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Oldies But Goldies: Spandau Ballet Come Dancing

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(Travel back with me to 1981, I was a 24 year  old troublemaker, stirring it up wherever I went and drinking way way too much, and more than happy to give Spandau ballet as much of a headache as I could possibly manage. The Sade in question is, in fact, the singer while she was still a model -IL)

ON THE DAY that Bobby Sands finally starved himself to death and two hours after Spandau Ballet’s first ever press conference I’m in the coffee shop of a Manhattan midtown hotel arguing with Gary Kemp — Spand’s composer and synthesizer/guitar player.

A blanded-out piano tinkles continuously in the background, becoming increasingly irritating; various Spandau Ballets and fashion designers show up and then disappear, and as they finally make their way to our table, the coffee shop goes quiet and heads turn to watch these exotically dressed weirdos. Our waitress takes it all in stride, but can’t make out what they’re saying to save her life. Gary and I talk in circles for ten minutes; finally, in exasperation, Gary says: “Ask me a proper question. Forget about the music; ask me something about the band, or about the people you met today. Ask me how Spandau Ballet started. That’s a really easy one. Come on, I’ll help you along. How did Spandau Ballet start? Alright?” Alright.

“You talk about rock ‘n’ roll; you’re too much into rock. I wouldn’t like to think it has anything to do with rock; I’ve never been a lover of rock. That’s hip, saying like ‘Rock is dead,’ it’s still going, it’s still there, but I’ve just never been a part of it. All of us are the type of kids that have been involved with clubs where you don’t get live bands and I’ve never been interested in bands. The only kind of records I’ve ever bought are black soul records, that’s the kind I like to listen to in the clubs. You don’t have to stand there consuming a band in a club, you can express yourself as an individual there, you are in the visual impact. We’d like to create a soundtrack to that creativity. We don’t want to do all those gigs night after night. There’s no great philosophy in the lyrics. It’s just a soundtrack for that club, when it’s nice and loud coming out through the sound system and the kids are dancing. That’s all we do, that’s all it is.”

Spandau Ballet are the spearhead for England’s New Romantic movement and the direct descendants of London’s Soul Kids who, in the early 70’s used to hang around gay discos dressed to kill and pretending they were “bi.” The resurrection was initially perpetrated by Steve Strange in 1978, with the opening of “Billy’s”, a night club playing white European disco spun by ex-Rich Kid Rusty Egan. The hard core nucleus of the “cult with no name,” as it was called, were students or dropouts from St. Martin’s School of Art, and they quickly became the fashion side of the movement. In 1979, ten of the main participants went to Berlin to discuss where the movement was heading. Soon after their return, “Billy’s” changed locations and became “The Blitz” (after Sweet’s glam-hit ‘Ballroom Blitz’), giving the movement its first name, “Blitz Kids.” By 1980, the “Blitz Kids” were happening. Funky boutiques blighted the landscape, selling exorbitantly expensive mock-Elizabethan and pirate chic clothing to the converted. The popular fanzine i-D began publication with pictures of various Romantics on the streets of London. Un-rock groups were formed. Steve Strange has his own studio-sweethearts Visage. Adam & the Ants cashed in their integrity and became England’s favorite brand of Bubble-Yum. And of course Spandau Ballet made rare concert appearances. Then the media finally caught on.

The press conference was held in a downtown restaurant. Everyone (but me) on best behavior, no dodgy questions, nothing said or done that didn’t remain resolutely superficial. We watch a BBC short on the movement, we watch the (very elaborate) videos for the Spandau’s singles. Several designers move among the rockcrits, they are over for the fashion show that’ll open Spandau Ballet’s one concert, answering (already!) tired old questions with well-studied platitudes. I corner Sade Adu of Lubel and Adu. Aren’t the clothes very expensive? “Not really, what I’m wearing costs about $100.” For a piece of material with two holes in it, I’d say that’s expensive. “Well, when you’re wearing a dollar t-shirt with paint all over it, anything’s expensive!” Another designer (can’t remember his name) takes my question seriously and explains that they plan to get the cost down by taking a smaller share of the profits. Photographs are being taken continually, conversations break off in mid-sentence, a pose is struck and discarded in two seconds flat, and the talk resumes.

I start putting the plonk to active use and by the time I find myself talking to Gary Kemp I’m half smashed. Even so, I find Gary (for want of a more libelous phrase) rather simple. Here Gary, why were the (repulsive) liner notes removed from the U.S. edition of the LP?

“Chrysalis told us you don’t have inner sleeves on albums here, so there was no room.” As I said, simple. I ask him about the fascist undertones I hear on songs like ‘Muscle Bound’. Kemp doesn’t take kindly to my question and gives me a short history of his family’s politics (he’s a social democrat). I ask him why, as the music is basically disco, there are no blacks involved. Whoops, that’s another person I won’t be getting a Christmas card from. Later I have a loud argument with the Spands’ manager, Steve Dagger. He accuses me of inverse prejudice. I tell him that’s a cynical cop-out. Then he tells me I’ve been reading the NME too much. I’m still not sure what that has to do with anything. Then he says “You’re drunk.” I am a little. I’d made up my mind about the subject — I think there are some very unpleasant aspects to the music, but I’ll give Spandau Ballet the benefit of the doubt — for now.

The Spands’ debut album, Journeys To Glory, is not preposterously bad, it’s simply not very good. Tony Hadley’s vocals are intensely annoying; he sings in a mock-operatic mode, a cross between Bowie at his most overblown and Frank Sinatra on the “Future” part of his last triple album. There is no pleasure in the Spands’ music, it’s so po-faced and solemn it reminds me of Yes or the Moody Blues. The music isn’t original at all, it’s synthesized white (?) disco that sounds dead in its vinyl tracks. The lyrics have no lyricism, just homo-erotica-pseudo-psychedelic-mindless-romance bullshit. Gary Kemp calls it “moderne European folk songs,” he doesn’t mean the protest type. It’s so madly in love with itself it can get to you. The atmosphere is deadly but the effect is sophomoric. Average line: “I saw sunrise magnifico/when they played/I cried for more.” Finally, it’s thoroughly unsexy and (shock-horror) not very good dance music at all.

All in all I was ready for the worst at their concert. The fashion show had been relentlessly dull; I spent the time renewing my acquaintance with scotch and coke. Spandau Ballet reached the stage about two in the morning. And they performed an excellent and (mercifully) short set. Far sparser than the album allowed for, the underlining funkiness muted elsewhere came to the forefront. Martin Kemp moved from bass to tom-toms continually. The stage was very small but the Kemp brothers, Tony and guitarist Steve Norman were always in motion, soaked in sweat; they became a blur. The songs from the album formed the vast majority of the set and sounded far better live. The new songs were impressive, one called (I think) ‘We Are Not Here To Impress You’, was brillo, Martin Kemp taking the only solo of the night on his tom-toms. They reminded me of Bow Wow Wow, minimalistic and tough. It was one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

And it left me wondering, if I was ten years younger, would I be so negative towards Britain’s latest pied pipers? I need more from my pop than stylistic flair. I don’t want to dress like Robin Hood or Queen Victoria, I don’t know if rock is dead or not, but even if it is, Spandau Ballet (or Visage or Duran Duran, etc.) don’t offer a viable alternative. A movement whose whole manifesto is based on Bob Fosse’s Cabaret and misused credos from the (original) Mods book of sartorial non-participation is not for me. Though I can take pop without politics, I can’t take a movement that holds its own nonsensical fatalism like a banner of indifference. I can’t take escapism that offers no possibility of fighting back except by dressing up. It’s not enough. But if I was fourteen it might be.

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