SPANDAU Ballet are a band with a story to tell. In a way, it’s the one they cut short a long time ago, back in 1980, when they released their debut single, To Cut a Long Story Short
The band - Tony Hadley, John Keeble, Steve Norman and brothers Gary and Martin Kemp - made a huge splash as part of the New Romantic movement and were soon household names, going on to record a string of hits.
Last year they collaborated on a greatest hits collection, The Story
, that also featured new material.
But it was the documentary film they made, Soul Boys of the Western World
, for which their current tour is named - and which will shortly see them rock up at the Henley Festival.
We caught up with Steve Norman for a chat about the band’s storied past - and their future plans.
It’s six years since you all came back properly for your Reformation Tour, isn’t it?
It’s about six years. We came back in 2009. We were only together for about a year, a year and a half maximum. It was more a chance of checking, testing the water, really, to see how we could all sort of could cope with each other, given what happened.
But, you know, they’re treating me well and we’ve all kept in touch from that point on, even though we haven’t been working tremendously focused together, let’s say. But then we had the film, and that brought us together, at the beginning of last year, and we were sort of in each other’s pockets, really, a lot.
It’s good, it’s all fun. We’ve very firmly broken the ice again and we’re enjoying each other’s company. And that’s always helpful when you’re in a band, you know? When you’re in that sort of relationship and you’re that close, you have to get on. Otherwise it just becomes like purgatory.
Is this the first time that Spandau as a band have played in Henley?
It is, yeah. We’ve never done Rewind or anything like that. I know we’re very much sort of entrenched in the Eighties. I mean, we signed professionally [with Chrysalis] in 1980 then it all fizzled out in 1990, so you couldn’t top and tail it more to the Eighties if you tried.
But we do consider ourselves forward-looking, really. Without taking our eyes off the hits and all that, which is what people want to hear - and that is exactly what we do give them - we also play some songs that maybe were written in the Seventies, and also stuff that we’ve written a year ago. So that’s why we don’t do, you know, the Eighties shows. Tony does that, and that’s cool, and he goes down very well, apparently.
As a band, though, we consider ourselves as looking forward, and when we recorded these new tracks last year with Trevor Horn - we were given the opportunity to compile a best of - as well as showing people some obscure tracks that they maybe were not familiar with, we thought, well, let’s give them also some new tracks, as opposed to sort of repackaging all the old hits.
And just the speed, the way the whole thing moved forward, was a great indication that the band is quite forward-thinking. It came together in no time.
Is it true that you’re working on a new album together?
We will do at some point. We’ve said that what we want to do is work on live shows until the end of this year. Then probably we’ll take a little break - though I’m not talking about a little break of 19 years or anything like that! Maybe a couple of months. We’ll start looking at some live stuff for next year, but also some new material.
We haven’t talked about taking six months out, or five months out, to actually write and record an album. We haven’t spoken like that. But it seems to be that the album these days isn’t so much what people really are looking for, you know? People don’t buy albums as much as they used to. But they will buy individual tracks. The way I look at it is to keep coming up with new tracks.
We were lucky enough to have a film to promote our live shows this time round. I don’t think we could get any better than a film that’s done so well around the world and that really opened up a lot of doors. And also explained a lot about Spandau that certain people might not have known about - our pre-True
history and what happened in the early days, how the whole thing came together, the New Romantics and all that stuff, and even what everybody does within in the band, what everybody brings to the band. All those things are in the film.
Next time round I don’t know if we’ll have an album, but we’ll certainly have some kind of new music.
What form did the film take in the end?
We didn’t want it to be a typical ‘rock doc’ where people are just literally set up in front of the camera and just answering questions, as we look today, reminiscing about the past. It’s only voiceovers from the band, so all the footage you see is archive.
The most recent footage is from the last tour [in 2010], when we played the first festival we’ve ever done, and that was the Isle of Wight Festival. That’s as recent as it goes. Everything else is archive - and it even goes back as far as the Sixties and Seventies, with our parents’ home movies and stuff. We’ve very much laid our hearts on the line, really, and we’ve been very honest with everything.
