How Being Human earned us 30 years of fame (and some fortune!)
If best pals Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley had stuck with their original plan of having a night in one night in 1980, the world might never have heard of The Human League.
The two schoolgirls decided only at the very last minute to go after all to their regular haunt of Sheffield club, The Crazy Daisy - because Joanne had a new outfit and wanted to show it off.
In the club, they bumped into the League’s frontman Phillip Oakey, who was already a local star after the band scored a minor hit with their first single, Being Boiled.
But it was nothing to what was to happen after he approached the two girls and asked if they would like to join.
Oakey needed to rebuild his band after founder members Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh left to form another pioneering electronic band, Heaven 17. Susan remembers: “We knew who he was, we knew the band had split up.
“And we just came off the dancefloor and he asked me and Joanne if we’d like to go on tour with them. We didn’t think we’d be able to go but, as it worked out, we did fortunately.”
There was never any question of doubting his intent.
Susan says: “You’ve obviously never met Phillip, you know he’s serious. He’s got a good sense of humour but you know that when he’s talking to you like that as he did, that he’s serious.
“There was never any question that he was winding us up.
“But it sort of wasn’t strange in a way. I can’t explain it. It was an odd time and strange things happened to people.”
Critics, expecting heavyweight replacements for Ware and Marsh, did little short of jeer. But since that night, now more than 30 years ago, The Human League dominated the charts through the 1980s and, against all odds, have proved to have more lives than any cat, reviving their careers again and again to score more hits just when the whole world – and themselves –thought they were dead in the
water. The trio’s unshakeable bond began in a rattly Transit van as they toured France.
Susan recalls: “I don’t think certainly neither Joanne nor myself thought that it would last longer than that tour.
“And then we found that we all got on very well and we all started knocking round with each other back in Sheffield.
And then when Phillip and Adrian started to make what was to become Dare, they roped Ian in to do a bit of writing and then they got me and Joanne in to do a bit of vocals – and it just carried on from there.”
Dare became the album that catapulted them to real fame.
But Susan insists that this period rapidly became the worst time for the band.
Even at home in Sheffield, they couldn’t go out.
She remembers: “I remember going to the cashpoint and then I remember walking down the street and I could hear this giggling and I looked around – and I’d got about 10 young girls following me! And I ran into Marks and Spencers – I was really quite freaked out. Stuff like that was a bit weird.
“Suddenly I had stopped having the life that I wanted. Suddenly I was on this rollercoaster.
“I remember being in Australia and there were people camping in the corridor.
“It was awful, you couldn’t go anywhere and you never got to see anything.
“You are staying in the fanciest hotels in the world – and you can’t afford a drink out of the minibar because you are not getting paid! The money doesn’t start rolling in till about a year and a half later. And so you are really, really stuck.
“But I’m not complaining. All of that has given us what we’ve got now.”
Dare gave them their first US Number One with Don’t You Want Me. But their reaction to the news was not what you might expect. Susan grins: “It’s a bit weird because it’s the biggest market in the world and you know there’s nowhere else you can go apart from to equal it. So in a strange sort of way, we were all a bit miserable!
“Number Two is always better because you’ve always got something to aim for.”
She does agree with hindsight that their reaction was a bit strange. She laughs: “We’re a bit of a contradiction. In fact, we’re a lot of a contradiction. Everything about the Human League shouldn’t work – and it never should have. And how and why it does, I still don’t really know!”
Oakey has always been the creative genius behind the songs – although he usually collaborates and rarely writes alone.
Susan admits: “Joanne and I don’t write – although financially it’s not been the best decision we ever made!
“We always call him the Artistic Director – and I think that has left him on his own to do the writing that he likes to do.”
But as the 1990s rolled around, their star seemed to have set for good – just as they had invested much of their earnings in building their own studio. Susan remembers: “We couldn’t get arrested, no-one was interested in us. It was not very nice but then, as often happened with The Human League, we’re a bit like a cat with nine lives.
“We feel like it’s all going to go away and we’re not quite sure what we’re going to do and then you suddenly see a bit of light at the end of the tunnel. There will be somebody who you really least expected who says, I’m really interested in you.
“Our solicitor sort of saved our lives really. He wouldn’t give up. We were ready to give up and he kept going round record companies and getting us meetings. It was like, Come on, Stephen, they don’t want us!
“But then we found someone that did want us and that led us to do the Octopus album.”
Against all odds, that album produced another massive hit – Tell Me When. Susan says: “It was amazing. We were really lucky.”
And, if fame was a nightmare first time round, this time, they suddenly found it was much more fun.
Susan says: “It was hard at first because i don’t think any of us were expecting it and suddenly we were catapulted into doing it again. But suddenly the second time around Big Time – because Tell Me When did really well in America as well – was easier to deal with and we started to enjoy it more.
“When we go on tour now, wherever we go, it’s absolutely fabulous – because we can go out in the day. Me and Joanne can go out shopping. If we’re there the night before, we’ll go out for dinner. And we get to see something of the place and it’s really nice.
“Wherever we go in the world, like if we go somewhere in Europe or the Far East, you’ll find me and Joanne on one of them big red buses going round and exploring places and stuff, We do all of that.
But then, you couldn’t do any of that. You were literally stuck in a hotel room.
“I understand why really famous bands say they hate touring because you can’t do anything whereas now, because we are not famous and we’re all slightly anonymous, we get to see things. The year before last, we went to South America, North America, we went to Australia, we went to Tokyo and Hong Kong and places like that.
“And we all had a great time because we got to see places which you couldn’t do in the 1980s, it was all a bit manic. But it’s a lot easier now.”
This greater anonymity is sometimes an inconvenience when least expected – like when the Human League rolled up in their tour bus for their headline show in the Big Top at last year’s Preston Guild celebrations.
Susan laughs: “We had trouble actually getting in! They wouldn’t let us in in our bus and it was a bit of a nightmare.
“But the show was really good as I recall. It was just people getting confused and we won’t say who we are, you see! We just say, ‘Well, we’re due to play....’ And they look at us, like, heyho!”
They return to this area to top the bill at the first night of Hoghton Tower’s Symphony at the Tower extravaganza, in aid of St Catherine’s Hospice, on July 5.
It’s a bold new venture, expanding the annual one-night Proms-style show to a two-night event, with The League heading up a pop concert the night before.
Susan is looking forward to the show – and also to being welcomed as a guest to the historic 12th century fortified manor house where, legend has it, King James gave rise to the term “sirloin” by knighting the joint of beef he was fed for supper there.
Susan says: “It’s great fun – and we’ve played some fabulous places in our time. They can make for some pretty strange dressing rooms though, haha!”
The Human League headline the first night of the Hoghton Tower Symphony at the Tower on Friday July 5,
Tickets for the show are £29 from the ticket hotline on 0844 888 9991, from Preston Guild Hall on 0845 344 2012 or online at www.stcatherines.co.uk