Human League

Although synth-pop band the Human League were at the height of their considerable chart success in the 1980s, they have continued to make records and tour and have long been a very popular live act. The current tour is rather special as it celebrates 35 years of the band. The early 1980s was a strange period for music and much of the cheesy synthesiser music from that period (notably the ‘New Romantics’) now sounds dated. However, the Human League are very much an exception here and their innovative music seems to have timeless qualities.

Human League, Sheffield Poly 1979

When I was a young whippersnapper, living in South Yorkshire back in 1979, a mate suggested we went to a gig at Sheffield Polytechnic (now Sheffield Hallam University). Off we went, and I thought I would take my camera and try out some gig photography. The gig turned out to be an obscure local band called The Human League.

Human League

This was at the end of the punk era and most bands we saw were either punk-style stripped down guitar outfits or reggae. However, this lot were a bit different. No guitars, or even drums. And the lead singer had a weird hairstyle, with long lank-locks on one side and a short back and sides on the other. Behind him were three other serious-looking, but more conventional-appearing types with a range of keyboards, tape recorders and other electronic stuff on racks. The music was strange industrial beats and noises, with titles like ‘The Dignity of Labour’. Compared to the average punk band we had been watching, this was serious stuff. What’s more there were rather bleak projected images on a screen throughout, with themes like man’s inhumanity to man and consumerism. We weren’t sure what to make of it all, it was rather sinister, but it was certainly memorable. This was also one of the first concerts that started me down the road of gig photography. I’ve included my black and white pictures of that 1979 evening with this review. Compare and contrast with the current Human League line-up!

Human League

It that form, the Human League got airplay on John Peel’s late night Radio One show, but seemed destined for cult obscurity. With hindsight, this version of the band was groundbreaking and has proved musically influential and it’s worth checking out videos of this early period (like ‘Circus of Death’) on You Tube. What’s more the band then split, leaving singer Phil Oakey with no backing musicians, so that should have been the end. What a surprise then, when only a couple of years later, The Human League, with the addition of two girl singers (Joanne Catherall and Suzanne Sulley, aka Susan Ann Sulley), and the writing of some killer pop tunes, became a highly successful chart topping band. ‘Dare’ was a number 1 chart album and the League released a whole string of successful and still memorable singles, notably ‘Don’t You Want Me’. I would argue that, along with songs like Pulp’s ‘Common People’, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ is one of the greatest ever pop singles.

Human League

So, to the Human League’s 2012 reunion tour. The show starts in darkness, with a dramatic build-up, during which the stirring theme from the film ‘Exodus’ plays over the soundsystem. Then the lights go up and Phil Oakey appears on the raised platform at the back of stage, with the musicians. He is dressed in rather sinister garb, with a shiny black enveloping raincoat and hood, with strange goggle sun-glasses fitted over the top of his head. He launches into ‘Sky’, from the new album, and is joined by Joanne and Suzanne at either side of the stage.

Human League

What is clear from the start is that this is no cheap-skate New Romantic nostalgia cash-in. The band is promoting a newish album (2011’s ‘Credo’) and the Civic Hall is completely sold out. The show has been really well thought-out and the stage set, lighting and sound quality are first class. What is more, the band is in fine form, with Phil Oakey, hurtling around the stage in a range of costumes. Oakey has certainly retained that important element of sinister theatricality that I witnessed at that gig back in 1979. Phil, Joanne and Suzanne are all in fine voice, with Phil’s vocals seemingly more powerful than ever. There is some really great interaction of the male and female vocals on so many of the songs, which was always a key feature of the League. The girls get the stage to themselves for ‘One Man in My Heart’, while Phil performs some songs alone, notably the chilling ‘Seconds’, with its droning synth track, dealing with the assassination of JF Kennedy (“It took seconds of your time to take his life”). This song alone, so far from throw-away pop, demonstrates the range and quality of their material.

***

We are treated to a wide range of songs, with all the hits, from throughout the commercial period of their career. It is too difficult to pick highlights, as it is all darn good. The good folk of Wolverhampton give the band a fine reception, and Suzanne speaks of how she especially likes the city. Much of the audience is of an age that grew up with the music of the Human League as teenagers. Many seem to be couples and it is obvious from their reaction that the songs mean a lot to them.

Human League

The show ends with the catchy ‘Mirror Man’, which has the audience singing along, and the band leave the stage. After a brief bit of hand clapping and foot stomping, we get the encore, with Phil prowling the stage with a synth keyboard strapped around his neck (‘Good-Bye Bad Times’). Then the song that they couldn’t possibly avoid playing, ‘Don’t You Want Me’. The musicians start the tune and for the first minute or two the audience sing it alone, until the singing trio re-emerge onto the stage to perform it. They exit again, but come back for a second rousing encore, ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, which was originally a track that Oakey recorded with disco veteran Giorgio Moroder. Altogether a memorable and rather moving evening of quality music.

The Penelopes

Very able support is provided tonight by The Penelopes, a French electro-dance-rock band, based in London. Their contemporary electro-pop style really fits the bill for the evening and dramatic lead singer Axel Basquait comes over as a real star performer.

Human League setlist; Sky; Sound of the Crowd; Open Your Heart; Heart Like a Wheel; All I Ever Wanted; The Things Dreams Are Made Of; Seconds; Lebanon; Louise; One Man in My Heart; Night People; Electric Shock; Love Action; Tell me When; (Keep Feeling) Fascination; Mirror Man. Encore: Good-Bye Bad Times; Don’t You Want Me; Together in Electric Dreams.

Photographs and Review by John Bentley

10 Responses to “The Human League + The Penelopes @ The Civic Hall, Wolverhampton, UK – 2nd December 2012”

  1. Bianca Says:

    Absolutely brilliant John. A really great read, and that 1979 photo montage… Fantastic!

  2. Lawrence Fear Says:

    Saw them in Halifax last saturday night. Absolutely fantastic

  3. Peter Says:

    What a great read, and some wonderful photos. It brought back to me just how wonderful the Royal Albert Hall night was, just a week ago and already so distant.

  4. Wayne Fox Says:

    I have to wholeheartedly concur with Bianca on this; I loved reading this, but especially getting the opportunity to see your early work.

    Magnificent John. Magnificent.

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and images!

    Twitter calls I feel #GdnGigs

  5. NicTheBeard Says:

    Excellent review, intelligent and accurate – one of the few that doesn’t make you think the reviewer was at a different gig! I’m 52 and was there with my 16-year old son; we both loved the show and he said they were almost as good as Muse (big praise indeed from a teenager!)
    So, thanks to the League for the show, and to John for the great review and superb photos.

  6. john bentley Says:

    Thanks all! Good to share photos and thoughts with you all! I wish I could say I had photographed lots of other great bands before they became famous, but unfortunately the day job got in the way.

  7. Mark Garvey Says:

    First time seeing the League live…can’t work out why?
    They were outstanding, I won’t be waiting so long ’till next time!

  8. Raymond Sewell Says:

    True professionals,glasgow gig superb,no cheapskate performance,a band that love what their doing and not just for the filthy lucre.Missed being boiled and empire state human.

  9. Ken Harrison Says:

    Cracking review John, loving the 1979 pics…gorgeous

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