Break-Up Songs, The Human League and Louise

Shorter post today as my last one started getting a bit too personal – Time to reign it in a bit but before I do entirely, I think it’s appropriate to mention the “break-up song”. I don’t know if anyone has ever conducted a study on this but looking at any long list of songs, they do, in an awful lot of cases include the word love in the title. Even if the word is not in the title it’s included in the lyrics and I would guess that about 80% of songs are either about new-found love, unrequited love or lost love. The rest will be dance tracks, novelty songs or ones that deal with meatier topics, but where would we be without the love song?

Writing last time about Carole King’s It’s Too Late made me think about the “break-up song”. (Being literal here and talking about songs that are about break-ups as opposed to ones dedicated to getting women through break-ups, by making them feel good about themselves – Not sure about this myself as it’s a process, and ultimately only time seems to heal, but whatever helps.)

Anyway, until you go through an emotionally draining parting of the ways, as I did in the autumn of 1984, you don’t realise just how many songs out there are about this very subject. Lyrics, hitherto not really listened to, suddenly play out exactly what you are going through and cut like a knife whenever they come on the radio. I don’t know if I was unlucky but during that period the charts seemed to be full of such songs. It all started off with John Waite and his heart-wrenching song Missing You and then led on to Jim Diamond‘s I Should Have Known Better.

 

For me though, the one that caused the most distress was Louise by The Human League. I have always loved The Human League, not least because of their sheer “Northern-ness”. Phil Oakey, their lead singer, sported the androgynous look favoured by the synthpop bands of the day and his asymmetrical hairstyle must have cut a dash in the nightclubs of Sheffield before he joined the band, but when you heard him speak he came across as a “reight” good northern bloke and not the artsy model you would expect. When the girls, Joanne and Susan, were “emergency-recruited” to fulfill the band’s touring commitments, the line-up we are most familiar with was complete. (Of course it has become part of pop folklore that the girls were at the time still at school and on a night out when they were spotted by Phil. After having a discussion with their parents they were allowed to join the band and go on tour, but had to return to school afterwards!)

Louise by The Human League:

I think it is partly because I am a Scottish Highlander that I have a fondness for Phil and the girls. There are parallels in Scotland to the north-south divide that’s a feature of English culture and there is a great passage in a book by the Highland author Jane Duncan written in the 1950s that sums up Scotland’s north-south divide at that time.

“If ever there were two different races within the political boundary of a single country, there are two races in Scotland. Of the two, the Lowlander is by far the more honest, forthright person. He is shrewd and clever and he knows it, but he makes the great mistake of thinking that the slower-speaking, slower-moving Highlander is less shrewd and clever than himself, and being a forthright person, he says aloud and honestly that he thinks so. The Highlander does not argue with him, for the Highlander is extremely polite by nature and would never contradict anyone about a point like that. He does not laugh with scorn in the Lowlander’s face either, for that would also not be polite, but in a quiet way, on his own home pitch especially, he can make rings of shrewdness and cleverness round the Lowlander, and what is smarter still contrive to maintain undamaged the Lowlander’s illusion that he is the shrewder, cleverer man of the two.”

I have risked upsetting some of my Lowlander friends by including this passage but whenever I hear Phil and the girls being interviewed even today, it comes to mind.

 

But back to the song Louise – It was the third and last single to be released from their 1984 album “Hysteria” and only reached No. 13 in the UK Singles Chart but trust me, it received blanket airplay at the time I was at my most vulnerable, and I will always associate it with that period. It turns out that the lyrics had a darker subtext but most people would have taken them at face value and for someone like myself, going through a break-up, the song made for painful listening – Hard to reconcile that the person who had been your closest friend for nearly five years would in the future be someone you may have a chance encounter with whilst getting off a bus. As it turned out I moved to another city soon after and didn’t tend to use buses very often but it still gives me goosebumps whenever I listen to it. Thanks Phil for a beautiful song.

Louise Lyrics
(Song by Phil Oakey/Jo Callis/Philip Adrian Wright)

When he saw her getting off the bus
It seemed to wipe away the years
Her face was older just a little rough
But her eyes were still so clear
He drank his coffee and he hurried out
Across, before she walked away
Then he approached her like a little child
Too scared for what he had to say

“Hello Louise
Remember me?
Now should we part
Or stay awhile
As if we were still lovers?”

She took a moment just to recognise the man she’d known so well before
And as he started to apologise
Lose any bitterness she bore
She gently put her finger on his lips
To let him know she understood
And, with her suitcase standing on the floor
Embraced him like a lover would

He told Louise
“You look so good
It’s just you see
You make me feel
As if we were still lovers”

It’s not always true that time heals all wounds
There are wounds that you don’t wanna heal
The memories of something really good
Something truly real, that you never found again

And though they talked for just a little time
Before she said she had to go
He saw the meeting as a tiny sign
That told him all he had to know

And so Louise
Waved from the bus
And as she left
She gave that smile
As if they were still lovers

Postscript:

I feel I can’t quite move on until I mention that The Human League were by no means the only successful act to emerge from Sheffield in the early 80s – At around the same time Heaven 17 and ABC were also producing excellent albums and doing really well in the charts.

Since then there have been numerous other success stories including Pulp, Babybird, Moloko and currently The Arctic Monkeys. There are apparently twice the percentage of people in Sheffield engaged in the creative industries compared to the national average and I know I will want to investigate this further down the line. The city suffered the collapse of the steel and coal industries in the 70s and 80s and there does seem to be a correlation here – When work is no longer plentiful, young people have the time and energy to exercise their creativity and for Sheffield it has led to an economy now very much on the up.

This of course can be said of many other cities with a similar industrial background such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Manchester all of whom, have at some point in the last 50 years, been at the epicentre of a music revolution. Interesting stuff and a real piece of luck if you happened to be in the right place at the right time. In the early 80s, if you weren’t one of the Blitz Kids from London’s Covent Garden, the next best place to emerge from was obviously, Sheffield.

Author: Alyson

Whenever I hear an old song on the radio, I am immediately transported back to those days - I know I'm not alone here and want to record those memories for myself and for the people in them. 50 years ago the song "Alfie" was recorded for the film of the same name and I'm hoping that by writing this blog, I might finally work out the answer to his question, "What's it all about?"

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