Ribald and passionate: Sullivan and Elms capping each other’s stories with gusto
◼ TWO LIFE-LONG PALS, both born raconteurs and clubland wags, sat on a pair of wonky stools this week in public and for an hour had an invited crowd roaring as helplessly as themselves as each capped the other’s stories. The subject was the ever-changing face of London and their faces were those of writer/artist Chris Sullivan (nominally a Welshman who revealed roots that led to a grandfather who’d been a bouncer at the capital’s Windmill Theatre), and BBC London broadcaster Robert Elms (a paid-up Cockney in all but the Bow Bells bit, whose mum was a clippie on the buses at age 15). Both are renowned for having shaped the style revolution of the Swinging Eighties. Now they had taken over a snug corner of the library lounge at the Standard Hotel in King’s Cross, a venue which prompted some ribald tales of their mis-spent teens.
Topics ranged from the East End to West End. There was much mention of food from the era before London became cuisine capital of the world: Elms remembered the early pizza parlours that served your American Hot with a whole baked potato and coleslaw all on one plate. “Which Italian ever had that?” he howled. From the audience, David Rosen recalled Blooms in Whitechapel as an essential kosher eaterie when its walls were blessed with photography by Bauhaus star Moholy-Nagy.
A wrapt audience for Sullivan and Elms: familiar faces from their colourful circle of London friends
For half a century Soho had been the red-light district and as a result, Elms said, by the mid-70s civilised people had given up on the centre of town. Only a public outcry in 1973 protected the 19th-century neo-classical buildings of Covent Garden as the market prepared to relocate to Nine Elms. He added: “London was going to be knocked down after the market moved out and this generation of Londoners [the audience] saved it by our creativity.” It was for instance the place where the seminal New Romantics Blitz club-night opened in 1979, a year before the desolate central market reopened as a shopping centre.
The lack of affordable nightclubs for teenagers in 1979 also drove Bob and Chris to initiate their own pioneering ad hoc parties at the Mayhem print warehouse featuring snake-charmers and blue movies projected onto the ceiling as their “crash course for ravers”. These parties were free, Bob confessed, because they never dreamed they could charge people admission. Chris became so animated at this point he was falling off his stool with laughter.
Of Soho’s Wag club, the pivotal black music nightspot he ran for almost two decades, Sullivan reminded us: “London was a dodgy place. Coming into Soho was taking your life in your hands. The only reason we were able to take over the Wag was because it was a no-go area. About three months after it started, a prostitute got her throat cut outside the Pizza Express by her pimp. People forget it was dangerous. Back then you could be attacked in Soho for wearing the wrong clothes.” Consequently, Elms added: “That Blitz/Wag generation were pretty tough.”
Today the sentimental pair remain firm fans of “the greatest city on earth” but then, they both revel in making things happen wherever they go.
Condoms by the gross: legendary Soho shop-front
❏ Throwaway revelation: The landmark 18-foot wide DUREX sign that graced a Wardour Street shopfront almost opposite the Wag, and had serviced the needs of timid schoolboys for generations, today belongs to Valentine Morby!
Their latest books 2019: Sullivan’s from Unbound, Elms’s from Canongate
Discussion following Beyond at Vogue Fabrics Dalston: around Claire Lawrie wearing white), Andy Polaris, Roy Brown, David Holah, Iain R Webb, Greg Davis. (Photo Shapersofthe80s)
◼ WELL THAT WAS A HILARIOUS BOUT OF GAY BANTER following the first community screening of director Claire Lawrie’s Iris prize-winning short documentary featuring eleven highly individual creatives telling their stories about growing up black and queer in 1970s and 80s Britain. Thursday’s screening at Vogue Fabrics Dalston of Beyond “There’s always a black issue, Dear” was as moving and thoughtful as it was entertaining. Joining Claire in Thursday’s follow-on discussion were some of its stars, Frank Akinsete, Andy Polaris, Roy Brown and Winn Austin, plus David Holah, Iain R Webb, Greg Davis, Shaun Cole and other individualists who made their mark before and during Margaret Thatcher’s regime.
Navigating their gender-fluid youth in this period of cultural and political turbulence saw the protagonists tackling things their own way. London’s alternative nightclub scene provided sanctuary for disco to meet soul and punks to become Blitz Kids. As fierce LGBTQ trailblazers, the cast recount vivid memories which tell of singular determination and of resisting definition, through dance, art, fashion and music and seeing their ideas appropriated by the mainstream. The film acknowledges the importance of family, whether as parents or a group of like-minded friends. “You needed somewhere to go where you felt good about yourself,” and in the post-punk moment that meant Soho nightclubs such as Crackers and Billy’s.
