Twin geniuses: Bowie and Rodgers photographed by Ebet Roberts
◼ AMONG MANY SENSATIONS during three foot-tapping hours in the company of Nile Rodgers on Saturday night was a rare audio track possibly being played out in public for the first time. Rodgers is not only curating this year’s prestigious South Bank Meltdown festival in London but his own band Chic headlined the opening night with a mighty seamless stream of dance-floor hits. Rodgers preceded the concert with a lengthy talk about his unrivalled career as one of the most influential record producers ever, an icon of black excellence along with Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder.
He described how he had met David Bowie in the early 80s and as they bonded over their love of jazz, Rodgers says he “realised that David Bowie was the Picasso of rock’n’roll”, meaning his gift for thinking in the abstract. They were soon collaborating over Bowie’s album Let’s Dance, released in April 1983, almost three years after his previous album, Scary Monsters.
More specifically, once Bowie had joked “Is there such a thing as too funky?” Rodgers set about doing what any jazzman does – he was “rearranging” Bowie’s music in their studio sessions. And on Saturday Rodgers told this electrifying yarn by playing us Take One of the slightly protracted Let’s Dance session that started with Bowie in dirge-like mode. Eighties singer Andy Polaris tells it like this in his review of the Meltdown show:
“ In one extraordinary sequence Rodgers revealed the genesis of his collaboration with David Bowie on Let’s Dance. It was thrilling to listen to a rare recording few people have ever heard as the track was transformed from an almost twee throwaway song into the rhythmic funky stomper that it became. During the first take in the studio, we heard Nile introducing David to his arrangement and Bowie experimenting with melodies and phrasing while Nile carefully coaxed him by explaining the number’s metamorphosis. We listened as David gradually grew more excited, climaxing in obvious satisfaction when he finally “got it” – this, the single that would become his biggest hit! The whole episode provided a revealing insight into how Nile works as both a guitarist and a producer and was a rare treat for Bowie fans in the audience… ”
The whole album was completed and mixed in 17 days. There’s no four different versions of Let’s Dance, no five versions of Modern Love. That’s just it. Done. End of story. A huge amount of the time he spent sitting in the lounge watching TV and then he would just come in and check and go ‘Wow!’ and then he would leave. And I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is the highest form of respect that anyone has ever given to me’. . .”
Evergreen: Bowie and Rodgers photographed by Peter Gabriel
➢ The producer of Let’s Dance, Bowie’s biggest-selling album, asked the singer if he’d made it too funky. ‘Is there such a thing?’ he replied – from the Guardian 2016: “ Before we wrote a single piece of music for [Let’s Dance], we did a research project where we played lots of records and talked about what the album wanted to say, how it should sound as a whole. Then one day David said: ‘Nile, this is what I want my album to sound like’ and he showed me a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac convertible. How do you translate that?! But in actual fact I knew exactly what he meant, and that was the point I realised that David Bowie was the Picasso of rock’n’roll. He got uncomfortable with me calling him that but I did it anyway. Because I realised he saw the world in an abstract way, as well as in the way we all see it. And what that picture meant was not that he wanted a retro record, or something based on Little Richard’s music, but that he wanted something that would always look modern. He showed me the future and the past and it was evergreen. The highly designed Cadillac and the red monochromatic suit – that picture was taken in the 1960s but it would still look modern to someone in the year 3000! . . .”
◼ WHICH ICON OF THE EIGHTIES catapulted herself to fame using a single name, sculpted hair and red lips? The clue is in the exhibition title just opened in Liverpool: Scarlett Woman. The Gallery in Stanhope Street is crammed with dozens of instantly recognisable images of her in all media – posters, prints, drawings, photos, videos, holograms, mosaics, sculpture and even painting. Fortunately the savviest interpreter of 80s style is at hand to make sense of the life and times of Scarlett Cannon, since she began fronting a club-night called Cha-Cha in 1981. In a guide to the exhibition, the lynchpin fashion editor Iain R Webb outlines how he promoted her career as model and muse.
He writes with intense concision: “It was a time of transformation and transgression, self-expression and collective empowerment. I was immediately taken by Scarlett’s uniqueness, an individual look being our club-kid rallying cry. With her startling peroxide blond haircut and a profile almost as flat as her reflection in the mirror she was magnificent!”
Scarlett says: “I wanted to look like a black and white photograph.” And Webb was happy to oblige, styling her in fashion spreads for BLITZ magazine. “She was an ideal made real, the perfect muse. We shared a common aim: to present our version of the world that celebrated difference and redefined beauty.” Scarlett, he reports, emerged from London’s demi-monde “artfully constructed from captured moments from yesteryear movies and imagined narratives. We made it up as we went along. . . Scarlett has always lived on the outskirts.” She adds: “It was extreme, we were really not afraid and we lived in a different world then.”
Scarlett with Maude, alongside David Hiscock’s 1985 photograph, scarfed by Hermès. (Liverpool photo by Marc Albert)
Never before has there been such a perfect summary of the ingredients that made the Swinging Eighties unique, though Webb’s consummate book As Seen in Blitz: Fashioning ’80s Style came close in 2013. Coincidentally that was the year that Scarlett was visible across London as the poster girl for the V&A’s brave exhibition Club to Catwalk, a sharp retrospective nailing London fashion in the Eighties.
