‘The fashion was the best thing about those days,” Martin Kemp says, reflecting on the 1980s. “There were no boundaries. One day you could get dressed up as a soldier and the next as a 1920s alpinist.”
With hindsight, perhaps the most valuable cultural contribution the 1980s made to our lives was to deepen our appreciation of other decades. Fashion constants included blouses as bouffant as hairdos, avant-garde make-up (on both sexes) and Dynasty-chic shoulder pads. No one came out the other side of it looking good, not even Spandau Ballet, the bastions of the new-romantic movement, who have brought the era back to life in their new documentary, Soul Boys of the Western World.
Ostensibly about the band’s rise, fall and reunion, the George Hencken-directed rock documentary is also a defence of the 1980s; an attempt to anchor its music and fashion to the shortcomings of punk and the effect of Margaret Thatcher’s reign.
The day after its premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in London – which was also shown simultaneously at 200 cinemas around Ireland and Britain – we’re a stone’s throw from the venue, at the Kensington home of their record company.
Basking in the glory of the evening, at which they also performed at the prestigious venue for the first time since 1981, Tony Hadley, the band's frontman, is beaming from ear to ear. "I love the fact that we set the story against the backdrop of the 1980s. Just looking at some of that archived footage is amazing in itself," he says. "We lived in a completely different age, an age of crisis, where there was something in the air. We were getting dressed up, going out, talking of how we'd change the world – London was an exciting place to be."
Once a pin-up for every perm-haired teen in Europe, Hadley is now 54, but the years have been fair to the Islington-born singer and his bandmates, Martin and Gary Kemp, John Keeble and Steve Norman. Bar the hindrance of an acrimonious 20-year gap – more of which later – the band have been going strong, unchanged in formation, since they took shape in the Soho clubs of Billys and Blitz.
As the film documents, the clubs were at the forefront of London's alternative youth culture, spawning a loose group of creatives known as Blitz Kids, and the new-romantic movement that Spandau Ballet took to the mainstream by way of hit singles True and Gold.
Such was the band's prominence that they were an obvious choice for the seminal 1984 Band Aid single, Do They Know It's Christmas?, which also featured George Michael, Paul McCartney, Sting, David Bowie and U2, among others – although Gary Kemp remembers the Irish group as being the least welcome.
"When U2 turned up in the studio doing Band Aid, everyone was whispering why Geldof had invited this failing post-punk Irish group," he says, idly strumming his guitar. "We figured it was only because they were his mates. It was pre-Joshua Tree, when they were an indie band and not the global success they are now. I think Bono did a very good job of making Live Aid work for them and turn their career."
There’s an undertone of distaste, but ask if there was any rivalry at the time and Hadley shrugs the notion away. “We had different types of music, I never thought there was any correlation between us,” he says. “I think they sat down and thought, How can we achieve stadium rock status? And then had a good look at Queen.”
The group insist they’re friendly with U2, mainly from their time as tax exiles in Dublin in the mid 1980s, when they frequented the Pink Elephant club along with members of Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Def Leppard. “We became very close with Def Leppard,” says Hadley. “I remember watching Spinal Tap with them once, which was funny because they didn’t quite get it.”
The decade wasn’t all star-studded nights out, hit anthems and cause celebres for Spandau Ballet. The film also tackles their thorny issues with a surprising simplicity, a result of the band keeping their noses out of the process.
As tensions grew between songwriter Kemp and frontman Hadley, the group came to an end in 1989 when the Kemp brothers were offered roles in The Krays. Seemingly the last nail on the coffin came with a high-profile court battle over royalties in 1999, which Gary Kemp won, leaving Hadley, Keeble and Norman with a £1 million (€1.3 million) legal fee for the pleasure of the loss.
The documentary shows a dark side to Gary Kemp. Never mind the scene in which he's reading The Prince, by Machiavelli; more than one piece of archive footage shows him undermining Hadley during television interviews with glances that could send lesser frontmen running for the hills.
At one point Martin – ever the Switzerland of the group – admits to stepping in.
Away from the other members, Hadley recalls those scenes uncomfortably, insisting he wasn’t victimised. “They’re the parts that I didn’t like about the film. There are behind the scenes parts which nobody sees, where me and him would have massive arguments. Huge arguments. I just didn’t want to make the situation worse on camera. Plus the court case shows another side of me, where I say, ‘Hold on, I’m not having this.’ ”
Contrary to expectation, Gary Kemp is the least intimidating member of the group. He appears intelligent, passionate, wholly in tune with the mellow dynamics that could come only with a fiftysomething group who once had it all. Whether that’s age, experience or other, he ruminates on his portrayal frankly.
“I think everything in the film is how it was,” he says. “It’s what happened, and we couldn’t get involved in saying what might or might not look good. I think we all come out of the film really well by the end. There are moments when I’m embarrassed by myself, but that was the story of the group. That’s who we were.”
It's all change now. The group's new batch of material, released as part of a greatest-hits double album, sees Kemp concede songwriting duties to Hadley in the Trevor Horn-produced song Soul Boy. It's the first time any other member has taken the reins in their 38-year history.
At their 2009 reunion, the band said that the issue of royalties was a “private matter”, but Hadley admits that they’ve struck a fairer bargain since their reformation. “We came to an arrangement, so we’re all happy with what we did privately, and I think it’s best it remains private,” he says. “We resolved our issues five years ago.”
He does, however, urge newer musicians to learn from his mistakes. “At the start, there’s a lot of handshakes and eagerness to just get a record out. But you have to step back from that and get everything documented. Make sure you have good representation both as a band and individually, even if it pisses the other members off. You have to be a little business savvy.”
The band says their re-formation is long-term, and it coincides with the return of Culture Club and their arch rivals Duran Duran. There's talk of another album, and an extensive world tour next year where they'll dust off the likes of Through the Barricades, Communication and Chant No 1. Let's just hope the alpinist outfit stays in the attic.
Strange days: Who were the Blitz Kids?
Run by Steve Strange, the Blitz nightclub in Covent Garden was a breeding ground for creativity at the start of the decade. The Tuesday-night gatherings gave rise to Spandau Ballet, and other Blitz Kids include fellow artists Boy George and Sade; designer John Galliano; milliner Stephen Jones; Pete Burns of Dead or Alive; GQ editor Dylan Jones, and Emmy award-winning Game of Thrones' costume designer Michele Carragher – "which is why everyone in Game of Thrones look like New Romantics," John Keeble says.
Soul Boys of the Western World is on limited release. The Very Best of Spandau Ballet: The Story is released on Rhino on Monday