Getting Personal with Gary Kemp

Written by: Claire Holly Davies

It’s a strange sort of experience to find yourself in a room watching a person in the public eye being interviewed. But that’s where I found myself last week, being a fly-on-the-wall of a live interview between Gary Kemp (he of Spandau Ballet fame) and Neil McCormick (Daily Telegraph Music Critic), in  the Barton Theatre at the Arts and Media School Islington. In a room filled with fans of the songwriter and guitarist, I found myself sharing in the enthusiasm of the room, there was an air of camaraderie among the audience – a sense of shared history. Then, despite myself, I started laughing along at his jokes and cheering with the rest of the crowd as clips of old footage flashed across the screen behind his head.

Up Close and Personal with Gary Kemp, Islington, North Four Magazine, North London

I entered into this event not expecting to really warm to Gary Kemp. As an 80s heartthrob turned film and theatre star, who was also the eventual winner of a high-profile High Court case involving the royalties for the entire Spandau Ballet back catalogue, you’re naturally inclined to presume that he might be a bit of a diva (sorry Gary). The court case split the band and fractured Gary and lead singer Tony Hadley’s relationship almost irreparably. But fast-forward to 2016 and the band have enjoyed a comeback. Gary and Tony exorcised their demons, at least to the point where they could work together once more. They’ve completed an international tour and there are even whispers about a new album – if only Gary could get his own way, it would seem.

The man in question has a wry twinkle in his eye, a dirty laugh and a punchy sense of humour. He seems comfortable in his own skin, but not arrogantly so. He recounts his upbringing in North London, spending days at the Anna Scher Theatre School in Islington with his peers. Extolling praise for Anna herself, for being “about praise, she gave us a lot of encouragement”.

Up Close and Personal with Gary Kemp, Islington, North Four Magazine, North London

He grew up in a working-class family in Islington and attended Dame Alice Owen’s school, which he describes as “like a family, a tribe, we had a sense of aspiration at my school.” At the age of 16 Gary saw The Sex Pistols in an Islington venue, who were supported by The Clash and The Buzzcocks – relative unknowns at the time. It was through his experiences witnessing the explosion of the punk scene, with its rawness and sense fellowship, that Gary began to shape his perception of music and its link to style and culture. Watching how these elements connected to create something tribe-like, and that united people through a shared a creative ideology, fascinated him.

When asked about the early years of Spandau Ballet Gary becomes more animated, less sentimental. The group were a cult movement, less about pop music and screaming fans, in the earlier days of their inception. It was stylised and considered. Based around a culture emanating out of The Blitz, a little club in Covent Garden, that spurned the decadent 80s and filled its walls with punks, art students, soul boys and rockabillies. It was the birthplace for bands like Spandau Ballet, Culture Club and Ultravox.

Up Close and Personal with Gary Kemp, Islington, North Four Magazine, North London
A lot of it was planned in our minds. It was a gang, a movement. When we started we were a cult band, it was more about chasing Soho’s trendy tail.

The style associated with the band was, and still is, as important as the music. Back then it was about creating a tribe, influenced as much by the punk aesthetics and ideology that went before it, as it was from the interlinking of pop culture and rock music during the 1950s and the exciting electro disco that was emanating out of Europe. Later on, there was a conscious flip into being a fully fledged pop band. To Gary and his band mates, who had grown-up during a time when the singles charts reigned, placing high in the charts was a serious marker of success, it was something to strive for, or “the premier league” as he calls it.

Up Close and Personal with Gary Kemp, Islington, North Four Magazine, North London

Gary was the songwriter and was essentially the ‘leader’ of anything relating to the music. His brother, Martin, was much more into the look of the band. Nevertheless, style was an important factor for the group, one which Gary understands implicitly, even if he lends his brother the credit for it.

When a whole band have a look it’s exhilarating. It’s about identity. I like the adventure in clothes…

He confides that he’s not the sort of person who can write a song in a day. I’m not the sort of person who could write a song ever, so he’s already got one over on me. There was a lot of pressure on him to keep producing hit records, particularly following the success of ‘Gold’ and ‘True’. He admits to being a control freak (but reassures us that he is now a reformed character), which affected his ability to produce music for the band.

