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|Born||18 September 1962|
|Labels||Virgin Records, A&M, EastWest, Papillon, Wall of Sound|
|Associated acts||The Human League|
In October 1980, Catherall was an unknown 18-year-old school girl when she and her best friend Susan Ann Sulley were discovered in Sheffield's Crazy Daisy Nightclub by Philip Oakey, the lead singer and a founder member of The Human League. At short notice she and Sulley were invited to join the band's European tour that was in crisis after the original group had split. The pair then joined Oakey in forming a new and commercially successful line-up of The Human League, in turn making an international pop star of Catherall.
Catherall has remained in the band ever since, working constantly over the next 30 years. Today, she is a joint business partner in the band, which continues to record and tour.
Sheffield 1980 and "The Crazy Daisy" story
In Sheffield in mid 1980, Catherall was a school friend of the slightly younger Susan Ann Sulley. Both girls were 17 years old and attended Sheffield's Frecheville Comprehensive School. One Wednesday night in late October, Catherall (who had just turned 18) and Sulley went out together to the futurist Crazy Daisy Nightclub in Sheffield city centre to dance and socialise.
Philip Oakey, the lead singer of the alternative, but relatively unknown electronic band The Human League, was also out in Sheffield that night. The Human League had recently split acrimoniously over creative differences, leaving only two of the original four members, Oakey and Adrian Wright, to continue. Crucially, The Human League was contracted to a European tour starting within a week. Already in debt to Virgin Records, Oakey had to recruit new band members in a matter of days for the tour or be sued by the tour's promoters, face bankruptcy, and see the end of the band. Oakey went into Sheffield that evening to recruit a single female backing singer for the tour, needed to replace the original high backing vocals of the now departed Martyn Ware.
Later that evening, by pure chance Oakey went to the Crazy Daisy. He immediately noticed Catherall and Sulley dancing together, and now states that they stood out from all the other girls in the club due to their unique dress sense, immaculate make-up, and idiosyncratic but sophisticated dance moves. Without preamble Oakey asked both girls to join the tour as dancers and incidental vocalists.
Catherall now states that she knew immediately it was a genuine offer, as Oakey was well known in Sheffield; she and Sulley already had tickets to see The Human League on the Doncaster leg of their tour. Catherall and Sulley agreed to the offer immediately, despite having absolutely no singing or professional dancing experience.
However, with the girls being 17/18 years old, the final decision about their going on the tour lay with their respective parents. The parents of both the girls were unhappy with the idea and initially refused to give their consent. This was overturned reluctantly when Oakey, complete with his then trademark lop-sided haircut, red lipstick and high heeled shoes visited both sets of parents to convince them that the girls would come to no harm. Catherall and Sulley's school also agreed to the absence as it was thought visiting Europe would be educational for the girls.
The first European tour of The Human League got underway with the two young recruits assigned to dancing and incidental vocal duties. The girls at this stage were just guests in the group on a salary of £30 a week. Although the tour was a success the crowds were largely hostile to Catherall and Sulley, as fans had bought tickets for the original all male line up. Catherall recalls dodging several beer cans thrown at her during the tour and was often heckled. During the tour Oakey had experimented with the girls singing on a number of the original tracks and was impressed with the results; he was also impressed with the girls' professionalism and determination during the tour.
On return to Sheffield in December 1980 both girls were made full-time members of The Human League.
1981 and the release of Dare
After the tour, Catherall and Sulley returned to school full-time while Wright and Oakey set about composing and songwriting.
The new Human League of Sulley, Oakey, Catherall and Wright started to gain ground in early 1981 with the release of the single "Boys and Girls". Even though it charted at number 48, it was the most successful single at that point. The girls were not used in the production as the song was written without any female backing and they were busy with school. They later featured on the record sleeve and in promotional photo shoots.
Soon after Boys and Girls came the recruitment of professional musicians Ian Burden and Jo Callis, which sharpened the band's output considerably. Although no one yet knew it, the band had arrived at its most successful evolution. The release of the next single "Sound of the Crowd" was the band's commercial breakthrough. It was also the first single to include both Catherall's and Sulley's full vocals, rather than incidentals and 'adlibs'. Unexpectedly the single raced up the UK singles charts; as a result the band were invited to play on the UK's principal music programme BBC TV's Top of The Pops, with only a few hours notice. The first Catherall knew about her first appearance on UK national TV was when Sulley's mother rushed to collect her and Sulley from school mid-lessons for the rapid drive down to the London studios.
