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Human League's Susan Ann Sulley look back on storied career ahead of Belfast gig

'We were just having a great time ... but never thought it would last more than  a year or two'

Eighties revival: Joanne Catherall, Susan Ann Sulley and Philip Oakey of The Human League
Eighties revival: Joanne Catherall, Susan Ann Sulley and Philip Oakey of The Human League
The Human League in their heyday
Belfast bound: The Human League play Custom House Square on August 9
Helen Carson

By Helen Carson

The Human League backing singing duo Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall with their trademark black kohled eyes became synonymous with Eighties electronic pop - but the schoolfriends only joined the band because their teachers thought it would be 'educational'.

Now Susan (56) recalls those early days with glee. "We never thought it would last longer than a year," she says.

Ahead of The Human League's Custom House Square gig in Belfast next month, Susan explains how lead singer Philip Oakey (63) spotted the pair at a nightclub in their native Sheffield.

"Philip saw Joanne and me together at the club, but he hadn't heard us sing. We were obviously friends and looked after each other," she says.

Although only one backing singer was needed, Philip decided to call both girls along with some others to try out for the new line-up.

"We did an audition and Joanne and I got the gig," says Susan. "I was 17 and Joanne was 18 and our parents had said no to joining a band - it was something they wouldn't have contemplated.

"We eventually got them to meet Philip and when they did they realised he was very professional - it was a job, it wasn't anything weird or sinister."

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But the teenagers' concerned parents did put certain responsibilities on Philip. Susan recalls: "Our parents said we could go under the proviso he looked after us and didn't let us get into any trouble. Both Joanne's father and mine went to our school to inform them and they thought it would be educational and we went."

Susan says the frontman had to find other members for contractual reasons to keep using the band's now famous moniker. Finding the girls enabled the new line-up to go on tour with the name intact.

The original band was formed in the Seventies by computer programmers Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware, creating many of the Eighties' biggest hits and paving the way for artists like Lady Gaga and La Roux who are both fans.

While it's hard to imagine the iconic group without the glam look and characteristic dancing of Susan and Joanne (56), neither intended to be there long term.

"Philip never asked us to join the group," says Susan. "We just ended up staying friends after the tour.

"And when the band was making the album that became Dare, Philip asked us to come down to the studio and sing backing vocals and that's how we ended up just staying around."

Susan admits back in the heady days of the Eighties - with touring and Top Of The Pops appearances - as a girl straight out of school it just felt like a bit of fun.

"I think I was quite blase," she admits. "Joanne and I thought we were just going along for the ride, having a great time. It was really good fun, but I don't think we ever thought it would last anything more than a year or two. That's certainly how I looked at it."

Between tours and recording, both Susan and Joanne went back to school to do their A-levels and there were plans for university.

"I thought I'd have a year or two off and go to university, that's really what I thought would happen," says Susan. "I was going to do business studies because I'd no idea what I wanted to do. Business seemed to cover quite a lot of things so that's what I was going to do."

But Eighties superstardom had other plans with The Human League scoring hit albums and singles alike. And tunes like Sound of the Crowd, Fascination, Love Action and Don't You Want Me went on to become the soundtrack to the electro-pop era.

Susan admits she cannot imagine two teenage schoolgirls doing what she did now. "It's such a very, very different time now," she says. "Although if you said 'dad or mum, Simon Cowell wants me' - and I'm not disrespecting him but using him as an example because everyone knows his name - I'm pretty positive if a young person said to their parents that Simon Cowell wanted them for a band I think most parents would say go for it and see how far it will go."

More than 30 years on and Susan is a joint business partner in the band which has enjoyed a huge revival. And while the band missed the selfie-taking attention of fans, she says they have never had too much attention.

Still living in Sheffield, she says: "No-one takes any notice of us whatsoever. Everybody at the local supermarket knows me by name, they chat to me like they would any other person. I certainly don't get any special treatment and no-one takes any notice - I never get recognised.

"The only time we get recognised is when the three of us - Philip, Joanne and I - are together. It's quite noticeable. If you're a fan of music it's noticeable when we're all together.

"Even when it's just Joanne and me, if we're in the city and we've gone shopping - we never get recognised. We have trainers on and jeans and just look like everybody else - which is what we are, we just do a very unusual job.

"And we don't court media attention, we don't do all that sort of thing so we're pretty anonymous which is how we like it."

Susan adds that even Philip, with his androgynous looks and who was rarely seen without make-up and stiletto heels, never intended to challenge gender stereotypes or even stand out - in fact, it was the opposite.

"Philip would say to you that he dressed like that because he loved Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry and that was the music he was really interested in. Most people are highly influenced when they're 15, 16, 17, and we all like to join in with something whatever it may be.

"I don't think Philip was trying to break any barriers, it's just his heroes dressed like that and he wanted to be part of that little group, those sort of people. That's all it was."

Susan also laughs off the idea that her and Joanne's heavy, black eyeliner flick, now much copied by singers like Adele, should be attributed to them.

"The eyeliner flick was completely unintentional. We did it as a line to gauge where you should put your eye-shadow. We really didn't know what we were doing with make-up. We were kids and we had no money. We couldn't afford to buy Vogue and even if we could have it was so far removed from the lives of two schoolgirls in Sheffield," she says.

"It didn't appeal to us, there was nothing like that - there was no real fashion on TV. We just went to charity shops and bought what we thought looked alright. Sometimes we got away with it, sometimes it looked vile.

"We did genuinely think we looked great, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of Top of the Pops and I think 'oh my goodness me, what was that all about'?"

She's more than happy not to recreate the outrageous looks of the Eighties now. "Good god, I'm glad I don't dress like that now," she laughs.

While the band has had its ups and downs over the decades, Susan says that she, Joanne and Philip are good friends. "I don't see them all the time - we are all more like brother and sisters. Joanne and I have a very different friendship now.

"We work together and see a lot of each other in work and it's the same with Philip, but when we're outside work I don't really see them very much, I don't really socialise with them. I have a different set of friends and so do they."

And she believes this is part of the secret of the band's success story. "It's good because I don't think we could've sustained being in a group together if we were in each other's pockets all the time. It would've imploded at some time and it hasn't."

Susan also has a long-term partner, Martin. "We've been together for 15 years and he's not involved at all with the music industry - he has categorically nothing to do with it. That wouldn't work."

The Human League, like so many of other bands of the era, are riding the wave of Eighties nostalgia, mostly playing festivals as opposed to the world tours of the past.

"No-one ever thought we'd still be doing this all these years later," she adds. "We were at a gig recently and Martin Fry of ABC came over to us and said 'who'd have thought we'd still be doing this? Remember all those years ago in Sheffield'?"

While Susan's parents passed away a number of years ago, she says they were proud of her achievements. "Your parents see the ups and downs, and there were a lot of downs along the way, but they knew ultimately that I was happy in the job I was doing," she adds. "They used to come to shows and my mum used to tell everybody 'that's my daughter'. They loved it, they were really pleased."

The Human League perform at Custom House Square, Belfast on Friday, August 9, gates open at 6pm. To buy tickets, costing £27.50 each plus booking fee, visit www.ticketmaster.co.uk

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