To Cut a Long Story Short (2004)
The original idea for this blog was that I was going to start with a foundational text on postpunk or at least late 70s/early 80s music to anchor and explain what kind of research and writing I’m doing/would like to do, and then I was going to spiral outward to incorporate texts I’ve just finished reading, texts in progress, and texts already completed. This would provide potential readers and me a look at all of the music related autobiographies, biographies, and genre overviews I’ve read to build a comprehensive vision of my postpunk interests and ideologies.
It might just be the end of the semester talking, but all of that seems ambitious.
So, I’ve decided to simply start with the book I’ve just finished reading and then I’ll just build a postpunk book tracking device up around it. Hopefully I’ll remember at the end of each post to assess what the text has contributed to my understanding of the genre and the subcultures which surrounded it. I would like this blog to be both an online index of my reading habits and inspiration for future articles and conference papers.
The book I’ve just completed is Tony Hadley’s autobiography, To Cut A Long Story Short. Hadley, the former lead singer of Spandau Ballet (I’ll describe some of the messiness of this “former” designation in another post), is notable for having a dramatic, distinctive voice which was most famously put to good use on Spandau’s most popular song, 1983’s “True”. Released on the album of the same name, “True” marked Spandau’s push into new musical territory and it set into stone the public’s view of the band: dreamy, be-suited beauties who cranked out light pop hits punctuated by a very 80s saxophone. This isn’t, however, how Spandau started life as a band. Considered to be one of the cornerstones of the early 80s subculture known as New Romantics, Spandau Ballet was originally a more idiosyncratic, challenging band than their biggest hit would make them seem. I’ll save the New Romantic history and Spandau’s role in it for another post because I’ve read a number of autobiographies from some of the movement’s featured players and teasing out the connecting threads between punk, new wave, New Romantics, and New Pop within the postpunk tapestry is one of the larger goals of this blog and my music writing in general.
Spandau’s earliest success came with the song “To Cut a Long Story Short” which was released in 1980 and netted them an appearance on Top of the Pops. Hadley’s autobiography obviously takes this song’s title for his book’s title, contributing to a trend of members of the band titling their books after Spandau songs and lyrics (see Martin Kemp’s True and Gary Kemp’s I Know This Much – hopefully drummer John Keeble and saxophonist Steve Norman will complete the set!). Hadley is a serviceable storyteller, though in his desire to frame himself as the “everyman” of the band, I found myself a little disappointed in the sections about Spandau’s early career. Known for donning fashion which featured a mash up of styles and time periods, the New Romantics were thought to be outrageous and daring, the beautiful flipside to punk’s dirt and grime. Hadley discusses this era with affection but also a bemusement as he characterizes himself as someone passionate about music, not clothes. He rolls his eyes a bit at the more out-there fashion the band wore (including John Keeble’s “gymslip” [what we would think of in America as a jumper with a pleated skirt] which he wore for the band’s inaugural Top of the Pops appearance). Hadley characterizes the band’s feelings in those the early days as: “We were happy to polarize the critics. We were brazen and opinionated. Yes, we had attitude, but we were young and hungry for success. We wanted to take over the world. Oh yes, and in those days, we also wore rather too much makeup” (79). I know we’ve all looked back on things we wore in the past and thought, “God, why didn’t anyone stop me?” but when a band builds their initial philosophy on the political power of clothes, it’s a bit of a let down to read that one of the band members wasn’t really on board with those bigger ideals at all.
Hadley’s main contribution to the band’s historical record is his view of Spandau guitarist Gary Kemp’s takeover of the band’s publishing rights. The lawsuit Hadley, Norman, and Keeble brought against Kemp was fodder in the English gossip pages in the late 1990s (the band passively broke up in 1989 after the release of the album, Heart Like a Sky). In 1999, the three were ruled against by a judge and they lost the ability to draw an income from the residuals for the band’s back catalog which Kemp felt – as the band’s sole songwriter – only he had the rights to. It’s a messy, complicated issue and Hadley does a good job in thinking about it from Kemp’s perspective while also arguing that the rest of the band contributed in a myriad of ways to the songwriting, not the least of which was the use of Hadley’s voice. After the lawsuit, the book falters a bit as Hadley takes the reader through all the ways he had to hustle for money to pay back the court costs and to simply continue to make a living. He seems like a down-to-earth man who enjoys entertaining fans but those good qualities don’t always make for the most scintillating of reads.
In assessing what this book as contributed to my understanding of the New Romantic movement, I would say that it let me see that some of it was just fashion, not ideology. I knew this, of course, but I wanted Hadley to be a bit more motivated to see the band’s sartorial choices as the working class overthrowing British class traditions as Gary Kemp does. It is true, though, that Hadley’s voice indelibly encapsulated the mood and tone of the New Romantics. Hadley’s dramatic baritone anchors the movement to a brooding and stylized approach to moving past punk into new, more glamorous frontiers. He might not outwardly embrace it, but Hadley’s voice is a fashionable subversion of punk’s gritty rejection of society.
This book didn’t move my thoughts about postpunk forward really, but it was a good reminder that the slide from punk to postpunk was imperceptible to most bands. They just wanted to do something different. In this case, they wanted to do it in gorgeous clothes in their own very exclusive clubs and discos.
Oh, I just thought of something else I learned: Spandau Ballet didn’t hate Duran Duran.