The London punk scene was wearing some musicians out. People like songwriting guitarist and keyboardist Gary Kemp, who wanted to seem like a rebellious musician, but not in the same old Sex Pistols mold (much as he loved them). He valued Frank Sinatra and the burgeoning dance club scene equally. And that, it turned out, was his rebellious streak. Kemp and sax player Steve Norman started Spandau Ballet in 1979, becoming pioneers in the New Romantic movement.
In retrospect, it sounds niche, but they managed an impressive ratio: 23 hit singles in the UK and European markets from only six studio albums over nine years. That gives you some idea of the impact of Spandau Ballet in the 1980s. They were exactly right for their time and place.
Kemp recruited his brother Martin Kemp to play bass. They were joined by the genre-defining voice of Tony Hadley (more on this later), the drums of John Keeble, along with Norman’s retro sax stylings. Spandau Ballet played the London underground dance clubs and soon became the house band at The Blitz, where pop-singer-turned-producer Steve Strange periodically hosted a dance night that attracted a vibrant subculture of young people who wanted to pull music and fashion beyond the punk aesthetic.
While Spandau Ballet never had the impact in the US that they did in the UK, their work inspired some of the biggest stars of the Second British Invasion, groups like Culture Club and Duran Duran, who tore up the American charts.
Chrysalis records was the victor among several major labels intrigued by Spandau Ballet’s early cult following. They released the band’s debut, Journeys to Glory, in 1981. The first single, “To Cut a Long Story Short,” pre-existed the main recording sessions, and was put out before the record. It hit No. 1 in the UK. Not a bad start.
One album-only track that was probably a surprise at the time is the instrumental “Age of Blows,” which opens with a bona fide hard-rock riff before twisting out into the world of synths.
But New Romantic normally needs a smooth vocal; here’s Hadley singing “Toys.” One interesting thing about New Romantic singers is that, unlike the classic crooners they aimed to emulate, these young British men barely use vibrato.
This is an interesting song compositionally. There’s an unexpected half-step in the downward scale that repeats throughout and gives the harmony an off-kilter feeling typical of New Wave.
In 1982, Diamond came out, and the experimentation continued. “Innocence and Science” demonstrates two trends in New Wave: the celebration of the nerds (note the sounds of bubbling lab beakers) and a fascination with world musics. Mainly instrumental, this song relies on an Azerbaijani instrument called a chang (it sounds sort of like a koto), and a few vocal whispers.
“Pharaoh” uses more vocals, but not in the usual sense of melody. Traditional songwriting structure does not apply either. The syncopated, almost monotone chorus first comes in at 2:05, then recurs once. Hadley finally comes in with more at 3:42. A third vocal idea shows up at 4:20.
It says a lot about the New Wave consumer that an album like this sold well. It’s not so much a matter of patience on the listener’s part (contrasted, say, to the 16-minute speculative fiction ballads by Rush, which were listened to intently by fans), as it is a willingness to bathe in the atmosphere of the music.
Spandau Ballet finally hit the US jackpot with 1983’s True. That’s probably a result of the jazz and R&B influence on this one. The biggest hit was the song “Gold.” This album is not their most original sound, but it’s important to mark on their timeline the changes that widened their appeal and put them in the mainstream.
The upbeat song “Foundation” sounds more George Michael than Brian Eno. As for the R&B vibe, it’s easy to imagine that phrase “Build it up” at the end of each chorus belted out by a soul singer. Frankly, it would probably have more power.
By the time of their 1984 album Parade, there’s no other genre label for Spandau Ballet but synthpop. Hadley has that smooth, back-of-throat sound down. The only thing that sets him apart from lesser singers going for the same effect (Simon Le Bon, for example) is his considered use of dynamics, which is rare in all types of pop music.
Long remixes of songs were an essential development in the ’80s, fueling and fueled by the dance club industry. Here’s the extended version of “With the Pride,” which seems to be an anthem for the working class. That’s their British punk roots showing.
With the next album, Through the Barricades (1986), the band has turned unabashedly serious and adult, fully aware of the world. Its sound is now more on the rock side (although critics at the time complained that the guitar and drum playing were too refined for the material). The title song, which was a UK hit, was about the troubles in Northern Ireland, inspired by the death of a crew member there.
“Man in Chains” uses a different kind of retro touch, almost a Billy Joel feel, using up-tempo rhythms – led by a bright, snare-filled drum beat – as a vehicle for rousing (but vague) social commentary.
Heart Like a Sky (1989) was only released in Europe and barely made a dent there. The band had run its course, although it achieved some interesting sonorities on “Windy Town.”
They called it quits in 1990. The non-Kemps sued Gary Kemp in 1999 for shared songwriting credits; they lost. In 2009, they all got back together and started touring again, in support of the aptly titled Once More. Eleven of the 13 cuts were re-recordings of older songs. The two new ones are too sickly sweet to play here. So let’s end with the spirited and appealingly funky new version of “I’ll Fly for You,” a bit reminiscent of Steely Dan this time around:
In 2017, Hadley quit, and they hired Ross William Wild as their lead singer. That lasted all the way to 2018, when Wild announced that he, too, was quitting. They have apparently not found a replacement, which suggest that they’re not really looking. Has the Ballet done its final act? In these days of rampant ’80s nostalgia, there’s plenty of financial incentive to lace up those toe shoes again, lads.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Andrew Hurley.