Melissa Blease reviews headlining act, The Human League from their performance at Bath Racecourse
Glamorous Rocket, Secret Fact, Mojave, Space Ace, Numinous: the line-up on the boards read like a synth-pop setlist waiting to happen even before actual synth-pop icons The Human League took over where the races left off at Bath Racecourse last Saturday. But while the horses were, for many folk in attendance, the main attraction superstars of the day, a herd of distinctly different thrill-seekers bypassed the bookie brouhaha altogether, making their way directly to the arena to take a gamble on seeing one of the biggest bands of the 1980s play live in Bath for the first time ever.
Whether you’re an official ‘SubHuman’ or not, an evening in the capable hands of Messrs Oakey, Catherall and Sulley is a pretty safe bet for those in search of a sophisticated, supersonic aural uplift… or merely a darn good (party) night out. They’ve had their ups (established circa 1979, they’re arguably the most successful, enduringly popular band to have survived the post-punk era), they’ve had their downs (fall outs; fall ins; multiple personal and financial disasters) and yet… they’ve sold 20 million records worldwide to date and consistently sell out live gigs on multiple tours around the globe, while numerous artistes including Moby, The Pet Shop Boys, Ladytron, Utah Saints, Robbie Williams and George Michael have cited them as being influential, visionary innovators, as relevant today as they were almost four decades ago.
Frontman Phil Oakey may not have his trademark, lopsided floppy fringe these days (that’s long since given way to a ‘number two’ crop) but in a neat twist to the legend of Samson, he’s gone from strength to strength in terms of – well, strengths. His voice is rich in timbre, his physicality powerful, his demeanour almost regal. He’s bought a natty wardrobe with him too: a neat little PVC bolero that’s eventually shaken off in favour of an elegant suit worn over a shimmery blue shirt that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an André Courrèges catwalk circa 1952. Oakey is savoir-faire personified but still, charismatic substance easily eclipses his apparently effortless style. As for his glamorous cohorts…Susan Sulley exudes an artfully brassy, sassy, sophisticated ice queen vibe, apparently taking tips from both Grace Kelly and Bet Lynch to create her own unique brand of sartorial elegance, while Joanne Catherall is a smoky-eyed chanteuse radiating Jane Russell-esque allure. The pair have morphed from being merely just ‘The Human League girls’ to owning the spotlight as a grown-up, confident, iconic rock goddesses in their own right – and yes, they totally rock. Talking of which…
From the euphoric dance floor anthems (Mirror Man; Fascination; Open Your Heart; Tell Me When) to the sombre, futuristic Seconds and The Lebanon by way of a couple of sublime smoochies (One Man In My Heart; Human) the setlist showcased the best of The Human League’s greatest hits bunch from (almost) all of the band’s nine studio albums, saving the best for last. Starting with a lengthy instrumental overture that allowed the audience to participate in a mass singalong before the song proper started all over again (cue yet more singalong, plus lots and lots of excitable dancing), Don’t You Want Me both bought back fond memories and created brand new ones for all. After a short break, we hit the makeshift dance floor again for the quirky, beep-beep-boop of Being Boiled, finishing with the gloriously uplifting Phil Oakey/Giorgio Moroder 1984 collaboration Together in Electric Dreams.
The Human League are living proof that a genre that, at its inception, was viewed as distinctly non-human and likely to be no more than a flash-in-the-pan fad (that’ll be electro-pop, then) not only gave British chart history a much-needed reboot but built the foundations for a legacy that changed the face of popular culture for good. May Messrs Oakey, Catherall and Sulley always be together to make our electric dreams come true for a very long time to come.