The Human League, Hammersmith Apollo, review: an electric dream of an evening

The Human League's Red Tour reached the Hammersmith Apollo - Sidewinder
The Human League's Red Tour reached the Hammersmith Apollo - Sidewinder

The Human League were never an obvious Yuletide attraction. Amid the earnest cultural climate of post-punk, these electronic pioneers from Sheffield were often ridiculed for their poker-faced futurism.

So, 37 years after Don’t You Want Me – their melodramatic ode to romantic betrayal– became an unexpected Christmas Number One, it feels even more unlikely that they have become a regular, if not annual, fixture on the seasonal gig circuit.

Given that most UK shows on 2018’s 13-night Red Tour were in arenas, this concluding date offered a rare opportunity to observe the Eighties pop legends at close quarters. They made quite an entrance at the Hammersmith Apollo: a safety curtain fell away to reveal a set made up of 20 heaped, gleaming hollow cubes – a bit like an overgrown IKEA display, perhaps, but still quite a spectacle.

Then, with two keytarists and a drummer beavering away at the intro to The Sound of the Crowd, the band’s only three surviving members – vocalists Phil Oakey, Joanne Catherall and Susan Ann Sulley – materialised to croon along to its mechanised beat. Oakey had updated his freakish look from the lop-sided lady’s hairdo of old: now hairless up top, he wore solarium sunglasses and a semi-transparent, sleeveless plastic trench-coat, eventually discarded to reveal a butterscotch blouse and a pleated skort.

He may have looked like Axl Rose might if playing a pervy movie villain, but, as he launched into Mirror Man’s synth-Motown euphoria, as well as choice selections from 1981’s world-beating Dare album, the show acquired both a substance and an irresistible joie de vivre that all but eclipsed the style.

While The Lebanon and Seconds brought a sombre political edge, Open Your Heart offered a fusion of motivational guidance and a breathtaking cascade of melodic hooks. Although their musical authors may have long since departed the ranks, these were forward-looking pop songs from the top drawer, still prescient in an era where synth-pop predominates, and rendered with an utterly infectious enthusiasm.

Famously, Catherall and Sulley were initially plucked from the band’s audience as window-dressing. But where some “heritage” singers transmit all the warmth of superannuated airline staff, these two cooed and shimmied as though they were still The Human League’s number-one fans – survivors, victors, a sine qua non of the band’s ongoing success.

And the hits kept coming. Less-remembered gems such as the supple Tell Me When built towards Don’t You Want Me, whose instrumental overture invited a mass singalong that continued for more or less the entire song, the stage awash with pinks, blues and excitable dancing.

As Oakey capped off the night with the chorus from the song he co-wrote with Italian disco titan Giorgio Moroder, at The Human League’s peak - “We'll always be together, together in electric dreams” - those words seemed a far from risible prognosis.