'To Cut A Long Story Short, we nearly lost our minds...': After 20 years of fighting, why Spandau Ballet finally buried the hatchet
Spandau Ballet had it all – monster hits, screaming girls, ludicrous hair and kilts. Then they spent 20 years fighting over cash. It wasn’t until one of them nearly died, the Old Romantics tell Event, that they made peace
GOLD: Spandau Ballet in New York, 1981 (from left) Tony Hadley, Steve Norman, Martin Kemp, John Keeble and Gary Kemp
‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’, proclaims the film poster proudly.
Spandau Ballet – the band of New Romantic brothers that broke a million hearts, sold 25 million albums, topped the charts in 21 countries, had five million radio plays, were Bob Geldof’s ‘must get’ band at Live Aid, the designer pop group who disintegrated bitterly then reunited triumphantly – are back. And this time they’ve made a movie.
The bitter-sweet biopic tells the Spandau Ballet story from childhood poverty to chilled-out prosperity via a rancorous dispute and 20 years of hostilities – a rollercoaster ride of flamboyant success, conspicuous consumption, recrimination and reconciliation.
Spandau fans will swoon at the previously unseen material. Even non-Spandauphiles will find the classroom-to-courtoom drama gripping.
It comes to life in 1979 – the winter of discontent and discotheque – where you can all but smell the sweat and cigarette smoke in the clubs that Spandau and their Blitz Kids friends frequented.
At the movie’s emotional climax, many years later, you feel the tension between the estranged friends as they reconvene, a decade after their 1999 High Court royalty dispute.
Spandau’s singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble and saxophonist/percussionist Steve Norman unsuccessfully sued guitarist and chief songwriter Gary Kemp. His brother Martin, the band’s bassist and one-time EastEnders actor, took no part in the proceedings.
Now, in 2014, with Spandau back in business, Culture Club returning to the recording studio and Duran Duran recording with Chic's Nile Rodgers, we could be witnessing the Eighties powder puff wars all over again
Prior to the hearing, the three complainants had performed as a live group under the name ‘Hadley, Norman & Keeble’ until they were prevented from using an ‘ex-Spandau Ballet’ suffix by the Kemps, who felt it wasn’t in keeping with their legacy.
Such simmering anxieties were painful for the key players to relive as they viewed the finished film for the first time together earlier this year. Most affected was Martin Kemp, torn between family and band loyalties.
‘Watching the film was one of the most emotional experiences of my life,’ says Kemp, the band’s youngest member.
‘There was a part of me that was really disappointed with myself. Not understanding how much it was hurting the other guys. I was too wrapped up in what I was doing.’
‘Watching it together was difficult,’ says Gary. ‘There were parts where you wanted the chair to swallow you up.
'I was to blame for the band’s destruction at one point but was also at the forefront of trying to make it work again. But all of us progress hopefully.’
‘There are also loved ones in the film who are no longer with us; that was probably hardest,’ says Tony Hadley sadly.
The Kemps lost their parents within days of each other in 2009. It’s a film about friendship, its frailties and the power of redemptive love.
The soundtrack is sensational. Angular conga-driven white funk, all snaking synth lines, driving guitar and crisply metronomic drumming pulses through the story like a heartbeat.
Martin Kemp and Tony Hadley performing on HMS Belfast, 1980
The New Romantics are often lampooned – hairdos only came in extra-large, make-up was applied by spray-gun and trousers sometimes needed shoulder pads – but for a few years at the fag-end of the Seventies, they were the fabulous future.
Now, in 2014, with Spandau back in business, Culture Club returning to the recording studio and Duran Duran recording with Chic’s Nile Rodgers, we could be witnessing the Eighties powder puff wars all over again.
At the central London office in which he has chosen to meet on this August afternoon, Gary Kemp studies a photo of Mick Jagger taken in Hyde Park last year.
‘I was there,’ Kemp says, with reverence.
You imagine that as a minor member of the rock aristocracy himself, he must say this quite often.
Gary’s Bloomsbury residence is a mere Rolling Stone’s throw away.
Within its exquisitely decorated walls sits his prized Steinway grand piano, a collection of Victorian antiques, including pieces by EW Godwin, and an extensive range of bespoke Savile Row suits.
Three days previously, Martin Kemp is in his own Hertfordshire homestead admiring a picture of the Stones, this time a painting by guitarist Ronnie Wood.
‘Nice brushwork,’ decides Spandau Ballet’s bass player.
In a Fitzrovia pub, earlier that week, John Keeble and Steve Norman have the giggles.
‘You had your hair cut again?’ Norman smirks.
