British new wave legends Spandau Ballet gave American high school kids one thing in 1983: the chance to slow dance, courtesy of their #1 hit “True.” The song’s breathy, smooth sound and the band’s dandy suit look for their music video gave them fame in the U.S., followed up by success from MTV hits like “Gold,” “Communication,” and “Only When You Leave.” But in their UK homeland, and throughout the world, in fact, the band experienced a much larger following. The saga of their international rise, acrimonious demise and triumphant comeback are chronicled in the documentary Soul Boys of the Western World, in theaters this week and also available through Video On Demand.
The film successfully follows the band from their working class London neighborhoods through the band formation and club life transformation to the worldwide chart conquerors, all against the backdrop of the emerging music, politics and fashion of the late 70s and early 80s. Filmmaker George Hencken used archival footage, private home movies and new interviews with band members Tony Hadley, Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Steve Norman and John Keeble to connect details that reveal an intimate, fascinating and complicated behind-the-scenes story, stretching from post-war childhoods through the winged excesses of the 80s and right up to their sold-out Wembley reunion concerts.
The band gathered at the IFC Center in New York on August 29th for an audience Q&A following a screening of the film. Here are some excerpts from the session.
Q: What did you think of the film when you first saw it?
Gary: It’s a three act story. If you were to write a fictitious story about a band, you would probably write it in a similar fashion, you know? Rags to Riches, you know? And them beating each other up and redemption at the end. The most important factor in making this was finding this brilliant director George Hencken. She was completely in control of finding the story in all the hours of archive…[It was] us stepping back and allowing her to find the through line out of all that material.
Q: How do you think this band, if you had to start out all over again, would play today?
Gary: I don’t think it really could have existed in the same way. We sort of thrived on mystique. We were actually called elitist at the time because people weren’t allowed into the gigs. They were full! You couldn’t get in anymore. We kept journalists back, and we didn’t allow record companies to hear our music, we didn’t send them tapes, and I think what was going on at the time was a sort of tribal elitism. Youth culture is like that. If it was today, someone would have filmed our first gig at the Blitz, put it up on YouTube with the word “bollocks” under it, and that would have been the end of it. (laughs) You could also get away with not having a lot of music talent with a lot of good talk.
John: You can only do what’s in front of you. You can only live in your era. Obviously, the live music arena has been a constant as to how music is delivered. People take music from the internet and stuff, but the live arena really gets down to basics.
Q: This is a question for Gary, as to those songs that you wrote so long ago. Playing those songs on tour now, with all that has happened with the band as we saw in the documentary, are there any songs that have changed their meaning for you when you play them?
Gary: Yes, there are. “Through the Barricades,” I wrote that, as you see in the film, from an Irish influence. It was a Romeo and Juliet story about a Protestant and Catholic couple coming together. It was very much about that place. The only mention of that, though, is the Yates’ line “terrible beauty.” Then, we played in Berlin as the Wall was coming down, and it became about them. It’s now about us. After the way George presented it in the film, when we were doing the arena shows in Europe, there was a clip of us falling apart and getting back together again and playing “Through the Barricades.” Forever more now, “Through the Barricades” is about our story. So yes, that one is.
Q: This is a question for Martin. Your son is in a band, so how often do you find yourself holding back on your advice or do you give him a lot of advice?
Martin: My son’s band is finished! (laughs) But he is involved in entertainment, so your question is still relevant. You try to give them as much as you can, you know, but you also have to let them go their own way. If you don’t, they will forever come back at you.
Steve: Can I just tag on the end of that, my son is in a band, and I’m saying to him, “really, do get a proper job,” and then he’s on to modeling, and I’m saying, “really, really?” and finally he said, “Dad, I’m thinking of taking up acting!” and I said, “That’s it.” (throws hands in the air and laughs)
Q: Are there any projects that you worked on that never saw the light of day, but you wish it had?
Martin: I think there is one, but I don’t think we should have done it.
