Philip Oakey — The Most Human Pop Star

The man in a white shirt with a long flip hair, singing songs of love, devotion and aspiration and songs about aliens, interspecies lovers and generally stuff taken straight from Doctor Who, is one of the most iconic faces of 80s new wave. His iconic face also sports the cover of one of the most mesmerising synth pop albums of all time. We are, of course, talking about the Human League’s Philip Oakey, the most human pop legend of the North.

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Philip Oakey, born in 1955, spent the first fourteen years of his life moving from place to place in the wake of his father’s work, before settling in Sheffield. By 1973, Oakey had dropped out of school and worked at various oddjobs, but in 1977 Oakey’s quest to change the face of pop began.

Martyn Ware and Ian Craig had a band called The Future at the time, but having trouble being signed, the band was struggling with finding a permanent lead singer. After a handful of try-outs, the band turned to Philip Oakey. Oakey, known around Sheffield for his eclectic way of dressing, had no musical experience, but the band still decided to choose him, solely by the fact that he looked like a pop star. A factor unseparatable from Phil. And from there on, inspired by Donna Summer’s 1977 disco hit I Feel Love and a tedious roleplaying game, the Human League was born. The rest is synth pop history.

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But what makes Philip Oakey so special in the world of new wave? Obviously he is a great songwriter and some of the greatest pop tunes of the 80s are written by his hand, but it seems that everyone who tried their hands at synth pop also somehow succeeded to create greater melodies, hooks and sounds than the last one, constantly bettering one anothers work. No, the true speciality of Oakey lies in his very human way of approaching things.

No matter are we speaking of his nerdy fantasy worlds or his greatest synth disco love songs of all time, he makes everything seem so possible. The Human League’s 1981 classic Dare! is a perfect example of this approach. The way he sings of the everyday makes the often miserable life of teenagers look like a fantastic adventure of thrills and kicks, if you just know where to look. Depeche Mode and New Order might’ve sang about the ups and downs of love, its thrills and cul-de-sacs, but when combined with Oakey’s powerful voice and his synth voyage, songs like The Things That Dreams Are Made Of, Sound of the Crowd, Open Your Heart and Do or Die become bigger than life. Like The Beatles before, The Human League presents everything that is great about pop, and much of it is due to Philip Oakey’s personality.