Claire Lawrie with guests outside Vogue Fabrics Dalston: Frank Akinsete, Pippa Brooks, Winn Austin. (Photo Andy Polaris)
In Thursday’s discussion Frank said that race itself wasn’t the issue, simply feeling “weird”. Within black circles the choice was also between reggae or soul, Andy said on today’s Robert Elms show on BBC Radio London: “The power of the film is not just about gay or straight, black or white – we were all rejects from some type of conservatism and we came together in a safe space where we could explore ourselves.”
Also on the Elms show, Claire said the film started with Les Childs being in Lindsay Kemp’s company in the mid-70s (he later worked with Michael Clark and choreographed for the Pet Shop Boys) and goes through to 1991 and the Michael and Gerlinde Costiff club Kinky Gerlinky. Claire added: “London is another star of this film – we all moved to London to be individual.”
There’s another screening tonight (6 July) at the Conduit club in Mayfair as part of BlackOut’s starry Pride programme (tickets via Eventbrite) and again on 23 July at Manchester Pride, with another hopefully in Liverpool.
Oops, there goes another singer, airbrushed out of history. Denis O’Regan’s official photo of Spandau Ballet with their new recruit Ross William Wild, shot last summer at Subterania. Who’s laughing now?
[UPDATE 28 MAY: SEE RESPONSES BELOW
FROM BOTH ROSS AND STEVE NORMAN]
+++ ◼ SPANDAU BALLET HAVE FROZEN OUT Ross William Wild, the new vocalist they called a “perfect fit” when they recruited him last year. Following his first public performance last June, bass guitarist Martin Kemp declared: “We’re playing with more vigour than I’ve ever heard from us, and I think that’s because of the way he sings.” What Ross’s romantic stand-out voice brought to the samey old Spandau repertoire was some much-needed freshness. Now, a matter of months later, there are suddenly no plans for any more performances. And there hasn’t been one word of apology to Ross or the fans.
To add insult to injury, not one member of Spandau or its management has explained the events leading up to their furtive decision to freeze Ross out when it became sensationally but indirectly a major news story on Thursday. As an afterthought in a seven-minute interview on other topics for the ITV show This Morning, Spandau’s Mr Nice Guy Martin Kemp broke the news by implication, but without even saying out loud that Ross would no longer be working with them.
Giving only one reference to Ross as “a lovely man, lovely singer”, Martin just started musing out loud: “We tried [Ross] for about six or seven shows through Europe and it was great fun. But what I kind of started to realise was what people really want is the five of us together…” [Implying the five that includes Spandau’s original vocalist Tony Hadley, without even using his name]… “I think what we should do to be fair is to put it into a box and let it sit there until that happens.” Sorry, Martin. Did you really say all that? About a box?!?! (Answer: Yes. Listen to your interview below.)
LISTEN TO THE CRUCIAL 99 SECS OF MARTIN’S ITV INTERVIEW:
This feeble stream of consciousness was about to wreck another man’s career, yet without any words of sympathy for Ross, Martin added: “If one day the five of us [meaning Hadley] can talk and get back together it would be wonderful.” He confirmed that they will not be touring Spandau “until Tony comes back”! (Fat chance, given Tony’s own frequent pronouncements.) Martin then rubbed yet more salt into Ross’s wound: “I would love it to happen because it is part of me. It is part of my soul. I would do it tomorrow. But it means all five of us saying yes at the same time.” Ouch, as the sixth man might have said again!
All of which forces us to assume that, oops, after a year recruiting and rehearsing this new vocalist into their 40-year repertoire, the band didn’t think much of Ross’s efforts despite having billed and cooed after his first showcase at Subterania last June when Martin said: “Ross is a perfect fit for Spandau, and brings a new younger energy to the band that we are all enjoying!” Ross attracted enthusiastic reviews from critics (including Shapers of the 80s), as did October’s major London gig at Hammersmith’s Eventim Apollo – the purpose of which was to impress the industry and fill Spandau’s 2019 diary with major festivals and prestige dates. One obstacle to this was that in May 2018 Gary Kemp had already started jamming with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, which offered him an alternative future.
