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Spandau Ballet on Lou Reed

Tipping Their Hat to the Great

Apr 01, 2014 Spandau Ballet
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At first listen, one wouldn’t necessarily draw a line between Spandau Ballet and Lou Reed. One of the premiere bands of Britain’s New Romanticism movement (a group of artists in the late 1970s and early 80s that also included Gary Numan, Culture Club, and Duran Duran), it would be easy to imagine Reed’s distaste for Spandau Ballet’s slick synth pop and peacock-like attire. It’s a style that feels almost as far away from Reed’s sing-speak, and ubiquitous leather jacket, as their respective home bases in London and New York. After all, as Lou once told New York Rock, “I don’t believe in dressing up reality. I don’t believe in using makeup to make things look smoother.”

Spandau Ballet recently bridged their two worlds by covering Reed’s single “Satellite of Love” at a SXSW tribute to the late musician. But to hear the band tell it, there’s a connection between them and their hero that far exceeds sonics.

“Kids want to stand out from the crowd,” says bassist Martin Kemp praising Reed as an inspiration for their own outlandish looks. “Whether you’re a punk, or a New Romantic, or mod, you want to get as far away from your parents as possible. You want people to look at you and say, ‘My good God! He should be sent in the army!’”

Guitarist Gary Kemp concurs, noting that Reed’s ode to oddballs, 1972 single “Walk on the Wild Side,” led to him to discover another one of music’s greatest norm-challenging iconoclasts. “He conjures up all these transvestite characters and all these various wild cats,” he muses. “That got me through Bowie obviously. It also got me looking into Warhol’s factory. That for me felt very European.”

At that, the revelations come quickly, band members interrupting each other in an eagerness to weigh in on one of their favorite musicians. There’s talk of bringing Reed’s records to elementary school (“It was a real sort of cool group that had Transformer at the time,” notes vocalist Tony Hadley.), and an ardent discussion of his best work. (Reed’s time with The Velvet Underground is dismissed in favor of his solo album Transformer—although drummer John Keeble dissents, name-checking Reed’s 1975 album Lou Reed Live.)

It quickly becomes clear that their love of Lou Reed is two-fold. Sure, he was a fearless musician—equally as willing to collaborate with John Cale and Andy Warhol as Metallica. But he also hit the members of Spandau Ballet at a time in their youth when they needed someone to tell them it was okay to step outside of the binary.

Would Reed have the same impact as an upstart in the 2000s as he did in an era when talk of sexuality was largely taboo and DIY culture was largely unheralded? The band praises The Killers for their commitment to glam, and Lady Gaga for her willingness to experiment. (Although they all cringe while recalling her vomit-drenched SXSW set.) However, Martin wonders if even Reed’s brand of rebellion would have cut through today’s climate.

“When the Sex Pistols went on TV, the interviewer said, ‘Go on, swear! Say something naughty,’ he recalls. “So they swore. It was on the front page of the national newspaper. It was so distasteful to the people at the time…Now the boundaries of taste have been pushed to the nth degree.”

Although a creative force, Reed never experienced widespread commercial success. (Brian Eno once noted that although the first Velvet Underground record only sold only 30,000 copies upon release, “everyone who bought one of those 30,000 copies started a band.”) In another division between the two groups, Spandau Ballet’s brand of individualism netted the band a considerable mainstream following. (Their third album, 1983’s True featured a handful of international hits.) Martin, for one, muses that anything, even assimilation in the mainstream, could have been in Reed’s reach.

“I think Lou was a bit scared of total commerciality,” he says. “I think the closest he got was Transformer in that period and ‘Walk on the Wild Side.’ Maybe he was battling with that. A lot of artists find that to be a difficult thing. Art is about communicating ideas so that other can learn from them. Lou was constantly battling the amount of communication he really wanted to make and the world that he was actually in.”

“Lou Reed was just uncompromising,” adds Keeble. “He knew what he wanted and he wouldn’t let anyone get in the way.”



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