Storm The Barricades
Working again after two years of legal trench-warfare, The Spands talk about their comeback album, the defiantly-titled Through The Barricades. Observation post: Chris Maillard
Over the past two years, business hassles silenced Spandau Ballet, and threatened to kill their career for good. Now they're back with a defiantly titled album, Through The Barricades — and they won't get fooled again...
Through The Barricades is both the title of the new Spandau Ballet album and a description of their career recently.
In 1984 they were in the world class, with their London gigs consisting of no less than six consecutive nights at Wembley Arena and their singles selling well all over the globe.
Then, disagreement flared between the band and their record company, Chrysalis. The company hadn't promoted the band well enough, alleged Spandau Ballet. The band hadn't been as loyal as they should have been, alleged Chrysalis. All in all, it ended up as a game of legal and highly expensive raspberry-blowing and face-pulling between the two sets of extremely well-paid lawyers.
During the dispute, the band were unwilling to make any more records — despite Chrysalis releasing an unauthorised Greatest Hits — because they didn't want their products coming out on a label they weren't happy with. So, they rehearsed sporadically, rested, wrote songs, and waited. All the time worrying that by the time the legal problems were over they would have been forgotten by their audience of notoriously fickle Pop fans.
Now they've signed a new deal, their court case is behind them and Spandau Ballet are back on course with an album just out and a tour due to begin any day now. And what's more, they say it's actually done them good.
"It was nice to be able to take our time this time round," said Gary Kemp. "Every other album we've made has been done against deadlines. We couldn't afford to spend time on pre-production, rehearsing or whatever, it was always rush, rush, rush. Because we were in dispute with Chrysalis during the time we were working up to the new album, we knew we couldn't have released it anyway. We were never going to put out another thing through Chrysalis, and they knew that in their heart of hearts, and we knew that, so it took the pressure off us an awful lot. We had all the time in the world, really, so there was no reason to rush into doing something we were going to be less than happy with.
"What it meant was that we could get together as a band and actually play the songs together. What we did was to hire a theatre in Dublin — it's a very relaxed city, really pleasant — and set the gear up and just play. Rather than, say, a rehearsal studio where the sound is very dry and clean, the theatre was just like playing a gig except, of course, for the audience.
"That meant that we could routine the material as if it was a live set, which helped it immensely. By the time we came to record it we knew how the arrangements worked best, we knew the songs, and we had as nearly as possible played them live.
"You see, people always thought that we were better — well, certainly more aggressive and powerful — on stage than on record. People who weren't very keen on our records used to go to gigs and come out quite keen, simply because we were more raw and livelier live. And the on-stage work has always been very important to us. We're not one of those bands that just go along to a gig and mime to their records, we are a real band and always have been.
"Sometimes we still get that attitude, particularly in America — if we go to a town we've not played before — that we're not regarded as a 'proper' group who can and do play their instruments. I suppose it's partly that at the time we started to get well-known there were a lot of bands like Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark who looked good but deliberately played down the aspect of being able to play their instruments.
"We looked good, sure, but people didn't seem to look beyond that and see that we were also quite capable. Not geniuses, mind, but we all play our own parts live and in the studio; there's no drum machine on our records or sampled guitar parts and stuff. We really do it ourselves, which some didn't believe.
"Luckily, it's wearing off now, partly because of Live Aid where we went on and did a good set, and everybody was on the same terms that day. There was no faking, people had to do it or shut up. And I think that proved that we can do it.
"Anyway, the end result of this is that the rehearsals we did on the new songs tightened them up, made them much more like the versions we would do live. So when we wanted to record them, we chose Gary Langhan as co-producer. He's Trevor Horn's engineer, and he is a brilliant engineer. He knows exactly how to capture sounds at their best without altering the arrangements or the feel at all. You see, we already had the arrangements worked out so we didn't either want or need someone to rearrange stuff or to take songs which had only been worked out roughly and build them up.
"We started it at Music Land Studios in Munich, moved to another German studio. Union, and ended up at Miravel in France. Not because we like travelling particularly, that's just the way it turned out. In fact, I wish we'd done it all in France simply because we found this fantastic corridor.
"We'd already done the drums, we did those in Germany, but as soon as we happened across this place we thought 'this is brilliant!' It was a big concrete-walled place with a massive echo, like recording in a cave or something, and so we just had to use it. We did the drums on Swept in there, as it turned out, just to use it.