Gary: He’s just kidding. I think we’re really lucky. You always have ambitions to go further, setting yourself new goals. We were going to do our third album, and all the tracks were going to be produced by Trevor Horn, called “The Pleasure Project.” It didn’t work out with Trevor, and luckily he did it with someone else and it was a huge hit. No regrets, really. [Editor – This may be referring to the Trevor Horn-produced Frankie Goes To Hollywood album Welcome to the Pleasuredome]
John: As an artist, you want to get your art in front of as many people as possible, and we did.
Q: How was Live Aid from all the other arena shows?
Tony: It was just an amazing day. I mean, to be there, in Wembley Stadium with 80,000 people, Prince Charles, Princess Di, all your contemporaries, all your heroes backstage, and knowing that you were doing something that was changing the way people viewed charity. In the music business, as we saw it, well, it was like we said before, “get a proper job” and all, but this was a bunch of musicians and artists actually making a difference when it came to the famine in Ethiopia. It was an amazing, amazing time.
John: and more important, we were on bill with Queen! And David Bowie! The Who! I mean, what’s not to like.
Gary: Also, it was a great leveler. Can you imagine? It’s like the scariest “X Factor” audition in the world! That’s when it all changed. I mean, there were politicians and Geldof, and he was the one who would go up to Thatcher and say, “What are you going to do about the taxes on this?” They couldn’t do anything about it. It took the power out of their hands. It showed the huge power of music, not just emotionally, but it actually gets things done. And you know, George really looks at those sea changes, all those things that changed in the 80s, cable television and globalization in a sense. Apartheid, the Berlin Wall coming down, and with Live Aid, people saw that they could make a difference greater than just crossing off a box every four or five years.
Martin: It’s funny, sometimes it years later before you realize that you were in this important moment in retrospect, but that day we all knew that we were making something that was history.
Gary: Actually, we knew that at the Blitz club! We felt there was a buzz just because there was only about 50 people in the room, but it was at critical mass. There was an energy. It was like putting a group of creative in a room and say to them, “Design the next decade.” There were people outside the Blitz trying to sign up people to be creatives in advertising agencies.
Q: One of the through lines of the film that keeps coming through is that you are working class lads. Can you speak a little about being proud of that, and to what extent is that rise out of it possible today?
John: Working class was just what we were born into. It was our reality. We knew no different.
Martin: I said in the film, our parents felt that we were the first generation who could do anything we wanted. Create anything. Our parents always said to me, as all of ours did, that you can do anything you want to do in life. It was never necessarily the same before that. We had an incredible optimism in our generation.
Tony: I hate the class system, whether it’s lower class, middle class or upper class. We had the opportunity to do something with our lives, and in some ways, it’s less of a reality today than it was even back then.
Q: We all saw that you were the first to sing at the Band Aid session, but who sang after you?
Tony: I was so bloody nervous I don’t remember.
Gary: He was in the toilet half the time. It wasn’t Boy George, because at the time he was in New York. Geldof told him, “You’ve gotta get your fuckin’ ass over here,” so he flew over on the Corcorde.
Tony: “Feed the World, fly Corcorde.” Brilliant. (laughs)
Q: Do you miss those outfits?
Tony: No. (laughs)
Steve: We were always proud of what we did. It was of its time, as well. Walking in the room looking like Robin Hood or whatever, we were always very proud. There’s no shame in it. At the time, it was shocking. I remember coming back from my girlfriend’s house, and I’m on the tube wearing a kilt. People were going to work, and they were looking. It was like, yes, that’s exactly what you should be doing – looking.
Gary: I’m still obsessed with clothes. That’s never changed in me. I’m obsessed with what young people are wearing, and I’m really disappointed. No one is looking very exciting or very wild anymore – walking through Soho and a gang comes around the corner in stovepipe hats or something mad! I think it’s because people can dress up their Facebook page or Instagram it. They can express themselves, and they don’t even need a place. We were centered around a club. The history of youth culture or pop culture has always been about certain places. The Marquee or whatever, Two Eyes, and now you can find your tribes by staying at home.
Tony: The one thing that hasn’t really changed is playing live. We show up, we plug in, I’ve got a microphone. I hate to use the cliché, but we are really an organic band. We don’t use trickery or anything else. And in effect, it hasn’t really changed since we were young kids. What we love more than anything is playing live. It’s the best. We’re much better musicians than we were, even though we were good at the beginning. (laughs)