12
Jun 09

SPANDAU BALLET – “True”

FT + Popular73 comments • 5,917 views

#520, 30th April 1983, video

The effect of “True” – potent for some, emetic for others – is a function of how it rubs two impulses up against each other. One is a yearning for depth and the authentic, in the form of soul music. The other is a wish to make your records gleam, to emphasise their sleekness and luxury. Understand this combination and you understand pop in the mid-80s. On the one hand, “You are Gold!” On the other, “Always believe in your soul!”

Both these urges are aspirational, but from some perspectives they create an intolerable friction. If – for instance – you believe soul music is something raw and unbiddable then the unctious shine of the Spandau approach is a laughable betrayal. Meanwhile, if you like your pop to be a shiny futurist bauble then their smooth reverence can come over as embarrassing cultural cringe. But the friction is also what gives this music its character, helps it capture its time and place. Today’s soul revivalists – and the slickers who consume them – are too savvy or tasteful to seem as foolish or brazen as Spandau Ballet, and this is one reason “True” is more interesting than anything Duffy (say) has done or will ever do.

“True” is an appropriate hit for this discussion because it’s a song about writing songs, fumbling for inspiration, finding it in “Maaarvin” and the music of the past. Oh, it comes dressed as a love song, but it’s utterly self-centred: its “you” is a cypher. Its best legacy, PM Dawn’s gorgeous “Set Adrift On Memory Bliss”, captures “True”‘s selfishness and pushes it even further into dreamy solipsism. And “Set Adrift” also dumps the song’s obvious ballast: Tony Hadley’s oily, overdetermined vocals. Strip them out, seaside arms and all, and what you have left is a lovely meringue of a record, particularly the delicious horn solo. Unfortunately, we had to wait for others to do this and realise “True”‘s potential – what we have is flawed and earthbound, but there’s enough here to turn a kind eye to its vanities and faults.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    rosie on 12 Jun 2009 #

    I suppose this above all others is the track that epitomises that first half of the 90s for me. Mid you, I didn’t notice it getting to the top: I missed something in the previous entry: on 9 June, just before this hit the top (or while it was hitting it, the Tories under Maggie Thatcher won the general election by a landslide that saw the Labour Party at the nadir of its fortunes. Why do I get a sense of déja vû about this right now? At the time I was a naive young thing who still believed there was enough discontent in the country for Labour to win comfortably. I was at the count in Hitchin Town Hall, and I still remember who cheered when rumours of Tony Benn’s defeat in Bristol East came through. I’ve got your number, comrade!

    That election, though dispiriting, didn’t do me any harm as it happened. I worked my legs off when nobody else’s heart was in it. I got spat on in Royston market and when Michael Foot came to visit somebody handed me a megaphone and I stood on a bench and ranted until one of Michael’s minders snatched it off me. I was outside any factions and well-in with the full-time agent and well placed to make a mark.

    So, the beginning of my rehabilitation begins with this song. That said, it’s immensely likeable, but like the decade it represents it has no soul; it sounds like something put together by committee to press the maximum number of buttons. But I do like that voice – it doesn’t quite make me shiver but it does feel nice and warm inside. Seven is about right.

  2. 2
    David Belbin on 12 Jun 2009 #

    Five months after ‘True’ came out I met my life partner. Being somewhat soppy, I put this on the first mix tape I made her. Big mistake. She absolutely loathed it and, as a result, I’ve not listened to my single of it since. I remember my mate Mike and I made jokes about the references to Hank Marvin, and how cool it was, listening to the Shadows all night long. Nice tune but there’s something fake about the lyric, isn’t there? She was right (she usually is).

  3. 3
    Jack Fear on 12 Jun 2009 #

    When I was a kid, my understanding of this song was based around a misinterpretation of the line “a pill on my tongue” – I read the lyric as a suicide note, a final testament: “I want the truth to be known.” The melancholic tug of the melody, the slipping-through-my-hands imagery… it was all of a piece. The note would go unfinished, like so many suicide notes – he was leaving the next line to someone else, because he wouldn’t be around to write it himself.

