We are continuing on with our weekly book club, in which we discuss each and every chapter of the book, Mad World, one by one. This is week 4 and this week we are discussing Spandau Ballet, The Human League and Heaven 17. We invite you to read those chapters and then come discuss with us!
Isn’t one of the rules of being a Duranie that you are supposed to hate Spandau? I learned early on that they were rivals, that they were fighting to be the top UK band. Heck, they even fought in battle on the TV show, Pop Quiz. Thus, I will wholeheartedly admit that I doubt I ever gave Spandau the chance that any band deserves. I looked forward to reading this chapter so it would give me a different look at this band, from a Duranie, but not only a Duranie perspective. Then, I read the introduction and learned how the name was a term Nazis used, but they didn’t know it at the time. I have to look past that and the rivalry.
I adored the story that Gary Kemp told about the club scene in 1978, in which kids would dress up and go to watch each other. There wasn’t a band that glued the scene together but they felt that there should be. They would be that band. As someone who has spent a bit of time in clubs with a similar feel, I related instantly. Then, I read that others at the club also had creative ambitions and I am once again reminded about how creative this time period was.
Another theme I keep running into over and over again is the idea that these songs, these important songs were not written to be singles as they did not fit hit singles formulas. We talked about how “Cars” by Gary Numan didn’t fit the single mold and neither did New Order’s “Blue Monday”. Now, Spandau’s song, “True,” could be added to the list with its Al Green and Motown influence, its length and its placement at the end of the album. Clearly, the formula for a hit song did not always matter.
One of the things mentioned in this chapter is how Spandau did not do as well in the States as they did in Europe. Gary Kemp blamed it on the record company there that, according to him, “made a lot of mistakes”. Tony Hadley, on the other hand, mentioned that the name was problematic with the Jewish community in the States. He also didn’t think that “True” was representative of their work. So, let me ask all of you this. Could they have been bigger in the States with a different record company and name? Based on the time period and their style, I have to say that I think they could have been.
One thing you’ll quickly learn about me in this post is that I don’t follow the rules very well. I loved Spandau Ballet, and have most of their albums. It never occurred to me until AFTER the DD reunion (from reading about the rivalry online) that I wasn’t supposed to like them, and by that time – I just didn’t care. The funny thing is that I never really put Duran Duran and Spandau in the same musical “camp”, so to speak, other than recognizing that both bands were from the UK. All I really knew was that I liked their sound, and they dressed nicely. (Funny words coming from someone who relishes her jeans and t-shirts!) Admittedly, I didn’t know that Spandau had other albums before True until later on…but I’m thankful that I bothered to look at all, and if you know the band solely from True, it’s really time to expose yourself to some of their other music, because I think you’ll be shocked!
Gary Kemp mentions their mystique, by saying that no record company had seen them, and that record companies weren’t even allowed into their gigs. They had a documentary that Janet Street-Porter had filmed, and that was what record companies could view and decide if they were interested in the band. He compares that to YouTube today, and how no band really has that same mystique because anyone can film you and put that video up on YouTube for all to see. It certainly does remove some of the curiosity factor, and I still say that media of all types today is meant for quick consumption. Get it, absorb it, and move on to the next greatest thing. It will be interesting to see just how much of today’s music, today’s media, will really have a lasting effect in the same way that our music did for us.
What drew me to Spandau Ballet is that their sound was really quite different from anything else of that period. The band embraces that, as Gary mentions, “Spandau has two things that make us sound like no other band: Tony’s unique and powerful voice and Steve Norman’s amazing saxophone that we always like to include. It’s the sound of our soul, if you like.” I completely agree with him – just as you can’t find anyone else that can harmonize like Simon; I don’t think you can copy Tony Hadley, or find anyone that plays like Steve. The uniqueness of the bands during this period are what still keep them alive today. There was never a real “formula” that any of these bands followed – and I think that is what kept it all feeling fresh and new for me. It’s also where I cultivated my strong dislike of what I call the “Top 10 Hit Formula” that certain producers seem to really hang their hat on these days. I’m sure it existed back then as well, I just didn’t pay it (Top 40 radio) much attention.
Having now read Mad World completely through twice, one of the saddest things to read in nearly every single chapter (for me) is the “That Was Then, This is Now” section. There seems to always be a tinge of wistfulness, perhaps sadness, and sometimes even a bit of lingering anger depending upon the band in question, and for me – Miss 80s Music Fan – it’s heartbreaking. Maybe it’s just the idea of looking back on the full experience that sparks emotion for me, I’m not sure. Tony Hadley says something that I still find myself thinking about and considering as I sit to write this book discussion, “But we’re still old friends, which is great. We can all go and have a pint and a meal, and we’d all laugh and joke and tell stories. But it’s not the same, and it never will be.”
When I think about that, I can’t really argue with Tony Hadley. Life experience changes your perspective, and things must have certainly changed since the 80s. When you reunite, I would imagine you come back to that proverbial table with all of that baggage, along with anything else you’re still dragging along for the ride. It can’t ever be exactly the same, but is it enough to build upon? That would be my question.
The Human League:
Right away, we learn that this chapter is going to be different. Phil Oakey, the singer, refused to meet with the authors. I so wonder why. Perhaps, he will think differently now that the book has been published.