Keeble’s raised middle finger gives a straight answer. With his deadpan humour and graveside baritone, Keeble is the band’s mediator, diffuser of fisticuffs and safe pair of hands. It is interesting to learn that if he hadn’t become a rock star, he wanted to be England wicketkeeper.
These days, Norman, still fine-featured and fascinated by all around him, has the naive air of a medieval minstrel. It is easy to forget that, in his day, his cheeky grin could single-handedly ignite sexually charged hysteria.
The two are charming and slightly salty company.
‘Should I get out the Slammer?’ asks Keeble.
‘God no,’ winces Norman.
The Slammer is Spandau’s flight-case-housed tequila shot kit, which has tamed many a wild party animal. These days, although Spandau still enjoy a drink, as Keeble acknowledges, ‘we’re not all quite as thirsty as we were’, so the Slammer may remain sensibly shut.
During their ten years in the top flight of British pop, Spandau Ballet's music was often overshadowed by their image
‘Jack Daniel’s was always dangerous too – when Jack came out there was normally a disaster lurking.’
With that, the big man they call The Velvet Foghorn is off: recounting his high jinks on Spandau’s notoriously eventful world jaunts.
‘On tour I was well behaved: I had to look after my voice and get enough sleep, but if we had a couple of days off I’d go mental.
‘I was very drunk in Rome and there was a car coming down a back street towards us – it was only going 15mph but I did a Starsky and Hutch roll over the bonnet. I was laughing so much until the guy got out of the car and pulled a gun on me.
'Luckily, we had the head of Italian anti-terrorism with us who pulled out his gun, and his badge.’
‘I was quite drunk at Bob Geldof’s wedding too. I fell onto a table of Bob’s aunties and uncles, who weren’t impressed. Think I got told off, probably by Simon Le Bon, doing his public schoolboy bit.’
Like The Beatles and the Stones, Blur and Oasis, Spandau’s rivalry with Duran Duran was fraught. Class, musical credentials, street cred and the cut of your sarong were all questioned in the heat of battle.
‘The fans hated each other,’ says Norman. ‘They’d tear lumps off each other. We don’t see that level of commitment any more thankfully.’
The bands are friends now, sometimes sharing a stage or covering each other’s material in concert, the coiffured conflicts all moisturiser under the bridge.
‘We still look cooler though,’ sniffs John Keeble.
Critics were less keen to discuss their songs than their linen jock straps, designer man-blouses and the long leather coat Tony Hadley wore at Live Aid.
‘What a bloody idiot,’ says Hadley. ‘Double-thickness leather because it had a contrasting leather on the inside. A silly garment for a boiling hot day.’
At Bob Geldof and Paula Yates' 1986 wedding with other stars from the time. Back row, from left: Johnnie Fingers, Garry Roberts, Tony Hadley, John Taylor, Simon le Bon, Martin Kemp, George Michael, Gary Kemp, Simon Crowe, Steve Norman, Aled Jones. Seated, from left, Midge Ure, John Keeble and David Bowie
Today, dressed down in a T-shirt and jeans, he adds: ‘It wasn’t just dressing up. Everything Spandau wore, no matter how ridiculous you think it looks now, at the time was taken seriously. I don’t regret one thing we wore. Not a single… kilt!’
Martin Kemp, who spent four years in EastEnders as the combustible sex symbol Steve Owen, is currently filming Age Of Kill, in which he plays an ex-SAS soldier blackmailed into killing six people in as many hours. Did he ever feel like doing something similar during his time with Spandau Ballet?
‘I’ve come pretty close,’ he chuckles. ‘But those boys are the closest thing I have to family.
‘They are my family. To spend time and share stories with those men is indescribable.
'In acting, you have very transient relationships; you meet people, they’re your best friends for a while then you move on. But with a band, they’re your real mates. We’ve known each other since we were kids.’
The seeds of Spandau Ballet were sown when Keeble joined schoolmates Norman and Gary Kemp then singer Hadley in early variations of the group. Plans began to crystallise when their friend Steve Dagger became manager.
The final addition was Kemp’s younger brother Martin, as bassist, though his main contribution was that he was very good-looking, an Islington Elvis.
‘Come off it,’ says the blue-eyed bass player, coyly. ‘I’ve never even thought about being “the handsome one”.’
‘Your outlook changes for a couple of years after something like that,’ says Martin.
‘It was a horrible moment of chaos for all of us. Like a car crash, it happened so fast and it was so frightening, it was almost too dark to understand. There’s still stuff up there in my brain that shouldn’t be there.’