Thus the classic Human League signature sound was born, a sound that has continued for three decades into the 21st Century. Deep synths, electronic drums, Oakey's semi-sung/semi-spoken-word baritone vocals, and Catherall and Sulley's feminine interaction. Sound of the Crowd was a major achievement in the British charts, but was quickly bettered by the next single, "Love Action (I Believe in Love)", going to number three in the UK.
By this time, the music video had become highly popular for broadcast TV. Spurred on by pre-filmed promos and live TV appearances, the band started to refine their personal appearance styles for a commercial audience. Catherall adopted the striking black kohl eye make-up and bright red lipstick which became her trademark early 1980s style.
In October 1981 The Human League released their next studio album Dare. By now The Human League were in their ascendancy and were becoming extremely popular with the mainstream British public. The cutting-edge sound of sequenced synths impressed music fans. Their visual style and presentation also became popular; the mutually contrasting teenage girls (brunette Catherall and blonde Sulley) pulled in male fans, and teenage girls were inspired as the media picked up on the 'Cinderella-esque' story of the girls' recruitment into the band.
In mid November 1981, with the Human League fully in the public eye, and sales of the album Dare soaring, Virgin records decided to pull one more single from Dare. Oakey had always disliked the track "Don't You Want Me". Virgin Records had more faith; they commissioned an expensive and elaborate promo video to accompany the release of "Don't You Want Me". Shot on 35mm film rather than videotape, the promo was filmed in late November 1981 in Slough, Berkshire, UK. The scenario was "a movie shoot for a murder mystery film", and is lyrically a conflicting duet between Oakey and Sulley with backing vocals from Catherall.
Premiering in December 1981, the video was played on British television frequently. The memorable opening scene of the video has Catherall, in a fur coat standing on a rural road corner. The night is freezing, she is surrounded by swirling mist and accompanied by the deep opening synth chords. The video captured the imagination of the British public. The effects of the music and emotional lyrics, as well as the cinematic production values, helped propel "Don't You Want Me" to the UK number one spot. By the end of 1981, The Human League were household names across the UK.
1981 also saw the start up of cable TV channel MTV in the US, dedicated to playing music videos. However, the channel was limited in that music videos were a new medium, and there were relatively few available. The syndication by Virgin Records of "Don't You Want Me's" promo to MTV, and ensuing airplay, brought The Human League to US audiences. The subsequent (and admittedly) unexpected interest prompted Virgin Records to release Dare in the US as "Don't You Want Me" flew up the US charts to number one, aided by the effective promo video.
In late 1981 Catherall and Oakey commenced a long-term relationship that lasted until the end of the decade. At the height of The Human League's success they were feted as a celebrity couple, but were also pursued by tabloid journalists after a sensationalist story. At one time the British media erroneously reported that they had married; a story which is occasionally repeated today. Catherall and Oakey split amicably in 1990, remaining friends and colleagues; today the subject is rarely raised. Catherall subsequently married in 1995.
In 1982, riding on the success of Dare, The Human League embarked on an ambitious and well anticipated international tour, consolidating their new position as international superstars. On completion of the tour, the group returned to the recording studios to start on the follow-up to Dare. In November 1982, the Motown-inspired single "Mirror Man" hit the UK charts, peaking at number two. Six months later, the group released the single, "(Keep Feeling) Fascination". Aided by a quirky promo video, this single also made number two in the UK and number eight in the US.
Following this, however, the recording sessions for their next album became fraught with tension and producer Martin Rushent departed from the project, as did later producer Chris Thomas. They were replaced by producer Hugh Padgham and the subsequent album Hysteria was released in mid-1984, three years after Dare. Although it entered the charts at number three, the album failed to match the success of Dare and quickly dropped out of the charts.
With Oakey working on side projects, rumours that the band had split were perpetuated in the press. However, in 1986, Virgin Records paired The Human League with US production team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. The band decamped to the USA to record. Creative tensions disturbed their time there, both in the band and with the production team. Sulley and Catherall, who had fortunately absolved themselves of any creative responsibility in 1981, were exempted from the bickering but were homesick and unhappy in the US. Creatively, the US recordings ended in acrimony but not complete disaster.
