❚ ON THIS DAY IN 1981 Spandau Ballet, spearhead band of the New Romantic movement, were flying off to Spain and Portugal by way of a working holiday with sun and sand — a brief tour of principal cities to establish their first European fan base, which remains strong today. Most significantly, on Ibiza, the island which young British sunseekers were starting to make their own, Spandau played at the then spanking new Ku club, as one of the first fashion bands whose visits were to make Ku one of the Mediterranean’s destination nightspots.
But the day before their departure, Spandau had lit the fuse to a musical bombshell. They changed their sound to outflank the emergent slipstream of new image bands invading the British charts with synth-pop.
That Thursday they had taken over Le Beat Route in Soho, a mythical Mod club during the 60s, now fronted by Ollie O’Donnell, a suited but laid-back young crimper from Keith-at-Smile’s cool salon in Knightsbridge. The downstairs hideaway in Soho was the current Friday-night HQ of London’s nightlife leaders whose jackets and printed ties were hastily shaking off the New Romantic tag even as Duran Duran’s second single revelled in it. The bamboo decor helped: hints of a tropical holiday-camp with baskets for lampshades. South Seas tongue-in-cheek, maybe. Glamorous it was not. The ethos for new one-nighters was never to be smart, always gently ironic.
Here before an invited audience of Friday regulars the innovative Russell Mulcahy directed Spandau’s promotional video for their fourth single, Chant No 1. The bombshell was a surprise change of direction, announced by rat-a-tat congas and a burst of brass. The new tune, Gary Kemp said, had been inspired directly by the dissonant brass on the disco-funk track Wheel Me Out, the debut 12-inch dance single on Ze from US new-wave group Was (Not Was). The eerie sound had been introduced to keen Brit ears during the Axiom fashion show that had preceeded Spandau’s set in New York that May, during the first Blitz Invasion.
Chant No 1 was a blue-eyed funk mover that echoed the band’s teen years on the soul circuit, musically fresh while the lyrics seeped a certain seedy paranoia. There on-camera was a black trio of brass instrumentalists, Beggar & Co, who were the horn section for the British funksters Light of the World, and who’d already had their own hit with Somebody Help me Out.
Gone were the artsy settings and OTT costumes of Spandau’s early videos. This razor-sharp musical documentary intercuts Soho streetlife with a live club performance by Spandau. “Down, down, down, pass the Talk of the Town” urges the deejay’s Chandleresque rap as Tony Hadley sweeps past The Talk, the cobwebbed Mecca of international cabaret from the Judy Garland era. Inside the steamy Beat Route itself we take in the stylish ambience where the “mobile knives” now live to dance, as well as dress up in a distinctly more boy-meets-girl way than the incessant camperie of the Blitz, the long-gone poser-paradise. We glimpse the deejay Steve Lewis before his portrait of Lenin, in a season when Soviet button badges are also de rigueur, and it’s evident that, yes, things are different here.
The video emphatically makes the point that clubland rules. Spandau drummer John Keeble spoke with only slight exaggeration when he said: “For the next couple of years, no new band played live on a stage.” What he meant was that rock venues as the source for original music had been superseded by nightclubs. White socks and hedonism were the key: girls in swirling party frocks with hair cropped like chives, and boys wearing braces and rolled-up sleeves soon walked the streets of every town. Ha! Why, even the NME finally conceded by introducing a “Dance Chart” alongside their lists of Indie garage bands.
Once released on July 6, Chant No 1 rocketed straight up the charts to reach No 3 on August 1 (the NME chart actually placed it at No 1). Simultaneously remixed by Richard Burgess as a B-side and as an extended twelve-incher for clubs, the track immediately became an upbeat dance anthem for the school-leavers who were discovering what economic “hard times” were going to mean.
“I Don’t Need This Pressure On” ran Spandau’s chorus as a timely slogan for that summer when Britain went into shellshock from the rare experience of repeated race riots on the streets of London, Manchester and Liverpool. The fashion-conscious band who had been dismissed by the rockist press as fascists and dandies hit back with supreme optimism. This vibrant tune pressed the pop button with fans as well as rival bands who envied the chemistry of Spandau plus Beat Route. It announced a new brand: Team Soho. For ten weeks in the charts, Chant No 1 confirmed its rhythm as the sound of the new pop: once-and-for-all the dominance of the rock guitar was shifting to the supremacy of bass and drum for pop generations to come.
Ironies were everywhere. Not only did the crepe-shoed rocker Shakin’ Stevens occupy the No 1 spot for four consecutive weeks with Green Door, a comforting throwback to 50s nostalgia. By contrast, the cool young band who also held Chant off the top spot for another three consecutive weeks were The Specials, whose haunting single Ghost Town (where “all the clubs have been closed down”) became a poignant epitaph for the inner-city angst starting to erupt among the ranks of the hard-pressed in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The times were changing, not entirely for the better.