Sunday, 12 January 2014

SPANDAU BALLET: True





(#281: 14 May 1983, 1 week)

Track listing: Pleasure/Communication/Code Of Love/Gold/Lifeline/Heaven Is A Secret/Foundation/True

The stories about Spandau Ballet and Trevor Horn vary, according to who tells them and when they are told. The most common is that, following The Lexicon Of Love, Horn had two choices of job; to produce the next Spandau Ballet album (the “safe” option) or to go around the world, or a bit of it, with Malcolm McLaren and put together Duck Rock (the “risky” option). Horn weighed up both options and decided on adventure. The other story, which I remember reading and hearing more of at the time, is that Spandau Ballet had begun working on their third album with Horn at the controls but the two parties didn’t really get on – I remember a comment from Gary Kemp in Smash Hits complaining about Horn’s “schoolmasterly” approach – and the group finally opted for the more approachable south London production team of Tony Swain and Steve Jolley, then best known for their work with Imagination and Bananarama.

The truth – in connection with an album about truth – is probably somewhere in between; Horn had returned the faltering Ballet to the top ten in the spring of 1982 with his magnificent remodelling (remix is too modest a word in this context) of “Instinction,” a record which helped explain why some of us at the time did not need Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin when there was so much glorious new pop demanding our attention. And it is beyond question that some of the songs on True – notably “Gold” – do proceed with an eye on Martin’s lexicon, complete with dramatic piano flourishes and meditational sax solos.

I am not sure that Horn would have smothered these songs under tons of instruments and effects, and certainly none would have benefited from that overload. Swain and Jolley had already proved that the secret of their success as producers was their use of space in music; listen to something like “In And Out Of Love” or “Shy Boy” and you’ll see how the less-is-more approach can be made to work with startling results and understand the importance of not putting too much sound into each mix. But Horn was tangentially involved with at least some of the album; two of its most striking songs, “Code Of Love” and “Pleasure,” take their lead from his original arrangements, and both demonstrate an understanding of spaces and silence which Horn would continue to use to great effect; it’s not that long a way from the disturbing synthesiser drone left hanging in the air like a threatening cloud throughout the long outro of “Code Of Love” to the considered stillness of “Moments In Love.”

The deployment of huge, field-like spaces and the subtle deployment of echo in the music both suit the ambience of True, an album made to be listened to on a Walkman on an extremely hot and sunny day, preferably in the presence of a vast sea (from personal experience I recommend listening to it on a July midweek afternoon in North Berwick, across the Fife coast from St Andrews); indeed that is how I listened to True at the time – on the very same chromium dioxide cassette that I am using for this piece (and which, I am pleased to report, still plays perfectly after nearly thirty-one years).

The music on the record reflects this troubled sunny outlook, too; it was recorded, but not mixed, at Compass Point Studios in Nassau, and the opulent Lynn Goldsmith band photograph reflects the mood perfectly – there’s Tony Hadley at far left, happily bouncing around like a newly-fed leveret, John Keeble standing to attention in his Lonsdale T-shirt, Steve Norman sitting down and grinning. Meanwhile, Martin Kemp glares warily at the camera, underneath a hat, at the back of the picture; to the far right, and with his back turned to the rest of the group completely, is Gary Kemp, in skipper’s cap, sitting on the edge of the sea wall and solemnly contemplating the ocean – Bing Crosby starring in Existential Society.

I am bound to say that I greatly enjoyed True at the time and generally didn’t mind Spandau Ballet, and am aware that in certain early eighties quarters both activities bordered on the illegal. Their initial run of singles was never less than interesting and often considerably more than that (“Chant No 1,” “Instinction” and its strange B-side “Gently,” the 12-inch of “Glow”) and their second album, 1982’s Diamond, was good enough for me to purchase in a multi-12 inch single box set (outrageously priced at £7.99); I particularly recommend “Coffee Club” as an example of how the neurosis of “Born Under Punches” could be creatively recast for a noisier and more optimistic Soho-via-Essex Road club culture.

Many saw True as a sellout, its inherently aspirational nature (or so it initially appeared) too close to Thatcherism to call, and viewed Big Tony as an eighties David Whitfield, bellowing and unsubtle. I’m inclined to be a lot kinder myself; Hadley was never going to be Al Green or Steve Arrington, but his approach – belting out alternating with considered sotto voce – works perfectly well in the environment of the songs which Gary Kemp wrote for him to sing, and has subsequently revealed a very endearing, self-deprecating side to himself. He knows that he is seen by some as being a little absurd, but still tries his best and is happy to sing a song if its melody attracts him and retains his interest, perhaps irrespective of what the song might be saying.

