Thinking back on the run-up to the Human League gig in Manchester earlier this month, it's fair to say I wasn't looking forward to it with quite the same enthusiasm as I had done the previous ones we'd been to.
There was a lot of other stuff going on in our lives, we spent the whole of November away, and when you've met a band twice and seen them play three times in four years it's maybe reasonable to think they don't have much more to offer you – especially if it's a band that's not currently releasing new material. I was looking forward to visiting family, sure – but as for the gig, well, I suppose I was a bit 'ho-hum' about it.
Which just goes to show how wrong you can be.
The Manchester Apollo is the sort of seedy-but-sound venue that provides the perfect setting for a gig – most of the ones I've ever been to before have been staged in soulless concrete and breezeblock theatres or student halls. The Apollo may lack modern creature comforts, but it makes up for that in atmosphere.
Support act Hoboken had apparently been going down a storm during the tour – at one gig the singer is said to have responded to cheers by saying “you do know we're not the Human League, don't you?” – but they didn't do anything much for us. The singer has a fantastic voice, a Scottish baritone with shades of Midge Ure to it, but he ought to be showcasing it on torch songs, not burying it in a succession of gloomy synthesiser layer-cakes that all sound the same as the one before.
The Human League came on stage at 9pm and the entire Apollo immediately stood up (it's an all-seater venue) and for the most part stayed standing. We were at the end of row M, on the far right of the auditorium / left of the stage (we always seem to end up on Jo's side, never Susans's). At the very end of the row I was able to step into the aisle, but Jules and Beloved Other Half were stuck behind tall people and could barely see. We all therefore missed what was said later to be a dramatic and stylish start to the first song, Tell Me When.
This was a brave choice for an opener as it was a big hit in 1996 – a date so late that it goes straight over the heads of the casual '80s nostalgia' fans. But it's a stormer of a song, and sounds just like a Human League hit should – catchy, driven by a pounding electronic bassline, featuring soaring high notes for Jo and Susan to hit more often than not, and a vaguely stalkerish lyric that Phil's distinctive deep voice can use to give a poppy song a darker edge than it deserves.
After that, it just got better.
All three of us moved out into the aisle to see more clearly, at which point security came over and warned us we were blocking it and couldn't stay there for health and safety reasons. We had the option, we were told, of standing in front of our seats or going up the front, right by the stage.
Guess which we chose?
We ended up almost at the stage itself, with only a couple of people in front of us, and in almost the same position as we were in last year at Reading – poor Jo must think we're stalking her. More people drifted to the front as the night went on, but we were never unduly crowded. Everyone was good-natured and even the security was smiley. They were even allowing photos, and I cursed myself again and again for forgetting my camera.
The band played for an hour and a half and performed 20 songs, including two in the encore – far more than in previous years. Looking through the setlist, it was cleverly designed. The first half was made up either of good songs that weren't huge hits, such as Louise, The Lebanon and Heart Like a Wheel, or Christmas presents for hardcore fans – the album track The Things That Dreams Are Made Of, the 2001 single All I Ever Wanted, the breakthrough hit Sound of the Crowd, and the obscure, stark electronic track Marianne from 1980.
At the midpoint came Susan's and Jo's costume break – off they went for two songs, Empire State Human from before they joined the band and Rock and Roll is Dead, a 2003 single by Kings Have Long Arms that Phil did guest vocals on, and back they came having swapped the catsuits and PVC for swirly Flamenco frocks and little black dresses. Then came a song for them to carry while Phil went for his costume change, and after that we were well into the second half and a crescendo of hits.
Human first, because it was an American number one and so has to be in the set even though no-one really likes it, and then all the tracks the nostalgia crowd had come for and which even the most insular long-term fan loves singing along to. Don't You Want Me ended the main set (of course) and the first song of the encore was Being Boiled, partly because it's an iconic classic from which most of today's electronic music can trace its roots and partly because it lets the girls go off for another costume change.
Traditionally their encore outfits are gloriously over the top – Jo's lime green tutu and black rubber bodice from last year had to be seen to be believed. This year Susan had gone for the Catholic schoolgirl look while Jo wore a Liza Minelli Cabaret bowler hat (very effective with her severely bobbed hair) and grey shorts. The final song was, inevitably, Together in Electric Dreams, which always turns into a mass sing-along and sends everybody off hoarse and glowing happily.
Comparing the show with 2001, when we first saw them, it was almost like watching a different band. Then, they were in the middle of the shambles that saw their record company shut down just at the point it should have been promoting their new single, album and tour. The set was cheap, the support band were dire, and the stage show was static. We loved every moment (although we nearly died for them when the computers conked out mid-set and took 10 minutes to fix) but I suspect that we would have been a lot more critical if it wasn't the first live show we'd been to for a decade. In interviews since, they've admitted that their confidence was low and they were wondering whether anyone would turn up and if there was any point in even continuing with the band.
That was the low point – as the tour continued it became obvious there was still a core of fans that would follow them around the country and desperately wanted them to continue. (The Secrets Online website and messageboard had a lot to do with this.) The Things That Dreams Are Made Of, that year's encore song, became a rallying cry for the faithful and the band took heart. They headlined a 'Here and Now' nostalgia tour for the money the next year, but since then they've toured every autumn in their own right, and we've seen them every time. They've got better, more confident, and more ambitious each year. Keyboardists Neil Sutton and Nic Burke have become more integrated into the act, coming up to the front more often and playing a much greater role than previously. Nic, who's also a guitarist, particularly adds a lot in terms of movement and energy.
Phil apparently said a couple of years ago that he wanted them to be the best live band in the business – at the height of their fame their record company told them they weren't the sort of band that did tours, so I suspect it's a bit of a new experience for them, this business of screaming fans and hands outstretched towards the stage, and they certainly seem to love it and be inspired to new heights by it. I don't have the wider experience necessary to judge whether Phil's ambition has been achieved or not, but I do know when I've been royally entertained, and I was that night.
I don't know where the future is leading for the Human League. Phil has apparently done an interview in which he said this year would be the last in the present format, whatever that means. But he's said that in the past, too. There's talk (again, not for the first time) of new material and new plans, this time with the aim of pulling the mainstream towards them – an ambitious but exciting prospect.
In the last few years we've seen U2, Duran Duran, Morrissey, Erasure and New Order (to name but a few) come storming back with new material. Why not the Human League too?
- Tell Me When
- Heart Like a Wheel
- Sin City
- The Things That Dreams Are Made Of
- The Lebanon
- All I Ever Wanted
- The Sound of the Crowd
- Rock'n'Roll is Dead
- Empire State Human
- Love is All That Matters
- Love Action (I Believe in Love)
- Open Your Heart
- Mirror Man
- (Keep Feeling) Fascination
- Don't You Want Me?
- Being Boiled
- Together in Electric Dreams