Phil Oakey of pioneering electronic band The Human League is still waiting for the day the phone stops ringing.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the League forming, although their career endurance is due to 1981’s classic album Dare, home to Don’t You Want Me, Love Action and The Sound Of the Crowd.
“I can’t believe all the times we have managed to keep the band going,” Oakey admits.
“We don’t deserve it. I know I should be driving a taxi somewhere.”
Those Dare hits, and further singles Human, Tell Me When, Fascination, Mirror Man, Louise, Life On Your Own, Heart Like a Wheel and The Lebanon, continue to keep The Human League on radio stations and concert stages globally.
Robbie Williams has covered Louise, George Michael sampled Love Action on Shoot the Dog and Don’t You Want Me remains a retro compilation — and karaoke — staple.
“Our manager says we’re very lucky to have what he calls ‘a good catalogue’,” Oakey says.
“That’s almost the difference between a band that can last and one that doesn’t. It just happens that your recordings are ones that may not be great but they touched people. Music changed in the 1980s and we were right at the corner of the change. Our songs are songs people fell in love to or got married to or divorced to and that’s managed to keep it going.”
Oakey’s 1984 collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, Together In Electric Dreams, has become an honorary Human League song — upgraded to uplifting encore at their concerts.
“A lot of people don’t realise it’s not a Human League song. It’s one of the songs that gets on adverts, it’s on the radio all the time still. But Don’t You Want Me is the one that makes the most money. I’m funny about that one being used on ads, but I wrote it with two other people so I don’t like to prevent them earning money from it. Things have to be pretty naff before
I say no.”
Oakey admits he rushed the simple chorus of Don’t You Want Me out of necessity.
“The producer locked me in a room and wouldn’t let me out until I’d written the chorus. I’m surprised how repetitive it is if you analyse it. But it worked.”
Two years ago, the band released a boxset (A Very British Synthesizer Group) spanning their entire career, meaning earlier, more experimental singles Being Boiled and Empire State Human have come back into the live set. However, it is never at the expense of playing their big hits.
“We are very happy people like us. Being big David Bowie fans, we lived through the Tin Machine era where he wouldn’t play his biggest hits. That is a mistake — you have to give the people what they want. Although I have to say I think the Tin Machine albums are underrated, I love them …”
In 1986, the Human League decamped to Minneapolis to work with Jam & Lewis on the
R&B-driven album Crash. It was there he met Prince.
“Prince was the most talented guy of his generation. We used to bump into him in Minneapolis. Prince hugged me twice. Twice! The guy had so much talent, so much insight.
“I love Human. I’m very proud of that song; one of the joys of my life is I sang a record that
got to No. 1 (in the US) without writing it. I always thought
I was only an adequate singer, I only got by on singing — that proves I can’t have been really terrible.”
Oakey turned 62 last month, but says he doesn’t take any notice of age or birthdays.
“I just breeze through in a strangely masculine way, considering the amount of makeup I used to wear. I’m more like a grumpy old man now. I just plod through life.”
Oakey was romantically involved with both band mates Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley — at different times — but now they’re all happy to be purely business partners.
“Between the three of us, we can cope with anything the business side throws at you.
The music side is easy, we just get the band to deal with that.
“Somehow we just became musicians. Which I can’t quite understand. We weren’t born to be musicians. We’re not natural musicians. We were lucky enough to make records people liked and that enabled us to slowly become professional.
We weren’t very professional for decades. Now we take the job very seriously.”
Oakey is a huge fan of mammals, and still calls being in a field with a cassowary as one of his highlights of previous Australian tours.
“I’ve still yet to see a platypus or echidna,” he says. “A koala attacked Joanne when I wasn’t there, which I would have liked to have seen.”