For a brief period in the 1980s, a musical movement known as New Romanticism ruled the music charts. Artists such as Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Adam Ant were the big musicians of the day, and slick production values and feathered hairstyles were the staples of MTV (back when they played music videos!) and FM radio. In the middle of all of this madness was Spandau Ballet. They usually weren’t quite as flamboyant or outlandish as many of their counterparts, and they didn’t see as much success in the US (despite being hugely popular in Europe). Despite this, several of their songs, including “True” and “Gold” have come to epitomize the decade for nearly everyone who hears them.
As 80s pop faded away to alternative rock and grunge, Spandau Ballet disappeared as well. When the band released their final album Heart Like a Sky in 1989, it came out only in Europe and failed to make the waves that they had only a few years before with Through the Barricades. During the next decade, the band would descend into acrimony and lawsuits regarding issues such as royalties, and it appeared unlikely that they would ever work together again. Gary and Martin Kemp moved on to acting, Tony Hadley made a bid at a solo career, and Steve Norman disappeared from the public eye. Until the surprise announcement of a reunion in 2009, the band appeared to be finished. Even when that came, the chances of them coming to North America seemed slim – after all, they hadn’t been to the US since 1985, and that tour had been cut short after Norman sustained an injury. The 2009 European tour ended and seemed, for a time, to be a one-off.
So late last year when the band announced that they would not only be doing a world tour, but that they’d be starting it in the US, it came as a surprise to just about everyone. Then the dates scheduled for February were postponed until April to coincide with the release of their documentary film Soul Boys of the Western World, and to some it might have felt like it might never happen after all. But when the band finally came to the 9:30 Club on Tuesday night, DC area fans (and others who had travelled from all over the country) finally got the show that many of them had been waiting for three decades to see. And what a show it was.
As if proving that they were really back, not just as a nostalgia act but as a real ongoing concern, the band opened the night with a new track, “Soul Boy,” which had been recorded for their 2014 The Story – The Very Best of Spandau Ballet release. Throughout the night the band played songs from throughout their career, from a set of songs (including “Reformation,” “Mandolin,” “Glow,” and “To Cut a Long Story Short”) from their first album Journeys to Glory up through the three other new songs released by the reinvigorated band (“Steal,” “This is the Love,” and “Once More”). All six of the bands albums were represented by at least two songs each, even Heart Like a Sky. Almost oddly, the band opted to play only four songs from True (including, of course, the title track and “Gold,” their two biggest hits) despite it being the album that the US audience would be most likely to know. Rather, they relied on the fact that many of the fans present had gone to whatever lengths necessary to obtain the music, and knew all of the songs by heart.
It would be easy to write a return now off as a quick cash-grab based on nostalgia, and the sale of $200 “meet and greet” tickets might not help that perception. But seeing the band onstage quickly puts an end to that perception, as it’s clear that this is a group of guys who really, truly enjoy what they’re doing. If any of the animosity of past years still exists, it’s well hidden – this isn’t a set of individuals doing their best to ignore each other as some reunions turn out to be, but rather a fully integrated group playing off of each other and their long history of working together. Seeing them interact now, it’s hard to believe that they ever weren’t the best of friends.
In the past, and buried in all of the slick 80s production and magazine photos, it might have been easy to write them off as another group of young men relying on their looks to sell records. On stage now, though, it proves to be a different story. Tony Hadley’s voice is still as strong as ever, with only a few points late in the show where he appeared to change the notes to a lower register to save his voice (one of the unfortunate side-effects of “True” being saved as the last song of the main set, as it’s one of the songs that he really belts it out in). Gary Kemp quite literally rocked out on his guitar a number of times, a move that might seem antithetical to a band best known for smooth pop music, but which fit in perfectly with the songs in a live context, giving them more of an edge. Steve Norman moved effortlessly between his saxophone, the instrument he is best known for playing, and other instruments such as guitar and various bits of percussion. And Martin Kemp on bass and John Keeble on drums held down the rhythm section perfectly, keeping the songs moving. Rather than trying to recreate the overproduced 80s sound, the band played the songs in a rawer, more immediate form, which served to breathe new life into them.
In a time when it seems like every band from the 80s is reuniting, this is what a successful reunion looks like. Is this a new era for Spandau Ballet? Will they be able to keep it going, and will we see them again in DC? It’s too early to be certain, but if Tuesday night’s show was any indication, we can only hope that this is only the beginning.
All photos by Matt Condon. Click to embiggen.