ROSS PUTS HIS CASE
28 MAY UPDATE: Singer and actor Ross William Wild has been in touch with Shapers of the 80s to say that after months of being cold-shouldered, it was he who quit Spandau Ballet. He was still waiting for a response when Martin Kemp started talking about getting Tony Hadley back into Spandau during Thursday’s ITV interview. Ross says: “I’d put my whole life on hold and was sick of waiting around for them to make up their minds. I told the boys I was quitting and then never heard back from them, apart from Steve, who’s had my back since day one. I love Martin as a friend and always will do, but the way things were put out on TV made me feel like crap.” ========
28 MAY: Spandau’s sax player Steve Norman has also written to clarify his position: “With regard to these recent revelations from Spandau Ballet, I want to make clear that I was neither involved in nor informed of any discussions or decision-making regarding the future of my band, least of all Ross’s position in it. I will add that, as a founder member of Spandau Ballet and as a friend of all band members (past and present), I’m so very disappointed and saddened by the handling of it.
Ross has put a lot of work, love and dedication into our band and I have enjoyed immensely performing with him. He is not only an amazing singer and entertainer but has also became a dear friend. Therefore I will still be performing the odd gig with Ross in the future (eg, Berlin in September). And as for the future of Spandau Ballet? To quote my own lyrics from Once More: “Never say never…” ========
1 JUNE: Earlier this week Shapers of the 80s invited both Spandau’s drummer John Keeble and manager Steve Dagger to offer their versions of events but so far we have heard nothing. ========
❏ Back to Thursday. At 6:15am, Ross himself was the first to post the plain unadorned truth – with familiar echoes of Tony Hadley’s exit in 2017 – by also turning to Twitter to say: “I have formally quit the band Spandau Ballet to pursue my own music with my band Mercutio.” Ross added that its new single is pointedly titled Where the Pain Lives.
A collective howl of anger and indignation went up from Spandau fans and anybody else with a sense of decency. It took 24 hours before the band’s management confirmed the news officially on social media, by that stage prompted to offer belated thanks to Ross for his musical contribution last year. They had also removed Ross’s photo from the headers of their websites, though Ross’s own still say “Lead Singer @SpandauBallet”.
“Do I look bovvered?” – Today’s Facebook video of Ross aboard a swank yacht
Only two months ago, fans intuitively suspected a silent howl of pain from Ross when he suddenly announced that he had joined a new band called Mercutio, though insisting he was merely filling time before the next Spandau tour (read our exclusive report here at Shapers of the 80s). With hindsight, all these events smack of non-disclosure agreements having been signed, so let’s hope Ross has walked away with at least a thumping great payoff as some kind of compensation for his humiliation. Today Ross is putting on a brave face by showing a video at Facebook of himself aboard a swank yacht somewhere in the sun as if to say “Do I look bovvered?”
Tony Hadley will be laughing loudly at the irony of what we must assume was a yet another clash of egos back-stage. Last October he outflanked his former mates only days ahead of Spandau’s Next Line tour which showcased Ross. Big Tone packed out the legendary London Palladium and delivered a show of stonking musicianship. He and his Hadley band magnificently reinvented songwriter Gary Kemps’s own classics with fizzing new energy and melodic detail – matched by as many more numbers from his own consummate solo album, Talking to the Moon, plus a splash of Sinatra.
Tony Hadley and his band: making magic at the London Palladium, October 2018
In the fall-out, Spandau now find themselves in utter disarray, without any imaginable future. Other band members have assiduously invested in their solo careers over recent months, notably songwriter Gary Kemp who has spent a year working with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, with further plans to continue into next year. What both Kemp brothers seem to ignore is that the others don’t have champagne millions like their own to fall back on and might presumably prefer to be working.
There’s more, much more to report, below. But right now one other person is feeling the pain and shedding stinging tears over all this talent and time going to waste, and excuse me, dear reader, when I say that person is me. It saddens me to report any of this grizzly saga, as the journalist who was first to write about Spandau Ballet when they were brash and young and mounting their second live show at the Blitz club in 1980, and who created this website Shapers of the 80s to set in context both their long-awaited first reunion in 2009 as well as the New Romantic youthquake they once led.
I had laughed out loud when their savvy manager Steve Dagger took me for our first drink near my Fleet Street office to reveal all about his unknown band. “You did, you did, you laughed out loud: ha ha,” he has sworn ever since, in a wickedly accurate impersonation. He’d been describing to me the “really weird people” who followed the band. “The latest thing is romance, pushed over the top,” he’d said. “Chris Sullivan makes even the SS look normal”. . .
As somebody who was there in clubland’s social mix, I found myself playing a role behind the scenes that shaped Spandau’s lift-off from March to July 1980. A spooky domino ripple of my own strategic encounters landed them various newspaper headlines, a documentary by London Weekend TV’s 20th Century Box and their fortnight in the sunshine of St Tropez, most of which they’ve been largely unaware of.
Within a year Spandau found themselves setting the pace while London street fashion and new music swept round the world to define the Swinging 80s.
