I Know This Much: From Soho to Spandau (2009)
After seeing the documentary on Spandau Ballet, Soul Boys of the Western World, I was struck by a wave of Spandau obsession. I’d always been a Duranie, though Spandau’s presence was inescapable, of course, as “True” was a huge hit at the same time Duran Duran fever had a hold on me. What Soul Boys of the Western World did for me, though, is to show me the depth and artistry of Spandau’s career that went far beyond “True”. I was really struck by the emphasis on their working class origins and their participation in the New Romantic movement inspired me to look more deeply into a subculture that many don’t know even existed.
If you are a fan of Spandau, are English, or frequent British based music sites, you might be aware that after reuniting in 2009, Spandau went through a tumultuous period that resulted in Tony Hadley leaving the band (before the reunion, the band had last played together in 1990 and were only to meet in a courtroom in a battle over residuals by the end of that decade). Spandau now has a new singer and recently played a couple of sold out shows in London. The response from hardcore Spandau fans has been … mixed. Some have readily accepted Ross William Wild as the new singer, or are at least willing to give him a chance. Some have declared that the band is nothing without Tony’s voice. Some blame guitarist/songwriter Gary Kemp for destroying the band. Some think Tony let Spandau and the fans down. I lurk in several Spandau fan groups on Facebook and the arguments continue as to who is at fault and if the band is renewed or doomed. Hardcore fans are very, very upset about the whole thing.
In his autobiography, Kemp reflects on what began to go wrong within a band that had been formed through genuine friendships and artistic desire:
Where did the end start? Certainly it would have gone unnoticed in 1986, so much good stuff was happening. We were famously ‘five mates’, ‘the Angel Boys’, closer than any other band, drinking pals on a permanent world bender and having the time of our lives. But at some time, something must have started imperceptibly to alter things, a mutation of a single cell, unnoticed at first, but with our fate contained within it. Where can I find the first fissure, the first footfall of the trouble that was to arrive? (243)
Kemp sees the beginning of the end as accepting the starring role – along with his brother Martin – in the 1990 movie, The Krays. In truth, though, his autobiography as a whole is an examination of the many little cuts that led to the death of the band.
Death is the organizing force of the book as Kemp begins his story as a ghost looking back at his own life and ends with the death of his parents. In between there is the death of class divisions, of the band’s names and musical genres, of Spandau Ballet itself, and in the court case which finally severs Kemp’s songwriting from the rest of the band, of friendships that had lasted 20 years. It is a book largely about loss, though it isn’t joyless or without humor. Kemp is, however, interested in dissecting/illustrating the ins and outs of band life but also the role his own attitudes played in the decisions Spandau Ballet made along the way.
Kemp repeatedly returns to class and the role it played in his life and career. He prides himself on coming from a working class family but recognizes the complications of continuing to identify as working class when one becomes a successful musician. Before success in Spandau, however, Kemp and the others who made up the band – brother and bassist Martin Kemp, saxophonist and percussionist Steve Norman, singer Tony Hadley, and drummer John Keeble – would all use their working class backgrounds to their advantage in the emerging club scene in London in the late 70s and early 80s.
Kemp’s discussion of the Blitz club, fashion, working class politics and identity was my favorite part of the book. Unlike Hadley who seemed a bit embarrassed and bemused about his fashion from the time, Kemp embraces it, really seeing it as a political statement as much as an artistic one. He also discusses the scene which lead to the New Romantic moniker with great detail:
Blitz was a wine bar in Great Queen Street decorated with thirties memorabilia. It suited our theme of dancing while Rome burned. [Steve] Strange wore his hair and heels high, and tottered at the door with a silver-topped cane, while hundreds, desperate to burn brightly in these dark times, block the street outside. (93)
Kemp goes on to name Stephen Jones, Stephen Linard, Melissa Caplan, Fiona Dealey, Sade, John Galliano, Boy George, Princess Julia, Jeremy Healy, Marilyn, Rusty Egan, and Mige Ure among many others as Blitz regulars who all went on to find fame in fashion, film, and music. The New Romantic scene relied heavily on the creativity of young people who wanted to look incredible but had no funds to make it happen. The Kemp brothers were fortunate to have a mother who was willing to make her hot-on-the-club-scene sons a couple of zoot suits, while the others found would they could at Oxfam or stores with lax security measures. This working class ingenuity resulted in a glorious mix of fashion from a huge range of time periods and styles. These inventive fashions allowed the kids wearing them to transcend time and place, but most importantly they transcended class as well. Kemp and others like him became fantastical peacocks, indeterminate of gender, class strata, and any other social or cultural markers. They were inspired by punk but were most interested in surpassing it in terms of social disruption. What better way to stealthily bomb the mainstream than to infiltrate them with style and pop music? Kemp and his band of gorgeous outsiders were determined to become the soundtrack to this movement.
