkson who regularly name-checks the League in his newspaper column.
Then there are the ‘L’ girls, the new generation of synth-driven female pop artists, who have got in on the League-adoring act: La Roux is a known admirer of the electro pioneers, while Little Boots is such a fan she requested Philip Oakeys input on her debut album. Even Lady Gaga professed to be a devotee when she met them recently; they had adjacent dressing rooms at the ‘V’ Festival.
“She sat there in her bra and pants and we told her we were a huge fan of hers and she told us she was a huge fan of ours as well,” says Susan Ann Sulley, who has never been a waitress in a cocktail bar but has been a member of the League since Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left the band in 1980 to form Heaven 17. “I’m not star-struck by many people and I don’t hero-worship anyone, but she was lovely.”
But not surprisingly for a group who were famously described by David Bowie in 1979 as “the sound of the future”, and indeed the group was once called The Future, The Human League have never been about resting on their laurels or relying on past glories to see them through. Which is why, in March 2011, they will be releasing Credo, their 9th studio album, as brilliant a distillation of their ideas about pop and dancing, glamour and electronics, as anything they have ever done.
They called it Credo, meaning “belief”, for The Human League fans who never stopped believing in the band in the decade since their last album, 2001’s critically acclaimed Secrets.
“When I was growing up, Roxy Music was the most important thing in my life,” explains Philip Oakey, along with Iggy Pop the owner of the most instantly recognizable, dolorous yet authoritative baritone in pop. “When they split up [in 1976], I was bereft. And then one day I opened a music paper and saw an announcement for a new album called Manifesto  – I liked the title and the idea that it was their manifesto, which they believed in it. So I looked for a word like that, because we’ve been in the wilderness for a bit. The word ‘Credo’ is about believing – it says everything about the record, which is exactly the record we would want to have made for release in 2011.”
Credo was produced by ‘I Monster’, the Sheffield duo behind the 2001 single Daydream In Blue and for many years the brains behind a slew of distinctive, playful electronica from the Steel City.
“We can’t understate what I Monster have done,” says Philip of Dean Honer and Jarrod Gosling. Susan agrees: “It wouldn’t have taken such a short time had they not been involved. This is the quickest we’ve ever worked.” Adds Philip: “They grabbed the whole thing and simplified it.”
They note the irony of a band who spent years working with musicians from all over the planet, including stellar R&B producers Jam & Lewis on their 1986 single Human and album Crash, now being a Sheffield-only affair.
“We made the decision to not work with Sheffield musicians in case we fell out or something,” says Susan. Laughs Joanne: “We just didn’t want anyone in Sheffield finding out how horrible we are!” Joking aside, they are delighted with their all-Sheffield set-up. And Joanne credits I Monster with bringing more of a sense of coherence to Credo.
“We wanted it to be a consistent record, not, you know, two tracks with that producer and two tracks with someone else,” she says. “We wanted it to have a unified feel, rather than going from one style to another”.
Credo’s style is a refinement of the approach adopted by The Human League in 1980-1 when they took the revolutionary decision to employ commercial tactics to inveigle experimental art-school ideas into the mainstream. Love Action, Open Your Heart, Sound Of The Crowd, Don’t You Want Me, Do Or Die, Hard Times, The Things That Dreams Are Made Of – these love, or anti-love, songs and anthems for dispossessed teens with their shiny production and hummable melodies, given added momentum by a series of menacing synth-bass riffs and riveting electronic pulse-beats, all presented in that Vogue-magazine-ish way via the artwork for Dare!, were nothing less than acts of radical subterfuge.
And so it is with ‘Credo’ – which Philip, looking forward as ever, sees as the first album of the next stage in The Human League’s evolution – and its eleven tracks, which sound like classic League but are as modern as the finest 21st century chart pop. ‘Never Let Me Go’ is an ecstatic album opener, the Auto-tuned vocals bringing to mind Cheryl Cole if she’d been brought up on Kraftwerk and Moroder as well as Richard X and Xenomania. The phased chorus - “No. Don’t. Go.” – is awesome, effortlessly straddling the high street and the art-house, the League’s stock-in-trade. The first single on an album of potential singles is ‘Night People’, another outrageously catchy burst of suburban disco pop with some of the urban nocturnal drama of ‘Sound Of The Crowd’, the girls’ voices as ever giving the lie to the idea that you have to bellow and blare to emote. ‘Sky’ paints a picture every bit as evocative as your favourite acoustic troubadour and shows what a great songwriter Philip Oakey is. ‘Got To Do’ manages to be, as per the League since day one, weird and utterly irresistible with its reference to “startled simians” harking back to the “sericulture” of ‘Being Boiled’. “Do you turn left, do you turn right, back to your bed or into the night?” croons Philip. “Wake me, shake me, just let me know.” Every lyric, every hook, has been designed for maximum impact. Even the titles – ‘Single Minded’, ‘Electric Shock’ - are immediate and striking. As ever, there is brightness here, with a feeling of danger encroaching on the dancefloor. Above all ‘Credo’ has the energy and sense of purpose of a group of particularly astute and skilled twenty somethings with something to prove about their desire to combine pop song mores with the latest electronics.
“The League have always been into other areas of culture and using bits of Clockwork Orange and JG Ballard, sci-fi and stuff,” says Philip of the lyrics on ‘Credo’ and some of the references in them. “And there has always been something a bit nasty and crude in our music, a quality that I think some of our records lacked and which we tried hard to bring to ‘Credo’ – other electronic groups have a little bit of shine, their records are a bit shimmery and polished and intricate, and that doesn’t suit us. We’ve got to be a bit primitive”.
“We don’t like people being too clever with our stuff or too polished because we’ve never been about that,” contends Joanne.
“But,” adds Philip, “our main aim for ‘Credo’ wasn’t literate lyrics or anything like that. We just wanted it to be catchy, accessible, with good tunes and good riffs, and for everything at every stage to be as memorable as possible.”
‘Credo’ is part of that particular pop lineage that goes from Bowie, Roxy and Kraftwerk to Donna Summer, Chic and Michael Jackson to Lady Gaga, Usher and Girls Aloud. Supremely infectious chart pop music, only with the League you get an extra subversive “x” factor.
“Pop to us has always meant ‘music that you’ve not heard before’,” he asserts. “Now it’s just Saturday night entertainment.”
“We sat for a whole morning with loads of Lady Gaga and Usher records, comparing drums for loudness,” explains Susan. “I was saying the drums on ‘Credo’ needed to be really loud!”
‘Credo’ manages to makes itself heard above the brashest state-of-the-art pop productions. It brings some of that primitive essence to the milieu, as well as The Human League’s unique quality of apartness.
“We’re peculiar,” says Susan, utterly unabashed. “People think pop music is X Factor and S Club 7 and we’re still hankering after a Roxy-Bowie-Donna Summer-Chic version of pop. We don’t fit in. People don’t quite appreciate how strange we are. There are three of us, two of whom have never written a song and are pretty average singers, plus we’ve got a lead singer who doesn’t consider himself a singer at all and can’t play any instruments very well. And yet we still think of ourselves as a pop group, not arty-farty or weird. If a market research group got hold of us, they’d change absolutely everything! And yet it works. We shouldn’t have gone on this long as we have – we should have ‘gone rock’ by now, like Depeche Mode, Simple Minds and U2 did. But we’re still a pop group.”
Not just a pop group – possibly the last great pop group. Believe.