“A chance to front a band like I’ve never done before”: Spandau songwriter Gary Kemp, second right, touring the States with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets
❏ Amazingly, it was Martin’s brother Gary Kemp who hammered the first nail into the coffin of his own band by giving a killer “no future” interview to an American blogger, Mickey McCarter, just over a month ago. It came as Kemp ended his North American stint playing guitar on 30 dates with Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets. So insouciant and tactless were the squibs he tossed into the public domain that they ignited fury among the Spandettes, an international coven of ultimate Spandau fans who travel air-miles to meet-and-greet their 80s pop heroes.
Imagine you were a devoted Spandette reading Kemp, your favourite band’s leader and songwriter, saying this in McCarter’s blog: “There are no plans for Spandau going into 2020.”
And this: “I have a lot of stuff going on outside of Spandau Ballet.”
Then imagine you were Ross William Wild, the newly auditioned and appointed lead vocalist of Spandau Ballet, critically acclaimed last summer and autumn when he inherited Tony Hadley’s role in six showcase public concerts. Bear in mind Kemp is approaching 60 while Ross is a mere 31. Here was his kick in the teeth: “When I listen to the lyrics of [my] new songs, they just seem to be about me. [Not] the kind of material that a younger man could sing.”
As if a practised songwriter couldn’t manage some new ones for his new singer… There was more: “I’m thinking about doing a solo record.” And yet: “There are no plans for Spandau.”
On top of which Ross had to take this whiplash: “I would still personally love to play on stage with Spandau Ballet, including Tony Hadley.”
“Spandau’s on hold, yeah.
There are no plans for Spandau.”
Now imagine you were any one of the remaining members of Spandau Ballet, John Keeble, Steve Norman or Martin Kemp, reading that Gary’s work with the Saucerful of Secrets is a continuing project: “There are lots of plans. There are plans for possibly some recordings. There’s another European tour we’re doing throughout July. We’re playing open-air amphitheatres, and we’re headlining a couple of festivals across Europe. After this tour, we go back to Britain, and we’ve got some more British dates as well. There are plans going into 2020.”
Next, all four members of Spandau could read of the joys of Gary’s travels with Saucerful: “I’m loving it, absolutely loving it. It gives me a chance to stretch out on stage like I’ve never done before. It gives me a chance to front a band like I’ve never done before. And the camaraderie and the musicianship are extraordinary in this group.” Slap!
Spandau’s finale at Ross Wild’s glorious debut, Subterania, June 2018: John Keeble takes the mic to say “Thank you very much: We are Spandau Ballet”
So his interviewer McCarter asked: Spandau is on hold while you’re doing this? “Spandau’s on hold, yeah. There are no plans for Spandau. So after this, I’ve got some more acting work coming up in September. We’ve been through quite a lot of disruption over the last few years. And I don’t know really where that’s left us, to be honest.”
His fan-boy interviewer says all this makes him feel rather sad. So Gary just turned the tourniquet some more: “Yeah. I don’t know. I still struggle to imagine Spandau Ballet without Tony Hadley. And whether that will ever happen again, I don’t know. . . I would still personally love to play on stage with Spandau Ballet, including Tony Hadley. I still think that’s the ultimate goal and it always will be.” OUCH !!!!!!!!!
By now fans were spitting tacks in social media, Ross probably gnawing his knuckles, and this US interviewer presumably needing a very stiff drink. Then the came the bombshell: “And if it doesn’t, then maybe that’s it. I don’t know at the moment.”
Maybe that’s it?!?! Gary “doesn’t know” at the moment! Martin “doesn’t know” either and wants “to put it into a box and let it sit there”! This Great British Blight has become known as Theresa May Syndrome and the only known cure is to quit the job.
“I would still love to play on stage with
Tony Hadley. That’s the ultimate goal.”
Zoom back to today, and here I am contemplating this internal drama the two brothers have been airing in public. By now I too am shedding tears for that original bunch of five bright and funny Angel Boys from Islington who made such natural music-makers at school. As a writer I’d believed in Spandau as pop pioneers and as a social historian I’d followed them as their riveting cult injected creativity into London’s bloodstream more effectively than any group since the Small Faces in the Sixties. Theirs was a social whirl driven by collaboration.
As brothers in arms Spandau knew their bonds of friendship were indestructible. For 20 years. Then came the first parting of ways, prompted by the Kemp brothers’ acting ambitions. Then silence, then the 1999 court case and more silence. Then suddenly in 2009 came a reunion, for one year, then silence. In 2014 another reunion which lasted one year. But no more silence, only bitter feuding and a bid for independence by Tony and the search for his replacement which led to Ross becoming the “perfect fit”! Apparently not.
