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Influential 1980s Bands-Human League

Phil Oakey

Phil Oakey

Phil Oakey - King Of 80s Cool

Phil Oakey could certainly teach even Madonna a thing or two about invention and reinvention.

When he became a member of the 'original' Human League during the Sheffield Sound days of the late 70s and early 80s, he transformed them from a not very musical outfit into an uber-cool, contemporary, influential alternative synthesiser band.

Phil Oakey made the Human League what they were and still are - he has charisma and was, in his earlier incarnations or inventions, pretty enigmatic too.

And the Human League became the influential band they were in the 80s thanks to his ability to see into the future of music.

Phil Oakey

Phil Oakey

Phil and Adrian in the original Human League, other members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh would go on to form BEF and Heaven 17.

Phil and Adrian in the original Human League, other members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh would go on to form BEF and Heaven 17.

The Sheffield Sound

Sheffield is a city in Yorkshire in England.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s it became the centre for synthetic musical influence with bands like Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Vice Versa, ABC and Pulp at the forefront.

Their music was performed live and crowds came from miles around to hear this new sound (German band, Kraftwerk were already doing this in Dusseldorf since 1970).

Electronic music was a relatively new thing in the UK and the Sheffield Sound had a huge influence on it.

At the time, David Bowie was interviewed and asked about where he thought music was going, Bowie pointed to the music coming out of Sheffield and told reporters that that sound -electronic - was the future of music.

Of all of the excellent Sheffield Sound bands, Human League (mark 2) were the most successful. Their success is mainly due to Phil Oakey's ability to turn what was a fairly dark sub-cultural music in terms of sound and make it sound upbeat. He walked away from Human League (Mark 1) and took the band name with him. He reinvented the Sheffield Sound.

Hardcore Sheffield Sound fans have often criticised Oakey for this but Oakey wanted to bring the Sheffield Sound out of just Sheffield and he found a way to do it.

Basically, he melded the Sheffield Sound with good lyrics, introduced catchy melodies and created the earliest versions of synth pop.

Not satisfied with that, he then conquered one of the hardest markets to tap into with new, innovative sounds - the U.S.A.

Phil with his early 1980s haircut .

Phil with his early 1980s haircut .

Ware and Marsh finally got their man, Glen Gregory and formed Heaven 17

Ware and Marsh finally got their man, Glen Gregory and formed Heaven 17

The 'new' Human League - a complete shift in musical output for the band under the leadership of Phil Oakey.

The 'new' Human League - a complete shift in musical output for the band under the leadership of Phil Oakey.

Human League - 1978-1980

Phil Oakey was not an original member of the Human League or at least he was their second choice vocalist. The other members of the group, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig-Marsh had wanted Glen Gregory but he wasn't available so Ian called an old school friend, Phil Oakey to be their singer; mainly because he was already well-known in Sheffield for being a bit of a fashion conscious guy with lots of style and charisma.

Let's remember though that that is really all they wanted him for - he was good looking and fashionable with a following.

Phil Oakey neither played the synth nor any other instrument for that matter. He had never sung in front of anyone. His initial introduction in the band showed up his shortcomings to the others. No doubt, they all had second thoughts but Phil did something the others were not expecting - he wrote pretty good lyrics.

He was able to listen to their music and just riff with words and then he started to write them down and they were sort of unusual and best of all - he created melody with them, it all clicked into place.

So Human League started to play the pubs and clubs in Sheffield and soon got an audience.

They got a record deal with local record company, Fast, already gaining a reputation for electronic pop and recorded their first single, 'Being Boiled'.

Early live recordings were semi-successful. They were already gaining a reputation for writing pretty decent electronic songs. New Music Express took Human League under their wing, featuring them prominently a number of times in the late 70s.

Live though, they were a bit flat - tape machines, amps, computers, drum machines and keyboards seemed to dwarf the three guys on the stage.

That is when Adrian Wright, an old friend of Oakey's joined the band as their 'visuals' guy. Adrian was studying at art school and was interested in bringing a visual element to their stage act. The inclusion of Wright gave Human League another dimension and their live act got better with Wright projecting background images behind the band and creating a new concept with an artistic yet industrial edge.

