Spandau Ballet Finds Redemption and Reformation After Years Apart
Drummer John Keeble talks about Spandau Ballet's reunion amid the group's first U.S. tour in decades.
If there was any doubt on whether the British New Romantic band Spandau Ballet were still popular in America long after the '80s were over, one merely had to be at the group's show at New York City's Beacon Theatre this past May. Certainly, the mostly older audience of 40- and 50-somethings have outlived their '80s youth, but their enthusiasm upon seeing their old heroes from the Second British Invasion hadn't waned. That kind of buzz filled the Beacon from the moment Spandau Ballet opened the show with a brand-new number “Soul Boy”, and closed it with one of their classic songs, the anthemic “Gold”. In between, Spandau Ballet performed a lot of the hits that catapulted the group to stardom, including “True”, “Only When You Leave”, and “Communication”. This concert happened in 2014, but it could have just as easily been 1984, as far as the audience was concerned.
The thought of Spandau Ballet touring America again, let alone reforming, is remarkable, given that the band -- singer Tony Hadley, guitarist Gary Kemp, bassist Martin Kemp, drummer John Keeble, and saxophonist/guitarist/percussionist Steve Norman -- was inactive between 1990 and 2009, highlighted by a lawsuit that divided the members. Now they have this new tour, entitled "Reformation", and will be playing the States for the first time in three decades.
“It was great to be back in America,” John Keeble tells PopMatters recently. “It's been a long time. We've got a lot of history with the country, I mean obviously “True”, “Gold”, and songs like that are part of everybody's consciousness, and very much so in America. So it's good to get back and do what Americans like best: see and play live in front of them.”
It had been a very busy time recently for Spandau Ballet since the band's appearance at South By Southwest 2014 in Austin, Texas, then followed by the release of a new compilation The Story. Amidst all of this activity is a recent documentary about the group, Soul Boys of the Western World. The documentary, which recently screened in New York City, looks at Spandau Ballet's history from the London-based band's formation in the late '70s, through its mega-success during the '80 highlighted by the True album, and to the somewhat-acrimonious breakup in 1989 and subsequent reunion in 2009. According to Keeble, the documentary was culled from 300-400 hours of archival footage, most of which had never seen the light of day, until now.
“We gave it to the director George Hencken to basically find a story here,” says Keeble. “And I think what he did was find a story of friendship and how it can go well and how it can go badly wrong -- set against those decades that shaped us. It's tough to watch because the first time we saw it together was at South by Southwest, and there was squirming. I think the key to the film is its honesty. It's not a piece of Spandau Ballet propaganda; it's not polished, it sort of what it was. It's a pretty honest account of what went right and what went badly wrong.”
One of the fascinating aspects of the documentary is that it offers a glimpse into the New Romantic scene of the early '80s in Britain, where the London nightclub the Blitz was the epicenter of a creative movement. It was characterized by a combination of post-punk, New Wave, and disco sounds, along with the stylish and outrageous fashion sensibilities of the day. Aside from Spandau Ballet, the Blitz scene included such other important figures as the late Steve Strange, Rusty Egan, and a pre-Culture Club Boy George.
“In hindsight, it's a wonderful thing, isn't it?” comments Keeble. “I think at the time you're so busy being in it... it's quite normal to be going [out] on a Tuesday night, dressing up, listening to that music, and then chatting with people and getting drunk -- it's what all teenagers do. It was a special moment to see how many people came out of that scene [that had] done very well... [in] art and music. There was certainly something about it. In the set at the moment, we've gone back to a few of those really old tunes form the first album, so we got a little bit of the first album covered on this tour. That's been kind of interesting and fun to go back and explore.”
Having cut its teeth at the Blitz, Spandau Ballet signed to Chrysalis Records following a label bidding war. Immediately, the band scored its first hit single, the electronic-driven rocker “To Cut a Long Story Short”, in 1980, later followed by “Musclebound” and “Chant #1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)”. After its first two albums,Journeys to Glory (1981) and Diamond (1982), both of which mined synthpop and funk music, Spandau Ballet did a stylistic turn on its next album, 1983's True. With its leanings towards pop and blue-eyed soul, True broke the band not only in the United Kingdom but also in the United States, thanks to the now-iconic title track.
“I think generally we try to move on; we try to keep it interesting for ourselves,” Keeble says of the musical shift leading up to the True album. “Undoubtedly there were certain times when it might have been more successful in the short term to do another song like 'Chant #1' or whatever. But I think we've always challenged ourselves. And putting together this tour... there's a real diverse bunch of songs from, as you cited, that first disco/electro pop stuff, to the funky stuff, to the soul stuff, to the stadium rock stuff of the Through the Barricades years. So for us it's interesting to cram all that in a two-hour show and really cover all those bases. It's challenging musically, but we're digging it.”
