How Spandau Ballet defied the odds

Spandau Ballet who reformed in 2009 are on tour and will be performing at Sheffield's Motorpoint Arena tonight.
Spandau Ballet who reformed in 2009 are on tour and will be performing at Sheffield's Motorpoint Arena tonight.
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After a bitter court case, a Spandau Ballet reunion looked unlikely. Martin Kemp tells Sarah Freeman how the band reconciled.

For 10 years after Spandau Ballet played their last concert after more than a decade at the top, Martin Kemp admits he didn’t once pick up a guitar.

The bassist was busy as an actor, but it wasn’t that there was just wasn’t time. The band he loved imploded, a bitter court battle over royalties had ensued and with Martin’s brother and chief Spandau songwriter Gary on one side and Tony Hadley, Steve Norman and John Keeble on the other, it was, he says too painful to have any reminder of the good times.

“It was awful and yes, I felt caught in the middle, who wouldn’t have done?” says Martin, now embarking on Spandau’s second tour since reuniting five years ago.

Spandau Ballet were a true band of the 1980s. All five were working class Londoners who found escape through the Blitz club night run by the late Steve Strange.

It was where the New Romantic movement was born and for a generation of teenagers it promised something much more exciting than the factories and drab office blocks where their parents went to work.

“The 1980s get a pretty bad press, but certainly at the beginning of the decade there was a sense of optimism which hadn’t existed before,” says Kemp, who grew up in Islington. “Punk was angry, it was negative, but suddenly it gave way to the 80s where for a while anything seemed possible.

“Blitz wasn’t a night club in the strictest sense. It ran only on a Tuesday, but it was something special. It was a place where people could be whoever they wanted to be and Spandau ended up being the Blitz house band.”

For a while the fivesome lived in a bubble, but by the early 1990s music had moved on.

“I don’t think I did really think about what would happen when Spandau came to an end. Everything has a sell-by date and by the early 90s the charts were dominated by DJs and it felt like we’d had our time.

“I could have dealt with us not being on stage together, but what I couldn’t deal with was us all not being friends. It felt like such a waste.”

When Hadley, Keeble and Norman, who were suing Gary Kemp for a share of the songwriting royalties, lost their case, which had been played out in the full glare of the media, it seemed almost certain that Spandau Ballet was over.

However, in 2009 the unthinkable happened. Spandau Ballet announced they were reforming. That same year the Kemp brothers had lost both their father and mother in the same month and, for Martin, having the band back together was about rebuilding his own family.

“In the early years we had a lot of amazing times, we won lots of awards, but if you ask me what makes me most proud about being in the band and it’s simple – it’s the fact that we were able to put any difference we had, and there were many, aside.

“We realised what was important and that was the five of us.” By the time the reunion was announced and tickets for the first gigs sold out in minutes, Martin was doing quite nicely on the small screen, playing Steve Owen in EastEnders, the kind of sinister charmer the soap does so well. After leaving Albert Square, he appeared in a number of other dramas but nothing could replace Spandau.

“I love the acting, but it just plugged the gap. I don’t think anything I will ever do will come near to the feeling I get standing on stage with my mates. It’s an adrenaline rush like no other. I think it’s to do with the noise. No matter how loud you turn your iPod up, you can’t replicate the sound of a live band.

“When the band wasn’t together I not only didn’t pick up a guitar, but I don’t think I even bought a CD. I guess everything reminded me what I’d lost. When we did go back into the studio certainly I was a bit rusty, but it soon comes back and to be honest it was like we had never been away.”

Towards the end of last year, the band released the Soul Boys of the Western World documentary. The film charted Spandau Ballet’s rise, fall and rise again and while exactly how those warring factions made peace is never clear, what is obvious is the reunion was never about money.

“I know whenever a band gets back together there’s a tendency to think they are just in it for a quick pay cheque, but Spandau have never been about money,” says Martin, now 53. “We do it because we love it. I know when I stand on stage tonight and we play Through the Barricades it will feel exactly the same as the very first time we played it live.

“I feel very lucky, because there are not a lot of people who get to earn a living hanging out with their mates and I know I am biased, but I think the band is at the top of its game. Tony’s voice is not just as good as it once was, it’s better.” The last few years have inevitably given cause for all the band to look back on the last 30 or so years, but none seems given to regrets.

“These days music tends to be run by A&R men, but there was no one to tell us what to do. We decided what our videos were going to be, what singles we were going to release and what we would wear when we on Top of the Pops.”

Ah yes, Spandau fashion, which before they adopted sleek soul boy suits was all ruffs and frills. Surely there must be a few wardrobe regrets?

“Ha, absolutely not,” says Martin, who married Wham backing singer Shirlie Holman. “If the one thing being in Spandau has taught me it is to enjoy the present and try not to regret the past.”

• Spandau Ballet, Motorpoint Arena Sheffield, tonight. www.motorpointarenasheffield.co.uk