Monday 20 November 2017

The league by the Lee

Sheffield of dreams: The
Human League, with
Susan Sulley far right,
play Cork tonight
Sheffield of dreams: The Human League, with Susan Sulley far right, play Cork tonight


One of the fascinating things about pop is how, if you wait long enough, every genre or decade in music becomes fashionable again. What sounds out-of-date and anachronistic today can suddenly be bang on-trend tomorrow, as the wheel of popular culture turns.

With 1980s-style synth-pop making a glorious comeback thanks to the likes of La Roux and Hot Chip, the original of the species have been given a second wind.

A case in point is The Human League, whose 1981 masterpiece Dare is the Rosetta Stone for many of today's Moog-altering young electro tyros.

Unlike many of their cultural progeny, however, the League made it to the top of the charts in the US, a feat achieved by a very select number of artists from this side of the pond.

Now the Human League are preparing to play a free concert later this evening in Cork city as part of the Murphy's Little Big weekend.

The band's Susan Ann Sulley, whose glamorous style and awkward dance moves made her the object of many a teenage crush back in the day, alongside her friend and fellow vocalist Joanne Catherall, is delighted to be back performing in Ireland.

I asked her if she was surprised that the much-maligned 1980s had become fashionable again?

"It's what happens with music," says Susan. "I'm sure that after the 1950s people thought that what went on in the 1960 was rubbish, or didn't appreciate it as much.

"And the same applies to the 1960s into the 1970s -- and all along the way. And then suddenly people work out 'well, actually, it wasn't just about the fashion'. Some of the music was great; some of it was rubbish; some of it was ground-breaking. It always seems to turn itself round."

How does she feel now, seeing herself in old photos from back then?

"I'm never embarrassed," she says. "When they used to show Top Of The Pops 2 and we were often on that, people would say, 'Oh God, that outfit you had on!' I say, 'Well, it was right for the time but it's not right now'.

"It always surprises me when I occasionally do interviews with people and they suggest that I would be wearing the same clothes now. I think, Oh dear, I don't think you quite understand what we're like. I mean, I do have an iPhone. I couldn't live without it, actually!"

How does it feel seeing bands like La Roux dusting off the 1980s synth-pop template?

"I think bands like that grew up listening to what their parents were listening to," she says.

"And probably their parents were listening to Dare or Hysteria. And obviously what you hear growing up influences you. They were really nice to us and said that we were an influence -- but they have their own twist on it."

The Human League's first album in a decade, Credo, came out last year. I ask Susan why there was such a long gap between records.

"What happened with the album we made in 2001 (Secrets) was the record company folded the day the single came out -- I'm not saying it was the main reason but we didn't really stand much of a chance. It just got thrown away. We were very despondent. We thought, 'People don't want us'.

"So we started concentrating just on the live work. That's how we make our money now -- we play live all the time. About two or three years ago, people started to ask Philip (Oakey, lead singer and songwriter) to sing on their records. Then he decided to start writing his own songs.

"Initially, he was going to do a solo album but after a while he said, you know what -- it's not a solo album, it's a Human League album and I want you both (Susan and Joanne) to sing on it. I think everyone was really, really happy with it. I know it didn't set the charts alight but it did what we expected and we were very pleased.

"The young people of today don't want people like us -- they want their own heroes that they can look up to. We understand that. I don't think record companies quite take that on though."

Susan, Joanne and Phil all still live in their hometown of Sheffield. It's a city with a sterling musical past -- and present (think ABC, Heaven 17, Pulp, Richard Hawley, Arctic Monkeys). What keeps them there?

"Philip always said: 'Mine and Joanne's parents live here and that's why we've never moved because it's where our family is'. Sheffield's okay -- it's not the best place in the world but it's far from the worst -- and it's a lot better than London," she answers.

"I never, ever wanted to live in London. I love going shopping in London and I love going to fancy restaurants but I couldn't live there, especially as I've got older. It's too busy, too noisy and I like a bit of peace and quiet. I virtually live in Derbyshire. I've got rolling hills around me -- I like it here."

The Human League play Murphy's Little Big Weekend at Cork's Beamish & Crawford site tonight. It's a free, ticketed gig.

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