Spandau Ballet: Soul Boys of the Western World
It was during the Summer of 1980 that Spandau Ballet really made their mark on the UK music scene. The papers at the time said they were ‘too hip, it hurt’, and undoubtedly their look was easily as unique as their sound. As frontman, Tony Hadley, put it at the time, “We’re not just another band." And he meant it. After hard musical graft across London, seeking the right venues to channel their music, they came across a series of West End clubs, and a man named Steve Strange, which together, would help catapult them to superstar status, and in the process, give birth to a whole new scene. The era of the New Romantics had arrived, and it was about to go global. Fast.
The next 25 years of their career brought plenty of hit records and stadium tours, but there was also a nasty break-up, which led to a court case over royalties, and much resentment to boot. In 2015, however, everything got rosy again; Spandau got back together, started touring the world again, and reviews were better than ever. We engrossed ourselves in the band’s bitter-sweet 2014 biopic, Soul Boys of the Western World, before getting up close and personal with Hadley himself, and fellow band member, Martin Kemp.
“The turning point for us was a small showcase gig one Saturday morning in a rehearsal room that Steve Strange had organised,” opens Martin Kemp, as we discuss the more pivotal moments within the film. “There were 10 of the trendiest, most important people in [London club] The Blitz, and if they liked us, we were in, but if they didn’t, it stopped there and then. Thankfully, they loved it, and we became the band that represented a whole new pop culture.”
And that’s no exaggeration. After wowing crowds at not only The Blitz, but fellow West End hubs, Billy’s, and The Beetroot Club, Spandau took New Romanticism (is that a word?) global, and the band went, as we say in today’s world, viral.
“Given that people didn’t have mobile phones with cameras in those days, two of the most amazing scenes in the film are us on HMS Belfast in London in 1979, and the Underground Club in New York City. It looks fantastic,” adds Tony Hadley, with a smile. Fittingly, HMS Belfast would also be the setting for the band’s press call, announcing their reforming some 30 years later.
The film seems to portray Spandau as ‘under orders’ in the early days, in terms of songwriting duties. I ask the boys if this was the case, and whether other band members ever came to the studio with creative ideas that were totally dismissed by songwriter, Gary Kemp.
“No, because the whole band was happy at the time with the winning formula we had created,” replies Kemp. “Each member was an important cog in a giant, successful machine, though in retrospect, I guess we all wished we had done a little bit more!”
So it wasn’t creative control that led to the resentment, and ultimately the split of the band, then?
“We all accepted our respective roles,” says Hadley, explaining that he always considered himself primarily the singer, and it wasn’t until later in the band that he started songwriting. “Steve Norman, on the other hand, was quite a prolific songwriter in the early days, but he was overwhelmed by Gary. None of us had a problem with Gary being the principle songwriter because number one, he was very good at it, and it was a tremendous responsibility; and secondly, he valued the other non-writing members of the band for their contribution by giving up some of his publishing monies. And the change in those circumstances is what led to the court case.”
I deem it wise not to pursue the legal battle, as it seems to be water under the bridge; and if the band’s recent show reviews are anything to go by, they’re as good live now as they’ve ever been. They’ve been selling out arenas by the bucketload, so it can’t just have been the hardcore Spandau following coming out to watch... Right?
“Yeah, I think an awful lot of younger people have tapped into us both as a band presently, and what we were in the past,” reflects Hadley. Kemp concurs. “I think there is a younger generation that are obviously influenced by their parents and older siblings, and with easy access to the past through modern media, those kids seems quite intrigued. I think the same is true of Duran Duran and Culture Club, too.”
In the film, Gary talks about the power of MTV, and Spandau’s rise certainly coincided with the dawning of the video age, allowing artists to bring music to the masses on a global scale. How do the guys compare social media with that phenomenon, and where do they see its benefits, in comparison?
“Oh, the two are very similar in that they are both phenomenons that have helped bands get their music to the world,” declares Kemp. “Every band wants as many people as possible to listen to their music, their art; and both avenues do the same thing.”