    It all made perfect sense at the time, to my sixteen-year old self; but then, you find death imagery everywhere, at that age. But even though, as a rule, Adult Me *likes* songs about songwriting and the clever pastiche-y bits they engender, in a way I still prefer my earlier, mistaken reading.

  4. 4
    Rory on 12 Jun 2009 #

    The High 80s of Wall Street and John Hughes movies started here, to my mind, and this era’s music was a step down from the few years preceding it. This particular single was Brother Music, again, so I can’t bring it to mind without remembering him singing it at random moments JUST TO ANNOY ME (not really, I guess, but I’m sure he found my annoyance amusing). Ah, ha ha, haaaaaaa, haaa…

    I couldn’t have told you it was about Marvin GAye, as at the time I barely knew who he was, so the whole musician-referencing aspect passed me by. So this was another “When Smokey Sings”, eh? Argh, now I’m going to have to watch the video to find out.

    A 3, I’m afraid, for probably quite irrational reasons. One of which is the irresistible temptation to conflate Spandau and Spandex.

  5. 5
    intothefireuk on 12 Jun 2009 #

    True is irrevocably tied to this period for me – being an ‘our tune’ of myself & my first love. 1983 witnessed the highs and the lows of our relationship and by the end of the year it was all done and dusted. It’s difficult under the circumstances to disassociate the song from this scenario but I can appreciate it for what it is. Blue-eyed soul from white boys who patently don’t seem to have one. It’s as fake as hell and Spandau seemed keener than their peers to disappear into MOR balladry (although I have a sneekin regard for ‘Gold’ and ‘Only When You Leave’) forsaking the dodgy kilts and electro funk of the earlier hits. As Tom rightly points out PM Dawn took the best bit and improved the song some years later.

  6. 6
    Rory on 12 Jun 2009 #

    Oops, my sneaky edit of “Hank Marvin” to “Marvin Gaye” revealed by a now-irrevocable typo. I knew “Sexual Healing”, but didn’t know his work well enough to notice him being referenced in this. (Or Hank. ;) Given where my head was at in 1983, I probably assumed they were referencing Marvin the Paranoid Android.

    Just watched the video despite myself, and oh no, the sideburns! The shaved sideburns inflicted on every teenage boy in the mid-80s by Spandau-loving hairdressers… J’accuse, Tony Hadley!

  7. 7
    Erithian on 13 Jun 2009 #

    Not that I was listening much to UK radio at the time, but if I had been, “True” at number one would have soundtracked the single greatest month of my life. May 1983 was my last month in Vannes.

    I saw the month in with the biggest hangover of my life, after three of the language-assistant community in the town had a joint 21st birthday bash and drank way too much. Three days later we had the triumph of the Lycée’s troupe theatrale, our production of Zadig at the Palais des Arts. I got a big round of applause for my portrayal of the King of Babylon, then after the interval shaved off the beard I’d been cultivating for a year to take the bow clean-shaven, to the delight of my pupils. For the rest of the month classes were a total breeze as I’d never been so popular in my life.

    And at weekends, like a cricket team at the end of a one-day match I was hitting out all over the place. The first weekend saw a trip to La Rochelle and the Atlantic coast; the second, visiting another assistant in Brest and spending my 21st birthday touring the north-west coast (and hearing how Manchester City got relegated!); the third, a trip to Cherbourg, Bayeux and Caen in order to get better reception to listen to the Cup Final (with crew members from the Rosslare-Cherbourg ferry buying me drinks in return for listening to my radio); and the fourth, visits to the area’s prehistoric monuments (Carnac the Breton answer to Stonehenge).

    What with all that going on, I was only just about following the UK chart. And as for “True”, well, it’s patchy. I do like the verse about Marvin, written from a soulboy’s perspective, but the rest of the lyric is drivel, and when one of your main hooks is about struggling to write the next line, you really are struggling. (Natasha Bedingfield irritated me for the same reason, but at least there was some wit to her song.) And in our language the truth is “told”, not “said”, Gary! Unlike Tom, though, I always found Tony Hadley’s vocals a strength, giving something that set Spandau apart from other bands of the time. Of their two big hits of the year I much preferred “Gold” – stylish, dramatic, a James Bond theme manqué, and most of all – coherent. Spandau’s early material was exciting, funky, versatile: with this they headed off down the road which had me before long dubbing them “Blandau Ballet”.

