Spandau Ballet: Superfreak

It is hard now to become enthusiastic about Spandau Ballet. The band's work was completed a long time ago. As I write these words, fourteen years have passed since Spandau Ballet split up. The group has not left much of a legacy. In the eyes of posterity, Spandau Ballet's capital crime was that of blandness. For many people Spandau Ballet was the New Romantic band that was not Visage or Ultravox. It was the New Pop band that was not Duran Duran. It was the post-New Wave pop band that was not A-Ha. But there is much to be said for blandness, for the unspectacular and unmemorable. And I shall say it.

The human engine is fuelled with greed and lust and fear. The best of us learn to control our lusts, to clamp them down, to clench tightly rather than release our physical essence to the elements. Spandau Ballet was a particularly clenched band, from a period in pop music history which emphasised control and dominance. Spandau Ballet was a highly ordered and refined state of humanity. The band was suave and urbanised in the old-fashioned sense of the word urban, by which I mean urbane. The human animal, like all animals, is nothing in its feral state. It requires breaking. Without the rod and the whip, the human animal is a leaf blowing in the wind. It is at the mercy of the natural world; and the natural world has no mercy. Mankind may one day harness the elements but this will not be achieved by mankind in the natural naked nude. We are born equal, equally moist and soft and weak, equally defenceless, equally worthless.

No, man in its natural state is nothing; certainly not when compared to the power of the machine. The strongest man is not bulletproof, he cannot outrun a car, he cannot fly, he cannot survive underwater, whereas machines can do all of these things. The strongest man hides from the tiger and the elephant, from the sun and the rain, the mosquito, whereas a man armed with a rifle and suntan lotion and mosquito spray fears nothing. An artillery shell can fell dozens of the strongest men, can literally disintegrate their bodies; a tank can crush their bones and grind them into animal feed. A skilled craftsman cannot cut metal with the precision of a robot, and he cannot outproduce a factory, a factory in which the mass of people are transformed into components of a machine, the machine of the production line machine. The factory produces the tank and the artillery shell and the machine gun. In this environment the human animal is a pair of dextrous hands, a pair of watchful eyes, a rational mind capable of learning and following complex instructions. What use is physical strength in the metal age? The body of man is weak. Only the mind of man can surpass its mechanical equivalent. The future of man is therefore a future of man-mind.

But the machine man fares poorly in the natural environment. Just as money is inedible, so eyes and a mind are of little use against the wind and rain. Spandau Ballet would not have fared well in the wild. All music relies to a certain extent on shelter from the environment, if only because the desperate man has no time for luxury, but the musical movement to which Spandau Ballet initially belonged - New Romantic - was a particularly fragile one. High Society cannot exist without an enormous supporting infrastructure of waiters and tailors, chefs and cobblers and drivers, and so it was with New Romantic, even moreso when one considers that Spandau Ballet required an equally-sophisticated audience, or if not a sophisticated audience, then at least an audience capable of appreciating sophistication. High Society is an audience of itself, its members exist to see and be seen by each other. And so it is with pop music. Pop stars must keep up their appearances with a mass audience spread across many media. Their relationship with the audience is crucial. Some pop stars express solidarity with their audience, particularly in the field of hardcore punk and/or rock. They attempt to strike a conversation with the audience, to form common ground. Other pop stars, such as Madonna, make it clear that they are superior to the audience, that the audience are worms.

New Romantic was founded on this, on the philosophy that the audience was beneath the performers, that the performers were an elite to be worshipped, to be ushered to the front of the queue at the disco. Spandau Ballet's suits were sharper than yours, and they wore them well. Their cheekbones were more pronounced than your round, flabby faces. They were smarter than you, more cultured than you, and they moved in superior circles. They had class. That they could play instruments and write songs seemed immaterial, as there is something messy and dirty about being able to play a musical instrument. It is a craft, and craftsmen tend to be bearded, scruffy, intense men. Pop music is not bearded, it is clean-shaved, and it is only intense in the most superficial, visceral sense. Pop does not have time to learn a skill. Pop is too busy looking good. Pop music is reliant on transient emotional or adrenal stimulation for its effect. Pop spurns thought and disciplined application, indeed it falls apart when considered with an intellectual eye. In this respect traditional pop music, produced with machines, by a high society awash with machinery, is machine music for the primitive man. It is a glimpse of perfection. It is a pristine alien artefact, and we are the apes.

Spandau Ballet was initially a synth-pop/funk band. As the group found its way it produced straight beat-orientated pop, and still later sophisticated ballads. Nonetheless Spandau Ballet was, throughout its transformation, foremost a machine. Its music was emotionless, it was clean like the desert. The early 1980s was a boom time for clean music. Disco was clean, its drums crisp, its players well-drilled, although the disco movement itself was dirty and sweaty, and drank deep of bodily fluids. The synth-pop movement which had gathered pace from 1978 onwards was cleaner, untouched by human hand. The pop stars were fey, they did not sweat. Surprisingly, much of early-80s synthpop was not actually performed by machines, as sequencing technology did not really mature until the advent of MIDI and the Atari ST home computer later in the decade. Nonetheless the music to which Man of 1981 danced prided itself on being as clean as possible. The drums were mannered. Where there was silence, there was absolute silence. It is no coincidence that the pristine icicle beauty of the compact disc emerged in the 1980s. Spandau Ballet was not as fundamentalist as other bands of the period, however. The group did not entirely abandon the guitar in favour of the synthesiser, although it was clearly wary of the guitar. Spandau Ballet did not use distortion, and did not solo. Instead, the group communicated with a clean tone. Spandau Ballet produced no more music than was required. The group's music was as well-measured as their suits.