Gary and Martin Kemp as Ronnie and Reggie Kray, with Billie Whitelaw as the twins' mum, Violet, in the 1990 film, The Krays
‘You can’t cut all the tumour out because it’s all connected,’ he says. ‘But if I worried all the time I wouldn’t get anything done, so you move on and try to forget about it. Take each week as it comes.’
Fate has played a significant hand in the band’s fortunes. True transformed them from table-cloth-toting cult artists to mainstream behemoths in a matter of months.
Recorded in Nassau, a golden moment captured for posterity in Soul Boys Of The Western World, the breathy love song was immediately hallmarked as a classic.
When Gary Kemp first played me the song on December 28, 1982, he was still tanned from the Bahamian sun.
Kemp was a cocksure motormouth even then, but was especially exuberant that day having just purchased his first property (a flat in north London for £58,000 ‘near to Sade’s place’) and invested in a thick Aran sweater that he was proudly sporting with jodhpurs and hiking boots.
He was carrying a cassette of a song which he revealed had been written about an unconsummated crush on Altered Images and Gregory’s Girl starlet Clare Grogan.
Later that evening, Kemp was taking the tape to Scotland in his latest attempt to woo his reluctant muse. Before he left, we listened to his new tune.
‘I was going for a blue-eyed Al Green feel,’ Kemp explained. The new formula was a winner.
‘And here we are today, five million airplays in America later,’ he says, flushing with pride.
‘Tony said he didn’t think it was a single but I always knew it was a strong song. But the day True went to Number 1, to be completely honest, I just thought, f***, now I’ve got to write another one that good! That was when the pressure started.’
But Kemp coped well and the hits kept coming: Gold, Only When You Leave, I’ll Fly For You, Highly Strung and the tremulous Through The Barricades in 1986.
However, the strain of sustaining success would ultimately see Spandau Ballet facing each other in the High Court, as friends squabbled expensively over who owned what.
‘And that was not the way we wanted the band to end,’ says Keeble. ‘Spending 23 days in a f****** court.’
‘I was pretty hacked off after the court case,’ says Hadley, who along with Keeble and Norman lost the case against Kemp and were left to pay costs of more than £1 million. (Norman received legal aid to fight his corner.)
‘I never want to go through that again, I’m getting that churning feeling in my stomach just thinking about it, and it’s a shame it ever got to that point.’
Martin Kemp spent four years in EastEnders as the combustible sex symbol Steve Owen (pictured with his nemesis Phil Mitchell, played by Steve McFadden)
‘Guilty, no,’ he says briskly. ‘We’re all men and we all have to take responsibility for ourselves.
'I don’t feel I owe anyone anything and I never wanted the band to get back together purely for money. The reason we’re back together is we love playing music. It’s euphoric, the music is like sex.
'It’s a bit like making love to your ex-wife. Not that I want to! My wife will kill me!’
He split amicably with first wife, actress Sadie Frost, in 1995, having had a son, Finlay. He is now married to stylist Lauren Barber, 17 years his junior, with whom he has three boys, Rex, Kit and Milo. Between them, the band have a dozen children.
‘We’re not only good at making music,’ notes Keeble, drily.
Now, as the Spandau tribe prepare for the global opening of Soul Boys Of The Western World and their first live shows in four years, they return to the fray older and wiser… and greyer. Martin, in particular, has, as Norman puts it, ‘unleashed his silver fox’.
‘I’ve been wanting to do it for the last few years,’ laughs Martin, ‘but because I’ve been in front of a camera I haven’t been able to find that period to let the grey grow out.
'Then I was directing a film, on the other side of the camera, and I had that window of opportunity. I’ve been hitting the gym trying to get in shape for the Spandau tour, too. It’s got to be done, I’m 52!’
Hadley has pressing concerns about his own weight.
‘You see yourself on TV,’ he groans. ‘You’re sat on the sofa next to these super-skinny presenters and you just look so heavy. So it’s salads all the way until next year, try to shed a few pounds. I might have to cut down on the real ale, too… sad to say.’
‘Intra-band relations are pretty good at the moment,’ says Gary Kemp, cautiously. ‘The last tour in 2009 was amazing, like going through therapy on stage.
'There’s more respect between us now. We don’t mention the bad times, the court case – that’s a kind of a no-go area – but there’s no animosity there.
'We’re united in our aim.’ Still a Band Of Brothers then? ‘A Band Of Cousins,’ he replies, ever the diplomat.
‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’ is in cinemas on September 30. A new album, ‘The Story – The Very Best Of Spandau Ballet’, is out on October 13, spandau balletthemovie.com.