  8. 8
    snoball on 13 Jun 2009 #

    I have mixed reactions to this song. On the one hand, I really liked the sparse feel, as it’s a contrast to the start of the balloons’n’neon TOTP era. On the other hand, the song doesn’t say much apart from “I can’t write lyrics!”. A 4, because I don’t really hate it but I’m not interested enough to ever hear it again. For me the only purpose it serves now is to illustrate why Bowie’s mid 70’s soul was so effective despite on paper appearing awkward – underneath the fidgety coked out nervousness DB actually cared about the music he was borrowing from. The Spandaus didn’t seem to care, soul reduced to a shiny grey suit, a convenient gimmick to dress up in.

  9. 9
    peter goodlaws on 13 Jun 2009 #

    Rosie # 1 – It’s astonishing to consider that Michael Foot is still with us, bearing in mind the main criticism of him more than a quarter of a century ago was that he was on his last legs! Say what you like about him but he’s always been a far more honest and dignified broker than the likes of Mandleson and the equally vile Balls.

    Erithian # 7 – Ah, City getting relegated by Luton in the last seconds and one David “Night Cruiser” Pleat doing a Bob Stokeo in celebration! How times change. City now the world’s richest club, whilst The Hatters will be visiting Eastbourne Borough next season.

    Spandau Ballet? Er…no.

  10. 10
    Steve Mannion on 13 Jun 2009 #

    I think this soul paradox type thing is also a key issue re George Michael so look fwd to exploring that at a later date. As for Ver Spanners, it seems they were on a similar trajectory to Duran Duran for a while with vague funk, disco and punk leans converging for the new wave thrills of ‘To Cut A Long Story Short’ and ‘Chant No.1’ which I still like…but lacking the thrust of Le Bon and co. seemed to leave them forced to tread this duller path sooner. ‘Gold’ itself felt like a tepid take on ‘Rio’, adding to the sense that they were a poor man’s DD too often.

    You know you’re entering the mid-80s because you can hear a hundred sax solos advancing. Which reminds me again I really must make that sax icon…

  11. 11
    LondonLee on 13 Jun 2009 #

    I wrote on my blog a while ago that this was the quintessential 80s Disco-Pub slowie. The minute I hear those opening clipped guitar notes I’m taken back to a place where the atmosphere is thick with Paco Rabanne, Silk Cuts, lager and hormones – and I’m usually standing at the bar on my own while people are coupling up and hitting the dancefloor all around me. So in a lot of ways it’s the sound of sadness and frustration to me but I still think it’s gorgeous, even though I can understand while a lot of people would loathe it.

    Do people just stick the ‘aspirational’ label on Spandau because they were from Essex which conjures up images of the brash Thatcherite wide boys of that era? I understand the connection but, just thinking out loud here, did Scritti Politti get lumbered with that for their sleek dance music too? Or was Green too middle class and “intellectual” to be categorized like that? It bothers me a little that when working class boys start sounding a bit classy, like, everyone starts calling them Tories.

  12. 12
    Pete on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Whilst Hadley is a bit unctuous as a vocalist, his greatest skill was to be able to sing much of this lyrical rubbish as straight as possible. As befits a song about songwriting (everyones got one, just as every columnist is allowed one column about writing a column), it is full of the most remarkable toot: not just the “I bought a ticket to the world, and now I have come back again” – though that is justly the most famous. Certainly Spandau Ballet shared with Duran Duran the ability to pen, and sell some nonsense, and its interesting that these two bands appeared at the same time. The words and the delivery all signify something but there is little content. Wittgenstein would have been fascinated.

    As for that sax solo, its one of the great sax breaks in pop and makes me sorry to see that wonderful instrument out in the cold as it is. But needs must, for every True we got a Kenny G or Candy Duffer.

