21st century soul boy

Spandau Ballet’s chief songwriter Gary Kemp lets Jim Ottewill in on his songwriting secrets…

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  • By Paul Nichols
  • 7 Apr 2014
  • min read
‘David Bowie’s performance of Starman on Top of the Pops was a turning point. That was when music became something not just in my head, but in my groin.’

It’s an all-encompassing musical epiphany but unsurprising for a man as infatuated with the art of songwriting as Spandau Ballet’s guitarist and chief writer Gary Kemp.

Ever since Bowie locked eyes with him as a kid through his TV screen, Gary’s obsession with the magic of pop music has only grown and grown. From Spandau’s early days dancing at Steve Strange’s Blitz Club to mega-stardom with hits like Gold and True and beyond, he’s spent more than 30 years helping set the benchmark for the styles and sounds of modern pop.

Soul Boys of the Western World

2014 is shaping up to be a big year for Gary and the band. After 25 million record sales, six multi-platinum albums, 23 hit singles and an infamous publishing court wrangle, Spandau Ballet’s story is now being committed to celluloid. Soul Boys of the Western World, directed by George Hencken and due for release in the UK later this year, uses rare archive footage to document the trials and tribulations of a group who all the girls wanted to bed and all the boys wanted to be.

‘I’m really pleased with it,’ says Gary. ‘It’s the story of a band, warts and all. It’s a story of the friendship of a group of working class kids who ended up selling records all over the world, had amazing success, then smashed each other up in court. It’s a film we wanted those people who don’t even care about or know the band to enjoy. I’m hoping we’ve achieved that.’

Early years

For Gary, and his brother Martin (who, when not acting, plays bass in Spandau Ballet), their first run-ins with music all started in Islington in London where they grew up. ‘The first music I remember was from the pub next door,’ he recalls. ‘The sound of the family upright piano played every evening and came into my bedroom through the wall.’

It was the start of a rapid musical education. Gary saved all his pocket money and Saturday job wages to afford his first records while he was famously bought a recording device by Trevor Huddleston, the Bishop of Stepney, after impressing him with his musical abilities. While he went on to form a pub-rock band during his teens, it was an all important Sex Pistols gig he attended with future Spandau manager Steve Dagger and band member Steve Norman which led to him seeking a more futuristic sound.

‘We went to see the Sex Pistols play at Screen on the Green in August 1976,’ Gary explained. ‘Obviously they blew us away but the way people were dressed was just as important. Siouxsie Sioux, the Clash and the Buzzcocks all played too. The following day I was meant to rehearse with the pub rock group. I went in and resigned.’

Spandau Ballet were later formed at school and led by Gary and Steve Norman, alongside Tony Hadley, John Keeble and later Martin. The band experimented with various sounds and styles before falling into London’s Blitz Club in Soho and the excitement of the capital’s new club scene. It proved to be another pivotal moment for the band.

‘We changed our sound, bought synths and started playing electronic dance music. We played event gigs as we knew our audience wasn’t interested in attending regular pubs. So we performed on HMS Belfast and in cinemas before Janet Street Porter filmed a TV documentary about us. Within a few weeks we were signed and went straight into the charts with a top five record.’

Taking on the charts

While early success came with 1980 debut single To Cut a Long Story Short and an early association with the eyeliner and glitter of the New Romantics, it wasn’t until Gary shrugged off worries about being fashion conscious that he says he found his songwriting feet. It was the slick pop of third album True in 1983 that not only marked a new musical chapter for the band, but heralded their entrance into the elite club of global stardom.

He says: ‘I felt an absolute sense of relief. All I wanted to do was write great songs. We couldn’t have been a cult band forever or worry what club London wanted us to do. Let me just sit down and write some songs from my heart.

‘I wrote the True album and went to record it in Nassau in the Bahamas to get some flavour of the blue-eyed soul music. Steve Norman started playing the saxophone. We kind of invented a sound and from then on, I found it much easier to write.’

Gold and True

If the playing of your song is counted as attending an event, then Gary Kemp has probably been to more weddings, eighties night clubs and Olympic celebrations than any other songwriter.

‘Gold, always believe in your soul…’ opens one of British pop’s most-loved choruses while the statistics around True are jaw-dropping. The song has been performed on North American radio five million times and has featured in numerous films including John Hughes’ first movie Sixteen Candles and sung by Steve Buscemi in The Wedding Singer. It’s also been sampled and adapted by the likes of PM Dawn, Black Eyed Peas and Nelly, illustrating its strength and global appeal. Did Gary feel it would be a hit from the moment he wrote it?

‘I felt really good about True and Through the Barricades,’ he says. ‘I remember thinking with the latter that it was a special song. I liked True but it wasn’t until I started recording it and discovered the backing vocal that I believed in it in the same way.’
It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve nailed it and your thoughts and songs represent millions of people on a bigger stage

While the band’s popularity has endured, it certainly hit a peak in the mid-eighties after True and Live Aid. According to Gary, groups who achieve such phenomenal success as Spandau can only ride the wave when it happens. He explains: ‘All bands have their optimum moment when they are absolutely in the moment. That can’t last forever. There’s only a short window when they represent their time. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’ve nailed it and your thoughts and songs represent millions of people on a bigger stage.’

Penning the hits

Gary’s songwriting career was celebrated by the music industry back in 2012 when he received the Outstanding Song Collection prize at the Ivor Novello Awards. But even for an artist with such an accolade and wealthy back catalogue, the creative process can still be a tricky one.

‘You’re very nervous when you write a song,’ he explains. ‘You like it for personal reasons but the hardest thing is playing it to other members of the band. They’re much more objective. They don’t hear your arrangements in their heads.’
For me, writing is a place to go on my own, to solve problems and to get in touch with myself

For Gary, songwriting is a personal, cathartic act and something to help release the stress of the everyday. ‘It’s easier to write a song on your own. You feel what the lyrics should be about when you’re writing the melody. Often other people come along and don’t have the same mindset. For me, writing is a place to go on my own, to solve problems and to get in touch with myself.’

Once More and beyond

Spandua Ballet’s latest album Once More was released back in 2009 to mark their reunion. Mainly featuring re-recordings and two newly written songs, the songwriting process was a way of healing the band’s wounds after their public fall out in the courts.

On Once More, I started writing the music, then I decided to get Steve Norman to come over. He was one of the guys who took me to court over publishing so it was really an olive branch. He came round and did a fantastic job of the lyrics.’

The court case is obviously still a sore point for Gary but he’s philosophical about the past. ‘I regret the whole upset. We spent so long apart and wasted so much time and potential. I wish I had reached out sooner and tried to stop it happening. But it is part of our story and makes for a damn good movie.’

While Gary’s CV shows that he’s been busy writing prose, music for other artists and acting, he sounds energised about the Spandau Ballet film to the point where the group are heading back into the studio later this year.

‘I’m in the process of writing new songs right now and I’m really excited about it. At the heart of it all, I’m a geezer in Spandau Ballet. Even though we had a long hiatus, when we got back together, it felt like home. That’s what I made, what I’m part of and who I am.’