Above: Two bands who played in London as Spandau Ballet…
SBv1 originated the name and here play their final gig at the
Hope & Anchor in 1979 with singer Mark Robinson, drummer
Gordon Bowman, bass guitarist David Wardill, (guitarist Mick Austin
off-camera) . . . SBv2, here in their previous incarnation as Gentry,
playing Camden School for Girls in December 1978, with Tony Hadley
on vocals and the chart-topping True five years in the future
◼ DID YOU KNOW LONDON HAD TWO POP GROUPS called Spandau Ballet in 1979? The one who became famous adopted their name from the one who didn’t. A jaw-dropping new history of the New Romantics scene, unauthorised and meticulously researched by David Barrat, a long-time music fan, is published this week titled New Romantics Who Never Were: The Untold Story of Spandau Ballet.
Barrat has gathered a mind-boggling compilation of spooky coincidences and things we never knew before in his 117,000-word paperback, self-published today on his own imprint Orsam Books. Here is no mere fan, but an obsessive one who has made himself the Mastermind champion in the two themes identified in his tongue-twisting title: Who exactly were the New Romantics of the early 1980s, who many of us believe drove one of the most transformational youth cultures of Britain’s postwar years? Barrat discusses how this term came to characterise the style-leaders of British clubland when they unanimously rejected it themselves.
His second theme is the true genesis story of the Spandau Ballet five-piece from Islington who set out with a cunning plan to weave a tapestry of fictions around their launch as electro-synth popsters in 1979. At the outset the band were coolly vague about their origins and you’d have to be a fan with Barrat’s persistence to piece together spasmodic revelations during the succeeding decades. Spandau subsequently became global superstars in that momentous decade when image-conscious new British bands invaded the American pop charts, then quarrelled as pop groups do and arrived in the High Court in 1996 rowing over royalty payments. Individual members remained belligerent for years.
Whether or not you care for Spandau and the 80s music scene, Barrat’s forensic approach to reassessing this creative landscape is utterly hypnotic and unlike anything you’ve read by the hacks of the rock press. He has spent years in deep Holmesian research delving into official records, newspaper cuttings, TV interviews and first-hand interviews. The result is gripping, original and epic. For instance: revealing all about another band sharing exactly the same distinctive name a matter of months before Tony Hadley stepped onto the stage at the Blitz Club! Here is a well-informed juggernaut delivering into our laps mighty fact upon tiny fact, laid out for inspection and challenge. Barrat’s intent is resolute: to convince us he knows his stuff, and has purged the popular version of events of mutability.
David Barrat contacted me a few years back in order to check dates and events against my own detailed diaries and his aggregation of facts and assumptions is mostly hard to fault. His book now pays extraordinary and generous tribute to this website, Shapers of the 80s, and to myself as a former features editor of the Evening Standard who helped others recognise the potency of the youthquake erupting in 1980.
SO WHO WERE THE OTHER BAND?
❑ The musicians originally called Spandau Ballet (hereafter called SBv1) were four lads who met in 1978 during their teens in Bedfordshire: guitarist Mick Austin, singer Mark Robinson, drummer Michael Harvey and punky bass guitarist David Wardill. They agonised for ages over a band name and Austin remembers a “eureka” moment using the Dadaist method of juggling words on random scraps of paper. They arrived at the darkly Germanic first word (originally with an incorrect umlaut over the U in Spandaü) and paired it with “the softer, romantic” word Ballet. The package was deemed “nicely decadent”, a debut gig was planned for 30 August 1978 and accordingly Robinson designed a poster for it, which we see below. Wardill declared his ambition: “We were going to go to London and become rock stars.”
So how on earth did their oddball band name transfer itself to a five-piece from Islington? The reader’s mind boggles at the number of spooky coincidences that Barrat’s book uncovers. Wardill had fallen in love with journalism graduate Deanne Pearson who rented a flat at 32 Sibley Grove in East Ham so in October 1978 he moved in and members of SBv1 often came to crash on the floor. Coincidentally – this flat was shared with the yet-to-become seminal Blitz Kids – while freshers at St Martin’s School of Art – Kim Bowen, Lee Sheldrick and others, who migrated in the spring to Battersea’s Ralph West student hostel, along with graphics student Graham Smith and future Wag club director Chris Sullivan.
