Here's what you need to know about The Human League before their Dubai gig tonight

Published September 25th, 2014 - 07:52 GMT

Joanne Catherall from pop stalwarts The Human League looks back on the band’s rollercoaster history

Formed during punk’s brief stranglehold on British culture, The Human League explored how to create pop music via synthesisers – an instrument then associated with leftfield acts like Kraftwerk.

The Sheffield band formed in 1977, quickly attracting attention and acclaim in the press for their otherwordly sound (with David Bowie famously declaring them “the future of pop music”).

However, the white-hot hype failed to translate into record sales. Both of the group’s first two albums, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980), underperformed and failed to produce any chart hits.

Singer Philip Oakey’s desire to move in a more commercial direction was met with disdain by bandmates Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, who defected from the group to start their own project, Heaven 17.

A chance meeting

With The Human League booked to tour in a matter of weeks, Oakey and his girlfriend chanced upon teenage schoolfriends Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall in a local nightclub.

The girls joined the band as dancers, after finally convincing their parents, and quickly graduated to singing duties alongside Oakey.

“My parents’ initial reaction was a definite no, but they met Philip and saw he was quite serious,” recalls Catherall, speaking to City Times over the phone from her home in Sheffield, where all of the band still live.

“Our very first foreign tour with The Human League was in 1980 around German army bases,” continues the 52-year-old Catherall. “There was quite a bit of punk left over – people were still spitting and throwing drinks about. It wasn’t appealing to me!”

But while the new outfit faced plenty of criticism and derision for their seemingly lightweight credentials, The Human League’s second incarnation showed their muscle with 1981’s Dare.

The album was packed with hit singles including UK top 10 smashes Love Action (I Believe in Love) and Open Your Heart.

But its crown jewel came with the worldwide juggernaut Don’t You Want Me, an American number one which remains the band’s seminal song to this day.

“We were being pushed in 15 different directions all at once,” Catherall says. “It was crazy days – seriously, madness.”

Money woes

While Dare would prove their commercial peak, the group continued their success through the 1980s with two more UK top 10 albums and hits such as (Keep Feeling) Fascination, Mirror Man and Human.

The 1990s would prove vastly more challenging though for the band and its members, as the popularity of electronic pop music gave way first to grunge and then to Britpop.

Oakey has admitted that they were in a “terrible mess” as the new decade dawned. Virgin dropped them in 1992, Sulley suffered two nervous breakdowns and legal problems continued to dog the band, whose finances were notoriously askew despite their success.

“I think we’ve hit every high and low it’s possible to ever hit in this business,” says Catherall. “We’ve had money and we’ve been near bankruptcy, we’ve had hits and we’ve not had hits.”

After a brief resurgence, scoring their first UK top 10 hit for almost a decade with 1995’s Tell Me When, the group switched their focus from recording to performing and carried on plugging away.

“Now our whole income is generated by live work,” she says. “It’s the way artists make money now, whereas we’re from a more old-fashioned background where you were given big advances from your record label.

“It might have taken us a long time, but we survived it and now we’re on an even keel. I wouldn’t say we know 100 per cent what we’re doing, but we’re more confident in what we’re doing.”

The passing years haven’t just been kind to The Human League financially. From being ridiculed in their heyday for their reliance on synths – “people said they’d be a flash in the pan and that they weren’t a proper instrument, but we’ve been proven correct” – the group’s legacy is now stronger than ever.

Among the acts claiming to be influenced by their back catalogue are Madonna, Victoria Beckham, Lady Gaga and Moby.

Even more importantly, Catherall’s teenage son Elliot and her young nieces are fans of the band as well.

“My son loves coming to the nice things like V Festival, and he’d desperately love to come to Dubai but he can’t because he’s at school,” she says. “And my little nieces come whenever they can to see us and always make a special Human League T-shirt.

“They’re just so cute, and when they went on a trip recently they played our latest album (2011’s Credo) on their school bus.”

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