People came to Human League concerts to see Oakey's swagger, the images, the sounds and they danced. Human League served as support for The Rezillos in 1978 (post-punk), Siouxsie and the Banshees and Iggy Pop in 1979.

Their signing with Virgin Records should have seen them succeed. They had the support of one of the biggest independent labels in the UK but their singles and EPs charted very low and Virgin pulled the plug on a planned tour because of that lack of success.


Tubeway Army - Gary Numan Changes Everything

Gary Numan's (Tubeway Army) 'Are Friends Electric?' was released and got to Number 1 in early 1980 and the Human League, once at the forefront of electronica had missed a trick.

Martyn Ware wanted to stay true to their electronic roots - no acoustic instruments, no real drums, no guitars.

Oakey, on the other hand could hear that Numan had moved electronica in a new direction.

Oakey wanted to meld styles - electronic, acoustic, female vocalists (which had already been tried with Human League but only because Virgin were trying to get them to make a 'hit' sound).

Phil Oakey took on a lot when he kept 'Human League' as his new band's name. He had to take on the old band's debt and agree to pay Ware and Marsh 1% of any first album sales.

Ware and Marsh formed Heaven 17, also a successful band but not in the same league commercially. They would go on to produce Erasure and bring the career of Tina Turner back to life with 'Let's Stay Together'.

Phil Oakey though would collect around him some talented musicians and two local girls and create a different Human League - he would effectively create synth-pop.


Human League - 1980 to Now

So Phil Oakey, with Virgin Records complete support auditioned a number of musicians to join the band. Jo Callis, formerly of the Rezillos was a talented musician, able to play both guitars and keyboards.

Oakey joked at the time that Callis 'can play keyboards with both hands at the same time.' (a dig at Ware and Marsh?). Callis was joined by Susanne Sulley, Joanne Cathrall, Ian Burden and his old bandmate, Adrian Wright who had gone onto play occasional keyboards and also write songs with Oakey.

Of course, what he did not overlook was his own ability to succeed. In spite of his in-fighting with Ware whilst they were together, Oakey provided the original line-up with a good vocalist, lyricist and melodic talent. He felt, quite rightly that he had done as much as Ware and Marsh to make the original band successful - this was his chance to take his ideas one stage further.

Contractually, Human League had to start a UK and European Tour within weeks of the split; Oakey gathered his new band together in a week, rehearsed for another week and went on tour. The tour was a disaster but you can't keep a good man down.

He was introduced to pop producer, Martin Rushent who talked him out of Sheffield - it was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Virgin, to their credit, stuck by him, gave him some space and within months they released Human League's next single, 'Sound of the Crowd'.

It was the Human Leagues' (either version) biggest hit to date. Oakey was making his point!


Human League - Reinvented

Human League now - Susanna, Phil and Joanne

Human League now - Susanna, Phil and Joanne

Human League - Dare

Phil Oakey, Jo Callis, Adrian Wright and Ian Burden all wrote songs together for their first album, 'Dare', little knowing that the album would become one of the most successful albums of the 1980s.

Indeed, the album spawned a number of chart successes with songs like 'Love Action', 'Sound of the Crowd', 'Open Your Heart' and the mega-hit, 'Don't You Want Me'.

The latter song was released with a promotional video which had atmosphere in spades and had the UK public buying the single in droves.

In 1982, 'Don't You Want Me' was released in the USA and after its success, 'Dare' was also released leading to a number of chart hits in the USA and a mention in a few awards ceremonies.

Phil Oakey, the lad from Sheffield must have been puffing out his chest by this time. His debt problems were over and the band became huge worldwide.

Human League's second album, 'Hysteria' was not anywhere near as successful as Dare but still had some good tracks, like 'Mirror Man' and 'The Lebanon'.

Virgin Records have shown amazing support for Oakey's talents over the years. They have believed in his ability to identify trends and react to change with something new.

