The Human League

Laughable lyrics and a balding frontman can't put Fionola Meredith off getting lost in 'the joys of pop nostaliga'

Everything changes. So it was too much to expect Phil Oakey, suave frontman of the veteran 80s synth-pop band The Human League, to have retained his lopsided swish of black, silky hair. When the band takes to the stage of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival marquee, to wild enthusiasm from the mature crowd, Oakey keeps things under wraps in a Unabomber-style black hoodie. But when he casts it off, it's clear to see that his bonce is resolutely shaven.

Curiously enough, other than that, everything else remains almost the same, right down to the trademark keytars. Oakey's two 'dancing girls', as a sceptical music press once dubbed singers Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley as teenage schoolgirls (legend has it that Oakey had to ask their parents for permission to go on tour), perform all their requisite oohs, aahs and other harmonious backing sounds with panache.

And, despite their relatively advanced age as popstrels, they sashay and shimmy like the best of them. It makes my heart lift with hope to see 48-year old Catherall wave her arms in the air like she just doesn't care, nascent bingo wings resplendent.

Early on in the gig, Oakey wonders aloud whether his voice will hold out – it is a virus, not heroin, he assures us, that gives him a frog in the throat – but his distinctive rich baritone is as powerful as ever, manly in a way that you just don't hear any more in this generation of weedy, chicken-winged indie types.

Oakey strides purposefully about the stage as he sings, like a factory foreman checking parts of the assembly line and approving of what he finds. Obligingly, the band give the crowd all the songs they want to hear – '(Keep Feeling) Fascination', 'Sound of the Crowd', 'Love Action' – as well as a couple they probably didn't.

That's the curse of the veteran band: as soon as you announce a song from your new album, half the audience makes its way to the bar. The League also treat us to a selection from their less well known war sub-genre, to show that they weren't all about Kraftwerk-inspired synth-sounds and sappy lovelorn vocals.

It must be said, though, that 'The Lebanon', a reaction to the Lebanese civil war that followed the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon of 1982, does contain some pretty awful lyrics: 'Before he leaves the camp he stops, He scans the world outside / And where there used to be some shops, Is where the snipers sometimes hide'.

This was always a band with lofty aspirations, something that The Undertones had an amusing dig at in their song My Perfect Cousin: 'His mother bought him a synthesiser, Got the Human League in to advise her / Now he's making lots of noise, Playing along with the art school boys'.

Any pseudo-political artiness Is forgiven, however, when the band launch into their defining hit song, 'Don't You Want Me'. And when they finally close with 'Electric Dreams', no-one cares if the lyrics mean anything or not. We were all too busy getting lost in the bittersweet joys of pop nostalgia.

Check out our What's On listings for more information on all Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival events.

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