Monday, 29 March 2010

4. Journeys To Glory - Spandau Ballet

Purchased : (by my sister) August 1981 ; acquired on permanent loan 1989

Tracks : To Cut A Long Story Short / Reformation / Mandolin / Musclebound / Age Of Blows / The Freeze / Confused / Toys

I first caught Spandau Ballet on Top of the Pops in November 1980 when Dave Lee Travis introduced them as "something a bit different". By then I realised that anything that the Hairy Cornflake didn't "get" was likely to be good and I wasn't disappointed. I was hooked by that synth riff and intrigued by the way they looked. Shortly afterwards the whole New Romantic thing broke cover and great records started racing up the charts and I was in heaven. Musically it was exactly my thing although the glad rags were never an option for me.

In the latter part of 1980 Littleborough Post Office started selling ex-jukebox singles for 50p so I had built up a singles collection by the following summer which included the first two Spandau hits. Bored during the summer holidays my sister Helen started playing them, soon decided they were her favourite group and beat me to buying the album. Soon afterwards she decided she preferred cassettes to vinyl and when she left home for good in 1989 she left behind the old Dansette and, perhaps more cognisant of the coming triumph of the CD than me, didn't buy herself anything to play her meagre vinyl collection. So I've inherited this one on effectively permanent loan still adorned by her sticker of ownership which was no doubt a reminder to me more than anyone else.

It's fair to say this album has divided opinions. I remember Betty Page in "Sounds" giving it five stars and using purple prose that was the equal of their main cheerleader Robert Elms (the title is taken from one of his essays). On the other hand Tony Wilson always slammed the New Romantic era as the worst time in music (because it didn't happen in Manchester perhaps ?) and when Q celebrated 25 years of embarrassing albums this was their nomination for 1981.

It kicks off with that hypnotic first single "To Cut A Long Story Short" which sets the template for much of what follows - a rock solid dance beat from drummer John Keeble, rhythm guitar helping out the rudimentary bass of the teenage Martin Kemp, a synth to play the melody and Tony Hadley's imperious vocals. In a year's time he would be much criticised in the wake of the flop single "She Loved Like Diamond" but here he's impressive; a bit of Bowie, a bit of Morrison, a bit of Lanza but really like no one else before or since. The song itself isn't typical NR fare; a young soldier suffering perhaps from shell shock turns to prostitution after being discharged and is subsequently arrested and questioned. Hadley's agonised 10-second hold on "mind" is the last word of the song before low synth notes suggest an unhappy ending.

Next up is "Reformation" seemingly an important song since they named their ( largely vanity) record label after it. The lyrics are fairly opaque but there's a reference to "A sun that burst through a cloudy scene " which suggests Gary Kemp sees himself as Martin Luther laying waste to the Rome of rockism. Thirty years on this seems ludicrous but the key driver of New Romanticism was ambition. This is actually the most synth-dependent track and has a lengthy instrumental passage where Keeble is allowed some drum fills while the attractive Oriental melody is picked out on the keys.

"Mandolin" goes straight to the heart of NR's obsession with old Europe although Kemp displays a wobbly knowledge of history by attributing the instrument to Venice rather than Naples. Hadley shows his versatility by switching to a husky whisper as he lauds the instrument for soundtracking past amorous encounters before giving way to a major key instrumental chorus. The reference to incest suggests familiarity with the Borgia saga and gives the song a darker hue.

"Musclebound" (released in shorter form as the third single) was criticised by Simple Minds' Jim Kerr for "romanticising dangerous ideas" but it's hard to agree. The song seems merely descriptive of hard manual labour in a historical context. It's untypical in that there seem to be no synths at all and it has the only vocal chorus on the LP. After the last chorus there's a long instrumental coda (on the single this was replaced by a mandolin solo absent here ) dominated by Keeble's increasingly oppressive drums ( reminding me that producer Richard Burgess was a drummer himself ) until only they are left. Then the drums themselves fade into some unidentifiable industrial noise.

Side Two then refers to type with "Age of Blows" a synth-led instrumental save for Hadley's wordless accompaniment on the final chorus. The melody suggests heroism but as a history graduate I know of no age so-named so one presumes Kemp is mythologising himself again. The track doesn't break any new ground but presumably helped fill the floor at Blitz in its day.

Its followed by the second single "The Freeze" which may be a play on the word "frieze" as Kemp seems to be describing the effect a piece of art has on him although in that context the line "the question is where do you pay" is hilariously bathetic. Alternatively it's about a lover keeping him from home in the manner of the girl in "Year of the Cat" although the line about "the artist pretending it's art" is then meaningless. Whichever it's a decent enough song although the repeated chorus at the end is just padding.

"Confused" is a signpost back to their previous incarnation as power-pop outfit The Makers much as The Cure's "Three Imaginary Boys" and Tubeway Army's "Replicas" had punk tracks on them. The lyrics about being unable to make sense of "the news" or "the papers" and including "What the hell it is" and "oh I betcha" are Mod Revival rather than New Romantic and I recall one journalist in Melody Maker noting the similarity between Kemp's manifesto and the claims of Secret Affair's Ian Page a year or so earlier. That said it's buffed up well with its circular guitar figures close to New Order's "Ceremony" and some Giorgio Moroder synths in the coda.

The album finishes strongly with the slower-paced "Toys" which makes most sense if the title refers to ahem, male genitalia. Hadley is at his most commanding here and it's probably the most musically adventurous track the guitars threatening to turn it into "I'm Mandy Fly Me" at the end of each verse. The end is excellent with Hadley soaring over the synths which nevertheless gradually replace him then battle it out with crashing rock drums in a final climax.

I still think it's a very good album. If some of the above seems a bit too critical it's probably due to lingering disappointment at what they did subsequently. Spandau won't feature again on this blog as the only other records of theirs I have are the next two singles (and "Paint Me Down" is only there because Helen left it behind) and the untypical "Through The Barricades". Helen had "Diamond" on tape and I wasn't sufficiently impressed and I actively loathed "True". So this was a one-off from a group who decided to pursue other avenues - journeys to mediocrity in fact.

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