BONUS POST : HAD IT. LOST IT. (Part 5)

It was Friend of Rachel Worth who made the suggestion via the comments, and it’s one I agree with, but I’m sure many of you will think they were awful from the off. In fact I know of at least one regular reader who will be swearing loudly as he reads these words.

I really like like Journeys to Glory, the debut album from Spandau Ballet, and reckon that some of the follow-up, Diamond, is still listenable. The next four albums, from True through to Heart Like A Sky are horrendous, not withstanding how entirely understandable it is that Gary Kemp would be so obsessed by Clare Grogan that he would write something as soppy as True.

The songwriter is very much at the heart of the story of the band.

He had always longed for career in the music business and had spent a few years jumping on various bandwagons in an effort to get him and his mates noticed, including new wave and power pop. The move to a more electronic sound came as a result of him latching onto the sort of music that was being played in various nightclubs in London in the late 70s around which a scene was being created, primarily by the media, to counteract the rough and ready elements of the post-punk scene.

Those in the scene were christened as ‘New Romantics’ and before long, record label bosses were out there looking to sign bands associated with the scene, although it is interesting that a number of those, perhaps already established bands whom the press put in this particular limelight, such as Japan, Ultravox, Adam & The Ants and Soft Cell, were very quick to disassociate themselves from it. Not so, however, a number of new acts, three of whom – Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Visage – became core.

A lot of the criticism of this movement was based on how much of it was down to looks, image and style rather than musical substance. But the best part of 40 years on and I’d argue that all too often the music was overlooked.

The debut single from Spandau Ballet was released in November 1980. It’s up there with some of the best synth-pop of that or indeed any era, with a fabulous futuristic sounding production allied to as stomping a backbeat as you could ask for. Oh and the lead singer showed he had a fair set of pipes on him:-

mp3 : Spandau Ballet – To Cut A Long Story Short

The debut album would follow in March 1981 and although it only contained eight tracks, it yielded two more hits courtesy of The Freeze and Musclebound.  There was also one othrer excellent example of electro-pop that surely would have been a hit if released as a single:-

mp3 : Spandau Ballet – Reformation

Just four months later, a new song was unleashed which heralded a brave change of direction, almost as if Gary Kemp was determined to show he was no one-trick pony aligned to an increasingly synth-pop scene:-

mp3 : Spandau Ballet – Chant No.1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)

This piece of horn-driven funk climbed all the way to the Top 3 in the UK, spending months hanging around the charts and becoming a staple of every club and discotheque in the country. If a black band, say from NYC or Philadelphia, had written and recorded Chant No.1, it would have been held up as an instant classic, but instead this group of young, fashionable Londoners were accused by their critics of music by numbers. It was, and remains, a nailed-on classic that the band never ever bettered.

The next single, Paint Me Down, was a hybrid of the funk and earlier synth sounds, completed by a slapping bass sound and heavy reliance on intricate percussion to drive it onwards. It was an overly complex and ambitious piece of music but one that I’m happy to count myself as a fan of, albeit I was in a minority at the time as it was their first not to go Top 20.

The release of the next single – She Loved Like Diamond – and the band’s second album – Diamond – were the first indications that the musical path that lay ahead wasn’t one I’d find favour with. Like the debut, it contained just eight songs, but where there had been a consistency on Journeys to Glory, the follow-up seemed disjointed, not helped by the fact that Chant No.1 stood head and shoulders above everything else. There were some experimental moments in among some bland pop which on occasion clashed messily within one tune, with the album version of Instinction being the most guilty; the production skills of Trevor Horn did later rescue the song, and in doing so got the band some attention again:-

mp3 : Spandau Ballet – Instinction (single remix)

You could therefore technically argue that Trevor Horn is to blame for all that happened afterwards. There’s a possibility that if his remix of Instinction hadn’t charted that bthe band could have imploded thanks to a lack of success, with the possibility that the record label may have torn up the contract and gone down the route of Tony Hadley being a pop singer for hire to aspiring songwriters.

As it was, the following year saw True unleashed on the general public who took the band to its collectively bland bosom and into staples of arena tours in the UK. Each of the ten singles released after Instinction charted in the Top 20. I still have a bit of love for Communication as a pop song, thanks to the handclaps and whoo-hoos in the background, but I could happily go the rest of my life without ever hearing Gold, Only When You Leave, I’ll Fly For You, Fight For Ourselves and Through The Barricades ever again.

