SXSW 2014 Interview: Spandau Ballet and George Hencken

Spandau Ballet

The SXSW Music Festival will host the reunion concert for Spandau Ballet. Even if you didn’t follow the Brit pop charts in the ‘80s, you’ve heard their song “True” in many ‘80s movies. Along with their concert, SXSW Film is premiering a documentary about Spandau Ballet and their reunion. George Hencken directs Soul Boys of the Western World and joined Spandau Ballet band members for an interview about their music and film careers.


CraveOnline: So you saw the name Spandau Ballet written on a bathroom wall?

Gary Kemp: We didn’t. Robert Elms did in Berlin.

Steve Norman: A friend of ours.

Gary Kemp: We didn’t have a name and he had just come back from Berlin which at that time I think was our sort of, it was a place that we all were intrigued by. David Bowie had spent time in Berlin and the electronic music that was coming out of there we were quite inspired by in the beginning, and he had this name.


When he suggested the name, did you look it up?

Steve Norman: No.

Gary Kemp: No, we couldn’t even pronounce it.

Martin Kemp: But now if any band thinks of a name, a new band, you go straight onto the internet and you see if there’s another band.

Gary Kemp: Look it up where? Look it up where?

Martin Kemp: In those days you could do that.

Gary Kemp: We didn’t have computers and stuff.

Martin Kemp: You just asked around.

Gary Kemp: It’s a place in Berlin. It’s like being called Islington Ballet.

Tony Hadley: A band’s always looking for a different kind of name, something that’s going to stand out. When he first told us, I was like, what? But hey, it was different and that’s what you want to be. You want to be different.

Steve Norman: And a bit pretentious.


Was the word ballet sort of a misdirect for rock music?

Gary Kemp: Yeah, we were trying to throw people a bit left field. We didn’t even think we were going to sell records outside of London at that point.


In the movie it shows you had a hard time competing with Duran Duran and Boy George. How do artists today compete with everyone who’s online and on “American Idol” and “The Voice?”

Martin Kemp: I think it’s the same.

Tony Hadley: I don’t think we had a hard time competing with them. Every band that’s releasing records today or 30 years ago or 50 years ago, you’re all in competition with each other. Most bands all get on with each other. We’ve all been friends with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Culture Club, Duran Duran and bands today, but there’s always that competitive spirit and that’s what it’s all about.

Gary Kemp: I think what’s funny in the film is that you see that all these groups, they’re all seen as slightly superhuman once they have success and travel the world, but we all come from the same kind of background. We knew Boy George. He was the hat check girl in the club we were at. Duran were just a bunch of kids in another club that we once visited in Birmingham. It was funny that we ended up dividing up the world between us.


“True” has been in so many ‘80s compilations and movies like Sixteen Candles and The Wedding Singer. What was your favorite use of “True?”

Martin Kemp: Oh, mine has to be Ed Norton on “Modern Family.”

Steve Norman: We’ve been on “The Simpsons” twice.

Martin Kemp: That made me laugh. It was a surprise because I didn’t know that was going to happen.

Gary Kemp: What was the best for us was we also really loved black music, soul music in the ‘70s when we were kids. The idea that you could record a song that would end up spinning into black radio, that we’d end up on “Soul Train.” I think we were one of the few white bands to ever go on there. That actually that song would end up being covered mostly by R&B black artists has been so thrilling for us, to be able to have done that.


Like any big hit, after how many performances did you get sick of “True?”

Tony Hadley: You don’t get sick of it.

John Keeble: I’m still kind of digging it really.

Tony Hadley: I’ll tell you what’s lovely to see is the reaction from the audience. As soon as you strike up those first notes and you could see people go, “Ah, yeah, they’ve done it.”

Gary Kemp: The thing is, in Europe, “Gold” is the biggest song because when we first got together four years ago, Tony had been singing the songs in various ways over the years, I assumed that “True” would be the song that we’d need to end with. He said, “No, ‘Gold’ is the biggest song” and he was right. “Gold” is the biggest song. It’s the anthem.

Tony Hadley: It’s become a real football/soccer song.

Gary Kemp: That’s why George chose to put it at the end, because you can see that crowd who aren’t our crowd. It’s at a festival, just everyone knows the lyrics.


Do people come up to you on the street and sing “True” to you?


Martin Kemp: They do, every day. It gets on your tits.

Tony Hadley: There you are at the supermarket, someone comes up, “Gold!” Oh, sh*t.

Gary Kemp: Especially Kanye West. Actually, did when we were in Germany. Nelly did.


They sing “Gold” or “True?”

Gary Kemp: “True.”


George, you had footage of the band signing at the Tower Records on Sunset and it made me nostalgic because it’s gone now.

Gary Kemp: With Richard Blade talking.