  13. 13
    Alan on 14 Jun 2009 #

    <tanya>how hard was it to write “when I want the truth to be said” do you think?</tanya>

  14. 14
    lonepilgrim on 14 Jun 2009 #

    you can’t argue with that breathy hook – as PM Dawn demonstrated.
    SB were originally North London soul boys – but I suspect fans of the smoother 70s variety filtered through Young Americans era Bowie. Soul music became Dance music and the club scene began to boom.

    The Face magazine played a big part in promoting Soul/Dance in the 80s in a way that the NME/MM had never really done. The May 83 edition features an interview with the Lets Dance era Bowie and a report on SB playing Bournemouth. Gary Kemp is quoted:
    “I’ve been going to Bournemouth since 1975…It was a soulboy haunt really – smooth working-class young people. In about 1979 smaller clubs like Billy’s started up and there was what you might call the Futurist element. I used to go down to the coast with that lot. There was a split between them and the Jazz-Funk people because Jazz-Funk wasn’t aggressive enough: this year there’s been a merger. It’s taken bands like ourselves to bring people around to avant-garde club music. the club scene is enormous now. You’re talking about 2,000 people at the Palace every night and there’s a club like that in every major town. The music is mainly British now, whereas before it was a very American sort of sound. But the music is taking a back seat to the idea of the club as a stage for young people. Youth culture has never been so big. People do feel that something exciting is happening. You can be as famous now for picking up a pair of dancing shoes as a guitar.”

    It’s hard to imagine Spandau Ballet being ‘avant-garde club music’ now.

    re♯11 Gary Kemp was a very vocal Labour supporter and played at various benefit gigs during the 80s

  15. 15
    rosie on 14 Jun 2009 #

    I don’t think I ever noticed the words to this before I listened to it closely for Popular. Which, once again, serves to point out that I like this for an overall impression, a pattern of sounds if you will, rather than for any profundity in the lyric. I don’t expect profound poetry in pop.

    A couple of years hence, after my retirement from Popular, I’ll be working in the City in an environment that might surprise those who weren’t there and read the City as a signifier of everything that was bad and tacky about the eighties. Sure, the power suits and padded shoulders were everywhere, and all that’s been found rotten in today’s City was there in an embrionic state. Mr Cameron sr was funding his son’s expensive education with generous bonuses; if you had the odd few million to spare my employers would let you have an account with their discreet subsidiary in Curzon Street where clever young men and women sought to protect your assets against falls in the market; and armies of young turks who found it more exciting that working on a production line at Dagenham flooded in every day (so many, I had not thought Maggie had undone so many). But it was still a small-c conservative City establishment in charge; one that disliked Maggie the grocer’s daughter, champion of the small businessman. And who’s most telling insult was “comes into Liverpool Street”.

    Mind you, it’s a bit unfair to blame Essex for every ill – after all, did not Alison Moyet come from Basildon?

  16. 16
    rosie on 14 Jun 2009 #

    I don’t think I ever noticed the words to this before I listened to it closely for Popular. Which, once again, serves to point out that I like this for an overall impression, a pattern of sounds if you will, rather than for any profundity in the lyric. I don’t expect profound poetry in pop. And until it was pointed out to me, I hadn’t a clue that there was any kind of connection to Marvin Gaye in it. This pop is a million miles from the pop of my teenage years.

    A couple of years hence, after my retirement from Popular, I’ll be working in the City in an environment that might surprise those who weren’t there and read the City as a signifier of everything that was bad and tacky about the eighties. Sure, the power suits and padded shoulders were everywhere, and all that’s been found rotten in today’s City was there in an embrionic state. Mr Cameron sr was funding his son’s expensive education with generous bonuses; if you had the odd few million to spare my employers would let you have an account with their discreet subsidiary in Curzon Street where clever young men and women sought to protect your assets against falls in the market; and armies of young turks who found it more exciting that working on a production line at Dagenham flooded in every day (so many, I had not thought Maggie had undone so many). But it was still a small-c conservative City establishment in charge; one that disliked Maggie the grocer’s daughter, champion of the small businessman. And who’s most telling insult was “comes into Liverpool Street”.

    Mind you, it’s a bit unfair to blame Essex for every ill – after all, did not Alison Moyet come from Basildon?