I know the band broke up in the early 90s, primarily to let the Kemp brothers pursue other interests around acting, and then reformed back in 2009 for a world tour that sold a lot of tickets. They may even have made some new songs since but quite honestly, I don’t care. But I do hope that I have shown that for a short while, Spandau Ballet did indeed have it.

JC

13 thoughts on “BONUS POST : HAD IT. LOST IT. (Part 5)

  1. Well argued and as you would expect i afree with everything. Their lowest point is the truely horrendous fight for ourselves , i ‘ve almost entirely managed to block this from my memory not even sure i have the title right. My only soft spot for later on is still lifeline even with its ridiculous lyric. I also blame trevor horn as he showed them what could happen if they wet pop. If only they had stuck with him as instinction is a glorious bit of production.
    Diamond is a glorious mess but still pharoh and missionary , both bonkers.
    Ive spent many a drunken hour defending early electronic / new romantic bands against the look v music argument. When has pop music ever not been about the look? ,Got me thinking of a bastardised ICA 10 songs that transcend the perceived fashion focus of the band.

  2. Diamond might have been a glorious mess, but it was a GOOD glorious mess, better than Duran Duran’s quick change to pop with Rio. Coffee Club (and it’s remix) is as good as anything in the charts by ‘New Romantics’ at the time – never have understood why it wasn’t a single.

  3. Diamond was alright, but they could have gone in so many directions from there. As soon as ‘True’ was committed to tape they lost it. Unlistenable. Never bothered to listen to whatever album it came from.

  4. I have to say that SB wasn’t ever a band I could agree too. Their first songs weren’t too bad but as Adam said they destroyed everything with Gold and True.

  5. I don’t normally go around claiming to be a fan, but my record collection betrays me. I’ll come clean. I have 17 pieces of vinyl, mostly 12″ singles, from Spandau Ballet. Eight fall into your “had it” era, meaning slightly more than half are from the dreaded “lost it” time. Yikes! Appalling. Off to dig a hole to jump into.

  6. Great post, JC. I absolutely loved ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’. SB seemed new, fresh, different, both in music and looks when they first appeared. I remember seeing them on the TV programme ‘Twentieth Century Box’ introduced by Robert Elms and the whole scene seemed so exciting with them at the centre of it. I would never have imagined then that they were going to gradually turn into the crooning be-suited smoothies that they later did. What happened to their Tukka boots?!

  7. I am a unashamed fan of Spandau Ballet through Parade. Journeys To Glory and Diamond are albums that reflect a time and place, yet yielded some lasting songs. I agree that there is some muscle flexing on Diamond that hinted at the search for wider recognition and this would come to fruition with the move towards the Jolley/Swain pop production machine on True. I feel like Parade is actually the band finding a confident balance between the commercial and artistic, but it all went balls up with Through The Barricades.

  8. I would definitely agree with most of the sentiments expressed about the early stuff being so much better, it was almost like as soon as they dropped the New Romantic threads, and started wearing the suits, they lost the quirkiness, which made them smoother, but increasingly bland.
    However, I have to say I have many fine memories soundtracked by ‘True’. As a young, hormonal guy about town in the mid-eighties, there were a bunch of songs that I wouldn’t normally give the time of day to, but at quarter to two in the morning, on the nightclub dancefloor, when, sufficiently fortified with vodka, it was moving in on the ladies time.
    If I was dancing with an equally pissed young lady, and one of the slow smoochy numbers came on, I was in, and ‘True’ was one of the songs that helped me achieve full tongue-hockey with the lucky lady, usually when the sax solo came in. Other songs that helped create that romantic moment, and yes, they were almost like my dancefloor allies, were ‘Cherish’ by Kool & The Gang, ‘Your Love Is King’ by Sade, and ‘Crazy For You’ by Madonna.
    Unfortunately, as soon as the music was finished for the night, the spell was broken (well, most of the time), and the night would end with staggering home with my mates, cradling a donner kebab, and trying not to get my tie in the chilli sauce, because of course, you had to wear a tie to get into the nightclub back then. We had to wait for acid house to liberate us from the tie, which also liberated us from the smoochy songs at the end. But that’s another story, one which doesn’t include Spandau Ballet.

