And so, Spandau Ballet are back. I’m guessing not many contributors to this site will be celebrating (except me) but then there was never much love lost between the music press and arguably the coolest band of the early Eighties.
Let me explain why.
When I was a rookie music journalist starting out on Sounds in 1980 the bands I wanted to write about seemed to be the ones many of my colleagues despised. They were into Rock. I was into Pop and Fashion.
One of the first major interviews I did for Sounds under my nom de plume Betty Page was with a bunch of young Londoners who had been causing a stir around town in the first year of a new decade, shortly after Margaret Thatcher had seized power.
Spandau Ballet were at the centre of a style-conscious clique known as The Cult With No Name that had grown out of “Bowie” nights at clubs such as Billy’s and the Blitz.
The Cult members were imaginative and talented young people, many of whom made their own clothes or were graphic designers, hairstylists, photographers or entrepreneurs.
If punks wanted to destroy, the Blitz Kids wanted to create, to put some colour into a grey, broken Britain.
I loved their flamboyance – the frocks, the furs, the frills, the flirting and the frisson of unusual sexuality.
The Kids were stars in their own theatre and I wanted a bit part in the production. Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t up for audition – for two good reasons. First, like the members of any close-knit community, they didn’t welcome outsiders.
Second, I wrote for a rock music paper. They hated rock music and all who thrived on it. They wished to spit on its grave. Whatever their personal style, they were united in their love of dance music and the clubs that played it.
Most of them – and particularly the boys in Spandau Ballet – ignored the music papers. They didn’t play “gigs” as such – they held “events”, playing in unusual venues such as the HMS Belfast, a decommissioned warship permanently docked on the Thames, to invited audiences only. They rapidly became the focal point around which the scene revolved. Their fans, most of whom were also friends, were as important as the band and their music.
In their short career, Spandau Ballet had already been the subjects of a television documentary and were about to release their first single on a major record label. They weren’t the least bit interested in being interviewed by the music papers, which they quite rightly associated with unstylish, unkempt rock herberts in flared denim. More shockingly, they didn’t need the press.
However, my editor, the venerable Alan Lewis, was determined to get them into Sounds. I was desperate for my first major assignment as a Staff Writer and he knew that I wasn’t a natural defender of the rock ’n’ roll tradition and might be the secret weapon he needed to penetrate the Cult.
Most dyed-in-the-jeans music hacks hated the idea of being bypassed by a bunch of sharp-suited upstarts, so Spandau had been dismissed by them as elitists, fops, dandies, upper-class twits and even fascists, because of the Nazi connotations of their name. It didn’t help that the Ballet boys deemed fashion to be of equal importance to music. The fact that they were actually working-class Labour supporters from north London didn’t seem to count.
And so it was with a combination of naïve enthusiasm and blind panic that I dialled the number I’d been given for Spandau Ballet’s manager, Steve Dagger. I had no reason to believe he’d even give me the time of day – the last thing he needed was another stitch-up job by an ignorant music hack. But Steve was a smart operator and quickly realised that I was something of a blank canvas upon which he and Gary Kemp, their chief theorist and songwriter, could paint their ideas. But he wasn’t going to give me the interview easily.
I managed to persuade Steve that I had no hidden agenda and that my interest was genuine. He told me I would have to do some research before I met the band. I had to watch the documentary that Janet Street-Porter had made about the band and their fans for the 20th Century Box series.
I dutifully went to Steve’s office to watch the programme, making notes all the way through. I knew he was making me jump through hoops but I had nothing to lose.
I’d done everything the manager had asked me to do, so he grudgingly gave me permission to speak to Gary – as long as he was there too. Steve was the sixth member of the band, the master strategist.
Gary Kemp was an intense, idealistic young man who had carefully considered Spandau Ballet’s image and agenda. As I sat down to interview him, he fished out his well-thumbed copy of George Melly’s book Revolt Into Style and read out a passage about the true meaning of mod being a small group of young working-class boys forming a little mutual admiration society “totally devoted to clothes”.
I carefully copied down the words without quite taking them in. I had to check again – was he telling me that when the band first met in the late Seventies, it was only about dressing up? “Yes, basically it revolved around admiration of clothes,” Steve interjected before Gary could open his mouth, “and featured extreme posing.”
