Human League at the Logan Campbell Centre, Auckland: concert review

Many thanks to Andrea Rabin for this guest review!

When David Bowie said that ‘’I have seen the future of Pop Music” – he wasn’t wrong. 20 million album sales and as part of their 40th anniversary, The Human League finally graced our shores. Their die-hard fans had been interacting with them on Facebook – where to go, what to see – and the packed audience got their dancing shoes on and were ready to boogie. To be fair, the supporting act of Pseudo Echo got the crowd going, playing some old 80s favourites and ending with, of course, Funky Town. Looking around the auditorium, 85% of people appeared to be of (like me) 49 going up 10 or so plus years, and it was interesting to observe that what a different audience The Human League attracts – as opposed to marauding girls following a boy band – as the serious followers of the avant-garde New Wave Synth Music. It was a late start of 9.40 pm on stage, and it made me wonder how many people were now out on a Wednesday night way past their bedtime – including me!

So – onto the music. The 4 bar opening to Love Action (I Believe in Love) got everyone on their feet and it was away we go. Phil Oakey’s hair may be shaved off, but that’s all that’s changed about him. He is still lithe, moving about the stage constantly (at 61 too), with that distinctive strong voice that sounds no different than it did on those early tracks, but just delivered with the mastery of experience. “I believe, I believe what the old man said” Susan Ann Sulley (54) & Joanne Catherall (55) had the audience clapping hands above their head, and we were putty in their hands for the rest of the night following whatever gesticulation they asked of us. Their role, for the most part, was to do BVs, dance, and have the odd solo part, but this is in keeping with the fact that this is how they were originally adopted into the band – whilst finishing off school in 1980.

There’s always a danger that a synth driven band will be all pre-programmed and nothing live – this was not the case. Loved seeing the drummer play, who by the way, was working very hard all night playing the (electric) kit with all of the various fills that would have been programmed in. The synth player and guitarist had their fair share between backing and more prominent roles, and the couple of wrong notes I noticed, let me know that this was a band who didn’t just want to come onstage and sing to a backing track. Steve Sutherland in the Melody Maker wrote that their music would irritate guitar-rock traditionalists, that it was sure to upset some by the way it tramps all over rock traditions, but was later balanced out by Oakey, way ahead of his time, who said that that’s the way all songs would be written in the future. Did he have a crystal ball – perhaps?

There was no shame of the men doing the ‘dad-dance’ and their partners 80s dancing-it-up-large in the aisles, as we were reverted to our teenage/early 20s years with the screen playing a backdrop of Game Over, Pacman, and the Pong tennis game, and Phil and the rest of the League playing the soundtrack to our generation. We’ve enjoyed a week of hot and humid weather and this did not slip by the band unnoticed. Phil took his jacket off – that was supposed to stay on longer during the set (he said) but I think that this was exacerbated by just how hard the band was working and the sheer vibrancy and energy that was in the room. Only a slow moment when a song was dragged out that they thought shouldn’t be ignored. Ironically, this song was Soundtrack To A Generation and really the only time people took a well-earned soit-down – sometimes, somethings are better left well alone, and for me, leaving out songs such as Louise was a high price to pay. However, most of our favourites were there, including Human, Open Your Heart, (Keep Feeling) Fascination , Life on Your Own, Mirror Man and The Lebanon – which was a song that I would normally skip, but great live.

These songs are instantly recognisable and in a sense, to contradict myself, not electronic driven; they are melodically driven, and tunes that you can belt out with no need of the accompaniment. Oakey said of the breakthrough 1981 album Dare that they were deliberately a song-based group with thought-provoking lyrics, and this was evident in the crowd who sang along to the infectious melodies they learnt from songs recorded on the then state-or-the-art technology to being played on the current state-of-the-art variety. I remember as a 13 year-old (not yet educated in the art of synth/electronica music) debating in Home Ec class one day that this wasn’t ‘real’ music. Whilst some were critically acclaiming the album, it was also being condemned by the Musician’s Union who were against the new technologies and started the “Keep It Live” campaign, as they felt that this would take over their traditional jobs and that concerts would be able to be performed at the touch of a button. Whilst they were not wrong, as was I – as I argued then against the electronic instruments as “not really playing” – we’ve all been taken on an educational journey into how these compositional devices/instruments can create music to last, to sing in the shower, to be a nightclub favourite on dancefloors worldwide.

Then a riff started on the keyboard, and not one that was instantly recognisable as a Human League song. I was, and I could see the crowd too, trying to work out why I knew this song but was misplaced, and it took a long while before the penny dropped and an electronic version of Eric Clapton’s Who Do You Love. Oakey finished the song with a “Confused?” and well frankly, yes, yes I was, and he was delighted as this was the first time they had performed the song and he’d remembered all words. Being a person who loves little trivia bits, I want to thank Mr Oakey for enlightening me that the lyrics were written by Michael Jackson – bring on the next pub quiz trivia night…

Then the song we were all waiting for… #1 for weeks in 1981, the singers left the stage and we were treated to an instrumental version that we were all more than happy to Karaoke the chorus “Don’t You Want Me Ba-by… Don’t You Want Me, Oh-h-h-h”, and it was like we were all sharing one big mic. Then Phil came out and took us to the place we’d been waiting for. Originally a track relegated to the last track on the B side of Dare and released against Oakey’s wishes, it was great to see the joint role of male and female vocals played out on stage – as we all had the video for it playing in our minds. We were singing, and singing loudly and nobody seemed to care what the person next to them thought about that.

This was a great band playing great songs, and playing songs that are still never far from the radio listings today. Oakey said that they were nervous about playing here for the first time, and that we’ve (the record-buying audience) have made their lives – by buying the records and tickets. I have to say, for many of us, they made and shaped our lives by the music of back then, and by the future bands they’ve influenced too. You said thanks for giving you a little chance to see our beautiful country – We were very happy that you took the chance to visit our beautiful country too, FINALLY.

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