Martin (on far right) with bandmates, courtesy of Sundance
Thirty-two years since Spandau Ballet called it a day – and six years since its return – the Not So New Romantics just wrapped up a brief North American tour finding numerous baby boomers anxious to relive the 1980s and smooch sessions to “True.”
Refreshing to find a decades-old band in reunion mode with its original lineup intact, the Spandaus also are promoting a feature-length documentary, Soul Boys of the Western World, which chronicles their rise, demise and revival.
Spandau Ballet takes Manhattan, 1980s-style, Kemp second from right, photo by Lynn Goldsmith
Spandau bassist Martin Kemp, fondly remembered by EastEnders fans as the dashing gangster Steve Owen last seen blown to bits in a car explosion before handing off an infant to nemesis Phil Mitchell, shared some tidbits in his hotel lobby a few hours before taking the Beacon Theatre stage.
Was EastEnders’ Peggy Mitchell based on Violet Kray?
“Totally. It was a complete ripoff,” Kemp tells the Walford Gazette in an exclusive interview.
“I think it was Barbara [Windsor] who suggested [to the EastEnders producers] I play Steve Owen. I thought Barbara was fantastic. We used to talk a lot about Reggie Kray (whom Kemp played in the 1990 film The Krays). She knew him really well, and went out with him at one point. We spoke a lot about that. I love Barbara. Among entertainers, she’s one of the most beautiful women. We come from the same part of town. Whenever I meet up with her, it’s like meeting up with an aunt.”
Larry Jaffee & Martin Kemp, Beacon Hotel lobby, 2 May 2015
Earlier this year, Kemp co-starred in Assassin with Danny Dyer, whose Mick Carter “is probably the best character they’ve had in a long time. Recently the show has gone to strength to strength.”
Kemp admits he’s not a regular EastEnders viewer these days, although he watched last Christmas and got caught up in the “Who shot Lucy?” drama this past February coinciding with the show’s 30th anniversary.
“I was lucky enough to be in EastEnders when the cast was really incredible. Myself and Tamzin [Outhwaite] – certainly Walford’s best looking couple, says the Walford Gazette], we turned into something special in a short period of time.”
Read the Gazette’s first interview with Martin Kemp.
The Walford Gazette points out that Steve Owen’s E20 nightclub in Albert Square was later turned into Scarlett by Johnny Allen, played by Bill Murray, whom Kemp cast in his 2010 horror film, Martin Kemp’s Stalker, which he directed and co-wrote.
Did Kemp and Murray ever compare notes on EastEnders even though they missed each other in Walford by about a decade?
“We did, but nothing I’d like to say about it. In entertainment the jobs you have and the friendship you make are all very transient – you pass through. It’s not like an ordinary person you work with every day for six years. You’re new job is always right around the corner. But that’s how [EastEnders] is made, that’s how it’s done. You meet people, they’re your best friends, until the next bunch of best friends.”
On the eighth episode of the first season of the American sitcom Modern Family, a wife hopes to surprise her husband with an anniversary gift with a private concert of “True” by the bass player of Spandau Ballet, a cameo played by Ed Norton, making a rare television appearance.
Kemp wasn’t approached by Modern Family to play the part, even though he toiled in Hollywood following his acting breakthrough in The Krays and prior to his four-year EastEnders stint as Steve Owen.
“I laughed as everybody else did,” says Kemp, who was quite familiar with the Modern Family episode. “What was funny about that was the incredible research they did. When Ed comes through the door, they say ‘This was the bass player in between [original Spandau bassist] Richard Miller and Martin Kemp’. They made up [Norton’s character, Izzy LaFontaine]. Richard was the kid at school when the band first started. What a great compliment. It’s been covered so many times and so many years. Everybody loves to talk to you about it.”
Contrary to Internet lore, Kemp explains it didn’t take him three months to learn his instrument after Spandau manager Steve Dagger (who’s still at the helm) decided Gary’s younger brother must replace Miller because of his good looks.
“That’s a bit of a fallacy, really,” he points out of joining a band for reasons other than musicianship, a la Sid Vicious or Stu Stutcliffe. “I already had a school band that I put together,” explains Kemp.