That latter aspect is fairly important, since there are two ways in which True could be viewed. One is as a crass betrayal of former promises of futurism, a white-flagged surrender to cabaret. The other, I think more fruitful, option is to regard it as a rather clever record which isn’t quite what it pretends to be.

It is true (that word again) that, in the early eighties, Kemp didn’t want to stay a “cult” and wanted his songs to have greater commercial appeal. But the eight songs collected in these admirably economic thirty-six-and-a-half minutes do not represent a Bowie-style turnaround. They show a lot more imagination and creativity than anything on Let’s Dance for a start. Why? Because, I think, Spandau Ballet were ambitious, but knew their limitations. They don’t travel beyond their field of smooth jazz-funk (Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do For Love” might be the template for the whole thing) but do continue to reflect a past of Roxy Music (Steve Norman’s alto is strictly in a late-period Andy Mackay setting with bits of Grover Washington Jr) and even Mott the Hoople (Kemp has said that citing Marvin Gaye in “True” was his tip of the hat to Bowie, via Ian Hunter, citing T Rex in “All The Young Dudes”).

But what are the songs on True about? “Code Of Love” might be the record’s key song, since all of the lyrics appear to be written in some kind of code, signifying something else; on one level the songs are about the difficulties that Men and Women have in communicating with each other (“Communication let me down” indeed) with these unspecified “he”s and “she”s. On that surface it is a concept record about a relationship that never goes anywhere, that almost certainly never actually happens. Everywhere Kemp, via Hadley, is let down one way or another – “Pleasure” reasserts the charging, funky Spandau to a distressed vocal which sometimes sounds like Simon Le Bon (the “holding” in the line “Warm within the hand she’s holding”). “Communication” sets its deliberately ungainly swing against an organ motif that could have come from Tarkus.

“Code Of Love” has stayed with me, however; its quietly needling guitar line suggesting Culture Club-style reggae-lite, and yet the song never truly resolves – it simply, and very slowly, fades into the distance with Norman’s melancholic sax, Kemp’s Brothers Gibb-ish backing vocal and that haunting, static synthesiser cloud (Moon Safari is a mere fifteen years down the highway). Nor is “Gold” particularly reassuring, driven as it is by two conflicting motors; the urge for material prosperity and the corresponding traduction of human relations. Conservative or Labour – which way to go? The song’s essential unrest is reflected in the ingenious chord modulations heard within its verses, and Hadley’s “always believing” sounds very far from a man convinced.

But then there is “Lifeline,” a bigger hit than “Instinction” in the autumn of 1982, and it seems to be about more than just boy meets and fails to understand girl; “Changing her colours, she’s off to the shore,” “There’s a power in his voice and it makes her feel so sure,” “A democracy of sorts that justifies the sun (or justifies The Sun)” – is this about the Falklands war, and are there two women being sung about on this record, one bearing the name of Thatcher? This can, of course, only be conjecture; whereas “Heaven Is A Secret” is at root a very touching song about being “far from her arms tonight,” being at a distance from the one you love and not knowing whether or how to touch, to make things known. In contrast the determinedly upbeat “Foundation” could, with some change of perspective and arrangement, be Weller’s Style Council (“We’ll build a foun-DA-TION!”). But the writer knows that this can never really be built up.

And so the record ends with the title song, an inevitable number one probably from the moment it was conceived (and plaudits have to go to the “sixth member” of Spandau Ballet, Jess Bailey, who provides most of the keyboard work throughout the album), and a song addressed expressly to the listener, or possibly even a single, specific listener, all about the difficulties of writing a song, about the impossibility of saying what you actually want to say out loud (nowhere on this record do the words “I love you” appear, although “Live and let live in love” does turn up in “Lifeline”), about listening to Marvin Gaye all night long, knowing that he was all about rising above his circumstances, and wondering if you’ll ever have the nerve to do anything like “I Want You” or “Just To Keep You Satisfied,” wondering why it won’t come, listening to and taking in “Sexual Healing” and Midnight Love, paraphrasing that book by Nabokov that she sent you (for “seaside hands” read “seaside arms,” and “With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue” comes from the same source), thinking about Paul bloody Weller (“I’ve bought a ticket to the world/But now I’ve come back again” echoes the “I scoured the whole universe/And caught the last train home” of “English Rose”) and…waiting and wondering, as the song slowly fades into the ether, with one heartstopping suspension of rhythm in the fadeout, as though breathing had temporarily ceased, before life starts again.

