Spandau Ballet percolated up from a bubble and toil of glitter and glam called the Blitz Club, a postpunk haven that thrived in London’s Covent Garden in the late Seventies. They weren’t the only band spawned by that Blitz scene, the so-called “New Romantics,” but they circled the world to a greater degree than most. By 1983, they’d conquered most of the English-speaking world, with MTV-glued American fans, at least, counting down in ecstasy to the saxophone break in “True,” the title track of their third album. Soulful, elegant, looking even more perfect sweating for the spotlight, they became ubiquitous listening during the Reagan administration.
Infighting and recharging kept the band from American shores for almost 30 years, but Spandau Ballet eventually regrouped, with three new songs included in the tracklisting for the October 2014 release of their greatest-hits collection, Story: The Very Best Of. Guitarist/songwriter Gary Kemp says they’re only too happy to hit New York on May 2 at the Beacon Theatre, to revisit “True” and other hits from their past as well as show off their latest compositions. (They also gamely took questions at an April 29 screening of their documentary, Soul Boys of the Western World, which runs through May 5 at the IFC Center.)
For American audiences, the show-stopper is always “True,” although Kemp is quick to point out that that’s not the case for them at home. “In Britain, it’s not ‘True’ that’s the big one, it’s ‘Gold,’ ” he asserts. “In Europe it’s ‘I’ll Fly for You’ and ‘Through the Barricades.’ ” Nevertheless, “True” still gets American audiences going, and even a bit too intensely, in some cases. “In Chicago the other night a guy fainted as soon as we started playing it!”
Early Spandau came out cruder, pushier, embracing a filthy energy and a lockstep funk inspired by heavy doses of Kraut-rock. They didn’t enter their classic True period until they’d long since established themselves at the Blitz. “We bought the synth and we played what we called ‘European dance music,’ ” recalls Kemp. “When everyone jumped on the electronica bandwagon, we went back to our soul boy roots….By the time we’d had half a dozen hit singles in the U.K. in 1982, it was impossible to remain ‘cult.’ I wanted to write songs that were dominated by the melody and not the groove, so I wrote True. I was 22. That was when Steve Norman found the saxophone and we found the sound of the band that was to make us global.”
The world turned its page, and the band hasn’t released a whole album of fresh material since 1989. The three members not related to Gary Kemp (brother Martin plays bass) tried suing and lost their collective shirt. The Kemp brothers pushed on into acting, with Gary scoring a coveted role in The Bodyguard. Kevin Costner confessed to Gary that “True” was “his and his wife’s song.” Kemp met Costner on The Bodyguard‘s set, and the musician-turned-actor remembers Whitney Houston fondly. (“Amazing. Beautiful. Hung out with the crew and sang gospel in the makeup truck at 6 a.m.”)But the leader felt his band’s history and soul boy power should triumph over hard feelings, if at all possible. “We didn’t speak for years! I gave up writing [songs]! How mental! We were all living in hell with it — not wanting to bump into any of each other, having awful dreams, and worst of all, not having our old friends who we’d lived this heightened reality with, to talk to.”
Kemp made the first move, flying to Ibiza to meet up with Norman. “We were determined to get our band back together,” he says. “We were always best live, and our legacy was only on record. I was desperate to change that. I eventually met John [Keeble], and he liaised with Tony [Hadley], but it took five years of negotiations before we finally got in a room and played music. That was when the years and animosity fell away. You can see that scene in the movie, as Martin had set a camera up in a corner. It’s a pretty intense moment.”
Soul Boys of the Western World covers the band’s history, from their Blitz-bound start and rise to stardom to their seething hiatus to the present. And as for that present, Gary Kemp is basking in the heat of the lights once more, although he remembers to remind the faithful that his band doesn’t plan to remain an oldies act. That’s the beauty of Story: It’s proof that the past and future of Spandau Ballet can coexist on the same stage. “I know we have it in us to make a great new album,” Kemp says. “The three songs that we did with [producer] Trevor Horn are some of the best things we’ve ever done.”
Further work with Horn on new music must wait till after the tour. Asked about audiences then versus audiences now, Kemp slyly concludes, “They scream less now!” Still, less shrieking doesn’t equate to less love. “[The crowds are] older, of course. I love playing everywhere. You get to look into the eyes of the local people and see something about their cultural world, their passions, their local voice. They are the show as much as we are.”
Spandau Ballet play the Beacon Theatre May 2. Tickets are available here. For more information on the screening of Soul Boys of the Western World and showtimes at IFC Center, click here.
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