Spandau Ballet shun rock ‘n’ roll, embrace soul to strike gold with new album True


By Steve Newton

Spandau Ballet are an immensely popular British band whose third album True is currently at the number 8 position on the Georgia Straight Top 50.

Last week, before their Tuesday performance at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, I called drummer John Keeble in London and asked him about the band’s original, its new album, and the smash hit single “True”.

How did Spandau Ballet first come together?

We were mostly friends from school. We were the type of guys who went to discos rather than rock clubs. You usually find that school is divided into two halves. There’s the people who wear the jackets and go and see rock bands, and there’s the other half who go to discos and clubs and dress up smart.

And the difference between Spandau Ballet and most other bands was that we come from that side of the coin. Most other bands have been into bands since they were kids, and really want to get up on stage and emulate what they’ve seen. Whereas we were never really interested in the rock and roll side of affairs–we were far too busy going to clubs and dancing to soul music.

But at the time, music in the clubs was sort of Roxy Music and David Bowie–old men, you know. There were kids of 17, 18 dancing to music of 35-year-olds. We decided that wasn’t a very healthy state of affairs, so we decided to form Spandau Ballet and play music for the kids in the clubs, by people who were relevant–wearing the same clothes and generally much more in touch.

How did the band come to be called Spandau Ballet?

No real reason, really. We fancied something with ballet in it, and some friends of ours had just visited Berlin, and there’s a suburb there called Spandau. Spandau Ballet just sounded good at the time.

At the time–it was three and half years ago–you don’t think of yourself having to justify it to journalists across the world. At the time we were just kids, and it just sounded like a good name. It certainly gets a lot of notoriety, and rolls off the tongue quite nicely, but apart from that there’s no real meaning in it. I mean, when you say “The Rolling Stones” you don’t think of stones rolling down the road.

Jess Bailey played keyboards on the album True. Will he be touring with the band?

Yes. He toured with the first British Tour, which was the year before last. It’s very difficult on stage to reproduce everything exactly–and you don’t try to do it that. You must look at it as two different mediums.

We’ve also got two girl backing singers. There’s a lot of backing vocals on True, and it’s a bit of a strain to sing and play through an hour and a half on stage, so it’s good to get someone to take the load off you.

Your guitarist, Gary Kemp, wrote all the songs on True.

Gary’s the songwriter in the band. A few others dabble in songwriting, but Gary’s been doing it for quite a few years now. And the best thing any of us has written has been not as good as most of the things Gary throws away. In a band you have to concentrate on your strengths, and Gary’s by far the best songwriter.

True was recorded at Compass Point Studios in the Bahamas. What was it like making the album?

I think it reflects a lot in the album if you listen to it. We thought it would be good to get away from London because when you’re recording in London there’s so many distractions. The phones are always ringing and there’s always things to do. Just to get away for six weeks and concentrate on nothing but the album. We were all living and eating together over there, and it’s a very good environment. Nassau is very laid back.

Were you surprised at the success of the album?

I don’t think surprised is the right word. Obviously, when you make an album you hope that it’s going to be successful, and you do your utmost to make it successful. Not at the risk of making it sound crass, but Gary writes in a very commercial way–his songs are quite “hooky”. We hoped it would do well but I think it’s outlived all our expectations. I don’t think a year ago any of us could have hoped for the success that True attained. It’s Top 5 in every country in the world.

Was there much record company involvement in the project, or were Spandau Ballet left pretty much alone.

We tend to do everything ourselves. We found that anything left to the record company tends to get f***ed up. So it’s best to do everything yourself. Our manager Steve is an old friend of ours and really a sixth member of the band. And we’ve got our own record label in Britain, Reformation, and our own offices and promoter. We’re pretty much self-sufficient–really, all Chrysalis do is press the records.

I think that’s the difference really with today’s bands and the bands in the sixties. There’s so many stories about sixties bands getting ripped off, not getting any money and what have you. I think bands in the eighties are much more of a corporation. I don’t think many can get by with just being able to play the guitar or play drums. You’ve got to have some business sense, you’ve go to know what you want, you’ve got to know how to protect yourself.

Today, it’s very much a multi-media thing. Again, bands in the sixties and seventies were very much just musicians. Whereas the young bands of today are into video and into “the look”. Music now is only 50 percent of the band–now it’s the look of the band, what they’ve got to say, and how they perform. And that’s why we’re coming to Canada, to put in our other 50 percent.

Did Spandau put the video for “True” together by themselves as well?

We’re very involved in the videos. “True” was sort of coproduced by Russell Markeye. I think video producers–and record producers–get far too much credit. I mean Russell’s a good director, but people say, “Oh that’s a good video of Spandau–it was done by Russell Markeye.” It’s the same with record production; people put too much emphasis on the producers.

There are so many bad records by good producers. It very much relies on the band they’re working with; the producer’s really just a link in the chain. If it’s a bad artist, the record’s not going to be good, and the same with videos. If the band hasn’t got good ideas, and doesn’t know what they want, then the best video director in the world is not going to make it look very good.

Is the Marvin referred to in “True” Marvin Gaye?

Yeah, certainly. I think “True” is the most personal song that Gary’s ever written. It was the last song he showed us on the album. What happens is Gary comes down after he’s written the song and shows us the melody on acoustic guitar. From there on we’ll throw it around in the studio and arrange it amongst the band, and put Spandau’s own impression on it. But I think he was almost shy to bring it down, ’cause it was so close to him.

But the reference to listening to Marvin, I can relate to it as much as anyone in the band. It’s when you’re 15 and you’re pulling your first girl, you’re sitting on the sofa and you’ve got this smoochy music. I mean at the time it was always “Let’s Get It On”, or something like that. And I think it’s just a nod to Marvin for all those nights of debauchery when he was young.

Have you been in Vancouver before?

No, the only place I’ve been in the whole of America is New York, and that’s really such an island on its own. I’m really looking forward to seeing the rest of the country and Canada.

We’ve just finished a five-week European tour, and I’ve only been home a week and a half, but I just can’t wait to get away again. The band enjoys playing live so much–I think that’s the difference between Spandau and most of the new bands. We can really put on a good show live, and a lot of the new bands are too staid and static on stage. We sweat, and we want everyone to sweat with us.


To hear the full audio of my 1983 interview with John Keeble subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on over 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:

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