Philip "Phil" Oakey (born 2 October 1955) is an English composer, singer, songwriter and producer.
He is best known as the lead singer, lead songwriter, frontman and co-founder of the English synthpop band The Human League. Aside from the Human League, he has had an extensive solo music career and collaborated with numerous other artists and producers. He is also an occasional DJ.
Oakey was one of the most visually distinctive music artists of the early 1980s. His synthesizer composition and songwriting helped make his band The Human League one of the highest profile pop bands of the early 1980s. At the height of their success, The Human League released the triple platinum album Dare and Oakey co-wrote and sang the multi-million selling single "Don't You Want Me", which was a number one single in both the U.S. and UK, where it remains the 25th highest selling single of all time. Oakey has been a key figure in the music business and has been lead singer of The Human League for over 30 years, with whom he has sold more than 20 million records worldwide. He continues recording and performing internationally to this day.
Oakey was born on 2 October 1955 in Oadby, Leicestershire. His father worked for the General Post Office and moved jobs regularly: the family moved to Coventry when Oakey was a baby, Leeds when he was five and Birmingham when he was nine, before settling in Sheffield when Oakey was fourteen. He was educated at King Edward VII School in Sheffield. He left school at 18 without finishing his exams and worked in a number of casual jobs: in a university bookshop, and from 1975 as a porter at Thornbury Annex Hospital in Sheffield. He was married briefly to his girlfriend, whom he met at school, but the marriage did not last long and they were divorced in 1980.
Entry into music
Oakey’s entry into music in 1977 was entirely accidental. He had bought a saxophone but had given up trying to learn how to play it, and had no aspiration to be in a pop group. In Sheffield in 1977, Martyn Ware (a school friend of Oakey's), Ian Craig Marsh and Adi Newton had formed a band called The Future. Although they had recorded a number of demo tapes, they remained unsigned. They were part of an emerging genre of music that used analogue synthesizers instead of traditional instruments, which would later be defined as synthpop. Newton quickly left the band after they were turned down by record companies. To replace him, Ware decided that The Future needed a dedicated lead singer. His first choice was Glenn Gregory, but Gregory was unavailable at the time. So Ware suggested his old school friend Philip Oakey to Marsh. Although Oakey had absolutely no musical experience, he was well known in the Sheffield social scene, principally for his eclectic dress sense and classic motorcycle. The lack of experience didn’t bother Ware as he declared that Oakey "already looked like a pop star". Ware went to visit Oakey to ask him to join The Future; finding him away from home, he famously left a note on Oakey's front door asking him to join The Future as lead singer, an offer Oakey quickly accepted, joining the band in mid-1977.
Human League career
In late 1977, The Future changed its name to The Human League – after an element of a science fiction board game. The new band played their first live gig at Psalter Lane Arts College in June 1978 (a blue plaque now marks the spot) and signed to Fast Records. The early Human League had a reputation for being arty and had only limited commercial success, releasing two singles, "Being Boiled" and "Empire State Human", with lyrics written by Oakey. They would eventually release two albums, Reproduction (1979) and Travelogue (1980), both recorded at the band's Monumental Pictures studio, but dogged by the lack of commercial success, Oakey and Ware's working relationship became increasingly strained. In October 1980, on the eve of a European tour, it reached breaking point and Ware walked out taking Marsh with him. Oakey and director of visuals Adrian Wright were permitted to retain the band name but would be responsible for all band debts and the tour commitment. Ware and Marsh soon recruited Glenn Gregory and became Heaven 17.
With the tour promoters threatening to sue Oakey and facing financial ruin, he had less than a week to put a new band together. In an unplanned move that is now entrenched in popular folklore, Oakey went to a Sheffield city centre discothèque called The Crazy Daisy (since demolished) and recruited two totally unknown teenage schoolgirls: Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall into the band. As luck would have it, the women were already fans of The Human League and recognised Oakey. He now calls this the best decision of his career, as the girls would be critical in the band's further success, and Sulley and Catherall are now Oakey's business partners in the present day band.
In mid-1981, Oakey and Catherall commenced a long-term relationship that lasted until the end of the decade. Later that year, at the height of the band's success they were touted as a celebrity couple; but were also pursued by the tabloid press after a sensationalist story. Oakey and Catherall split amicably in 1990, remaining friends and colleagues, contrary to press stories they never married. Catherall has since married. After the tour in April 1981, the band had their first top 20 hit, "Sound of the Crowd", and with the addition of Jo Callis they went on to release the number three single "Love Action (I Believe in Love)". Briefly during 1981, Oakey truncated his name to Phil, and even referred to himself as Phil in "Love Action". He would not use it for long quickly returning to Philip. He would later say "I’ve never been a Phil; I’m a formal sort of person really". The band under Oakey's direction then released another single "Open Your Heart", then a full album Dare, much of it written by Oakey. Dare would soon become a number one album in the UK and go double platinum. It has since been called one of pop music's most influential albums, responsible for shaping an entire genre of music. At the end of 1981, the Oakey and Sulley conflicting duet "Don't You Want Me" would sell two million copies in the UK, staying at number one for four weeks. It would do the same in the US, selling another million. By the end of 1981/82 Oakey and the Human League would be famous worldwide.
