Thursday, 25 September 2014

Communication: "Soul Boys of the Western World"

From the quotes that open the new Spandau Ballet retrospective Soul Boys of the Western World, we gain that being in a band is "just a giggle" and comparable to playing in a football team; backing up these most casual of assertions, lead singer and bloke's bloke Tony Hadley can be heard lambasting the tendency in certain quarters to intellectualise pop music. This is the Spandau Ballet story in a nutshell. Set against the militant, radical, even cosmic aspirations of some early 1980s pop, here were a bunch of lower-middle class lads content merely to dress up for laughs, playing the upwardly mobile grafters to Duran Duran's flash Thatcherite wankers; the group's vision appeared to extend no further than the end of the Islington streets they grew up around.

It's no surprise to learn from Georgie Hencken's doc that Gary Kemp, like seemingly everybody else in 1977, was present at one of the very first Sex Pistols gigs, whereupon he was inspired to start a band; it's very Spandau to learn that said band should have ended that Jubilee year playing street parties outside the Kemp family gaff. Nothing about the band's image or sound posed a threat to Middle England, and time and again, Hencken's film flags the group's essentially apolitical nature. For starters, that name, with its Nazi overtones, was sourced secondhand by "Bob Elms" from graffiti on the wall of a German toilet, and adopted simply because it sounded right. "The winter of discontent passed me by," confesses one Kemp; there were, apparently, concerns within the group over the Falklands invasion, but only as to how it might impact upon an upcoming single launch.

You can hear traces of early 80s electro-alienation in "To Cut a Long Story Short" and "Musclebound", certainly, but it wasn't long before the band were being whizzed off to St. Tropez and the Bahamas on the record company dime: "Gold" and "True", songs David Mellor might put on to get himself in the mood for love, weren't ever likely to upset any applecarts, and only ver Ballet could write a song about the Irish Troubles entitled "Through the Barricades" (inspired by the shooting of band associate Thomas Riley) and have it turn out so drippy. Set against their chart rivals - the crossdressing Culture Club, the supercharged Frankie Goes to Hollywood, even pin-ups du jour Wham!, whose "Wham! Rap" ("I'm a soul boy/I'm a dole boy/Take pleasure in leisure/I believe in joy") sounded a still-surprising defiant note before the drift into good-time Club Tropicalia - Spandau were an insistently cosy, whitebread proposition.

The title of Hencken's film therefore feels like something of a reach when attached to a band who were trading at a moment when Dexy's Midnight Runners, for one, were still doing business: the extent of that reach is illustrated with a clip Hencken has unearthed of the Spandaus' appearance on US TV perennial Soul Train: "These boys talk funny," notes host Don Cornelius, but their North London accents aren't anywhere near as incongruous as their glistening blonde perms and feathercuts. A truer insight into these so-called soul boys comes with later video footage of these same bemulleted balladeers clutching cans of Skol lager and running through a Cock-er-nee knees-up version of "True" aboard a boat moored in Sydney Harbour: it's a definingly naff image of boozed-up 80s Brits abroad.

Having all this footage in the same place will be an obvious boon for fans, and Hencken, a graduate of Julien Temple's recent musical mosaics, knows how to patch archive into very watchable shape. Like Temple, she's particularly alert to how widely the pop-cultural explosion of the early 1980s was recorded and felt - at ground level by the young Danny Baker, caught here in cub reporter mode, but also as high up as Newsnight, where Peter Snow can be seen trying to get his domed patrician head around the idea of the Blitz Club. Throughout, we feel the irresistible lure of the Top of the Pops studio: a shop window for both the band's early, taffeta-clad incarnation and the later exponents of smooth, tailored Top Shop soul.

That said, where Temple has always had a nose for the social turbulence underpinning the zeitgeist, Hencken has to go looking for it in charting her subjects' steady progression to the number one spot, and I felt her montage getting more than a little credulous in places. Putting "Chant No. 1" over footage of the Brixton riots and "Through the Barricades" over Tiananmen Square and shots of the Berlin Wall coming down doesn't automatically make Spandau's music part of the fabric of social revolution (and vice versa). It somehow feels - pardon the pun - truer to the Spandau narrative that they should be seen, at their apex, being interviewed on kids' TV by Timmy Mallett, and that they should have launched their eventual comeback on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross: truly, there was none more mainstream. (That comeback can be linked to a wider wave of 80s nostalgia, surfed by baby boomers whose nest eggs have been protected well enough to afford tickets to the O2.)

Up until the closing moments, with footage from one of those first comeback sallies, the boys as they are today are heard but never seen, deployed as voiceover, though this in-their-own-words tactic is undermined by a sense some band members are audibly reading from a script: even now, even describing the betrayal they felt as their early 90s royalties battle entered the High Court, their contributions strike the ear as slightly too polished to truly stir the heart or loins. Hencken can give their rise, fall and rise again zip: the times these social chameleons passed through, Zelig-like, are both colourfully and energetically described. Yet what Spandau Ballet themselves stood for - now, as then - remains a matter very much open to question.

Soul Boys of the Western World screens, with a live Spandau gig, in cinemas next Tuesday, for one night only.

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