Diamond Geezer – Barry Cain Recalls Spandau Ballet

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It was April 1980 and punk was dying.

Dig the new breed who were still pretty much the old breed with the occasional knob on. The Jam, the Clash and the Stranglers were no longer punk bands in any sense of the word. They’d ‘progressed’. A straight punk band wasn’t cool any more. Ska had wrestled the scene away from punkified London and carried it off to a ghost town in the bleak midwest for a bleak midwinter. It wouldn’t survive.
The papers searched lustily amongst the pretty young things for the next musical twirl to generate a fashion quirk that would fill an empty white page with a flourish. Goths were drab, punks were passé and two-tone was too grey.

The New Romantics were tailor made to be the next big thing – all masculine coquettishness and afternoon delight; bright and breezy with lashings of sauciness and doomed to the lifespan of a mayfly.

Any Technicolor light at the end of a decaying tunnel will do and I was commissioned by Record Mirror and The Star to see the darlings of New Romanticism, Spandau Ballet, play a rare live show at Scala, once home to the King’s Cross Gaumont where my nan and granddad fell asleep in the darkness either side of me as I watched The Absent-Minded Professor and Whistle Down The Wind.

Spandau Ballet? Shit name. New Romantics? Dubious movement that reeked of hype and kilts. When I discovered the band went to my school, I became even more sceptical. Owen’s may have had a great reputation as a top class grammar taking only the best students locally, but many a rogue came out the other end, intelligent but still a rogue. The school was slap bang in the middle of some of the toughest council estates in London, what did they fucking expect? Islington was a shithole, but out of that shit grew some very tasty plants. Many of the guys I knew back then were rogues – it was in all of us but some were more equal than others.

I’d missed the Spandau guys at school by the wrong side of five years and didn’t know them from Adam, but they sounded like a bunch of middle-class chancers; the school also had its fair share of those. They’d been wearing disguises for four years – first as pseudo-rock band The Cut, then early punk outfit The Makers, who actually played The Roxy, only to change again to power pop band Gentry. They were young, all this New Romantic shit was just another disguise, an Owenian sting.

They were the spokesmen for the variegated peacocks that inhabited the translucent world of London's clique-clubs like Blitz and St Moritz and Gottheshitz and the band cracked their bone china hearts. Writer David Johnson summed up an evening at the Blitz in his brilliantly evocative Observer article Spandau Ballet, the Blitz kids and the birth of the New Romantics


‘Every Tuesday for a year, Steve Strange had been declaring a "private party" in the shabby Blitz wine bar off Covent Garden. Outrage secured entry. Inside, precocious 19-year-olds presented an eye-stopping collage, posing away in wondrous ensembles, emphatic make-up and in-flight haircuts that made you feel normality was a sin. Here was Lady Ample Eyefull, there Sir Gesting Sharpfellow, lads in breeches and frilly shirts, white stockings and ballet pumps, girls as Left Bank whores or stiletto-heeled vamps dressed for cocktails in a Berlin cabaret, wicked witches, kohl-eyed ghouls, futuristic man machines.

‘Downstairs near the bar stood the boys in the band (no make-up), their media and management by the stairs, credible punk legends such as Siouxsie Sioux along the bar, suburban wannabes beside the dancefloor. Deep within the club, around Rusty Egan's DJ booth, were the dedicated dancing feet, the white-faced shock troops, the fashionista elite – either there or near the cloakroom, ruled first by Julia Fodor (still going strong as DJ Princess Julia) and later by George O'Dowd (less strong today as ex-jailbird Boy George). Downstairs, the women's loo was hijacked, naturally, by boys who would be girls. Upstairs on the railway banquettes might be respected alumni from an earlier London: film-maker Derek Jarman, artists Brian Clarke and Kevin Whitney, designers Antony Price and Zandra Rhodes.

‘The soundtrack at this self-styled "electro-diskow" was hard-edged European disco, synth-led, but bass-heavy: German sounds such as Kraftwerk and Gina X, Giorgio Moroder, dissonant no wave on the Ze label, and always Bowie. Plinky robot sounds inspired dances with anglepoise limbs and an unmoving chin, while an overstated yet elegant jive saw partners hold both hands and raise knees as high as their waists. This spectacle shouted newness.’

When I arrived at Scala in my jeans and tee shirt, I felt remarkably underdressed in the face of the jamboree bags who were out in force to see their heroes play and who pumped some Hollywood juice into that seedy Kings Cross night. The clothes were unacceptable in bleak mid-London but unspeakably cool nevertheless and the make-up was Louis XVI meets Marilyn Monroe on acid.

If the band looked anything remotely like this lot, what the fuck were they going to sound like? I hadn’t heard a note of their music – a record deal was yet to be signed – but I figured it would be pretentious tosh with frilly bits and perish the moment it dripped out of their limp instruments. But there was no denying the whiff of old fashioned excitement in the air before the band were due on stage, fashionably late of course. This was outstanding hyperbole engineered by manager Steve Dagger and his crew and even I got a few butterflies.

And everyone smelled so nice.

It began in darkness, taut waves of sound stripped of melody yet still retaining depth in the black. The riff was repeated over and over but it wasn’t repetitive, it was infectious. And then a voice as unexpected as Susan Boyle’s surged forth.

‘Soldier is turning
See him through white light’

Instead of the uptight nasally bollocks usually associated with electronic music, it was full-on croon with soul. I’d never heard a voice like it in rock before, so incongruous yet so harmonious. It was Kraftwerk with a northern soul and you could really dance to this shit. 

Their stage presence, hewed by four years of pushin’ broom, was compelling. Tony Hadley was a giant of a man with a giant of a voice and boy, they sure knew how to play.

