Employing a style similar to the Rolling Stones documentary ‘Crossfire Hurricane’, Spandau Ballet: Soul Boys of the Western World’ uses archive footage, riveting library film and fresh commentary from the band to create an impassioned and loving document about a band who despite global success are known yet unknown. This film redresses the balance.
Director George Hencken has lovingly assembled a document using wonderful archive footage, her tenure with Julien Temple (The Filth and the Fury, Oil City Confidential) in full evidence with exquisite context setting and numerous ventures down memory lane.
The film is narrated by Robert Elms; scenester, man about town and the person responsible for rechristening the band after seeing it scrawled on toilets in Berlin. This rebranding injecting fresh impetus allowing them to leave their punk imitation act behind and draw on shared passions such as soul and funk allied to reinvention.
Comprised of five uniquely individual characters: Gary Kemp the autocrat, Tony Hadley the single-minded vox box, John Keeble the voice of reason and lynchpin, the fragile and endearing Steve Norman and the laconic Martin Kemp the documentary tells a familiar tale of hard work, dedication, sheer will, friendship, success, acrimony and redemption this is a classic rock and roll tale of ‘money, drugs, women and ego’. In the elder Kemp’s case he had the latter in spades. Leader, dictator and sole songwriter he took control in every way and without his drive they wouldn’t have got out of Islington. When questioned about his song writing he admits that he is scared of being outdone by the others if they decided to take it up, his panic at a loss of control clear to see. Equally, a scene where Norman and Hadley are asked about the subject they react as if it’s never crossed their minds yet the penny appears to drop that they might be captives in Kemp’s vision prison.
The film has a telling photograph of him reading ‘The Prince’ by Machiavelli on a plane, the go-to-tome of how to rule so beloved of political power players. There are also visible signs of tension etched on his face when Tony Hadley makes a quip about Japan (the country!) not buying the records and when asked about Steve Norman’s theatrics and subsequent knee rupture that resulted in the cancellation of a lucrative US tour. Compared to today’s PR orchestrated, scripted and media trained, charisma-free droids, episodes like these add further credence to the mantra ‘the camera never lies’; these are revealing insights.
The bleak end of the 1970s and the dawn of the 80s saw the emergence of the Blitz Club in London with its crowd of wannabes, gonnabes and never weres and Spandau capitalised on this nascent energy and ran with it. Along with Visage’s Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, attendees such as Sigue Sigue Sputnik’s Martin Degville, Boy George, the androgynous Marilyn has parallels with the Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall in 1976 where such luminaries as Morrissey, Paul Morley, Buzzcocks and Mick Hucknall took inspiration to become what and who they are. The thriving scene was a site of transformation, of wonderment and escapism. Where the marginalised, ostracised and disenfranchised went to be free, be and create.
Following the success of the still future echo ‘New Pop’ of ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’ and the nu-soul sheen of ‘Gold’ they struggled to compete with their peers (Duran Duran, Human League) resorting to jumping on bandwagons (and a residency in St Tropez) until they hit the spot with the world bestriding ‘True’ in 1983 that classic end of school disco anthem.
Unsurprisingly, burn-out occurred as a result of success demanding more and familiarity breeding contempt. By 1990 after 10 years of incessant recording, touring and promoting, the band split. The Kemps ventured into the acting world starring in The Krays, an interview with them on set at the time starkly illustrating the breakdown in the friends’ relations, appearing astonished at the notion of them being in the group.
In 1986 they released their final Top Ten hit, ‘Through the Barricades’ which arguably is their epitaph Inspired by the shooting in Northern Ireland of a crew member the spirit of the song came to exemplify them in more ways than one. No more than in 1999 when after a gap of nine years Hadley, Keble and Norman took songwriter Kemp to court over unpaid royalties, a perennial bone of contention. Like The Smiths’ pecuniary episode three years earlier (where Mike Joyce successfully sued Morrissey and Marr) the argument reigned as to unconscious work and input into half-crafted works, tellingly Tony Hadley said that up until the final studio album Kemp would arrive in the studio with almost formed songs relying on group work to solidify and mould them into complete works. However the result swung in Kemp’s favour pouring more salt into wounds. With that in mind it is remarkable and testament to the healing powers of time and the bonds of friendship that in 2009, almost 20 years since they parted thee band got together again.
Personally, as an avid reader of Roy of the Rovers I was disappointed that there was no mention of the time Martin Kemp and Steve Norman turned out for Melchester Rovers (alongside Bob Wilson and (Kr)Emlyn Hughes no less).
This is a warts and all summary of the exhilaration and insanity of a touring band, the thrill and spills of being young, desired, adored and how friendships can be strained, tested and fractured; capturing the togetherness and unity and subsequent deterioration. The film encapsulates the qualities that Tony Hadley believed the band to espouse, ‘elegance and romance’ and more than the sum of its parts.