The remainder of the 1980s saw the band's success peak and dip, with the follow-up release of the album Hysteria in 1984 underachieving. In 1986, Oakey accepted an offer to work with US producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis which resulted in the release of the album Crash and the single "Human" which became another international hit and went to number one in the US. By 1987, the band had lost most of its original members leaving only Oakey, Sulley and Catherall. In 1989, Oakey persuaded Sheffield City Council to invest in business development loan for the building of Human League Studios in Sheffield, Oakey's dedicated studio for the band and a commercial venture.
The 1990 album Romantic? failed to sell and in 1992, Virgin Records cancelled the band's recording contract. This had a devastating effect on the band, causing Oakey to seek counselling for depression, and Sulley to have a breakdown. The emotional problems of the pair nearly caused the band to fold. Thanks mainly to the efforts of Catherall, by 1993 Oakey and Sulley had recovered and the band was back on its feet. They signed to Eastwest Records which resulted in the release of the gold selling album Octopus and the hit singles "Tell Me When" and "One Man in My Heart".
Another change of record label saw the release of the critically acclaimed Secrets album in 2001. Secrets failed to sell because the record label went into receivership curtailing promotion. After the failure of a project he had put so much work and time into, Oakey lost faith in the record industry and changed the band's focus in to more lucrative live work. Between 2002 and the present day, they have toured almost constantly, either on their own or as guests at festivals. They have played at such prestigious events as V Festival, Festival Internacional de Benicàssim and to 18,000 fans at the Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles in 2006.
In 2011, the band released a new album, Credo.
Solo and collaborative career
Oakey has worked on his own, and also with other artists and producers. His first collaboration was producing the Spanish released single "Amor Secreto" by Nick Fury in 1983 for which he also played synthesizer, together with Jo Callis.
His highest profile and most commercially successful collaboration was with producer Giorgio Moroder. In 1984 for the film Electric Dreams, he and Moroder provided the film theme song, "Together in Electric Dreams". When later released as a single it would go on to become an international hit, actually eclipsing the film it was intended to promote. The song went on to become a bigger hit than some of Oakey's Human League singles of the same period.
In 1985, Oakey and Moroder released the joint album Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder which generated two further single releases, "Be My Lover Now" and "Good-Bye Bad Times". Released in both the UK and US, these singles were not as successful as "Together in Electric Dreams" and the Oakey/Moroder partnership effectively ended.
In 1990, Oakey provided guest vocals on "What Comes After Goodbye", the one-off release by the short-lived Sheffield dance band, Respect. In 1991, Oakey worked as producer on comedian Vic Reeves only studio album, I Will Cure You – most notably on the track "Black Night" which is a Deep Purple cover. In 1999, he provided vocals for the single "1st Man in Space" by the Sheffield band All Seeing I. The song was written by Jarvis Cocker. In 2003, he provided vocals for Sheffield band Kings Have Long Arms on the single "Rock and Roll is Dead"; also in 2003 he worked with producer/DJ Alex Gold and they released the trance single "LA Today". In 2008, Oakey worked with Hiem, a band fronted by former All Seeing I lead singer David "Bozz" Boswell, on the song "2 am".
Oakey (often with Neil Sutton) has written music for third parties which has been released anonymously or published uncredited. He has infrequently guest DJed, and one of his sets entitled 'The History of the Synthesizer' was streamed live over the Internet.
In early 2009, Oakey collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys on their tenth studio album Yes, supplying vocals for the intended bonus disc song "This Used to Be the Future". Also in 2009, Oakey collaborated with British female synthpop artist Little Boots on her first album Hands, recording the duet track "Symmetry".
Throughout his career and in his personal life, Oakey has been a very flamboyant dresser and fashion trend setter. His entry into music was precipitated by his reputation for style. His outrageous dress sense and original hairstyle would make him an iconic figure of the early 1980s music scene.
Pre-1977, during the era of punk rock, Oakey adopted various styles; at one time having a crew cut but later he had collar length hair and had once turned up in one club wearing a household power lead with plug as a necklace. He also often wore bike leathers and rode a classic Norton motorcycle around Sheffield. His natural good looks combined with his flamboyant style was the main reason Martyn Ware invited him to join his pop band The Future in 1977. Ware, who was chasing commercial success, reasoned that half the battle was won "as Oakey already looked like a pop star".
Soon after The Future transformed into The Human League, Oakey as lead singer wanted a look that would make him stand out from other lead singers. After spotting a girl on a Sheffield bus with a Veronica Lake hairstyle, Oakey was inspired to adopt a strange lopsided geometric hairstyle, shoulder length on one side and short on the other. As the Human League increased in prominence, the hairstyle would became Oakey's trademark. Between 1978–1979 with his unique hairstyle, he maintained a masculine dress style and at one time wore a full beard.