“Bring me closer!” cried Clare Grogan, the secret addressee of True, a couple of months later on a phenomenally good album with the very pertinent title of Bite, while warning: “Something that you do to me/Fills me with unease.” Heaven is perhaps not so much of a secret now, since Gary Kemp revealed in The Guardian last May that he did indeed have a crush on Ms Grogan, to the point of travelling to Glasgow to have tea with her parents, but that nothing came of it (the late David Band designed the sleeve for True and its attendant singles, as he had done for the early works of Altered Images). So the truth which he wanted to be made known was an unrequited passion, and the knowledge that getting famous, and having them spell your name correctly in Vladivostok, was not enough in itself, not in the eighties. And True hit so big, I suspect, because it bore a near-naked personal nature; the compass then moved outward, the detail became blurry. But the record worked, and I think still works, by virtue of its demonstration that even walking in the prosperous early eighties sunshine with the blue in the air and a Walkman clamped to one’s ears is only enjoyable when you know that life isn’t just about that. I would give this album the alternative title of BouĂ©.

Next: Caught between Loch Ness and the Sahara.

3 comments:

Evan Parks said...

An intriguing and balanced appraisal of a much maligned album that I recall pending an inordinate amount of time defending in the school playground.

It always seemed to me that True was a anxious reaction to the relative commercial non-event that was Diamond, which to my ears was frequently diverting in its imagery and experimental textures and its curious homage to. Japan in tracks such as Innocence and Science and the weird Missionary. But the overriding impression was that Tony Hadley was wholly unsuitable for such material. With True, it seems that Gary Kemp, in addition to his desire to match the stateside success of his contemporaries, was writing in a more considered way with his frontman's strengths firmly in mind. Hadley sounds at ease here, with little of the obvious over-emphasis in his vocals, working with the mood rather than against it.

I did hope, however, that True would mark something of an artistic one-off rather than the underwhelming segue of Parade which seemed a little lifeless by comparison. That record smacked of the same witless complacency that you correctly identify with Let's Dance. They never recovered the poise and possibility of the best moments of True.

Great to have you back and loving the rapid dispatches this week, please keep it up! I wish I was in publishing because this whole project deserves a far wider profile and concurrent sense of cultural importance.

All the very best
Karl

Simon said...

I really like Spandau, always did. They were I think the teen-pop group it was ok for the boys to like. A lot of that had to do with Weller talking about and being influenced by Chant No1 I think, but they were also a band of lads, which meant that you could like them and Madness, without people at school calling you names for it.

True is a great album, nicely rounded album. And I listen to it as much as any of the more acceptable albums from the era, your Dares and Lexicons. The singles from it are as good as any other single from the time, and for me 1980-83 is my favourite time for singles ever.

The thing about this album, and I find Duran Duran to be the same - considering it was considered shallow throwaway stuff by some - I believed them. They sounded like they meant it. I don't mean that in a blues band/paid their dues kind of way; I can't stand that idea of authenticity. But this was music they wanted to make, with Gary Kemp's heart at least in it. I think some of the time he was as serious about his music as Weller, if not as honest and straight as Weller lyrically.

Finally, they were a local band to me, I went to the same school as Martin Kemp. Other notable ex pupils were Christos Tolera from Blue Rondo A La Turk,Lee Gorman from The Ants and Bow Wow Wow and Ronnie Scott.

There was also Lee McDonald who was Zammo in Grange Hill, but that's a whole other level of star!

Evan Parks said...

I had more than a few problems with my contemporaries who just plain hated the whole slick suits image probably more than the music because I do recall some solidarity for the berserk Instinction and Chant No 1 as you rightly say, Simon.

They seemed to be such a restless band, though, shifting musical styles and influences which made their singles at least pretty original and often fascinating. But Gary Kemp was never a prolific writer and in the end I think the weight of responsibility as the sole composer took its toll. The end for me was the Live Aid gig, combination of Hadley's ludicrous long black coat and the perplexing decision to air the non-event that was Virgin. But by then the tide was turning for all the acts from that era and many careers never recovered.