Spandau Ballet tell why playing Hong Kong will be so special
The last date on their 12-month world tour will complete a journey begun in the 1980s, stalled by bitter recrimination and now resurrected
When Spandau Ballet play at AsiaWorld-Arena on September 25, the final date of the band’s Soul Boys of the Western World tour, it won’t be just another band from the 1980s trotting out their greatest hits; it will be the completion of a monumental journey from soar-away success through bitter mutual recrimination to unexpected redemption.
This will be the first show in Hong Kong for a band that dominated the charts in the ’80s, notching up more than 25 million album sales worldwide, and more than 500 weeks on the British charts for their 23 hit singles. Among the best-known are disco-snog classic True, No 1 in 21 countries in 1983 and sampled to death since; 1983’s stirringly affirmative Gold; and 1986’s mournfully political Through the Barricades.
They have visited the city before, though: singer Tony Hadley as a solo artist as recently as last September, when the start of his gig at Kitec was delayed by the Occupy protests, and all of them to record the video to 1984’s Highly Strung, a retrospectively hilarious collection of Sino-clichés.
“We’re really looking forward to it a lot,” says songwriter and guitarist Gary Kemp of the forthcoming concert. “It’s the last show of the tour, so it’ll be very emotional for us. And if we make any mistakes, well, then we’re never going to get it right.
“I’m loving this tour. It’s the best the band have ever played, and it’s the best reaction we’ve ever had – and I really am talking about ever. There’s not a song I don’t enjoy playing or that doesn’t get an amazing reaction from the crowd.”
His favourite of all to play, however, isn’t one of the classics but 2009’s Once More, from the album of the same name. “It was written when we first got back together. It was written about Northern Ireland, but it came to mean something about us as a band.”
That’s because Spandau’s 2009 re-formation after two decades apart followed a particularly acrimonious split, even by pop music standards.
Working-class boys from north London, they had been pretty much conceptually perfect when they emerged in the late ’70s, complete with startlingly outré fashion sense as part of the bleeding-edge Blitz crowd, the embryonic New Romantics, named after the London club they frequented. Their early musical style, characterised by 1980 electro-throbber To Cut a Long Story Short, combined glam rock with disco and Germanic electronica. Making a conscious decision to head in a more commercial direction, they hit the big time in 1983 with a sound defined by lush soul-pop stylings and Hadley’s Tony Bennett/Bryan Ferry croon.
By the end of that decade, though, the pressure of the endless cycle of touring and recording had taken its toll, exacerbated by Kemp’s single-minded control over the band and its songwriting. “It got to the point where we didn’t want to be in the same room as each other,” says Hadley.
Kemp and his younger brother Martin, the band’s bass player, both became actors, with Martin even taking a three-year role in British soap opera EastEnders; while Hadley recorded several solo albums and toured extensively, often alongside saxophonist Steve Norman and drummer John Keeble. The acrimony reached fever pitch in the late ’90s, when the non-Kemps sued Gary for what they claimed was a promised share of royalties, and lost.
When Gary decided a few years later that he wanted to get the band back together after watching old concert footage and realising what they’d lost, it took a while to convince the others – especially Hadley.
“It took me five years to make my mind up to get back together, and a lot of work from Johnny Keeble,” he says. “When Gary and I first met up, Johnny had to sit between us to make sure we didn’t hit each other. But we had an honest conversation and decided to give it a go.”
After a re-formation press conference, appropriately on board HMS Belfast, a moored museum ship in London where the band had played a seminal early gig in 1980, tickets for their 2009 reunion show in London sold out in less than 20 minutes, and the rest is history.
“It’s so much better now, mainly because we’re older,” says Hadley. “You have to park your ego and get rid of a lot of the anger you carry round with you, which isn’t healthy. When you sign a record contract, you’re 20 years of age, and you want to take over the world. Now we’re not the desperate young people we were before.
“Looking back, we should never have made the final album [1989’s Heart Like a Sky] – I can’t even bear to listen to it. Gary’s said that we should have taken a couple of years off, gone away and done solo stuff and then got back together again, and he’s right.”
Soul Boys of the Western World is also the name of a 2014 documentary about the band, narrated by its members but with the final edit in the hands of director George Hencken.
It’s a fascinating evocation of a bygone era that avoids the usual rockumentary clichés and doesn’t flinch when it comes to dramatising the band’s problems; instead, their success, break-up and re-formation drive the main story arc, culminating in an emotional performance of Gold as an encore at the 2010 Isle of Wight Festival.
“It’s a really good insight into what London was like in the ’80s, but it’s a hard watch, listening to what other people have to say,” says Kemp. “But it’s also proof of our strength. I’m proud of us getting back together. It proves that all the problems were less important than what we had.”
“It was therapy,” adds Hadley. “I watched it three times, and now I can’t watch it any more. There are so many people in it who are no longer with us, and the fall-out was so bad – but because it was so bad, you forget how much fun we had.
“It’s so good that we’ve put the past behind us. There’s a mutual respect now, and we’re playing better than we ever have – plus, the reviews are better this time.”
Spandau Ballet, September 25, 8.15pm, AsiaWorld-Arena, Lantau, HK$380-HK$1,380, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 2304 6188