  17. 17
    rosie on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Can somebody please delete the double post?

  18. 18
    Steve Mannion on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Interested to hear about Kemp’s Labour support. As SB turned to shit you had the Blow Monkeys also coming thru. I had always thought of them as the height of 80s aspirational sophisticated blahblah. I knew they were anti-Thatcher (the ‘…Grocer’s Daughter’ LP track titles say it all e.g. ‘The Grantham Grizzler’!) but hadn’t realised just how much so. I couldn’t help but find it easy to imagine their hits being lapped up by the sort of (similarly dressed?) people they were seemingly the complete opposite to politically, at least until they paid attention to anything beyond the sharp suits and smooth tones (maybe it’s naive to think they didn’t, or that the BM’s weren’t trying to lure people into their trap like that ha).

  19. 19
    LondonLee on 14 Jun 2009 #

    I knew Kemp was a Labour supporter which is why I thought it a little unfair that the “aspirational” tag gets applied to them – and in a snootily insulting way too, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to better yourself (or have I just lived in America for too long?)

    I remember an article in The Face by Robert Elms called “All You’ve Got To Do Is Win” which attempted to cover the history of modern soul boys and their aspirational lifestyle, starting with Bowie’s wedge haircut on the cover of Young Americans.

  20. 20
    Tom on 14 Jun 2009 #

    I certainly didn’t intend “aspirational” as an insult – or even as a lifestyle tag particularly: I meant it purely in relation to SB’s music. The desire to create music that sounds enormous and expensive, and the desire to create music that matches or approaches the work done by one’s idols.

  21. 21
    AndyPandy on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Essex can be forgiven anything in my book after being the epicentre of the soul/jazz-funk scene a few years later it was the dominant force with hardcore and gave us Rave as we know it…
    Having said that Spandau Ballet were from Islington.

    That’s really interesting about Gary Kemp and the Bournemouth weekenders I’d heard rumours that Spandau Ballet used to go down and that theys been part of the scene before their New Romantic days but had never actually seen anything in print.

    The Bournemouth weekenders lasted up till the start of the Acid House scene at the Bournemouth in Spring 1988 there were a crowd dressed in bandanas, longer hair and brightly coloured clothes (we were still all in baggy jeans and flat tops)who I now know were a lot of the punters from Shoom (I dont think Spectrum had started by this stage or hadnt taken off and I know Clink Street or The Trip hadnt)as Danny Rampling (who’d done the Special Branch up till Shoom) , Nicky Holloway (who was doing the Milk Bar, Doo at the Zoo etc), Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker (doing the East Arms back then) etc were all part of the Bournemouth soul weekender crowd.

  22. 22
    lonepilgrim on 14 Jun 2009 #

    re the aspirational thing, from the same Face interview:

    “You can be artistically credible and have something to do with pop culture, and I think that bands like us have been a part of that.
    Now, to be credible, you have to be successful. I think it took us refusing to play live and instead promoting the whole club scene to push that scene to the way it is today. I think we’ve changed an awful lot. We’ve changed things in this country – now we’ve got to take it to America and make a mark in pop history.
    That’s what I want to be remembered for – not just for being the guy who wrote ‘To cut a long story short’ or the guy who played guitar on ‘Chant No.1′. It’s not a financial thing. Just to be British and to sit on top of the largest consumer market in the world and to beat it at its own game is a buzz in itself’

  23. 23
    LondonLee on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Spandau may have been from Islington but their, um, soul lived in Essex. Same with Wham! – also from Norf London as I recall but both seemed to epitomize the Loadsamoney, XR3i-driving ‘Essex Man’

    I used to go to The Milk Bar, great place, though Acid House ruined the London club scene for me. I was big into Rare Groove and Acid Jazz which just got killed off and replaced with 10-minute tracks with no tune you had to be on drugs to enjoy – and there were all these bloody kids in the clubs too, not drinking and waving their hands in the air.