They only did a short set, but I’d seen enough. The name was perfect. Spandau Ballet were a cool band and head honchos of a new, romantic sound that was the twirl required to generate the fashion quirk. This was no Owenian sting. This was the real deal.

I had to interview Gary Kemp after the show in an office at Scala and I wasn’t enamoured with the idea. I still believed he was a middle-class wanker. I thought they all were. Any cunt could be a punk but it took a swish cunt to be a New Romantic. I was quite happy seeing them live and taking that memory home and didn’t want to be disappointed like I often was when I met the perpetrators of wonderful music. My problem not theirs, I guess.

But orders is orders, captain, and I sat in the office, waiting to be disappointed. Gary swished in. I stood up and we shook hands.

He wore a plain white shirt, black watch tie and grey trousers with large window pane check and an obligatory sporran. ‘The shirt cost a fiver from M&S, the trousers are from Modern Classics in East London and the tie is from the Scotch House. I got the brogues from a market stall for seven quid.’ The whole ensemble for under thirty pounds. So he watches the pennies.

‘It’s not hard to look smart anymore. Oh sure, you can go on about how kids have got nothing and come from deprived backgrounds. But surely if you’ve got nothing you’ve got to look smart – cos that’s ALL you’ve got .

‘If you can’t make money to buy your way out of your present life, if you can’t play a guitar or write a book or paint a picture, then the only alternative is to take pride in your appearance. It’s your strength.’

The moment he opened his mouth, all my pre-conceptions went out the window. Gary was an Angel face from exactly the same background as me. The end product of a council housing system that lifted us from the crumbling Victorian four-families-to-a-house backstreet tenements of pre-rock ’n’ roll London and dropped us onto glistening tower block estates where the kids were all right growing up ’cos they didn’t have to share a toilet with twenty other people and had a bathroom they could call home. A bathroom where, thanks to a simple mirror, a guy could see clearly now for the first time, see how good-looking he was and how the way he did his hair made him even better-looking. He now had time to preen himself.

Working-class city guys found their style on those estates. Mod, rocker, skin, greaser, punk, mod, Ted, rude boy, new romantic, they’ve all walked out of council bathrooms with fire in their bellies and love in their hearts, thanks to a mirror and a comb. Spandau Ballet were more of a street band than The Jam, The Stranglers and a thousand other ‘punk’ outfits put together. Their voice was authentic and, more importantly, new. Gary was as much a spokesman for a deprived generation as John Lydon and Paul Weller.

‘Working-class people have always been into style,’ said Gary with the familiar accent, mine. ‘They’ve always wanted to look good. Always the only people who could dance to black American music.

‘We were always down the clubs, having our hair cut into wedge shapes, dancing. It was always soul music, never rock. Even though they don’t look it, our audience is essentially made up of soul and style boys. There’s no comparison between us and anybody else. We’re not the product of the middle-class rock press who, for the first time, have been able to dictate to the working-class kids how they should be dressing. That’s disgusting.

‘The middle classes have never been able to cope with working-class elitism. That’s why they can’t get into mod or soul boys. That’s why they won’t get into this.’

So how come a bunch of hyper¬active wc kids ended up in fancy-pants soluble clubs like Blitz? ‘We just didn’t want to hang out at the Lyceum every weekend,’ said Gary. ‘We’ve always been ahead of fashion. Things I wore in the summer and had the piss taken for wearing are now available in the chain stores in watered-down versions.

‘It’s not the music so much as the fashion. Clothes have been progressing but recently took a bad turn when they reached the science-fiction stage. They looked cheap. The reaction against that was very simple − a return to the decadent forties. But that only lasted a couple of weeks. You have to be prepared to change very quickly. Now we dress very, very romantically. We want to be dandies not clones.’

‘Everyone is sick to death of rock. I detest the word. It’s been going on for twenty years. We play dance music, regimental structures on the rhythm, laid-back guitar, and a voice you can actually understand. For the last two years I’ve been trying hard not to listen to too much music. We never go to see bands play. We simply don’t see ourselves as a “band” in that sense.’

He firmly believed that people had been mis¬interpreting the scene. ‘Punk was simply a piece of fashion designed to last a few months. But everyone turned it into a tradition. Rock music has got nothing to do with politics. You can’t change the world in a song. But you can change people’s attitude to music. Punks are the hippies of the eighties.’

Gary was adamant that in the hierarchy of things, fashion predominates. ‘If I had a choice between fashion and music I’d go for fashion. The people that go to clubs like Blitz are not gay just because they dress strangely. It’s not a question of sex at all. The guys like to look at themselves more than at girls. They can fall in love with their friend’s clothes. It really is a working-class thing, no matter what you think. The designers, the musicians − they’re all working class.’

These days, although many of those people Gary was describing may still retain their working class roots, they have achingly middle class children. You can’t win.

Seven months after that night, ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’ hit No. 5 in the charts and a year later, Spandau’s debut album, ‘Journeys To Glory’ also peaked at No 5.

Spandau Ballet didn’t retain their cool. They fell out with the purists when they veered into pop Gold territory like the chameleons they were. Was it Tony’s vocals that influenced the direction of the song writing or vice versa? If they’d have had an uptight nasally bollocks of a singer would they have remained submerged in synths and angst, gained a cult following and had repeated mentions in Vive Le Rock?

Let the arguments rage. But wouldn’t you die happy knowing that two of your songs, ‘True’ and ‘Gold’, have imprinted themselves on the public psyche and stood the test of time? Love ‘em or hate ‘em, those two songs have travelled round the world and back and we’ll take them with us to our graves. Gold alone has been played over two billion times on US radio stations.

That’s a fuck of a sight better than being cool for a while. I know this much is true...
Read 4338 times Last modified on Wednesday, 20 May 2015 16:25
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