Click any pic below to view complete images
In her forthcoming autobiography Kim relates how, in mid-1979, accompanied by “a trio of self-described Nelly Queens”, she penetrated an empty Georgian house in Fitzrovia to establish the legendary squat in Warren Street, a leisurely walk away from St Martin’s. “Within weeks the creme de la creme of young London was living there,” Kim writes, and her bold manuscript spares no detail. This stylish property became the hub of social life for the Blitz Kids who were meeting every Tuesday at the Covent Garden Blitz Club since Steve Strange’s Neon Nights had begun that February. As milliner Stephen Jones’s mannequin de vie, the wild and startlingly elegant Kim elevated herself to Queen of the Blitz. Many of the Kids’ high-style antics were documented by Graham Smith while he – coincidentally – became the official photographer of the second Spandau Ballet (SBv2) who announced their name only for their first public concert on 5 December that year. (Smith’s lavish photo-book We Can Be Heroes was published in 2011 and remains an unbeatable record of both style and excess).
In October 1978, the Beds boys SBv1 had started working as busboys as well as rehearsing at The Venue, Virgin’s new club in Victoria where they immortalised their band’s name by spraying it in green paint on the toilet walls and on other public walls elsewhere in central London. Amid all the ancient myths about where SBv2 found their name, the band’s early propagandist and future broadcaster Bob Elms has said he first spotted the phrase Spandau Ballet as graffiti variously on prison walls or toilet walls in the Spandau district during a soulboy group trip to Berlin in summer 1979.
Coincidentally – however, during an interview way back in 1984 one prominent Blitz Kid told me the graffiti had been very visible on the toilet wall of The Hope, a favourite pub in Tottenham Street, not far from the Warren Street squat. “Some boys from north-east London were using that name in a school-type band.” Also coincidentally – along the same block as The Hope stood the trendy new Scala cinema, whose programmer then was 22-year-old Stephen Woolley (today a major player in the British film industry), who was a contemporary of SBv2 manager Steve Dagger and their stage designer Simon Withers, all of whom attended Dame Alice Owen’s school in Islington and grew up there with the other members of SBv2 – Gary and Martin Kemp, Tony Hadley, John Keeble and Steve Norman.
This fabulous cascade of coincidences throws up at least SIX PRIME SUSPECTS in The Ballet Great Mystery: Who really fed the name Spandau Ballet through to the Islington band SBv2, who through 1978–79 were known as the power-pop combo, Gentry? Barrat’s new book draws its own conclusion.
PS: EVEN MORE SPOOKILY ON MY DOORSTEP. . .
❑ Scroll forward a few years from the birth of SBv2. . . After my day-jobs in journalism, I taught an adult evening class in Creative Writing for 16 years in west London, after which it was traditional for the more entertaining students to continue the evening at a nearby pub. Among several who became long-standing friends was – coincidentally – the same David Wardill of SBv1 (also visible in the video below). His musical background meant we had lots to discuss in 1989, including his earlier life in East Ham with Kim Bowen and Lee Sheldrick.
David and I drifted apart but had a sudden email reunion while I was building this website in 2009. He told me that soon after completing the writing class he sent a story to the BBC which turned up two years later as a film from BBC Birmingham. These days he was a father and teaching art in a secondary school.
As for SBv2, he admitted: “I never really cared much that they had borrowed our band’s name, as I didn’t see much chance of us wanting it back.” SBv1 ground to a standstill in May 1979 and David soon joined another band called The Passions who enjoyed airplay by Radio 1’s influential deejay John Peel and eventually made it to Top of The Pops in 1981 with their song on Polydor, I’m in Love with a German Film Star, which reached No 25. (Coincidentally – SBv2 arrived at No 17 with Musclebound in the same edition of TOTP and are announced at the end of the clip below. Oo, er.)
David added: “The Passions reunited recently for a day at a studio in Shepherd’s Bush. That laid a lot of ghosts to rest. Our main song has been covered by the Foo Fighters and Pet Shop Boys. Strange how the past hangs around, although I find the continued interest gratifying, as well as financially useful.” Spoken like a star.
❑ And here today we still have not given away the truly spookiest coincidence among those that Barrat reveals about SBv1 & v2 when their paths almost crossed – it’s a goose-pimples moment that stops you in your tracks. More reflections on this vital addition to our bookshelves will follow here at Shapers of the 80s as we read on…