George Hencken: Well, the whole thing, I wanted to evoke the ‘80s that I grew up in. I hadn’t seen a film that really captured the essence of the ‘80s as I remember it. Things like those Tower Records signings is absolutely it.

Were you in the States in the ‘80s?

George Hencken: No, I wasn’t. I was in the U.K. They were so enormous in the U.K. I was at a girls’ boarding school. TV in the evening, “Top of the Pops” was the big thing and I remember being literally trampled in the rush to get the prime seat in the TV room to watch Spandau do “True” on “Top of the Pops.”

Martin Kemp: But I think that’s what George did really well with the film. She uses the band to take you through the ‘80s so that even if you’re not the biggest Spandau Ballet fan, you will still enjoy the movie. It stands on its own two feet as a film.

Gary Kemp: Funny enough, those kids in the Tower Records screaming, there’s a section of them where they’re singing one of our songs. I’d say that the American fans were some of the maddest that we had. They were equaled only by the Italians. On a global scale…

Tony Hadley: Oh, crazy. They got very hysterical. This always surprised me. I never quite understood it because I never felt that way about any artist but the fans get really, really emotional about things.

George Hencken: Even now, I’m always interested after screenings that people will come up and say, “Oh my God, I love Tony so much” or “John’s my favorite.” Everybody has a favorite member of the band. This is one thing that works so well about having a band with five guys in it. There’s someone for everyone.

Gary Kemp: George won’t tell us who her favorite is though.

George Hencken: My favorite changes depending on which person’s film I’ve been editing.

Tony Hadley: What was lovely, and we had 10 years of great success, and in that period, TV, visual, MTV, we were on television all the time. So everyone from mums and dads and aunts and uncles, everybody knew who we were individually and as a band so it was a complete crossover.


Was there any part of Spandau Ballet’s history that was not documented?

George Hencken: No.

Gary Kemp: Not really, but we weren’t bothered about the minutiae and this hit single.

Martin Kemp: I feel we should do an outtake.

George Hencken: There were lots of of bits of the story, I had 400 hours worth of archive footage to look at. Initially there were two parts of the story that felt major, but that there weren’t any pictures for. One was the band’s first performance on the HMS Belfast before they were signed and the second one was the band’s trip to New York. Late in the day, that footage was discovered so that meant quite a substantial reworking of the film. 400 hours worth, there was a lot to look through. I didn’t want to be exhaustive though.

Gary Kemp: What we wanted was that the film wouldn’t shy away from any of our troubles and George, because she had access to raw footage, she had a lot of the interaction between us that maybe would have been covered up normally.

George Hencken: It had to be about the friendships. It had to be about the relationship between the guys in the band rather than some sort of encyclopedic, factual, exhaustive history.

Martin Kemp: Otherwise it just becomes a piece of TV documentary, doesn’t it? Which is exactly what we didn’t want it to be. We wanted the thing to get away from being a rockumentary and turn it into more of a feature.

George Hencken: Facts and figures, you can look up on Wikipedia or whatever. It was about the relationships and the emotions.


Gary and Martin, what was it like selling The Krays at Cannes?

Gary Kemp: I don’t know, just like any other thing, you just turn up and do the interviews, then get back on the plane. I think what the point of that is is that though we’d all done our things outside of the band. What that part of the movie starts to talk about is how we were all feeling that we needed to get away and do other things, and some of us were and that’s what’s happening, but we were kind of in denial of what we were really best at and what we really love to do, and then it takes a while. It takes a long while before we all realized we wanted to come back.

Martin Kemp: Also because we all started in the band really young, I was 18, these guys were 20, so by the time 10 years had passed, everyone felt like they needed to go off and do stuff outside the band.

Tony Hadley: Also things outside of the band change, relationships, marriages, children. That has and effect as well on the way you look at things.

Martin Kemp: So everybody had to go away and do your own thing.

Gary Kemp: Unfortunately it was a bit of a long break.

Tony Hadley: 20 years.

Gary Kemp: I think we’d lived a heightened reality with each other and it was only with each other we could actually remind ourselves that it was real. I think that was one of the things I think we wanted to get back together again.


I am a film guy so I was excited about The Bodyguard and Killing Zoe, and I’ve even seen Waxwork II, Martin.

Gary Kemp: So you’re the one.


I did not see Aspen Extreme.

Martin Kemp: [Gets embarrassed] Oh, that’s enough. Let’s move on.


I remember the trailers for Aspen Extreme. The line was, “That’s where the best powder is.” Was that you saying that?

Martin Kemp: [Laughs] I couldn’t even remember my lines at the time, much less remember them now.

Gary Kemp: There’s that Allison Anders film he’s in where he talks about getting the band back together.

Martin Kemp: Oh, me and John Taylor.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.