IT’S SOMETHING I will probably never quite resolve in my mind. Quite how that fertile, adventurous and fearless genre known either as post-punk or new wave mutated into ‘new romantic’ is still just beyond the reach of my admittedly limited comprehension.
I remember hearing ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’ in 1980, and being just a bit impressed. It stomped along with vigour. But next to the great post punk releases that year, it was nothing special. And compared to the awe-inspiring sound of Joy Division, it was nothing at all.
But then, in 1981, came ‘Chant No. 1’. Synth-pop was already buzzing, and the new romantic scene had really come to life with Ultravox’s prissy and over-dramatic ‘Vienna’ the previous year, but I had thought it was a novelty, a one-off. For me, ‘Chant No. 1’ was the discovery of dance music, and everyone I knew was suddenly going to club nights and grooving, when a year before it had been mandatory to stand sallow in the shadows and make like the spawn of Joy Division at gigs, with maybe just a little pogo allowable to get one’s frustrations out. Spandau Ballet, together with a bunch of other fun-oriented groups erupting in 1981, was liberating. I could even wear makeup to gigs without being called a poof – most of the time.
It didn’t take long for the living members of Joy Division to reconfigure into a group that fit right into the new romantic scene, as did other formerly austere groups like Human League. Hell, even the likes of Gang Of Four and The Cure had a stab at this new, dance-oriented style.
The problem manifested itself with incredible speed. Where many of the post-punk bands had been seeking change in social and political life, most of the new romantic groups were vain, narcissistic, and fit right into the Thatcher years of rampant right wing thinking. With deeply conservative groups like Duran Duran leading the charge, it all quickly deteriorated into a frighteningly superficial scene that was reflected in the music.
I knew that I had given up on Spandau Ballet with hasty speed at the time, but time had dimmed my memory of the group’s spectacular journey up their own assholes. ‘Chant No. 1’ still works, because it has a genuine party groove, and it’s tight. Retrospectively, I can see how it’s lodged into music history: a close cousin to the type of jazzy funk that bands like Blood, Sweat & Tears played a decade earlier, also with standout horn arrangements. (It’s worth mentioning that the first five tracks on True Story were produced by Richard Burgess, a former drummer with NZ jazz-funk band Quincy Conserve, who were somewhat modeled on groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears).
‘Instinction’ is of the same ilk, and also rather good, but from there, it’s almost all downhill, fast. From here-on-in they’re a vacuous, bland, clingwrap pop commodity with all the fun and funk and wide-eyed naivety ironed out by cynical slick set producers. The most memorable track and one that still gets played in supermarkets is their big hit, ‘True’. It’s a depressing listen, from bland to blander, a mindnumbing collection of smooth plastic pop that hasn’t improved over time.
And to make matters even worse, some tracks from the recently reformed version of the group are included. They’re too dire to mention.
Now I remember why I got tired of the UK music scene very early on in the ‘80s, and started venturing forth into world music, discovering much more interesting and adventurous pop scenes in places like Japan: the new romantic scene, and the slick pop industry that followed it, was unredeemable, and had sold out so badly that the whole sorry polystyrene mess should have been viewed as a treasonable offence.
I figured that at least this 19-track collection might be remastered to a reasonable standard, but I have to warn you: the early tracks sound horribly thin, and for some reason, ‘Instinction’ is mastered at a lower level than the other tracks. Later tracks boast bigger bass, but no love or magic has been applied to these master tapes. In fact, I would hazard a guess that whoever mastered the disc knew it would mostly be played on inconceivably pathetic micro-stereo systems or just listened to on smartphone speakers.
Listening to The Story brought back bad memories of the ‘80s, a decade dominated by terrible groups like Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and ABC. But it’s worth remembering that there was a lot of great stuff happening in the margins: Adrian Sherwood’s rogue sound system, for instance, exploited popular currents in music to revolutionary ends, and embedded a vital seed in the culture that continues to grow and evolve today. The same can’t be said for the likes of Spandau Ballet. GARY STEEL
Music = 2/5
Sound = 2/5