Hadley sees it slightly differently:
“MTV was just one avenue. It was just TV, and extremely visual. It allowed artists to promote their music through the video medium, but now the options are now in nite; and I think that’s diversified music to a dangerous extent. The dawn of the Internet has changed the way we buy, listen to, and experience music, and we now have someone on the payroll 24/7 whose job is keeping the website, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube up to date by the minute.”
I ask the boys to cast their minds back to the Spandau Ballet bidding war, which Chrysalis eventually won. The label gave the band full creative control (as well as a load of cash), but in today’s digital industry, where advances, and indeed labels, are nigh on non-existent, how would a band like Spandau Ballet have fared?
“The thing about Spandau Ballet was, we were always breaking new ground, even in the late ‘70s, when we were searching for that elusive first record deal,” explains Kemp. “Then we were battling the punk hangover, where so many companies got burnt. But we were inventive, and always found new ways to dangle the carrot, so I think Spandau would have coped really well in today’s market. There are always 30 bands in the top 30, no matter what decade you’re in; you just have to play the team that’s in front of you.”
Hadley believes it’s always been very difficult in the music business, no matter what decade but he is also a great believer that ‘talent will always shine through’.
“The problem seems to be that instead of clubbing together and retaining control of the changing music industry, the record companies have allowed the business to no longer be valued in the same way,” he says. “I take my hat off to Taylor Swift for not allowing Spotify to use her catalogue; in my opinion, no artist is making money from streaming or download services, and we need to change that. It sucks.”
“Yes, at the moment it’s a real mess,” adds Kemp. “It will be a very good day when bands keep their streaming rights. Less and less money is spent on making new music because of this, so there is less and less care trying to keep costs down. I do think, though, like anything, it will change, because without the music, there is nothing.”
THROUGH THE BARRICADES
Def Leppard’s frontman, Joe Elliott, told us in 2015 that bands such as his and Spandau remain some of the only ‘stadium bands’, in line with today’s Green Day, Muse, and Coldplay, yet he struggled to pick out any potential ‘future’ stadium acts. I put this to the lads, and ask them if stadium tours can still be sustainable.
“Thanks for the nod, Joe,” smiles Kemp. “I agree, actually; things are going very pop at the moment, but these things always come in circles, as they did when Spandau and Duran Duran overtook the previous prog rock stadium bands.”
“I think there are still bands or artists that can play stadiums, but there are probably fewer acts then there were before,” says Hadley, adding that Joe Elliott is ‘a lovely man, and great friend’. “People want value for money, and tickets can be expensive, so multiple bills are becoming more and more popular. But then bucking that trend, Ed Sheeran performed as one man and his guitar at Wembley Stadium for three nights, which was pretty amazing.”
As a band, Spandau have come through plenty of peaks and troughs, but ultimately, music has won. I ask them if they have any tips, or dos and don’ts for bands daring to try to break into the industry today?
“Make sure you get full independent legal advice from day one,”states Hadley.“Although it sometimes seems that you are living in a utopian, ‘matey’ environment, always make sure you look after yourself. Don’t be too trusting.”
Glad I didn’t go down that courtroom route, now... And Martin?
“Do give each other the respect they deserve, and don’t ever think someone is less important than you,” he insists.
Come on then boys, give me a story from the road! What’s the one memory that will always stay with you (that I can print)?
“Oh, now you want the dirt,” laughs Kemp, reminding me that ‘what happens on tour, stays on tour’. “But seriously, the biggest moment for me has to be playing Live Aid. That day changed the face of charity around the world, a day you just knew would go down in history. An audience on TV of two billion! Yes, you could say Live Aid rocked!”
Hadley ponders, and offers this little ditty:
“One of the funniest memories was with myself and Freddie Mercury in New Zealand, when we got into a massive drinking session just before he was due to go onstage [smiles]. It was stupid, but what a great afternoon drinking with my mate Freddie at the bar! A truly lovely man, and very sorely missed.”