“We were punk. It was called The Defects. But I played guitar, only three or four chords, because punk opened up the world of music to everybody. Every kid that wanted to be a rock star who couldn’t play guitar, it opened up. People then were listening to Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. To be a musician in a band you had to be brilliant. Punk changed all that. So I learned three or four chords.
“Then Gary and the boys asked me to be in [Spandau]. I picked up bass guitar. I knew how to move up and down the neck of the guitar. So I had to learn 14 songs in three weeks. There are moments in your life when the door opens, you know you have to walk through because if you don’t you’re going to miss out. [If you do,] it’s going to change your life. It’s a crossroads. It was something I knew I had to do.”
Did Martin’s mum urge him to join his older brother’s band?
“No, she urged Gary to let me in. It was Steve Dagger who wanted me to be in it. Getting Gary to agree was a different thing. I’m not sure Gary wanted his younger brother (by two years) in. I think my mum talked him into it.”
Kemp agrees that Spandau might have been in the right place at the right time, as MTV launched in late 1981 and the band was focused on visuals and fashion, a trend quickly dubbed “The New Romantics.” Within a few years, the entire Spandau lineup sang on the chorus of Bob Geldof’s African relief charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (lead singer Tony Hadley had two lead vocal lines) and performing as among the Live Aid headliners at Wembley.
But we also – to a certain extent – created the right place or the right time by becoming the house band of [Steve Strange’s nightclub] The Blitz.”
“In regard to being in the right place at the right time,” Kemp adds, “it wasn’t so much about luck. We created our luck by being the house band of that whole movement, ‘The New Romantics’.”
Soul Boys of the Western World does a great job depicting that cultural scene, and Dagger’s ability to create a media mystique through word of mouth. Before they landed a major label deal, Spandau’s gigs were not advertised yet packed due to the buzz.
In retrospect, performing at Live Aid “was a big moment – you knew how important that day was. Before that, bands never got together. And it was the first bands made money for a cause. We changed the idea of charity. It was a massive day. Everybody – two billion people ¬– watched it around the world that day. It was fun making history.”
Spandau doesn’t dwell on missing royalties never played in the countless proms and weddings that used “True” as its theme song.
“The gig last night in New Jersey was fantastic. Everybody was dancing. But when we played “True” it was like we were kicking it into the National Anthem.”
I tell him I have my own personal memory circa 1984 making out to “True” in my car with my then girlfriend (Are you out there, Lisa?).
“When we put that track together, all of our memories were based on listening to and making out to Marvin Gaye (hence, the soul boys) when we were kids. That [‘True’] line ‘Listening to Marvin all night long’, that’s where it came from. It was our record to make out to.”
Kemp named his 2000 autobiography after the song. “I’ve done a lot of different stuff. In my life and I’m proud of that. On the street there are a few different things that people recognise me for – that’s a nice position to find yourself in.”
Regarding the Kemps starring in The Krays around the same time that the band seemed to have run its course, Martin says. “It wasn’t so much that the band was coming to an end. It reached a sell-by date. The eighties were turning into the nineties. The nineties weren’t so much about pop music as it was about DJ culture. We had been going for something like 12 years, so we ran out course naturally. We never really ever split up. When we stopped playing, it was just the right time. If we carried on another five years, I don’t think we’d be here today.”
How did The Krays project land at the Kemps’ feet?
“The two guys who had made Spandau’s music videos during the eighties bought the script about the Kray twins off Roger Daltrey, and do Gary and I want to play the parts? We had been acting since we were nine years old in [Anna Scher’s famous] drama school. It wasn’t a mad idea. ‘Do you want to be in a film?’ So we took it on. I’m proud of what we did.”
Kemp says he and his brother were offered a couple of other acting projects during the eighties. “But it was never the right time. The Krays was at the right time because I could feel the band was naturally reaching its end. I was looking for a springboard to the next part of my life. It was a safety net for me to kickstart where I was going next. In the end it was a great film. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”
The band in the eighties only used Gary’s songs because it was “a winning formula. It was unlikely we were going to change that.”
“We’ve been through a lifetime of ups and downs. When it comes down to it, we’re just a very old-fashioned, five-piece rock band.”