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Saturday 20 July 2019

The golden boys: Spandau Ballet are back again

They were the shoulder-padded, floppy-haired heart-throbs of the 1980s but egotistical individual ambitions caused a bitter split. Now, Spandau Ballet are back in Ireland with shorter hairstyles but just as much swagger

Spandau Ballet: Gary, Tony, Steve, Martin and John in 1985
Spandau Ballet: Gary, Tony, Steve, Martin and John in 1985
Spandau Ballet in 2014

Ed Power

The screaming girls came as a pleasant surprise, says Spandau Ballet's Gary Kemp. "At first, our fans were mostly guys," he explains. "We were a cult band, playing clubs. Your mates go to the gigs. Then we started doing Top of the Pops, Smash Hits, kids TV. Everything changed. The girls showed up."

And how. Footage from the early 1980s shows Spandau Ballet pursued by hordes of squealing fans, the hysteria almost as over-the-top as the Londoners' cockatoo haircuts (but not quite). Dashing looks and catchy songs conspired to make the feather-fringed quintet irresistible to a significant chunk of the opposite gender. They were sex symbols in an era starved of poster boys (this a time when Morrissey was deemed vaguely fanciable). Gary grins rakishly. That was absolutely fine by him.

"In the old days, you either had the screaming girls and were crap and only lasted for an album. Or you were serious musicians and girls had no interest. We combined both: good looking guys who could play their instruments."

He's far too much of a gentleman to elaborate further. Nonetheless, it's clear Spandau Ballet rather enjoyed their stint as pop swashbucklers. They drank foolish quantities of vodka, cultivated absurd quiffs and sported blinding pastel jackets, the sort that could cause severe retinal damage if stared at too long. In other words, they behaved exactly as any other young men in their position would. Three decades on, Spandau Ballet have aged spookily well.

Relaxing in a London hotel, Martin Kemp, nowadays perhaps better known as EastEnders' Steve Owen, could pass for far younger than his 53 years. Older brother Gary (55) arguably looks even more of a star, with his chunky headphones and a tan so deep it appears to almost shimmer. You half-expect a stampede of squealing fangirls to shatter the silence.

"The scene was quite competitive," Gary, a bit stand-offish at first but soon settling into his role as official storyteller. "You didn't want to release your records at the same time as other bands. There was Duran Duran out of Birmingham. And Boy George, from the same London club scene as us. Wham too. There were lots of us."

Verily, it was the battle of the pretty boys. While Duran Duran had the more breathtaking hair - their frosted tips remain one of the eight wonders of 1980s' fashion disasters - and Wham were the poppiest, Spandau Ballet arguably penned the best tunes, slinky smashes Gold and True enjoying a gilded after-life as 1980s' disco staples. Even if your memories of the decade of Haughey, Reagan and Thatcher are dim and incoherent, chances are these songs mean something to you. Not that a parade of hits did much to blunt their competitive streak. If they didn't quite loathe their competitors, they weren't exactly bosom chums with them either. Or, at least, that was the case until Bob Geldof embarked on a ring-around, demanding they all turn up in the studio together to cut a charity single.

"We all arrived for Band Aid and there was an amnesty," says Gary. "That changed everything. We all got along. One thing we agreed on was that we couldn't understand why Geldof would bring along this poor Irish group who weren't selling any records." He refers of course to U2, eventually to become the biggest band in the world.

By the time that happened, Spandau Ballet were falling apart. Gary, by his own admission, had turned into a preening egomaniac, treating his bandmates as glorified lackeys. At the root of this was a growing dissatisfaction with music. What he really, really wanted was to be an actor.

So it was that, in 1989, Spandau Ballet embarked on what was initially billed a hiatus. The Kemps had their shot at the big screen, starring as London criminal twins the Krays in a well-received film of the same name. From there, Gary's path led to Los Angeles and a tilt at Hollywood.

Gary struggled with fame. Not that he didn't enjoy it. However, he wondered if he was worthy. His parents had come from nothing; his childhood in London's East End was a picture of post-war austerity. And here he was, dashing about on private jets and luxury yachts. At moments, he felt disconnected from the excess. "There was also this sense of 'did I deserve it?'" he has said. "Did I deserve it? Fame, how did I fit into that? I was very aspirational."

Martin, meanwhile, had suffered cancer. "That's why I did EastEnders," he says. "I didn't want to be Martin Kemp, Cancer Survivor. I didn't want people to think of me that way. I'd rather they thought of me as Martin Kemp, actor."

Here, the story takes an unpleasant twist. The other three members of Spandau Ballet, believing they'd been hoodwinked out of royalties, launched legal proceedings against Gary. He resisted strongly, insisting he was the sole author of the group's music. The case went to court where the judge found in favour of Kemp. His former bandmates faced financial ruin. Martin, aghast at the schism, kept his head down. "It was difficult. Like being caught in the middle of a divorce. These people were my best friends. After all that we'd gone through, so many highs, it was terrible." As the years passed, feelings on both sides softened. Eventually, Gary and singer Tony Hadley got in touch. After some initial awkwardness, Spandau Ballet was back.

With a new tour and greatest hits collection, they retain much of the old swagger. Indeed, their self-confidence is striking. In a way, they haven't changed all that much since their days as cocky outsiders, ready to take on the entire world. "There was always a plan," says Gary. "The plan was to conquer the world. In one of our early interviews, I said what I really wanted was to sell thousands of records. I knew that would p*** people off. It was cool to be destructive and arty back then. We weren't like that. We wanted to be famous. For us, being the next Bob Dylan wasn't the goal. The idea was to a be a pop star."

The Kemps have warm recollections of hanging about with the late Steve Strange, the frontman of Visage, at the London club that spawned the New Romantics scene, The Blitz. David Bowie famously swung by The Blitz in 1979, looking for extras for his Ashes to Ashes video. Strange signed up on the spot. The Kemps happened not to be there that night. Had they been present they would have told pop's leading chameleon where to stick his invitation.

"We grew up loving Bowie," says Gary. "However, we were the new generation. We didn't want people like him cramping our style. We would have told him to hit the road. His generation had their chance. Now was our turn. That's how we saw it."

Spandau Ballet lived in Dublin for a year in the mid 1980s. They hung out at the Pink Elephant on Leeson Street with U2, Def Leppard and, improbably, Clannad's Moya Brennan. "Our first comeback show in 2009 was in Dublin," says Martin. "We knew we would get a positive reception. What we didn't know is that the cheering would go on and on. We just stood there, basking in it. It was like nothing we've experienced, before or since."

"It's funny - whenever I'm in Dublin all these memories come back," Gary adds. "We wrote some of our strongest material over in Ireland. The Through the Barricades album came together there. That song was about Belfast. But there was a lot of Dublin on that record. It shaped us in all sorts of ways."

Spandau Ballet play Dublin's 3Arena on Tuesday and Belfast on Wednesday

Irish Independent

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