What’s impressive about the Liverpool retrospective mounted by the DuoVision team James Lawler and Martin Green is the number of artists whose work it embraces. . . Andrew Logan, Derek Jarman, Nick Knight, Robyn Beeche, Monica Curtin, Mark Lebon, Thomas Degen, Donald Urquhart, David Hiscock, Julian Kalinoswki, Sadie Lee, Judy Blame and others – most intriguingly the Polish expressionist painter Feliks Topolski, whose huge Punk Triptych makes a rare outing.
Scarlett Cannon with a slice of history: Feliks Topolski’s enormous Punk Triptych en route to Liverpool
➢ Feliks Topolski’s reputation reaches back to King George V’s silver jubilee while his monumental postwar mural of people and events called Topolski Century was unveiled by the Duke of Edinburgh and housed in the artist’s studio in the Hungerford Bridge arches beside the Festival Hall, where his legacy at Bar Topolski today is well worth a visit. His caricatures adorned the opening credits of John Freeman’s landmark series of TV interviews, Face to Face.
Moment of bromance for Mercutio: Fabio and Ross nuzzle each other like wild beasts onstage at Dingwalls
◼ TODAY “Ex Lead Singer @spandauballet” Ross William Wild fronted only his second gig with his new band Mercutio whose sound is “Nirvana-esque mixed with Muse – very much metal with melody”. Playing Dingwalls this afternoon, Ross’s emotional vocals seemed wrenched from his soul, drenched with introspection and yet were fierce in their delivery.
The first of six mainly melancholy songs from their new album made a big opener presumably titled by Ross, Where the Pain Lies, with two fingers aimed squarely at the Spandau gang who have recently spurned him. In other numbers such as Shed and Playtime the tall muscled Scot twisted and contorted his body, stamping, pogoing, even throwing himself to the floor, as if being tortured by demons from within. There was also a bromantic moment when Fabio and Ross nuzzled each other’s backs like wild beasts.
Francesco moonlighting from Mercutio
Ross’s performance was infinitely more physical than his outings last year with Spandau Ballet – the UK’s supergroup from the Swinging 80s – and the tiny Dingwalls stage clearly cramped his style. Just relaxing a bit might help establish rapport with the audience nearest to him instead of reaching for the back of the room.
The Dingwalls sound system did his voice few favours, though at its most romantic his relatively high register succeeded superbly against the essential grunge vibe, as in the song called Alex, and became sorrowfully plaintive in the medium-pace closing number The Ghost.
The support from his new Italian pals is strong: Naz on bass provides a melodic anchor through even the quietest moments, while Fabio on guitar dazzles frequently when the tempo needs raising, as does Francesco who you may recognise playing Elton John’s drummer in the current biopic Rocketman. The band’s first video is expected next week.
Mercutio at Dingwalls: Ross centre-stage in his second live gig with the new band
Mercutio at Dingwalls: Ross on acoustic guitar, Naz on bass
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.
Robert Elms with fire in his belly: Talking last night in a 5×15 event at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney). (Photo: Shapersofthe80s)
◼ SENTIMENTAL AS EVER, onetime Blitz Kid now broadcaster Robert Elms – the professional cockney not born within the sound of Bow Bells – marshalled his gorblimey vowels and glottal stops at a 5×15-minute live talk last night in Hackney, in trendy east London, to argue for a return to the down-at-heel west London he was born into 59 years ago. He invoked postwar bomb-sites as instructive playgrounds, the punk explosion as his most life-enhancing event, the squats in disused houses with freezing outside WCs that characterised his upbringing in Notting Hill and still more squats for fostering the creativity of his teenaged peers who dreamed up the New Romantics movement. . . He poured scorn on the developers who have transformed sectors of London into swish modernity and urged the need for new slums to teach flaky young millennials the facts of life.
Bob, once an amiable young man, has matured into an Angry Old Man yet the fire in his belly aimed to persuade us that deep-down he actually loves this contradictory city. An interview he gave to last month’s GQ signals the flavour of his new book, London Made Us: A Memoir of a Shape-Shifting City (from Canongate Books):
“What I certainly wasn’t hoping to do was out-Peter-Ackroyd Peter Ackroyd,” laughed Elms [referring to our capital city’s most distinguished historian]. What he did do – “because I’m not a proper historian and this is not a textbook” – was focus on the stories that seem too slight, or too fanciful, for the grander almanacs. “Some of them might not bear taking apart. My theory with all the stories in the book is: they’re too good to check” . . . Other sections are filled with incidents that are unique to Elms after decades living around London, from Burnt Oak to Holborn to Camden. There’s the incident when money rains from the sky near the soon-to-be British Library, or the story of the monkey jazz band in Notting Dale, “a troupe of 13 simian swingers to entertain the happy flappers” who escaped their captivity, some of them ending up as far away as Rugby…/ Continued at GQ online
Last night’s event was all about plugging new books. In Bob’s case it provided an excellent incentive to attend his next performance, much longer than 15 minutes on April 2.
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
“See David Johnson’s fabulously detailed website Shapersofthe80s to which I am hugely indebted” – Political historian Dominic Sandbrook, in his book Who Dares Wins, 2019
A UNIQUE HISTORY
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UNTOLD BLITZ STORIES
✱ 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
CHEWING THE FAT
✱ Jawing at Soho Radio on the 80s clubland revolution (from 32 mins) and on art (@55 mins) is probably the most influential shaper of the 80s, former Wag-club director Chris Sullivan (pictured) with editor of this website David Johnson
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