George Hencken, who’s the director, she very quickly saw the soul of the film, which is our friendship, and how we all grew up together, and went to school together. And then, you know, we grew from boys to men together, and then had this massive public fallout. But then, luckily, we had a happy ending.
And she thought that’s the thing that would resonate with an audience, more than let’s say how many records we’ve sold, or how brilliant we are, or any of that kind of stuff that you tend to do in these films - you know, it’s your film and you’re going to want to come out in the best light possible.
But I personally remember talking to George and it was kind of like therapy, when you’re in a room, a darkened room, and you’ve got her asking the questions and you’re just being recorded, no camera, the rest of the guys are not there, you’re on your own.
I’d said my stuff, and it was obvious that I needed to get it off my chest, because when I’d done it, when I’d said these things, things that I’d never ever said, certainly things that not to the rest of the band I hadn’t said before...
And I said to [the filmmakers] immediately afterwards, I said, “Look, I feel like I’ve kind of got that off my chest, I don’t really want it to be in the film now, can we do it again?” And they said no, absolutely not, that kind of stuff - that sort of honesty, if you like - is exactly what should be in the film.
And I was worried about maybe opening up old wounds and, you know, talking about certain sensitive issues, such as maybe why the band split up, and how we felt about each other. No one had ever said anything - we never had a conversation about that - we never got a time when the band split up, it just fizzled out, you know? Which is pretty sad, really. If you’re going to go out, go out in a blaze of glory, not just ignoring each other’s phone calls.
It must have been difficult to choose your moment for that kind of conversation in real life?
If you’re not seeing each other then when’s the moment? You’re not answering each other’s phone calls. People got into hanging out in different environments. After it did all fizzle out I escaped to Ibiza and set my life up there for a while.
But what’s lovely is that we’re back by popular demand, and I can honestly say that. Wherever we’re going, people want us back, and that’s why we haven’t got a finite ending to all of this. It’s great.
Do you tailor your shows at all to where you happen to be playing in the world?
Sometimes, sometimes, with one or two numbers. We’ve got a two-hour show this time round - last time it was an hour and a half. We wanted to show people a few things. A lot of people jumped on the Spandau train when True
came out. That’s when we became globally known, if you like. But before that, there’s a whole body of work which is kind of focused a bit more on the intimacy of a club environment.
We were dance, really, in 1979, 1980, and ’81, before the sound kind of evolved into a bit more of a funkier sound... and then of course the True
blue-eyed soul period. But prior to the blue-eyed soul period we did have this cool-as-you-like, too-cool-for-school electronica - with a punk edge! It had the guitars in it, but with synthesizers and four-on-the-floor drums, for dancing to.
Not a lot of people know about that, and there’s a segment in [the film] which ironically and sadly has become a bit of a homage to our dear friend Steve Strange, who passed away a few months ago.
Because if it wasn’t for him Spandau Ballet might not have existed, really, because it was Steve who asked us to play at his club, the Blitz. We were the house band, and if it wasn’t for him...
You were part of the New Romantic scene, weren’t you? But the soul boy tradition in this country goes back a long way.
It was our default position in a way. Me and Gary years ago used to go to soul clubs - and with the others, occasionally - but we used to go out dancing, you know? And then we sort of stumbled upon punk and got very much into that for a couple of years or so, but it had been going for a while and was definitely at a peak when we joined.
There was that whole sort of ethos of ‘destroy’ and ‘no future’ and all that stuff, which no one could really embrace totally. And so we went back to our default position, which was soul boys again, and started listening to soul music again and going to clubs, until [Spandau manager] Steve Dagger said, “Look, there’s this fantastic club called Billy’s,” where a lot of the ex-punks - they were called Peacock Punks - as opposed to dressing down had started to dress up and be a bit more flamboyant and glamorous.
We were looking to people like David Bowie, who was the master of reinvention. That was where we took our inspiration from, really.
