TIME OUT 2014
They look like a band. From Time Out’s spy-hole in the hotel bar, Spandau Ballet – all coiffed hair, nice shoes and Savile Row suits – turn heads as they sweep through the marble lobby.
Spandau are in Melbourne to announce their May 2015 tour and promote the new documentary about their career, Soul Boys of the Western World. It’s a glittering pantheon of excess; 110 minutes of ganja-fuelled recording sessions in the tropics (dress code: white linen); their maiden voyage into the disco badlands of New York to show the locals how Londoners do it (dress code: Bedouin trader); helicopter rides into stadium shows (dress code: acid-coloured suits), and many, many sun-soaked toasts to their success (dress code: baby-smooth chests and budgie smugglers).
One thing you won’t find is any talk of being “humbled”, as bands are tiresomely wont to declare themselves these days. Right out the traps, Spandau were full of it. Perhaps not as smug as Duran Duran, but pretty smug.
“That fake humility that you get now,” Gary Kemp acknowledges to Time Out, “we didn’t know about that.”
You had a beautiful arrogance.
“A beautiful arrogance,” Steve Norman nods. “I like that.”
“There was that bit in Soul Boys when we did the Band Aid record,” Gary continues, “where Bananarama turned up to the studio in their mate’s car and Paul Weller walked there, and we turned up in a great big limo, thinking: ‘What will Duran Duran be turning up in?’”
For five working-class boys from North London, fame and fortune was not something they were too cool to accept – then, or now. Apart from two early bass players, the line-up has remained consistent: singer Tony Hadley, the soft-hearted dag; guitarist Gary Kemp, the visionary dictator; drummer John Keeble, the deadpan cynic; Martin Kemp, the shy-arrogant Smash Hits ’throb; Steve Norman, the amiable playboy.
Spandau were borne out of escapism during the UK’s tough 1970s recession and the Winter of Discontent. No wonder the ‘Blitz kids’ – post-punks hanging out at a zeitgeisty West End nightclub – wanted to dress like elaborate dandies. As a young Tony says in the film, “The middle class want to play it down in scruffy jeans, but that’s not the working class idea.”
And as he arcs up now, “People hassled Spandau about not being political, but look at that interview and see how angry we were about class. We’re still always thinking about looking smart. You look at middle-class bands like Coldplay and they look like they just got out of bed. That is a cultural thing.”
Judging by the doco, Spandau only ever got asked about what the hell they were wearing – well, that and what they thought about the Cold War. Thankfully, they knew how to answer one of those questions. Even now, they say, they chiefly get asked about New Romantic fashion, but they manage to steer the conversation towards style themselves on a number of occasions. As Gary says, “Now you make your identity on a Facebook page, but everybody had to really work at having an identity back then.”
The band spent two decades locked in their own cold war after they split in 1990. It was precipitated by a number of reasons: encroaching domesticity meant that, for some people, leaving rehearsal early because of a sofa delivery was a priority; then there was Gary’s refusal to share the songwriting; Gary’s belittling of Tony; and the Kemp brothers’ disruptive commitment to their first movie, The Krays. And finally, there was the advent of a new decade.
Says Martin, “We all realised at a certain point as the ’80s turned into the ’90s that everything was changing, whether we liked it or not – and we couldn’t stop it.”
It was a calendar exodus few bands survived, as guitars were ditched for 808s, and saxophones for glo-sticks. Having spent all their adult life living as global pop stars, a return to reality was a culture shock. Spandau Ballet had been a bubble that nobody else could infiltrate; a bubble adrift on booze and cocaine and… well, no groupies are shown in the film, so there can’t have been any sex. The loss of this lifestyle could only possibly be trumped by the utter loss of identity.
“We became this huge global brand, but I think there’s a time as you approach 30 – there was for me – when you think, is this everything?” says Gary. “Because even though you’re really big and you’re travelling the world, actually your real world is tiny. Just a few people surrounding you, pushing you from one hotel to another.”