Increasingly interested in attracting the limelight and standing out from the crowd, in 1979, inspired by the 1970s glam rock style of Brian Eno, Oakey began wearing makeup; his style became increasingly more feminine including the use of bright red lipstick.
By 1981, after the formation of the new Human League, Oakey's trademark style of the early 1980s was complete. As well as full make up, Oakey had begun wearing androgynous clothing, which he described as "neither male nor female". The addition of teenage school girls Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall as co-vocalists to the band in 1980 complemented his look. At times, all three would wear the same eyeliner and lipstick. Oakey and Catherall, who were to enter into a relationship with each other, often looked and dressed almost identically.
The media regularly commented and joked about his style (unwittingly achieving Oakey's aim). Fearlessly, Oakey pushed his unique style further and began wearing high heeled shoes. He already had both his ears pierced and wore dangling women's diamante earrings. Keen to shock, on one of the 'new' Human League's posters in 1981, Oakey posed shirtless displaying pierced nipples linked together by a gold chain. Oakey says of his early 1980s style: "I deliberately wore clothes that either men or women could wear. But I don't think I ever really looked like a woman. And I never wore very masculine clothes".
Another common media error was that Oakey and The Human League were part of the New Romantic movement. Oakey and the band, whose look was unique and pre-dated the start of the Blitz Kids never identified with the New Romantic scene, although they seldom challenged the media label while it helped sell records. It wasn’t just a stage look and Oakey openly went about in public in full make up, dressed in his eclectic style; he claims that "Sheffield was so accepting that no one ever blinked an eyelid". Oakey jokes that when he sought parental permission for the girls to go on the 1980 tour, that the father of Susan Sulley (then aged 17) only let her go on tour with the Human League because "he wasn’t entirely sure I was a man."
After the international success of Dare, Oakey was tired of the androgynous look and by 1983 had adopted a more macho look of denim, collar length permed hair and the ill shaven 'designer stubble'.
For the Crash album of 1986, Oakey adopted a smoother style of designer clothes of the period and a very manicured look which he says was inspired by Sean Young's character Rachael from the film Blade Runner.
By 1990, the Human League had seriously begun to decline. For their Romantic? album, Oakey wore denim, leather and readopted his lop sided hairstyle from 1981 in a rebellion against "the male model look of Crash". The band went through dark times and the style was quickly abandoned.
When the band returned in a comeback in 1995, the mature (then 40-year old) Oakey reappeared with designer clothes and a suave short neat hair cut.
In 1998, Oakey began to suffer from male pattern baldness and after advice from his hair stylist, in 1999 he adopted an all over 'number two' crop hairstyle. This is the style he wears today, albeit that his hair has now completely greyed.
Today, Oakey is still known for his dapper style, but now generally wears a simple Armani suit on stage. Although he has not lost his desire to shock, and recently boasted during a newspaper interview that he had recently acquired a Prince Albert piercing, which he says "hurt less than having his ears pierced".
With The Human League
- Studio albums
- Reproduction (1979)
- Travelogue (1980)
- Dare (1981)
- Love and Dancing (1982)
- Hysteria (1984)
- Crash (1986)
- Romantic? (1990)
- Octopus (1995)
- Secrets (2001)
- Credo (2011)
- Number-one singles
- "Don't You Want Me" – 1981 (UK) (25th highest selling single of all time), 1982 (U.S, AUS, NZ)
- "Human" – 1986 (U.S)
- Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder - Virgin, 1985
- "Together in Electric Dreams" – (with Giorgio Moroder) Virgin Records, 1984
- "Good-Bye Bad Times" – (with Giorgio Moroder) Virgin, 1985
- "Be My Lover Now" – (with Giorgio Moroder) Virgin, 1985
- "What Comes After Goodbye" – (Respect featuring Philip Oakey) Chrysalis Records, 1990
- "1st Man in Space" – (All Seeing I, vocals by Philip Oakey) FFRR Records, 1999
- "Rock and Roll is Dead" – (Kings Have Long Arms featuring Philip Oakey) Heart and Soul Records, 2003
- "LA Today" – (Alex Gold featuring Philip Oakey) Xtravaganza Records, 2003
Film and television
- 1990: The Weekenders (TV) (D. Vic Reeves) – played himself
- 1999: Hunting Venus (Buffalo Films, D. Martin Clunes) – played himself
- 2010: Top Gear 15x01 – guest appearance (Jeremy Clarkson's Three-Wheeler Report)
- 1982: BRIT Awards – (as The Human League) 'Best British Breakthrough Act'
- 2004: Q Awards – (as The Human League) 'The Q Innovation in Sound Award'
- Nominated for Grammy Award in 1982 for Best International Act (as The Human League)
- Story of a Band Called "The Human League" by Alaska Ross (Proteus July 1982) ISBN 978-0-86276-103-5
Oakey deliberately does not have an official website, not wanting to do what others do, and apparently believing it is expensive to have one.
- – Interview with Philip Oakey of The Human League – Rocker Magazine, 2011