March 15, 2014 9:00am PT by Jonathan Bernstein
SXSW: A Spandau Ballet Primer
What's all the fuss about '80s group Spandau Ballet? With the British New Wave band making headlines during the film and music festival portions of South by Southwest 2014 -- they premiered a career-spanning documentary, Soul Boys of the Western World, played their first U.S. show in 28 years and performed at a tribute to Lou Reed, singing "Satellite of Love" -- perhaps it's time America realized there's more to the band than their still ubiquitious 1983 hit "True." Beyond these borders, the five Brits have enjoyed decades of pop hits and still have a loyal fan following that fills arenas.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the band during their whirlwind promo tour of Austin, during which the group's most voluble member, songwriter Gary Kemp, says he discovered "there's a lot of love for us in America -- more than we thought." Here, a crash course on the finer points of Spandau Ballet, ahead of a planned return to the U.S. before the year is out:
The group was among the most influential on the British post-punk scene.
"We always admired those bands that were at the forefront of any movement," says Kemp, "and, in the U.K., that goes all the way back to, from rock 'n roll, Cliff Richard; mod, it was The Who; psychedelia, it was Pink Floyd; glam rock, [David] Bowie and [Marc] Bolan; and then punk and The Sex Pistols. We wanted to be that band that was the next big thing."
Spandau Ballet was the house band for The Blitz, London's anti-Studio 54.
Set to a soundtrack of Bowie, Kraftwerk and German disco records, the exclusive Blitz attracted an ever-swelling crowd of flamboyant, androgynous art and design students -- like Boy George, who worked the coat check. "We walked into that club and it was very exciting," Kemp recalls. "Young, working-class guys who wanted to dress up and be quite outlandish and outrageous in a time when there was an economic depression -- and on a shoestring, I have to add, buying secondhand clothes. We thought, 'This is our moment, we could be the band that represents these people,' and we achieved it." Adds singer Tony Hadley: "Mick Jagger tried to get into The Blitz and [doorman/Visage member] Steve Strange turned him away. He said, 'No, you don't look quite right.' "
Early on, they banned record labels and music press from attending their gigs.
After debuting before a crowd of Blitz kids, Spandau Ballet spurned London's rock venues in favor of secret, word-of-mouth shows in cinemas, warehouses, even aboard the HMS Belfast. Though few outside of the underground had heard a single song, Spandau Ballet spent the majority of 1980 as Britain's most talked-about band. "It was about the mystery," says sax player/percussionist Steve Norman. "But that couldn't happen anymore. We were probably the last time that could happen before the advent of mobile phones and Youtube."
They were Duran Duran's biggest rivals.
Clubs built on The Blitz model began popping up all across Britain, and bands formed with the same look, mindset and fashion sense as Spandau Ballet. One such band came out of Birmingham, England -- they were called Duran Duran. "We weren't just riding the crest of the wave called New Romantics," Kemp says. "We created that wave as well."
Spandau was more than a ballads band.
The first exposure most of Britain got to the much discussed band was their 1980 debut single, "To Cut a Long Story Short," which was stark and Germanic, with a pounding disco backbeat. But by the time the New Romantic look had made it into the high street shops, Spandau were reinventing themselves as a funk band with the hit "Chant No.1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)." After that, it was on to the blue-eyed soul of "True." Says Norman: "John [Keeble, drummer] has always been the metal in the band; Tony's the crooner -- he's into Sinatra; I'm into soul music, Motown; Gary introduced me to Little Feat; Martin [Kemp; bassist and brother of Gary] is into rock music. All these things combined and over a period of time have shown themselves in the way we execute the songs."
Okay, maybe it is all about "True."
In 1983, Gary Kemp declared his intent to write timeless songs, and their third album's six-and-a-half minute title track became the band's calling card, landing at number one in the U.K. and number four on Billboard's Top 100. " We are hugely proud of what that song did for us," says Kemp. "We've had Steve Buscemi singing it [in The Wedding Singer], we've had Ed Norton singing it [on Modern Family], it's in a John Hughes film [Sixteen Candles], it's been in the Simpsons -- twice! A slow-dance jam for all generations, it was also, predictably, the showstopper that had the crowd singing along to every word during Spandau's well-received Wednesday night SXSW performance at The Vulcan. Says Kemp: "Duran Duran did very well in America, but they didn't have a 'True,' did they?"