37 ago, Susan Ann Sulley went for a perfectly normal night out with her friend Joanne Catherall in the Crazy Daisy nightclub in Sheffield. She was 17 years old, and still at school studying for her A-levels. While it’s true that at the time she did have a part-time job in a hairdressers, neither she nor Joanne were working as a waitress in a cocktail bar. That much is not true.
That same night, Phil Oakey, lead singer and founding member of British electronic pioneers THE HUMAN LEAGUE, also stopped by the Crazy Daisy for a drink with his then girlfriend. His band had just split after the release of two critically acclaimed albums, Travelogue and Reproduction. His two fellow band members, Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh, had gone off to form their own band, Heaven 17. As part of the split, Oakey had managed to keep the Human League name, but that also meant he inherited the debts and, crucially, the commitments they had. With the music press gleefully declaring that the band were finished, and Virgin Records breathing down his neck for new music, the situation wasn’t helped by the threats from promoters who’d booked the band for an upcoming European tour. He had points to prove, debts to pay, and lawsuits to avoid.
As well as needing some new members, Oakey needed someone who could handle the higher-pitched vocal lines that Ware had previously sung. He crossed the dancefloor to where the girls were dancing, and changed their lives with one question. He invited the girls to join the band on tour, and within weeks they were in Europe, as Susan Ann Sulley remembers: “Yeah, Philip never asked us to join the band at that point, we were just asked to go on the tour, a few more faces on stage, really,” she laughs. “He asked loads of girls that night, it’s just that me and Joanne were together so could look after each other, so we went, but we weren’t there to be permanent members of the group originally.”
Within 18 months, their world had spun on its axis. No more nights at the Crazy Daisy. The band had a series of million-selling singles, Brit Awards and, with Dare, one of the biggest-selling albums of the decade. They were swallowed into the centre of their own pop whirlwind. The album was huge and omnipresent, almost defining its own time and place. That runaway success must surely have brought some pressures, on them as individuals, as well as on the dynamic of the band? “We never expected it, Philip included,” Susan explains. “We were all thrown in massively at the deep end, and I think at the time, you just get on with it, you have no choice, you know? The diary’s booked up, and you’re lucky to have a day off, because it’s city to city, interview after interview, country after country; it’s not glamorous, it’s really not. At that level, sometimes you just want to go for a wander somewhere, but you can’t because everyone recognises you; there’s a pressure there, I guess, but we dealt with it. We had to.”
She laughs at the sheer unrelenting madness of it all, but she also pauses to remember the support they gave each other at the time: “When you’re in a group, especially when you’re in a mixed group, you all look after each other: the crew, and everybody, we all just hung together and clung together, like a family, and that’s what we became really… that’s still the case, in fact.”
That was definitely then, though, and this is definitely now. Things have changed. The pressure’s off, and people are still keen to hear those hits live, to see the show and enjoy themselves. Which means that now more than ever, the band can enjoy it, too. “I have to say that touring now is far, far more enjoyable. It’s so much easier now, because we’re not famous anymore. People still love the group, and they still want to see us, but we’re so much more free,” Susan enthuses. “When we’re in Liverpool, we’ll go shopping in the town and no-one will recognise us. We’re pretty anonymous, apart from when we’re onstage. That’s what’s so enjoyable compared to back in those days, the freedom. I mean, we were nowhere near as famous as people are now, it’s a totally different thing, and I don’t know how you can live your life in that bubble. I would hate it.”
And, so, some 37 years later, post-international fame, but still armed with a boxful of pure electronic pop class, The Human League join us at Clarence Dock, bringing the glamour and the sparkling spectacle to the banks of the river for this unique appearance. It’s a date they’re looking forward to – so far from those original days in every way – but they’re as eager as ever for it to be a great show. “When we do festivals, and particularly special shows like this next one in Liverpool, it’s never difficult to choose what we’re going to play. People want to hear Mirror Man, Love Action and Don’t You Want Me, and we want to give them what they want. There’s no point putting Circus Of Death in there or something, with a festival crowd. We have a festival set, and that’s what we’ll do. We’ve always loved Liverpool. The people there have always been very kind to us. It’s always a great show… I can’t remember playing there and it not being fabulous.”
Susan Ann Sulley lives the life; randomly plucked from the dancefloor that night at the Crazy Daisy to become a member of one of the country’s greatest-ever pop acts, and then returning to the relative normality of a post-fame existence – every 17-year-old’s dream. Few bands have worked so long at it, so relentlessly, so tirelessly, and with quite so many hits as The Human League. These are the things that dreams are made of.
The Human League perform a special show on Thursday 25th May at Liverpool Waters, Clarence Dock with Art Of Noise and A Certain Ratio. Tickets can be bought for this event separately from a Sound City 2017 wristband.