Tony agrees. “Also, the intensity of wanting to achieve things is massive when you’re younger. You’ve got the various albums, then we hit ‘True’, we hit Parade and we hit ‘Barricades’ … and we thought, well, we’ve kind of done it. I think we’re all better people for going off and doing our own stuff.”
Lest you should dismiss Soul Boys as a pop Spinal Tap (which in itself is excellent), the band doesn’t shy away from footage of the High Court case between Hadley, Norman, Keeble v. Gary Kemp, or the crestfallen moments captured on Tony’s face during his solo career interviews, when asked about the band.
“It’s very difficult for us to watch,” says Tony. “I’ve watched it three times now and I won’t watch it again. I get upset.”
In their two decades apart, the Kemp brothers focused on music and acting (Martin scoring a three-year role inEastEnders that made it immeasurably more appealing); Tony and John performed together and separately; and Steve – unwilling to let go of the budgie smugglers – started a new life in Ibiza.
The reconciliation came about in 2009. While they claim not to remember who extended the olive branch, every one of them agreed that they didn’t want to remember Spandau Ballet ending the way it had. As John noted, they couldn’t change the past, but they could change the future. And – you know – the challenge of topping Duran Duran’s reunion was possibly quite irresistible.
John takes up the story. “The night we got together in 2009, Gary said, ‘Why do you want to do it?’ I said, ‘To be honest, I just want to be standing on top of a PA stack, shouting COME THE FUCK ON to 20,000 people.’ That’s basically it.”
Five years on, that excitement is still palpable. In this lofty hotel suite, the band members roar over each other, slip into the groove of a running joke, and ramp up the personal banter before someone – usually Gary – nips it in the bud and reminds them all to act professional. The day before, they went to the races together, followed by the pub. As John says, “It’s not a bad life, is it?”
They’ve even retained their original manager, Steve Dagger – himself originally a Blitz Kid. “The only other [pop] band I can think that’s managed to keep its line-up is U2,” says Gary. “I think it’s partly because every member of our band was ‘known’. If someone said, ‘Oh, the drummer of Oasis has left,’ you’d think, ‘Was he the one in the hat?’”
The latest album, The Story – The Very Best of Spandau Ballet, includes three new tracks recorded with producer Trevor ‘Buggles’ Horn – who epitomises the ’80s himself. ‘This is the Love’, ‘Steal’ and the autobiographical ‘Soul Boy’ are Spandau at their smoothest. Soul Boys of the Western World, of course, is stuffed full of studio outtakes and rare live footage, and is so thumpingly well edited that if you’re not bawling like a baby by the time the reformed band smash down into ‘Gold’ at their first live show back, you’re dead.
While they’re with Warner Music, the band doesn’t labour under any impression that budgets are as big these days.
“The ’80s was the absolute zenith of making records,” says John. “It’s never going to be the same again.”
“Spending a quarter of a million pounds on a video,” hoots Tony.
“But they made so much money from us, they made it back,” Martin points out. “It wasn’t a gift.”
“What was good was the record companies had no involvement in what we were doing because it was so new they just didn’t understand what was going on,” Steve explains. “They just gave us the money and we recorded the record.”
The conversation takes a detour into pop programs such as The X-Factor (“it’s not ruining music, it’s ruining TV”) and boy bands (“the Sex Pistols were a put-together band. Malcolm McLaren just found some middle-class art students to realise his idea” “I wish John Lydon was here now…”) before hook-turning into Motown, the Blitz playlist and the death of the saxophone.
It’s the banter – more specifically, the piss-taking – reckons Steve, that is the glue that keeps the band together. So long as the others are taking the piss, he knows he’s all right. “Hopefully we’ve entertained you.”
“We went from boys to men together and while we did fall out, it was wrong,” says Gary. “We need to be together – we’re a big part of each other’s lives. We’re all happier when we’re together.”