And here are Spandau now in their 40th year, still tearing themselves apart and saying they “don’t know” about their future. Usually musicians want to do nothing but play their music. . . Either Spandau must refresh or quit because many of us haven’t the patience to endure yet more of this dithering while Tony Hadley embodies their music superbly in his own triumphant show. Far better for Spandau to call this The End, now. There: that’s my own bridge burnt. Oh, how true are the words of their old mates Blue Rondo a la Turk: “The heavens are crying”
❏ It took a full 24 hours before any official confirmation of Ross’s departure came in a short post on Spandau’s website where Ross’s photo has now been removed: “Spandau Ballet would like to thank Ross William Wild for his brilliant performances with them last year and wish him every success with his band, Mercutio, and the many other exciting projects he’s working on at the moment.” But still neither public explanation nor apology to either Ross or the fans.
MORE INTERESTING THAN MOST PEOPLE’S FANTASIES — THE SWINGING EIGHTIES 1978-1984
They didn’t call themselves New Romantics, or the Blitz Kids – but other people did.
“I’d find people at the Blitz who were possible only in my imagination. But they were real” — Stephen Jones, hatmaker, 1983. (Illustration courtesy Iain R Webb, 1983)
“The truth about those Blitz club people was more interesting than most people’s fantasies” — Steve Dagger, pop group manager, 1983
An “invaluable website” — historian Dominic Sandbrook, 2012
A UNIQUE HISTORY
➢ WELCOME to the Swinging 80s ➢ THE BLOG POSTS on this front page report topical updates ➢ ROLL OVER THE MENU AT TOP to go deeper into the past ➢ FOR NEWS & MONTH BY MONTH SEARCH, see the sidebar below
❏ Header artwork by Kat Starchild shows Blitz Kids Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazier, Judi Frankland and Steve Strange, with David Bowie at centre in his 1980 video for Ashes to Ashes
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NEWS — OLD FACES, NEW MIXES FOR THE 20-TEENS
✱ Career-spanning collection featuring all of Midge Ure’s solo singles, select Ultravox recordings, previously unreleased material and collaborations with artists such as Kate Bush, Moby, Mick Karn and Sir George Martin. Soundtrack 1978-2019 was released in Sept as 2CD+DVD set, priced £16
✱ Shakespears Sister have announced their official reunion as a band, 26 years after they originally disbanded. They embark on a 14-date Ride Again UK Tour on 31 October. Meanwhile their album Singles Party (1988-2019) is out now
✱ The 50-date Peter Frampton Farewell Tour is running through the summer in the USA. Frampton will retire from regular vigorous touring at the end of this year due to illness. $1 of every ticket sold will benefit The Peter Frampton Myositis Research Fund at Johns Hopkins. He says his latest album All Blues “kicks ass on every track”. Alas the British-born Face of ’68 is not saying farewell in his homeland
✱ On 7 Oct deejay Gary Crowley is ‘Coming Home’ to The Cockpit Theatre in NW8, a neighbourhood stage where he once attended the weekly youth drama group. He will be discussing his career in music, radio and TV with writer Navaz Batliwalla. Plus other dversions, all for £10
✱ Party Time! The current B-52s World tour continues across the States through autumn
✱ Watch out for ex-Wag Club supremo Chris Sullivan’s eye-opening book Rebel Rebel for £11. It runs to 480 pages with rigorous appreciations of such heroes as Bowie, Iggy and Robert Mitchum, plus his own illustrations. Cheapest bought from Waterstones
✱ Apart from being a seminal force in forging the new pop music of the Swinging Eighties, Blitz Club deejay Rusty Egan’s own “electro-diskow” album, Welcome to the Dancefloor, amounts to a superb sonic landmark. Read the full review at Shapersofthe80s
✱ Jeff Young on Jazz FM last year made the new 18-track Siren his album of the week. This January it won the Bright Star Music Award for Best Soul / R& B Album 2018, brainchild of Colourful Radio. It was superbly crafted by Londoner Robb Scott, with strong supporting line-up, for the Expansion label. Soul Brother Records says: “A collection of classy soul/jazz grooves on that has jazz at its heart but with some superb soulful brushstrokes applied.” Purchase directly from the artist’s store
✱ If you thought there was no more to know about the birth of Blitz culture in 1980 then get your hands on a sensational new book by an obsessive music fan called David Barrat. It is gripping, original and epic – a spooky tale of coincidence and parallel lives as mind-tingling as a Sherlock Holmes yarn. Titled both New Romantics Who Never Were and The Untold Story of Spandau Ballet! Sample this initial taster here at Shapers of the 80s
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