It sounds like 1983 — aka, the height of Spandau Ballet mania — as Gary Kemp answers the phone. He has to speak up to be heard over all the shrieking in the background as he sets the scene.
“It”s my mother-in-law”s birthday, and my kids have just had a lot of chocolate cake,” Kemp explains. “Now, there are three boys fighting each other on the floor, going crazy. If you can hear a lot of screaming, it”s them.”
Times have definitely changed for the Spandau Ballet leader, best known for penning the make-out classic “True.” He”s now a 55-year-old family man refereeing sibling squabbles, not a 20-something heartthrob dodging packs of overexuberant fans on the streets of London. Yes, this much is true.
Yet, Kemp and crew will once again hear the screams of fans as Spandau Ballet kicks off a major world tour on Friday at the Warfield in San Francisco. It marks the first time the influential New Wave/blue-eyed soul band has toured the U.S. in 30 years.
Of course, the band wasn”t even together for much of that time. Spandau Ballet originally lasted from 1979 to 1990, though it didn”t tour America after 1985. It regrouped in 2009, for a series of mostly U.K. dates and then logged miles in Europe, South Africa, Australia and other places not named North America in 2010.
Back in the States
Spandau Ballet finally returned to the U.S. early last year, with the band”s original lineup — songwriter-guitarist Kemp, vocalist Tony Hadley, saxophonist Steve Norman, drummer John Keeble and bassist Martin Kemp — performing a one-off club gig at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas. The group was in the Lone Star State to catch “Soul Boys of the Western World,” the acclaimed Spandau Ballet documentary that had its world premiere at SXSW.
“That screening was the first time the entire band watched the film together,” Kemp says. “It was uncomfortable viewing at times.”
That”s understandable. “Soul Boys” is anything but a glossy, sanitized highlight reel of a band”s career. Director George Hencken”s film covers the entire career arc, celebrating Spandau Ballet”s many accomplishments — from topping the U.K. charts to performing at Live Aid — while exposing the egos and issues that led to the band”s original demise. The story feels real — and the players seem very human — which is likely why this is the rare rock doc that appeals to viewers outside of the fan base.
Kemp says that the band”s part in the filmmaking process was simply to provide footage. The musicians didn”t try to micromanage Hencken.
“We wanted to leave her alone,” Kemp says. “I kept saying to the rest of the guys in the band, ”We have to let this be. We have to let her find the story.” Obviously, we wanted it to be truthful, and we felt it was truthful when we saw it.
“It”s not about numbers and success. I mean, you can see the success we had — it”s there in the film. It”s about the personal stories between people. I think a lot of people can relate to it.”
Wild London days
The Spandau Ballet story is certainly one worth telling, especially since many people — especially on this side of the Atlantic — don”t know it. The group was born on the wild London club scene, emerging as one of the leaders of the post-punk New Romantic movement at the dawn of the 1980s.
“We were the head of a youth culture movement,” Kemp says. “In the same way that the Sex Pistols represented punk and David Bowie glam and Pink Floyd psychedelia, we were definitely representing this new kind of thing that got labeled New Romantic.”
These New Romantic acts — such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran — took their cue from Roxy Music and David Bowie as they combined New Wave music with fashion. Yet, the music wasn”t nearly as artsy or adventurous as Bowie or, especially, Roxy Music. Instead, the focus was more clearly on hook and groove, fashioning pop songs that worked on the dance floor.
Spandau Ballet was a hit from the start in the U.K., where it”s very first single, “To Cut a Long Story Short,” reached No. 5 on the charts in 1980. Its first two full-length albums, both solid New Wave efforts, were also homeland hits, though the band at that point still hadn”t made much progress with American crowds. Then Kemp decided to do something unexpected with the third album.
“When I was doing the first two albums, it was all about being the most fashionable band in Soho. It was all about the groove,” he says. “But you can”t stay cool forever. I remember sitting down as a 22-year-old man and thinking, ”Right, I”ve got to write the next album. But I can”t write it for trendy Soho. I can”t write it for clubs. I have to write it for the world. I need to write the best songs I can write.
“So I was listening to all the people I”ve loved as songwriters — like Marvin Gaye, Daryl Hall and John Oates, David Bowie. And I sat and wrote that album thinking just about songs.”
The result was 1983”s blue-eyed soul classic “True,” which catapulted the band to international superstardom on the strength of the deeply romantic title track. Backed by MTV, Spandau Ballet finally found success in the U.S., joining Billy Idol, The Human League, Duran Duran and others as part of the so-called Second British Invasion.
On to other things
The band had another hit on its hands with 1984”s “Parade,” then posted so-so results with 1986”s “Through the Barricades.” Spandau Ballet released one more album, the 1989 flop “Heart Like a Sky,” before calling it quits in 1990, a victim of changing musical trends and ego issues. The band members pursued individual careers both in and outside of music — with Kemp appearing in such films as “The Bodyguard” — occasionally reconvening in the courtroom to battle over songwriting royalties.
Yet, the band members weren”t satisfied with this ending. So, they decided to add another act to the play and regrouped in 2009. The band wasn”t initially sure how the public would react to the reunion but quickly learned that people were still hungry to hear Spandau Ballet. It”s a testament to just how deeply the band”s music — especially the timeless ballad “True” — touched people.
“When I did ”The Bodyguard,” Kevin Costner said to me, ”You know, ”True” belongs to me and my wife. That”s our song,” ” Kemp says. “I wanted to say to him, ”You know what? I thought it was my plumber”s song. Because he said the same thing.”
“You get into cabs and people tell you how much that song means to them. I am so lucky that I wrote and recorded a tune that has been so important to people. And a couple more, maybe.”
Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic.
When: 9 p.m., Friday
Where: The Warfield,