  24. 24
    glue_factory on 14 Jun 2009 #

    Talking of acid house, is the “with the pill on my tongue” line an early reference to ecstacy? I guess it would have been doing the rounds of trendy New York clubs that Spandau could have frequented. Or are there other pills (i.e. not powders, blotters, etc) that give one a “thrill in the head” and “dissolve the nerves”?

  25. 25
    logged out Tracer Hand on 15 Jun 2009 #

    It has never occurred to me (until now) that this was intended to be a “soul” song.

  26. 26
    AndyPandy on 15 Jun 2009 #

    Lee at 23 I know exactly what you mean – although myself being a bit young at the time to understand exactly the socio-ecomomic stuff behind what you’re saying I realised that Wham! (and especially Club Tropicana) summed up something that was specific to a particular aspirational working-class culture that existed in the South-East.
    Wham! even came from just a few miles up the M25 (not that it was complete back then!) in Bushey in Hertfordshire.

    And I know that as it did for you that Acid House killed the scene for a lot of people. It certainly changed things radically very quickly – as said in my previous post at the Bournemouth Weekender in Spring 1988 except for the few people from Shoom it was pretty much the same but in a couple of months 75% of the underground dance/soul clubs in the south-east (at least) had gone Acid House and within a year the soul/funk scene had been reduced to a rump of a few diehards playing obscure modern soul to a dwindling audience in pubs and back rooms. I’d left the old soul/funk scene completely behind by then after an epiphany that Spring (I’d been into the house records since around 1986) for a world of “right on one matey” and “Deep Heat” compilations (the first 4 or 5 were bloody good!)but from what I heard and the fact that at the big (what had once been the Caister but for a couple of years had been at various other holiday camps)weekenders Acid had taken over the main (what had previously been the “funk”) rooms.

    One final thing in 1988 at least probably at least half of the punters as were the vast majority of djs at the big Acid House dos (in those around London and the south-east anyway) were directly from the pre-house club scene and had made the change over to it like me and for those we lost you had new peole coming in but unlike before because of its newness and mainly because of shock horror headlines in the media the average man in the street knew about Acid House. But the old soul scene had been equally massive with thousands going to the weekenders, listening to the pirates etc but if someone wasnt young, working-class and from a radius of about 40 miles of London they’d never had heard of it so I suppose it was truly underground.

  27. 27
    AndyPandy on 15 Jun 2009 #

    And on Lee’s point about the Spandau Ballet/Wham! thing how could I miss out the group who probably up to the point they ctossed over to the pop Top 10 drew literally about 99% of their fans from the working class Essex/Home Counties/outer London crowd – Level 42 (even though they themselves didn’t even come from the South East (Level 42 coming from the Isle of Wight).
    Their omnipresence among this crowd before they crossed over was such that on pretty much “aspirational geezers in the building or car mechanics” support alone they were already scraping Top 40 hits. Second Image were another similar band who everyone seemed to play on their car stereos back then (as Lee says Xr3i’s but a lot would have still been Cortina Mark II’s preferably 2000Es or Capris with optional “If It Moves Funk It” sunstrips, or “Robbie Spreading Funk Over London Town” car stickers),but unfortunately unlike Level 42 and that band’s eventual commerciality they never crossed over.

  28. 28
    The Intl on 15 Jun 2009 #

    I hate this f#%king song.

  29. 29
    H. on 15 Jun 2009 #

    Wham! and Level 42 never had their New Wave moment, did they? For me, Let’s Dance & True mark the point where New Wave has really died. Even in Duran’s Something I Should Know you can feel the New Wave roots, but with True we’re onto something completely different that would dominate the British sound for the next few years. Even the Keith Haring-ish sleeve is a definitive move away from the New Wave aesthetic, as typified by the album cover of SB’s Reformation.

  30. 30
    will on 15 Jun 2009 #

    I am amazed this has escaped a slagging thus far.

    I don’t think True even works as a ‘slowie’. It stops, starts, stops and only really gets going during the obligatory Steve Norman sax solo. Then there are those awful lyrics, which hardly need further comment.

    Personally, I only really enjoyed Spandau when they amped up the preposterousness to the max. The Trevor Horn-produced Instinction was probably their last decent single before they slipped on the suits and started taking themselves FAR too seriously.

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