Along with Duran Duran, Culture Club, and ABC, Spandau Ballet was part of the Second British Invasion that briefly took hold of America during the early years of MTV. The band's biggest hit in the States was “True”, which peaked at number four on the Billboard pop chart. Written by the band's main songwriter, Gary Kemp, the elegant ballad became the band's most enduring hit. "True" has been sampled by P.M. Dawn on “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss”, covered by Paul Anka and others, and featured in The Wedding Singer, Modern Family, and The Simpsons.
“I think it's a great song and a great performance,” Keeble says. “I'm still listening to it all because it's great and it remains great. I think America always likes new music, but it doesn't discard last year's music immediately -- Britain's a little bit more trendy than that... I think it's part of the fabric; it's part of people's soundtrack to their lives, and it's a privilege to be a part of that.”
The success of True was followed by more hit records with 1984's Parade and 1986's Through the Barricades. Accompanied by fan hysteria reminiscent of Beatlemania. the band solidified its popularity with appearances on Band-Aid's “Do Know They It's Christmas” charity single in 1984, Live Aid the following year, and a sold-out, six-night stand at Wembley Stadium.
Yet by the time of the Heart Like a Sky album in 1989, tensions within the band led to its disbandment in 1990. For almost 20 years, the individual members pursued other projects. The Kemp brothers turned to acting, starring together in the 1990 crime drama The Krays (Gary made appearances in The Bodyguard and The Larry Sanders Show, while Martin joined the British soap EastEnders); Hadley became a solo artist with Keeble as a member of the singer's band; and Norman started a production team called Cloudfish.
Amid the separation, a court case in the late '90s pitted Hadley, Norman, and Keeble against Gary Kemp over songwriter royalties. It took another several years before the band surprisingly announced its reformation in 2009 at the HMS Belfast, the scene of one of its earliest gigs. “Many times it seemed it would never happen,” Keeble says of the reunion. “I spent four or five years talking, negotiating and pulling my hair out and daring to dream. So that's a few years when all I was doing was making phone calls and trying to get this thing back together. That was the hard work. Now this is the fun and games.”
Last year, the band released a new 19-track compilation album The Very Best of Spandau Ballet: The Story released on Rhino, that not only contains the hits but also three new songs produced by Trevor Horn. “It came together pretty quickly,” says Keeble, “and Trevor was available, he wanted to do it and loved the tunes. It was really put together in a manner of weeks. It was great working with him again. We were happy to come up with three tunes in that actual space of time.” With its sweeping orchestral arrangements and soulful influences, the new songs -- “This Is the Love”, “Steal”, and “Soul Boy” -- certainly recall Spandau Ballet's peak from the True and Parade phases of the band, and all three of them are part of the touring setlist.
“They're standing up really well,” Keeble says. “I think it's a testament to how good they are that they could sit alongside these classic anthems that we have and hold their own. So I think that puts us in the here and now. I think 'Soul Boy' is probably my favorite on in the set. It's nice to have that going forward.”
Aside from the dates in America, Spandau Ballet's tour will continue on through September that includes stops in Europe, Asia and Australia. Meanwhile Keeble hints at the possibility of more new music from the band. “Will we record again? Yeah, for sure,” he says. “The album as a concept doesn't really exist anymore. We'd like to get a bunch of songs together yeah for sure, [and] we're busy enjoying this. I'm sure that once we finish this cycle at the end of this year, we'll get back in. There'll be new music for sure.”
Asked about a memory from that band's history that stood out for him, Keeble says: “There are so many moments filling this lump of jelly in your head with as much good stuff as possible and living the dream. And I think with the film, it's very much a three-act play: boys getting together at school; doing fantastically well; then all the wheels come off; and then there's a bit of redemption sort of in the third act. I think we all feel this is our act four -- this is overtime. This is our real fun. It's the most relaxed that the band's ever been.”
That was evident during Spandau Ballet's performance at the Beacon, where there was no lingering tension or awkwardness conveyed by the band about their past, but rather smiles and genuine camaraderie and ease. It was as if time had not skipped a beat from the band's glory years from the mid-'80s, all the way up to when the players took their bows together after the final song of the Beacon show. For the Spandau Ballet's fans, redemption couldn't have a moment sooner.