  9. Oooof! I was an early adopter as an American I bought “Journeys” as soon as it came out because of the “New Romantic” buzz hype. After all, they were on Chrysalis and the linchpin album of the movement, “Vienna” by Ultravox [also on Chrysalis] was immense to me right then. I can’t say I was ever too enamored of “Journeys” after buying it. It was nowhere near the level of achievement that Ultravox had achieved. Not even close. I ignored Spandau afterward. I heard “Chant No. 1” a LOT on college radio at the time and the move to funk didn’t convince at all on first listen. I felt that “Paint Me Down” was dire.

    Two years passed.

    I was watching MTV in early 1983 and saw the clip for “Lifeline” and was actually moved to buy the US mix 12″ that week in my weekly record store jaunt with my friends. When “True” was released I bought it and enjoyed it a lot; apart from the title track. MTV played “Live Over Britain” and that was the spark that turned me into a fan. Once Hadley had accepted the Vegas in his Soul®, and I saw these guys hitting their marks sharply in a live setting, I became interested in Spandau Ballet. I went back and bought a copy of “Diamond” and my volte-face began there in earnest.

    Side one was amazing. Side two was bonkers, which in itself was also amazing in a wholly different fashion. Quickly, “Chant No. 1” became an unstoppable white funk colossus to my ears and I could compile a CD of every mix I have and be as happy as a hog in slop. “Coffee Club” was the great single that never was but should have been. I went back and started buying the 12″ singles. “Glow” was the incredible transitional song that pointed the way to “Diamond” in the strongest way possible. If Kemp had been sucked into the 1981 “Latin salsa” trend [see: Modern Romance, Blue Rondo Ala Turk] at least he managed to wipe the floor with those pusillanimous attempts at Latin Funk to create a truly unexpected hybrid approach.

    Unfortunately, then the title cut to “True” was released as a single and that was it for Spandau Ballet. The entire rest of their career [apart from the appalling rockers-come-lately move of “Through The Barricades – just in time for the Mulleted Mid-80s Malaise®] sounded to my ears like an endless and half-hearted attempt to mine another MOR crossover monster like “True.” Ugh! By the time that the Kemp Brothers starred in “The Krays” [rather well, though with Peter Medak directing it could have only helped] and their dire final album [or so we thought] limped out it was mercy killing time.

    The completely unlikely reunion of the band in 2009 was not expected given the extreme vitriol between the brothers and the band, but I assumed that any new tracks they recorded from that point on might well make even “Heart Like A Sky” sound good in retrospect, so I demurred. I never saw Spandau live since I lived in America. I had tickets once for the “Parade” tour but a broken leg on Steve Normal put the end to that. By the time they played a tour here in the new century, I was past the point of caring much. At least enough to spend the hundreds of dollars necessary to travel to other states to see them. That ship had sailed! I might have done an in-town gig, but probably would have lived to regret it.

    Looking back, I would say that Spandau Ballet only really had it by accident, and quickly lost it. Unlike TVV, I would point to “True” as their “best” album. Even with the egregiously overplayed “True” the rest of the program was a lively collection of songs built like tanks to roll across Europe and even the Atlantic. I find “Gold” to be Kemp hitting the mark of making a great Bond theme that wipes the floor with all of the real ones released after “You Only Live Twice.” The 12″ remix is explicitly moreso with some hot guitar synth solos by Kemp winning me over.

    Unlike Echorich, I thought that “Parade” was the “once more to the well” attempt to remake “True” but with less memorable material leading to xerox bleaching syndrome. But the first three albums are either a portrait of a music whore, twisting in the wind to align with any trend, or a vibrant and eclectic portrait of a band that refused to stay in one place for long. I think either view has validity. But for a shining moment, side one of “Diamond,” they were astonishing to me. That remains my favorite album for its anything goes vibrancy. The thought of this band attempting to make their “Heroes” with a side two of “film music” ala Bowie without a quarter of Bowie’s talent or originality, never the less wins me over with its audacity.

    The less said about Tony Hadley’s sordid political views, the better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s