Spandau didn’t immediately infiltrate the Top 40. Kemp traces the many permutations of sound and style of the band but the book is most concentrated on Spandau’s glory years which naturally reflect the excesses of top-earning rock stars. Kemp thoughtfully unravels the complex tapestry that is class and money when he discusses the band first making big money. Moving into his own place, he muses:
It was more than a physical move away from home. Those aspirational yearnings that I’d been nurturing […] all those years before were now fully fledged and allowed free flight. But as I placed art and books on the wall, church candles and interior magazines on the black enameled coffee table, I felt a strong sense of denying everything my family was. I sat on my William Morris chair – designed by the esteemed architect Philip Webb, I hasten to add – and, with a glass of claret in my hand and something light and choral on the stereo, I realised I’d become middle class […] My desire for higher things left me appearing like a snob. Or maybe I just was. Waves of pride and shame would alternately crash against me, especially when Martin and I parked our matching Porsches side by side outside our parents’ home in a street full of rusting Fords. Were the locals proud of their prodigal sons or were we rubbing salt (Malvern, of course) into the wounds of a beleaguered working-class neighbourhood? Money left me a mass of neurotic contradictions, and, as much as I wanted a more cultured lifestyle and aspired to the other side of the Essex Road, I was still riven with guilt about it and the fear that I might be deserting my roots. (178-179)
Although class issues have come up a lot in the books I’ve read so far, Kemp writes about his conflicted feelings in a touching and profound way. As an American, I don’t relate to class in the same way as the English do (or at least English musicians do). Though the American press is quick to latch onto success stories that include a performer coming up from a humble background, there isn’t as much emphasis on the loss of culture and self once that class status has changed. Most American celebrities, including musicians, don’t speak a great deal about the meaning class has had in their lives, unless it is a discussion of “authenticity” as it pertains to a performance of toughness or street credibility. But class is an issue for English musicians (and a continuing one at that – for example, check out this article in Pop Matters) and Kemp writes about it in what seems to me an honest and complicated way.
Class intersects with band’s stylization of itself, too, as Spandau left behind the more experimental clothing of their past to embrace a more traditional “pop star” look including Anthony Price suits just like Duran Duran wore. They pursued hits and reflected a sense of success in their upscale looks as well as in their slickly produced singles, their most famous of which, “True”, made them seem like romantic softies instead of the arty upstarts they were originally. The movement from their earlier songs like “To Cut A Long Story Short” to the more polished sounds of “I’ll Fly For You” felt to the band like they were moving into more serious (and radio friendly) territory, but the press was more concentrated on who the band played to and how they looked while doing it:
During our fall from grace with Diamond the common judgement from the serious rock press was that we were fashion-obsessed dandies who couldn’t play and that we’d had our run on the fickle train of youth culture and been swiftly forced to alight. There was a certain amount of glee and told-you-so in their statements. Now they saw our new, successful, smiling version as irrefutable evidence that we were interested only in financial rewards and not musical credibility. (188)
Not being thought of as serious musicians is a recurring theme in the autobiographies of 80s pop stars I’ve read so far. Though each musician/singer embraced their teen appeal with degrees of bemusement, they all also felt the hard graft they’d put into their musicianship or songwriting was being overlooked. This idea of respectability is something I want to delve into in the journal article I am planning on writing on what I’m (tentatively) calling “New Wave masculinity”. What hinders getting the respect of the press is primarily the band’s fanbase, not the actual musical product. And that fan base? Teen girls. They are the kiss of death. A recent article in Pitchfork clarifies:
When fame is girded by a swelling teenage, female fanbase immediately, that celebrity becomes false, temporary, and unearned. We’re always grappling for a reason to disregard the value of a popular—and populist—product because blindly embracing it means the market research and Simon Cowell-eque figures behind it have duped us again. The presence of teen girls offers up a handy barometer: if they like something you can be rest assured it’s not worth a serious listener’s ear [,,,] female fans are seen as less legitimate, so their adoration is an instant credibility-killer. The crux of teen-girl illegitimacy is the assumption that they are incapable of the critical thinking their older, male counterparts display when it comes to their favourite bands.
Even Kemp describes an encounter with teen girl fans as having witnessed a flock of “Hitchcockian birds” as the girls screamed, cried, and threw themselves against a plate glass door while watching the band walking into a radio station.
Spandau, of course, soldiered on in their career, making more albums while the in-fighting between them increased. Kemp writes a great deal about how controlling he was, from writing all of the songs to dictating how Tony Hadley should sing a particular line. This control is what lead to the court case Hadley, Keeble, and Norman brought against Gary in the 1990s. Kemp characterizes it as a decision to have his personal publishing company to stop contributing to the costs of running the band (since he was the lone songwriter in the band). He says that long-time manager Steve Dagger “told the others” and that “there was no confrontation about it, but it was a decision that would have a very slow-burning fuse indeed, and more destructive firepower than anything [he] could possibly imagine” (259). Well, yeah! It seems a little naïve to say that you couldn’t know that making a decision to stop sharing monies with the band would result in such anger. I think the court case, though, wasn’t just about the money but about the idea that somehow Kemp was the only important member of the band. But as Kemp says, by the time Heart Like a Sky was being recorded, it was obvious the band was falling apart. He wanted to hurt the band for taking him for granted and to prove to them that he was the real center of Spandau Ballet.
Kemp concludes the book with the band’s reunion a decade after the court case in which he was triumphant. The story of their getting back together is interwoven with the story of his parents’ death. Kemp’s father practically died right in front of him and he along with his brother Martin was tasked with telling their mother of her husband’s death while she was hospitalized during a battle with cancer. After they’d told her, Kemp says that, “the second or third thing my mother said through her tears after she’d hear what had happened was this: ‘And he was so looking forward to [the reunion of] Spandau Ballet’ (310). Four days later she, too, died. These profound deaths make the whole “let’s get the band together!” ending of the book pretty melancholy to read. Knowing that the band wouldn’t stay together in their original form also makes this ending a bit sad. But it’s an excellent book in which Kemp is honest about his flaws and he’s willing to laugh at himself in the process of exposing them. There’s also stuff about his acting career, his love life, and lots of tales of excess while on the road. An overall good read, whether you are a fan or not.
In terms of my New Romantic research, this book is indispensable. I really admire Kemp and I’m grateful for his continuing triumphing of the importance of New Romanticism. (He also also liked a few of my tweets which was, like, the greatest thing ever!)
Please enjoy a few of the following selections from the Spandau Ballet oeuvre: