Sunday, October 25, 2009


Twenty years after their last longplayer of original material, "Heart Like A Sky", Spandau Ballet triumphantly returned to the UK albums chart this week at #7 with "Once More", which features acoustic reimagings of their biggest hits plus two, brand new songs.

Their last top 10 album was "Gold - The Best Of Spandau Ballet" which, coincidentally, also peaked at #7 in 2001.

The original, five members of the band put aside their differences and stormed the live stage for a reunion tour which stopped in London's O2 Arena for three sold out nights last week. With rewards points in hand, I scooped up a flight, booked my hotel and made the trip over the Atlantic to witness the third of their three, highly anticipated, hometown shows.

Much has been made of this reunion after such an acrimonious split that played out in the British tabloids in the 90s. Having worked with both sides of the divided ranks over the last 15 years, it was a pleasure to see the five friends return to doing what they love most. It was clear from their playful camaraderie that they were a unified, creative front once more.

As the lights dimmed in the arena, a montage of footage featuring each band member, followed by each of their names just in case anyone forgot over the passing years, was projected onto a sheer curtain at the front of the stage. Each member received squeals of delight from the mostly 40+ crowd. Clearly, Martin Kemp, resident bass player and "Eastenders" heartthrob garnered the most adulation, which was expected.

Then, five shadowy figures appeared behind the draping which dropped to the floor and revealed a reinvigorated Spandau Ballet as they launched into the sinuous, gritty synthiness of "To Cut A Long Story Short" and barreled through a two hour parade of hits peppered with a few surprises.

After the rubbery bass and New Romantic arty stance of "The Freeze" and a high octane version of "Highly Strung", Tony Hadley addressed the audience in his usual, smooth and affable way by asking the audience what they've been up to for the last twenty years. That statement drew cheers and laughter from the crowd who had packed the house.

The band members, suitably dressed in their trademark fine suits and casual couture, carried the show with nothing more than a jumbo screen at the back of the stage and their instruments in hand. This reunion was clearly about the music. The fact that they could carry a two hour show of hits without a dry ice machine, laser show, pyro or other unnecessary spectacle is a testament to their collective talent. Tony, always dashing, never removed his tie or blazer during the entire show including the encore. Substance and style all the way.

"Highly Stung" was followed by a fiery take on "Only When You Leave" and the dreamy, "I'll Fly For You", both hit singles from their fourth longplayer, "Parade". "How Many Lies", the power ballad lifted as the third single from their fifth album, "Through The Barricades", slowed the tempo down a bit, but it was obvious and quite astounding, that Tony Hadley's voice has more range and power than ever. His impressive stage presence, passionate performance and relative ease scaling the upper end of his vocal range were delivered with effortless grace.

It was evident at this point in the show that Spandau Ballet played musical hopscotch throughout the 80s. In retrospect, with every single they seemingly tried on a new style whether it was the electro stylings of their early work, the funk workouts which dotted their albums, the posh soulboy ballads that marked their imperial phase, or the rock leanings of their later material. This is a band that used the full palate of musical colors and weren't afraid to experiment. As the evening progressed, it was clear that Gary Kemp, the main songwriter in the band, has always been a rock classicist at heart rather than a dedicated follower of pop fashion. All of the songs were performed with expert delivery almost stripped completely of some of their dated stylings which allowed them to shine and stand as timeless compositions.

The biggest kick for me occurred during "How Many Lies". While watching Gary play his distinctive parts on a buttery yellow guitar, I recognized it as the one he used when we wrote and recorded a few songs together only a year or two ago just before Spandau Ballet reformed. I got a little zing from that particular memory which stands out as one of my professional highlights.

First surprise of the evening was a rocked out, "Virgin", a song tucked away on "Through The Barricades" that, at one time, was rumored to have been considered as a single. It was followed by a completely reworked, more organic version of "She Loved Like Diamond" which was their first single to miss the top 40 back in 1982.

Fast forward back to the present as Tony introduced "Once More", the first, new Spandau Ballet song in twenty years complete with sexy, sax solo in the middle. I think it's about time we bring sax breaks back into pop music. At the key change toward the end of the song, Tony belted out some of the highest notes of his career with amazing ease.

Then it was back to their massive catalog of hits with the mellow "Round And Round" which was accompanied by old, grainy, home movies of the band in their very early days interspersed with current shots. The footage was received with rapturous applause by the audience, who by this time, was eating from the palm of Tony's hand. He certainly has maintained his ability to carry a crowd on a musical journey and engage them with his grand and gracious gestures.

A few more surprises in the shape of "Man In Chains", another track from "Through The Barricades", which was followed by the band leaving the stage with the exception of Tony and Gary who sat front and center on stools for an intimate, acoustic performance of "With The Pride", a song from "Parade" which Gary described as one which holds a very special place in his heart.

As the rest of the band returned to the stage, the haunting intro to the title track from "Through The Barricades" floated through the arena and the venue was flooded with the glow of hundreds of mobile phones as the band proudly delivered an elegiac performance of what has become one of their signature songs which was inspired by the strife that embattled North Ireland in the 80s.

After a few downtempo numbers, it was time for a funk frenzy including the brassy, "Instinction" which Tony sang with backing singer, Dawn Joseph, who's bleached blonde quiff put all 80s revivalists to shame. It was followed by the brazen, full throttle romp of "Communication", an ebullient "Lifeline" and a medley of "Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)" merged with the erotic, "Paint Me Down", all of which showcased Martin Kemp's significant bass chops.

A Spandau Ballet show wouldn't be complete without "True", the ultimate love song and Marvin Gaye tribute which launched the quintet into the international stratosphere. With a backdrop of twinkling lights and another wave of glowing mobile phones from the audience, the band closed their show but not before a sprightly run through the anthemic "Fight For Ourselves" and the towering beauty of "Gold".

The following is the full set list from Spandau Ballet's "Reformation" tour.

1. To Cut A Long Story Short
2. The Freeze
3. Highly Strung
4. Only When You Leave
5. I'll Fly For You
6. How Many Lies
7. Virgin
8. She Loved Like Diamond
9. Once More
10. Round And Round
11. Man In Chains
12. With The Pride
13. Through The Barricades
14. Instinction
15. Communication
16. Lifeline
17. Chant No. 1 (I Don't Need This Pressure On)/Paint Me Down
18. True


19. Fight For Ourselves
20. Gold

Sadly, no songs from their final album, "Heart Like A Sky", made an appearance in the show. The sexy and seductive strains of "Raw" or the glorious, Latin tinged "Be Free With Your Love" would've been welcome additions.

Luckily, my charm and wit was put to good use by allowing me to attend the afterparty in the bar on the main floor of the O2. I had the opportunity to spend a little time with Tony and have a lovely chinwag with drummer, John Keeble who, as always, was super chatty and seriously charming. However, he's a little camera shy when the spotlight turns off. Martin was swamped, as is the burden of all top level pinups at any age. Steve Norman, percussionist and saxophone player extraordinaire, had the briefest of conversations with me as he was ensconced in conversations with friends and family.

I got a chance to chat with Gary about possible US dates which are being negotiated at the moment. We talked about the thrill, for both the band and their fans, in the light of an unexpected, full on reunion tour and new album. He and the rest of the gents in the band are truly moved by the overwhelming response received thus far. They are all looking forward to enjoying every moment.

As a music obsessed teenager - which is quite like being a music obsessed adult only with less time on my hands - Spandau Ballet were one of my favorite bands. I wanted to write poetic odes to unrequited love like Gary Kemp (who has written at least three, bona fide classics) and sing with the deep emotion and unbridled confidence of Tony Hadley.

Spandau Ballet hardly ever appeared on the arty sleeves of their albums and singles. I admired them for their mix of sophisticated arrangements and urban stylings. Imagine my delight, mixed with slight trepidation, when the opportunity to work with them presented itself years later in my professional life. Spandau Ballet inspired me both musically and visually, having left an indelible imprint on my creative endeavors over the years.

It was a tremendous joy to see them live for the first time ever. They never really embarked on a fully fledged tour of the US during the height of their success, so endless hours viewing their lush, intricate videos had to suffice. Finally, I was able to experience their electric, live performance which I've only ever seen on television when they played Live Aid that glorious day in July 1985. With the current, "Reformation" tour, they proved that they might be older but their fire still burns brightly after a long spell away from the game.

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