Extreme posing: words to strike fear into the heart of any rock music purist.
Since punk, Steve told me, it had been a case of the most stylish people wanting nothing to do with rock music or the media. “These people wanted to go to soul clubs, to dance, to dress up,” he said. “And on top of that there are sets of innovators who really pushed the fashion thing a bit further, making their own clothes, maybe buying some chain-store stuff, but using it differently. Why the music papers haven’t picked up on it I don’t know.”
Gary did. “The thought of people like us spending money on looking good – they just can’t stand it,” he fumed. “I don’t think they like the idea of fashion as a progressive force. But it’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
I wanted to tell him “progressive” was an adjective that only applied to “rock” in my world, but I wasn’t too keen to reinforce the “us” and “them” theme that was emerging as we spoke.
“It’s not your Marquees, not your polytechnic gigs, nothing is created there,” continued Steve, emphasising his point. “It happens in the clubs. Without injections from innovators, rock music becomes very boring.”
I wasn’t able to develop a counter-argument. I’d spent most of my time as a music business rookie complaining about dour student music and looking for something more ambitious and optimistic. And here it was, sitting in front of me.
“The scene attracts people who want to develop, who want to achieve something in any direction, whether it’s for art or money,” said Gary.
“It all started with our first gig,” continued Steve. “We invited about 10 young fashion designers, 10 hairdressers, and a couple of people who run clubs. We thought they’d like us and they did. It’s much easier when you’re surrounded by people like that – not only hairdressers and clothes designers, but also graphic designers, photographers, even people who write for us.”
It was this image of the self-contained creative elite that so horrified the music papers – along with the constant reference to hairdressers, of course.
Steve was very keen for me to understand that Spandau Ballet were not a bunch of art students. Gary and his brother Martin had grown up in Islington with little money but a lot of attitude, mixing with the sort of blokes who’d blow their entire wage packet on a flash pair of trousers or shoes.
“We’re not saying they should wear anything in particular,” interrupted Steve, “because the group changes its clothes from week to week – we’re not advocating uniforms, like the Jam. The whole point is that if you see someone else wearing the same clothes, get rid of them.”
I wasn’t at all convinced that this infinitely changing wardrobe option would be a big vote-winner during the continuing recession, with so many young people unemployed.
“If you haven’t got anything, if you haven’t got a chance, then you should make the most of your appearance,” said Gary. “If that’s all you’ve got, beat everyone at it. Do you dress for functional reasons only? You dress to attract and look good, don’t you? As far as a poseur is concerned, he is his own work of art. The human sculpture.”
Suddenly I felt hyper-conscious of the charity-shop suit I was wearing. Boy George certainly qualified to be installed in a gallery; I did not. I wasn’t expecting to figure on the Cult’s best-dressed list any time soon.
Despite the fact that I felt intimidated by the exclusivity of Gary and Steve’s “dance for perfection”, they were speaking my language. There was a theme here that resonated with what I’d been trying to articulate in print for months – ditch the dull, express yourself, don’t follow the crowd and move with your own feelings. Distinguish yourself from the masses, be an individual. The “colourful little scenes going down in all the big grey places” – that’s what I wanted to be part of.
My hard-earned interview with Steve and Gary appeared on the cover and centrespread of Sounds in September 1980 under the headline “The New Romantics – a manifesto for the Eighties”. A genre was born, although Spandau Ballet were already fighting shy of the label.
The biggest test would be whether the public would take to their music as well as their image. Their first single, To Cut A Long Story Short, was released in November 1980. It was dominated by Tony Hadley’s theatrical vocal and a Teutonic electro-beat that was perfect for the angular dance performed by the poseurs of the time. I loved it and so did the British record-buyer – it spent nine weeks on the chart and went to No 5. I felt I’d made a creditable start on my quest to make a name for myself in rock journalism – by interviewing a band that abhorred rock journalism. How ironic…
This blog is an abridged version of early chapters in the as yet unpublished book Hit Girl: My Bizarre Double Life In The Pop World Of The Eighties, copyright Beverley Glick.