"The unreasonable division of the world into peoples who have and peoples who have not does not remove or solve problems. If it is to be the task of the League of Nations only to guarantee the existing state of the world and to safeguard it for all time, then we might as well entrust it also with the task of guarding the high tide and the low tide, or of regulating for the future the direction of the Gulf Stream."

As I have already said, Spandau Ballet was originally a groove-based funk band composed of unashamed capitalists. Furthermore, the people of Spandau Ballet aspired to be rich and famous pop stars, and were not shy about this. They were part of a generation of pop stars that emerged in the post-punk period. Punk had supposedly been anti-stardom, unconcerned with money, deliberately sloppy and ugly. Punk stars revelled in physical deformity, disease and filth; they were bent, twisted, overweight, crippled, hideous to the eye. New Romantic had no place for the disabled. Punk was followed in the UK by a 'cold wave' of electronic music, produced by bands who would later remake themselves as New Romantics, most obviously The Human League, but also Ultravox and Gary Numan. Only Numan had major chart success with his post-punk, pre-New Romantic electronic music, and along with Adam Ant he can be said to have set the pattern, what with his synthesisers, the overwhelming sense of style and image, and the adoption of an aloof persona. Neither Numan nor Ant were quite New Romantic, however, for they were both troubled young men. The New Romantics did not have neuroses. In the light of New Romantic the punks soon became unpeople, a bad memory. Culture Club was the new dawn, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran provided the birdsong.

New Romantic could not last, however. It melted in the rain. Spandau Ballet made the transition from New Romantic to New Pop to plain pop better than most. The group achieved its greatest and most lasting success with songs - most famously Gold and True - that were not so much constructed of metal and rivets, but of leather and felt. Whereas Duran Duran provoked an excess of opinion amongst critics and fans, it was possible to be entirely indifferent to Spandau Ballet. No-one loved Spandau Ballet, no-one much hated them. They kept quiet in interviews and were altogether harder to ridicule than Simon Le Bon and so forth. They had no personality, either individually or collectively. The group's chubby lead singer, Tony Hadley, resembled an estate agent and had nothing to say. The band's guitarist and principal songwriter, Gary Kemp, is nowadays famous for being the less famous brother of Martin Kemp, who played bass and went on to subsequent stardom in the British television soap opera EastEnders. Almost everything about the band has been forgotten; the initial media scrum, years before the hype surrounding Suede and Bis and Gay Dad, whereby the band was profiled on television and signed to a major label after having played only a handful of live shows; the subsequent association with and disentanglement from New Romantic; the group's almost but not quite successful attempt to become popular in America, trounced by pop rivals Duran Duran; the latterday almost but not quite successful attempt to become mature; and finally the band's unremarkable and unlamented passing.

Spandau is part of Berlin, famous during the First World War for its arsenal, a factory which produced machine guns. Well into the Second World War German machine guns were generally called "Spandaus", even if they had not been made at Spandau. Ballet is a form of dance, a highly sophisticated, formalised and elaborate form of dance. Ballet dancers must train full-time from an early age, whilst ballet itself is a true multimedia art form, encompassing time and motion, space and form, musical and physical events projected through time and space. Spandau Ballet evoked the rhythm of the factory, of the machine gun; it was a multimedia performance project, its clothes and hair almost as important as its music. Whereas Duran Duran's name evoked the most glamorous aspects of 1968 - it was a Franco-American band, at heart, Lucky Strike crossed with Gauloises - Spandau Ballet drew inspiration from Weimar Germany, from a received image of Weimar Germany, one that was glamorous in Britain during the late 1970s. The band's early songs combined paranoia and confidence, despair and failure constrained with mechanism, just as Germany had once constrained itself with spiked helmets and the iron vessels of Krupp. Spandau Ballet ultimately could not constrain their humanity, the band splitting up in 1990 with some acrimony, the subsequent failure of Tony Hadley to transform his microscopic pre-split brand recognition into a career surely not helping matters. There is a melancholy of Tony Hadley.

"True", both single and album, was the band's commercial peak. It was as meaningless as the best of Duran Duran ("I bought a ticket to the world, but now I've come back again"). To quote John Darnielle, writing in 1999, "It's not that you don't get it; it's that there simply isn't anything to get." Like much high art or the speeches of Adolf Hitler, Spandau Ballet seemed at first sight to have meaning, but on further reflection the only thing inside their Russian Doll was another Russian Doll, and so forth, until the smallest and crudest doll turned out to be a solid block of wood. Spandau Ballet was solid. Solid and clean.

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