In early 1977, while everyone else was occupied with pogo-ing around The Roxy, Sheffield based computer enthusiasts Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh bought themselves a Korg 700s synthesizer, and busied themselves learning how to play it. With the idea of combining their love of Motown and glam rock with the new experimental synth based music, they burst onto the scene at a friends 21st birthday party with their rendition of the theme to Doctor Who.
Emboldened by their progress, they formed The Future and drafted in some other band members, including old school friend Phil Oakey on vocals. In keeping with their new expanded line-up, in early 1978 they changed their name to the Human League – a reference to Starforce: Alpha Centuri, a science fiction board game.
Releasing their first single “Being Boiled” on newly created Indie Label Fast Product, they secured a deal with Virgin Records – the future was looking electronically rosy. However, their first Virgin releases failed to chart, and their status as the leaders of the synth pack was seriously called into question when a young Gary Numan and his Tubeway Army barged in and scored a massive, synth-pumping, chart-busting hit with “Are Friends Electric?”.
So, with the fug of blame thick in the air, and on the brink of a European tour, the band split, leaving Oakey to rebuild the line-up in a matter of days, or face being sued.
Like anyone who needs something, Phil took himself into town on a desperate last minute shopping trip looking to recruit a new female singer, who could replace the high range backing vocals of Martyn Ware.
On that same Wednesday night, inside Sheffield’s Crazy Daisy disco, two school-friends were on the dance-floor, enjoying a night out at one of the City’s many nightclubs. Oakey and the Human League were already well-known in Sheffield, as much for their dress sense as the music, infact the girls already had tickets to see them at a forthcoming show in Doncaster. With no experience, no expectations and no audition, Phil strolled on over, asked them to join his band as singers and dancers, and after finding out their ages (17&18), he arranged a further unscheduled stop, complete with red lipstick and high heels, to their parents to ask permission for the girls to go on tour. Oh to be a fly on the wall when Mum and Dad Catherall were first introduced to their new friend “Nightclub Phil”.
In a Kids from Fame meets Cinderella moment, their parents and their school agreed that the experience would be “educational”, and although Phil’s new “dancing girls” were mocked in the press, after returning from tour, Phil was so impressed he made them both permanent members of the band and put them on a salary.
In October 1981, Virgin released the album “Dare” which spent 4 weeks at Number One and spawned the single “Don’t You Want Me?” which went onto sell 1.5 million copies in the UK hogging the Christmas number one spot, and every radio playlist ever from there on in. The girls, especially Joanne featured heavily in the accompanying video, and we think their presence had much to do with bringing the Human League up to a whole new audience. The rest, we think, you probably already know…
Joanne and Susan Ann, although not traditional Punk girls, deserve some sort of retrospective consideration. They were just a different embodiment of the gutsy get up and go, the have-a-go heroes which Punk seeded. They went from school girl disco dancers, to being members of one of the UK’s most cutting edge (if beleaguered) bands, literally overnight. The parental permission, the weeks off school, the claws of the critics and the potential pitfalls of fame, apparently did nothing to dent their self-belief.
Rumours have swirled around camp Pop for years that Phil must have been dating either one or the other of them. Was he? Wasn’t he? What was the deal? And which one?
In an interview with the Daily Mail (of all places), Sue seems to confirm the answer to this most gripping of questions by saying;
“Both Joanne and I have been involved with Phil. She lived with him for ages, but with me it was a brief romance. It’s not been a problem; we’ve been best friends since we were 13.”
Apart from founder member Phil Oakey, Joanne and Susan Ann are now the Human League’s longest serving members.