When Human League were joined by American producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis for their next album, it would be a meeting of minds; both producers had achieved fame with their own synth inspired soul ballads and pop records so the album, 'Crash' should see the same success as Dare, right?

Well, yes and no! The single 'Human' was a worldwide hit and cemented the Human League's success in the States where they have remained popular.

In the UK, they still tour regularly but usually as headliners of 80s revival gigs. They have carved out a successful career as a festival band and remain a professional outfit; not bad for 2 schoolgirls and a bloke who can't play any instruments.


Under the Influence - Artistes Who Have Used Human League Samples On Their Own Records

Beats International - 'In The Ghetto'

Utah Saints - 'Believe In Me'

George Michael - 'Shoot The Dog'

Gorillaz - 'Ghost Train'

Girl Talk - 'Touch 2 Feel'

Richard X feat Kelis - 'Finest Dreams'

Boys II Men - 'Human 2'

And who have they influenced? How about most of the synth pop bands around today including bands like A-ha, Berlin, China Crisis, Depeche Mode, Dead or Alive, Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Ellie Goulding, Lady Gaga, Little Boots, Killers and Pet Shop Boys.......


Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 23, 2012:

ytstnoh, many thanks for your comment :o)

Cathy from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri on June 22, 2012:

Very interesting. I don't know anyone who doesn't love the music from the 80's. Thanks.

UltimateMovieRankings from Virginia on June 21, 2012:

A nice blast from the past....I think Don't You Want Me was one of the first songs I learned word for word....and then Human was another favorite. Thanks for sharing all this information...which was new to me and very interesting. Voted up and awesome.

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 10, 2012:

Alecia, many thanks for the visit and comment - 'Human' has stood the test of time I think but in the hands of Jam and Lewis, he couldn't really fail. I think they crossed over very well into a different style of music.

Alecia Murphy from Wilmington, North Carolina on June 10, 2012:

Don't You Want Me is pure pop perfection, but Human is even better- it's one of the best songs written by a pop group. I've never heard of Human League's history but this was a cool hub- great job!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 09, 2012:

Mar, many thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment. I appreciate it!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 09, 2012:

Christy, many thanks for the comment - their earlier start is much darker, I prefer the pop stuff to be honest though his weird haircut is worth seeing again :o)

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 09, 2012:

Shea, great comment :o)I bet you got lots of people singing it to ya!

Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

shea duane from new jersey on June 09, 2012:

I was actually working as a waitress in a cocktail bar when Human League was popular... go figgya

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on June 09, 2012:


Oh, I loved "DON'T YOU WANT ME" and only knew of that song really to attribute to Human League.

With your fabulous review and showcasing of some amazing songs, I will be picking up some for my library. I love the sound... and most of the artists they have inspired.

Voted UP & ABI-- great info! Hugs, Maria

Christy Birmingham from British Columbia, Canada on June 09, 2012:

I have heard some of these songs (Don't you want me) but did not know that Human League was the name of the band. I like the techno of the Being boiled song. I learned a lot!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 09, 2012:

Rob, many thanks for the visit!

Rob from Oviedo, FL on June 09, 2012:

Good group. I like "Fascination" and "Don't You Want Me Baby".


Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 08, 2012:

Literary Geisha, thanks for your kind comment - enjoy your listening!

Literary Geisha from Philippines on June 08, 2012:

great hub - i've never really gotten tired of 80s music, bur only lately had the time to know more about the artists behind it. miss those days... now i'm off to listen to some ABC and human league!

Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 08, 2012:

Cheers Roly. I loved ABC, Martin Fry, their lead singer was great.

RolyRetro from Brentwood, Essex, UK on June 08, 2012:

I still listen to these bands, ABC and Heaven 17 were my favourites. Great hub.



Jools Hogg (author) from North-East UK on June 08, 2012:

Georgie, thanks for being the first to comment - hope you are the first of many :o)

Georgie Lowery from North Florida on June 08, 2012:

I remember these guys, they were great. I didn't know about their struggles though. Great hub!

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