I like how Lori Majewski, one of the authors, points out that nowadays it is obvious what songs are about, but then, songs made the listeners work for it. I agree and I loved working for it. I still do. I love trying to figure out what a song is about, which is probably one of the reasons I love Duran songs so much. They aren’t obvious, even when they appear to be so. It seems that Phil Oakey, himself, was like this, too, according to Martyn Ware who described him as “otherworldly” while being the “best chum” and “aloof” at the same time. Now, I’m even more fascinated by him and his decision not to talk to the authors.
Likewise, I found their approach to lyrics so interesting. The fact that they banned words like love, which led to topics like philosophy and science fiction. It sure seemed like a way to push them past the usual.
I really don’t understand why a musician wouldn’t want their story to be included in this book, unless they just didn’t understand what was being done. Sometimes I think that these musicians…INCLUDING my ever-favorite Duran Duran, just don’t get it, which is at least partially why this blog even exists. They don’t understand, and maybe sometimes they don’t/can’t care, that their music has resonated with fans so much that for many of us – their songs are as much a part of who we’ve become as people as say, our hometown, our high school, and the friendships we’ve made along the way. No matter…I wish Phil Oakey had participated, because his music and his voice made a difference in my youth.
That said, I love that Jonathan and Lori chose to include “Being Boiled”, because it is a great song – it’s dark and obscure, brooding and hypnotic. The more I hear early New Wave, the more I know that is where my musical soul lives and breathes. Just as Lori said – I adore that unless you really sit down and pay attention, you’re likely to have no idea what the song is about. I appreciate that the song lyrics weren’t so watered down and obvious back then. I think that nowadays (not to sound so “Get off my lawn, kids!”, but seriously…) everything is so dumbed down, so EASY, the public gets so bored. They’re not even given a chance to prove they’ve got brainpower in there somewhere.
Martyn Ware explains the real gist of Human League, and I find it to be the case for many (if not all) of the bands I adore from this period. “Right from the start, we wanted people who listened to us to regard it as entering into our world, where we could, over a period of time, flesh it out with our artistic content. So it’s not just about music. It’s about lyrical content, it’s about the kind of films you watch, it’s about the kind of novels you read, it’s about the kind of visual art you like. It all fed back into a worldview.” I don’t think that it’s necessarily a surprise to find that when I’m with fellow fans – Duran fans for instance, there are more than a few of us that like the same sort of books, or the same sort of art. So many of these bands intertwined their visual presence with their musical presence. I always say the music of this period is three dimensional in a way that you just will not ever find again, and it’s precisely due to the reasons that Martyn Ware states.
The story about how the manager of Human League worked to kick Martyn Ware out of the band was pretty shocking and sad. I wonder what the manager, Bob Mast, would say about it. Did he really think that Phil could be a solo singer? Did he think he would be better off without Martyn? This story makes me sad since Martyn and Phil were such close friends. Yet, obviously, he didn’t let stop him as he got a new singer within just a couple of days. That’s impressive. I wonder how many people could bounce back from being kicked out of their band and losing their best friend at the same time.
One thing that Heaven 17’s story highlights for me is the use of sides back in the era of albums. The one side, Pavement, had songs written still as Human League and were more electronic and the other side, Penthouse, wasn’t. I miss the album. I do. Even if I put a whole album on, unless it is vinyl, it isn’t the same as have an A side and a B side where bands could do exactly what Heaven 17 did here.
One thing about Heaven 17 that I was surprised by was that they didn’t tour and instead focused their money on videos. I do love that they ended up touring with Human League in 2008. That seems fitting.
I definitely prefer vinyl to digital. It’s not even a contest…vinyl has a warmth to it that just cannot be translated to digital, never mind the more obvious fact that I miss having two sides to an album. Maybe I’m just stuck in the 80s, in which case, that’s fine too.
I am one of those people in the world that lets friend loyalty dictate certain things. I would never, for instance, even remotely entertain the idea of ditching a friend so that I could move up the business ladder. That’s probably why I’m going to stay a blogger forevermore, so that I don’t HAVE to deal with office politics, and that’s just fine by me. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be kicked out of a band by a best friend…but yet this sort of backstabbing seemed to happen a lot back then. It’s all about success and what you’re willing to do to get there. (My question remains whether any of these bands really know when they’ve gotten that success and whether they really ever enjoyed it once they were there – it all seems to be something people only see in hindsight!)
I liked Heaven 17 fine, and “Temptation” is probably their most recognizable song, but they weren’t on my short list. For me, the big story here is how they were freed from the self-defined shackles of Human League in order to explore other influences. I liked that they weren’t into the “fame” side of things: they viewed themselves as “valued artists and musicians”. The fact that they had a hard time breaking America because they wouldn’t tour with Coors is interesting. I wonder how many American bands would have sold their souls to be on that tour? That’s one thing I find fascinating with many of the UK bands of this period: they stuck to their ideals.
They toured again with Human League in 2008, and Ware says something that I believe is a common thread among nearly every band of this period, “We’re mates now, but I wouldn’t say there’s been closure.” I swear I’ve read similar tales from every band in Mad World. Maybe it is partially the British culture – maybe it’s easier just to sweep it all under the rug?
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Join us next week as we discuss Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Bow Wow Wow and The Waitresses!