The Human League, Shepherd's Bush Empire, London

By Silvia Diaz
Thursday 01 January 2004 01:00

The vogue for all things Eighties refuses to die: fluorescent heels, over-inflated shoulder pads and two-tone mullets are worryingly pervasive once more. It's tempting to think that many of that era's stalwart groups have been waiting for just such a cultural sea change, having clung on to the mascara'd ghost of former glories via reunion tours, basking in fan club loyalty for the gratification of the band's egos and bank accounts.

The Sheffield electronic pioneers The Human League once briefly reigned supreme in the charts with their distinctive union of glamour, synthesizers, and pop sensibility. Whereas the music and presentation of their fellow electronic aficionados Kraftwerk carried an austere aura, The Human League's more palatable appeal lay in melodic songs with instant and widespread appeal. "Don't You Want Me," from the Dare album, was one of 1981's biggest-selling singles, and now enjoys an afterlife as essential fodder at karaokes, weddings, school reunions and discos. Whether tonight will be any more than an aural greatest hits slathered in outdated make-up is a niggling concern.

"Hard Times" heralds the band's arrival, a packed auditorium cheering eagerly as backing singers Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley gleam in suitably coiffed attire and the frontman Philip Oakey, wearing shades, pauses before "Love Action's" hypnotic pulse gains momentum. Time may have passed, but Oakey's voice remains crystal clear. After "Mirror Man", he politely thanks the audience, before a sombre rendition of "Louise" to which the multitude chant along with tangible emotion.

There's a costume change for "Lebanon," but the black robes are discarded for "Open Your Heart." The audience, from all walks of life, are as one, especially during "I'm Only Human," and "The Things that Dreams are Made Of". The Human League's latest songs, from the album Secret, are met with a muted response by some audience members.

Throughout, the band are keen to provide entertainment, flashing broad grins to each other and to the crowded auditorium. Oakey discards his suit jacket, saying that he needs a moment to catch his breath. Sulley, by now flushed from the shrill wolf whistles, says gratefully, "We couldn't do it without you." The band's earlier singles bring home Oakey and co's influence on dance music; "Tell Me When," 1996's unexpected hit suggests that contemporary dance music in turn invigorated them.

After "Fascination", Oakey coyly states: "It's time for the last song." Yes, it's time for "Don't You Want Me." Surely 22 years later, the band would only reluctantly perform its magnum opus? This isn't the case; it's difficult to sense whether it is the group or the audience who sing with more vigorous, jubilant force. After some insistent chanting from the crowd, The Human League return onstage for "Electric Dreams," and "Human Town". Elated and sated, the multitude of fans leave, faces aglow into the cold. Unlike many of their disposable New Romantic contemporaries, The Human League have evolved with the times, while retaining a rich back catalogue. That such moments have survived the test of time and remain relevant in the 21st century is testament to the nation's true pop idols: The Human League.

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