Up Close and Personal with Gary Kemp, Islington, North Four Magazine, North London
I suppose I was terrified of someone else in the band writing a song, for fear it would be brilliant and I would be found out as a fraud.

His admiration for band member Steve Dagger is evident. A close school friend of the boys, Steve was asked to manage the band. Gary name drops him a lot, you can tell there’s a deep-rooted connection there and he refers to him affectionately as “another member of the band”. Steve was well educated enough in the dark arts of music management to be able to handle the industry for the boys, becoming an integral part of the band’s success. Gary certainly played his part in pushing the band forwards; he wrote the songs, played guitar and sup backing vocals. When pressed as to why he never took lead vocals, he replied that “writing for Tony (Hadley) is a joy because he has an amazing range, this great voice!”

In case you haven’t heard of it (in which instance I can only presume that you’ve been living in a cave), ‘Gold’ is a British national anthem. Gary recounts that he was “trying to write a John Barry, a Bond theme” but found its level of success strange. To him, the biggest number is ‘True’, a track which has been the band’s biggest hit in the US, achieving monumental success in the American charts. It was influenced by Motown guitars, an infatuation with Clare Grogan of band Altered Images and a copy of Lolita that she gave to him. Not all of his bandmates were so blown away by the track though;

I really liked ‘True’ but I couldn’t convince Tony it was a good song.

The incredible success of these songs is as much down to timing as it is to do with talent or ability, a factor that he readily admits. For a song to get under your skin, it has to become to represent you and your life.

It’s an expression of a moment in time that you will forever identify with that one record forever more. Their music most likely features as part of the soundtrack to your life, whether you grew up during the heyday of their success or not. For me, ‘Gold’ evokes memories of my mum dancing around the living room in my tiny North London childhood home, singing triumphantly, loudly and without abandon. To her, it represents the decade she married my dad, had children and experimented with voluminous hair.

During the 1990’s Gary achieved notable success as an actor. Securing the lead role of Ronnie Kray, alongside brother Martin as Reggie Kray, in the 1990 cult classic ‘The Krays’. Gary explains that he was really proud of the film; “it’s quite surreal, we met Ronnie in Broadmore”. He went on to win a part in ‘The Bodyguard’, alongside Kevin Costner and the late Whitney Houston.

Kevin Costner told me that ‘True’ belongs to him and his wife… they’re divorced now.

Neil notes that the ‘almost mythic’ part of the Spandau Ballet story is the terrible falling out. The one where Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble and saxophonist Steve Norman sued Gary in a fight over the songwriting royalties. Gary won, but that didn’t stop them spending 20 years arguing over cash.

It was ridiculous! We weren’t friends, we weren’t talking to each other. It looked like a piece of theatre.

Gary goes on to explain; “the music got played in court, we had to go through every single song. It was sad. Tony and I had always been poles apart, socially and politically, but that was ok. Funnily enough it though, it was me who wanted to get the band back together.” When faced with his first encounter with Tony, following the split, Gary was understandably nervous, choosing a public place and pulling in John Keeble as a mediator.

They sat outside The Flask pub in Highgate and, following an initial awkwardness, they agreed they both wanted a reunion – not for the money, but because of the feeling, the experience. So, with old grievances buried, the band did what everyone thought was impossible, they reformed. A world tour followed in 2009, released an album titled ‘Once More’ featuring re-worked versions of their classics, and produced a documentary titled ‘Soul Boys of the Western World’ in 2014. They’ve talked about releasing a new album of original material, their first since 1989, but for now they seem happy playing live shows and touring together.

It’s the greatest job in the world and these are the guys I’d grown up with!

Keep up with Spandau Ballet here

Keep your eyes peeled for the next edition of ‘Up Close and Personal’
Produced by Neil McCormick and Ashley Grey, the event series aims to raise support and money for Arts and Media School Islington, whilst bringing interesting talks and shows to the school’s Barton Theatre.
Check out the school here
Follow Neil McCormick on Twitter on @neil_mccormick

Photos: Michael Barry

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