And in the end that was it - any ideas, any clothing, anything - any ideas that people would come up with, we all felt there was a strong impetus. We felt heavily inspired to actually do something, as opposed to getting drunk in a club, having thousands of brilliant ideas, and then doing nothing the next day because you’ve got a stinking hangover and you can’t even remember, you know?
It was like a hotbed of creativity in those clubs, because you felt moved to do something about the ideas you had.
The band had already been together for a few years by that point, hadn’t it?
Growing up we lived in the Angel Islington, or thereabouts, within a mile or so. We all lived within a mile of the school - Dame Alice Owen’s grammar school for boys in Islington - and we were the last kids to be taken on there before the school moved to Potters Bar.
So we spent a few years in Islington and then all of a sudden, as opposed to getting on the bus 10 minutes before I had to go to school, I had to get a train at King’s Cross and go all the way to Potters Bar - and then walk for half an hour because I’d always miss the coach!
And that was for about a year or so - we were only there for about a year, but that was where we formed the band. The band was formed, really, as a school band in 1976 - that’s how far back we go.
We cut our teeth playing in pubs, really, just playing any songs that inspired us - old school R’n’B, not R’n’B as you know it these days, early Stones, early Beatles, that kind of stuff. Then we fused that with a punk attitude and very fast guitars, electric guitars.
That set us up, really, as performers, and offered us a chance to hone our songwriting, to get songs together - to get good at our craft, really. So that when the opportunity came along at Blitz we were kind of ready, and it was like, “Right, this is us! This is us! This is for us.”
Then we got ourselves a synthesizer, a monophonic synthesizer, and that was that - completely and utterly changed the direction of the music. We started listening to Kraftwerk and all that sort of electronic stuff. Ultravox and things like that.
That year, 1983, when you had your number one with True
, and a number two with Gold
I think it was that feeling of indestructibility that we had when we were down in the Blitz - it seemed to spread a ripple across the world, you know? And everyone thought: “I could do that...” You look back on it now and there was so much creativity around - and people are still mining it, finding nuggets in these bands. And even if they were just one-hit wonders they had something. You don’t get that kind of variety these days, do you? It all changed.
Singles from that time are still played on the radio every day.
Synthesizers were more used as pads in the background, and then all of a sudden it became a lead instrument. It was very much in your face, wasn’t it?
You brought something else to that approach, when you played sax on True
The first thing I played sax on was a track called Instinction
. I’d only been playing for about two weeks, I think it was, and then I was on record. It then took us off in another direction and helped shape blue-eyed soul and has become part of the band’s sound.
We have a lot of influences in the band - everyone sort of veers in different directions, really. John Keeble, he loves heavy metal as much as funk music and Chic and all those kind of things. But we all like different genres of stuff: dance music, white rock, black funk, you know?
The film must have been brilliant for actually showing that diversity of influences, which is part of your story.
It does. It shows people’s input, in a way, although you can’t just sum it all up, what people bring to the table, because it’s chemistry at the end of the day - of us lot being in a room together.
I mean, you can get any musicians, some of the top musicians in the world, and you get them to play Gold
but it won’t sound like Spandau. And that’s the beauty of any band, I guess, but you know, for us, we acknowledge that - we can hear it in the playing, people’s timing, how John and Martin sit there together, how they lock in together.
The fans must have found it fascinating to watch the film and see how the individuals in the band relate to each other. The human story.
That’s exactly right - that’s what people can relate to when they watch the film. You know, we all have relationships - we all fall out with people who are almost like brothers...
Like a family, almost?
It is a family, we still are. And life’s too short to regret, you know? I couldn’t play the saxophone for a few years, when I went to life in Ibiza in the Nineties, because it just reminded me too much of Spandau. And I had to sort of claim it back again, and I did that by immersing myself into dance music - completely different to Spandau.
One of the greatest things - not just musically - is that we’re back together again, because musically it is fantastic and we get to play the songs again. But one of the other things is that we’re back together again, and the family is back together again. It’s great - and it’s such a relief, I couldn’t tell you, hand on my heart.
Spandau Ballet headline the Henley Festival’s floating stage on Sunday, July 12, at 8.30pm. To book tickets, visit www.henley-festival.co.uk