“Funny how it seems
Always in time, but never in line for dreams
Head over heels when toe to toe
This is the sound of my soul
I want the truth to be said”
True, released April 1983
True: A huge worldwide hit, peaking at number one in the UK Singles Chart for four weeks and the sixth biggest selling single of 1983, culminating in Spandau Ballet performing the song two years later at Wembley Stadium for Live Aid. When Gary Kemp first penned the lyrics, did he know he was effectively laying the foundations for the band’s orbit? Their talents were rarely acknowledged during their glory days, where they were simply glossed over as pretty boys. Looking back, it’s certainly an incredible journey, genuinely tabled in their documentary Soul Boys Of The Western World and told through the words of the band members themselves. Drummer John Keeble, saxophonist Steve Norman, bass guitarist Martin Kemp, lead singer Tony Hadley and songwriter, guitarist, keys and backup vocalist Gary Kemp relate their story with complete honesty, making for compelling viewing.
The Spandau Ballet gospel starts in 1979 in North London’s Islington, a working class suburb plentiful with council estates and rampant with strikes as the new era of Thatcherism bought in high interest rates, The Falklands War and mass unemployment. It was from the seeds of such discontent that Spandau Ballet was sown. Gary, Steve and John first met at school, with Steve introducing Tony to the band and Martin replacing Michael Ellison on bass at manager Steve Dagger’s suggestion. From 1976, the boys would make their way around London as The Cut, dabbling first in punk, then switching across to a more commercial sound in 1978 as the Gentry. With the age of New Romanticism rolling into London, a name change was needed. Spandau Ballet: slang used by Allied troops in the trenches in the war, with a reference to Spandau Prison in West Berlin, as well as the ‘dance’ of prisoners when shot by the German-made Spandau machine gun. How the name came about – be it when the boys, Steve Dagger or journalist Bob Elms saw it on the toilet wall at a club in Berlin or London – is a rather morbid inspiration and quite the contrast to their upstanding style.
With an initial blues rock sound inspired by Kraftwerk, The Kinks and Rolling Stones, this gave way to the New Romantic sound: a reaction to punk and heavily influenced by David Bowie’s glam rock – fashion, quiffs, structured tailoring and makeup included. Synthesiser-based and heavily commercial, the dance beats of the underground London scene with visually-dominated arthouse was fused with pop. It was a very glossy product in terms of production and look. Spandau Ballet became the poster boys of the then In-Crowd, doing the rounds for Blitz – the pulsing nightclub heart of New Romanticism – and other clubs across London, Ibiza and New York. But it was Tony Hadley’s vocal prowess and stunning chest voice paired to Gary Kemp’s songwriting skills tempered by a gregarious band whose friendships stemmed from their school years that would cut through the swath of other rivalry groups, allowing Spandau Ballet to stand out and spearhead the second British Invasion in the US.
In 1980, To Cut A Long Story Short was signed to Chrysalis Records with their album Journeys To Glory laying all the foundations for their own journey to glory. Chant No 1 was very Talking Heads-esque and peppered with jazz, the track a comment on urban paranoia and the fear of living on the edge; coming in at #3 on the charts and gaining success in the US. But it would be the album and track True that would be more in tune with their slick pop. While Spandau Ballet was born from the underground world of dance clubs, True was clearly a conscious effort of departure, leaving behind the edginess of arthouse for synthpop. Going commercial after the death of disco was a definitive political statement yet it resounded with their audience – and still continues to. A swath of no 1 singles, eight top ten albums and millions of sales worldwide is their musical legacy – with new material still in the works.
It’s an ironic conundrum: working class school friends who espouse the polish of the Conservative look, so named for a war term as a synthpop band born from the underground recesses of the UK discotheque scene and finding international fame through blue-eyed soul techniques. They may have been seen as pretty boys during the 80s, but time has diluted the era where style overruled substance. Spandau Ballet is a sound that remains classic and fresh in spite of the decades. They know how to work the stage and each other. It is evident from the enduring skills of each band member from their instrument supporting Tony’s persisting vocal athleticism. This much is true.