The well received single "Human" was released in September 1986. A ballad about separation and infidelity, it gave Catherall her most prominent vocals in any Human League single. The promo video was typical of mid-1980s gloss and the single peaked at number one in the US and number eight in the UK. The subsequent album, Crash, emerged from the Jam and Lewis sessions, and reached number seven in the UK.
The Human League reconvened for their 1990 album Romantic?, which Catherall contributed vocals for, but the album was not well received, only charting barely and receiving little critical support. By now The Human League consisted solely of Catherall, Philip Oakey and Susan Sulley with supporting musicians.
Then in 1992, after much acrimony, Virgin Records cancelled the band's contract. Without a recording contract for the first time in 14 years, and with mounting debts following the relative failure of their most recent album, the band began to fall apart. Oakey succumbed to depression after the rejection and sought counselling. More seriously, Catherall's best friend and co-vocalist Susan Sulley had a nervous breakdown. It was during this period that Catherall, often described as the quietest member of the band, demonstrated her considerable strength of character. She is credited as being responsible for keeping the band together during their darkest period.
The Human League recovered and were able find a new record label quickly, in the form of EastWest records. Using material rejected by Virgin, and new material written by Oakey and Sutton, the band released a new studio album in 1995. Propelled by some radio friendly singles, Octopus returned the band to the UK top 10 for the first time since the 1980s. As well as performing on UK TV music shows, various talk shows were keen to interview the band. On one occasion, during an interview of ITV's This Morning, host Richard Madeley made the mistake of telling viewers that the band were making an "80s comeback", prompting an irritated Catherall to reply: "We've never stopped working, we've never been away!"
Despite the commercial success of Octopus, history repeated itself in 1997 when EastWest records decided to change creative direction and purged their older signings. The Human League were again let go, and the remainder of the 1990s saw the band refining their live act, playing relatively small venues. In 1997, an offer was made to the band to be part of an 80s nostalgia tour of the US with Culture Club and Howard Jones called 'The Big Rewind'. The tour was then repeated in the UK, but with ABC as the opening act instead of Jones. The band, who detest being called an "80s" act, reluctantly agreed to take part; as Catherall later said "the money was too good to turn down."[this quote needs a citation] The decision turned out to be a blessing in disguise; the tour fielded further, albeit nostalgic, interest in the band. Oakey, Catherall and Sulley quickly capitalised on this and refined their set lists to include more nostalgia friendly back catalogue tracks.
In 1997 Joanne Catherall became a mother, giving birth to a son named Elliot. She is the only member of the trio to have children.
With renewed interest in the band's back catalogue, they were able to find yet another record label, this time Papillon Records, willing to sign them and facilitate the release of another studio album. Secrets was released in 2001 but the album was not a commercial success, not least of all due to Papillon going out of business. The disappointment of the album's failure and criticism that the band were now too old to be taken seriously again brought the band close to calling it a day. However, Catherall put this into perspective when she explained later during a TV interview for GMTV: "It's not as simple as that (disbanding); we are a business, we own studios, and we employ people who depend on us."[this quote needs a citation]
Although the Secrets album was not a commercial success, the live tour that accompanied it was. During the following years, The Human League have put all their effort into playing live and touring; both in the UK and worldwide where their live profile has continued to grow steadily. On 23 September 2006 they filled the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles with 18,000 fans, their most popular concert to date.
Catherall continues to record, perform and tour with the band whilst still living in Sheffield with her family. Behind the scenes she is involved in the organisational and financial side of the business. She has also guest presented on Music TV channel VH1.
Film and television
- 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')
- Ross, Alaska. Story of a Band Called The Human League Proteus, July 1982 ISBN 978-0-86276-103-5
- "Sounds 12th August 1978 THE HUMAN LEAGUE". The-black-hit-of-space.dk. 12 August 1978. Retrieved 2012-10-18.
- Ross, Alaska (1982) The Story of a Band Called The Human League
- James Ellis (2001). "Oakey Interview – Metro Magazine".
- Interview with Richard Madeley, 'This Morning', UK ITV1, 1995
- "Susan Sulley and Jo Catherall Interview – Daily Mail". 2001.
Catherall does not have a personal website