"The drums were all done live; there was no sampling or drum machine used at all. And another thing that's unusual is that John (Keeble, drummer) had much more to play off than drummers are used to having these days. Instead of just a click track and a bit of guide piano or whatever, we'd record guitar, bass, maybe some keyboards and a guide vocal, so it was just like playing along with a band. I always think that a drummer playing along to just a click loses something of the basic feel, no matter how good they are. You can tell when a track's been done like that because there's none of that very slight pushing and pulling that a drummer will use to lift a chorus or make a bridge lay back or whatever. And as for drum machines... they're horrible. I wouldn't dream of using one.
"Sometimes we even recorded the track almost completely, drums and all, then dropped them out and got John to set the kit up again and play along with the lot. You see, if a drummer has got vocals, guitar parts, horn parts, or whatever to play off he is bound to do a better take, one with more feel. That worked really well. Drums are the heart of a band — they are fundamental to the final sound of a song and, though nowadays some people seem to accept the sampled, programmed drums. I'm sure a real drummer adds more than anything else.
"Mind you, we did the rest of the instruments more or less live, too; we didn't use a Fairlight at all, despite the fact that Gary Langhan is a member of The Art Of Noise, because we didn't want to get into any technology that we couldn't use ourselves. He wasn't going to impose any tricks on us, he was just recording what was there. We did use a Kurzweil, but mainly for piano sounds and odd bits of synth, and we got an Emulator towards the end as well, but that was for the same purposes. Actually, the keyboard we still use a lot, particularly live, is an old Rhodes Chroma. It's a bit antique now, and it's playing up a bit so we're searching desperately hard for a second-hand one as a backup, but it's got that sound, that distinctive Spandau Ballet synth that is all over True and Diamond. You don't see many of them about nowadays, they're a bit rare, but I don't know what we'll do if we can't find one.
"On the last tour we did we took a Yamaha grand piano, which was a nice idea but eventually much more trouble than it was worth. What with the sound problems it caused and the hassle of lugging it about and retuning it all the time, it was a nightmare. So we're using the Kurzweil this tour which sounds really good; it's got really fast sampling and it's reliable. And what's more, you don't need 10 blokes to carry it. Now what else do we use..."
As if on cue, Steve Norman appears to do a very fast guided tour of the saxes and the percussion he uses.
"Right. This is my tenor sax, it's an old Selmer Mark VI. I don't know how old it is exactly. I've never bothered to find out, but it's a good solid sax and it's got a lovely tone.
"I use plastic-coated reeds which last for ages — I know one bloke who says his is six years old but I don't know what it must taste like after all that time — and I've got a little gadget fitted just under the reed, a tiny strip of metal which vibrates onto it and gives a real rasp, a really filthy sound. It's good for the style I like which is that Junior Walker-type stuff, the old Soul sound.
"I've got a Soprano sax too, a new Yamaha, which I'm using more and more these days. I did use an alto as well, but I'm doing those lines on the tenor now, purely because the hassles of miking up a sax on-stage are ridiculous, so the fewer changes I make the better. I used radio mikes on the last tour, Sennheisers, which are lovely mikes but somehow it caused problems with feedback, and it clashed with the piano miking as well. In the end, the sound guy had it equalised so much that the sax sounded like a little squeak, a really weedy sound with no top or bottom to it. This year we're not using the real piano so I hope things will be better.
"Oh, and my congas are Gon Bops. They're brilliant. But I just use them here and there to fill up the sound — I'm much more into the sax."
And with that he left, leaving Gary to round off with a quick essay on the art of Spandau songwriting.
"I write almost all of our stuff at home on piano or guitar. I can't write on the road, it's too distracting for me. I know some people can, but generally after and between gigs we're too busy relaxing, going to a party maybe or just going out and getting drunk. After all, we tour quite intensively — this year we're only getting Christmas Day itself off — and we need a rest.
"Actually, the most terrifying experience of my life is taking a new song to the band and playing it for them. Not Live Aid, not even the Anti-Apartheid gig I did on my own comes anything near to that. I just play it on acoustic guitar and sing, and everybody listens and makes the occasional comment. And I get really nervous!
"The thing is, though, if a song doesn't sound good with a completely basic arrangement like that it won't work even when it's produced in a really expensive studio later. Some of these bands now come out with singles that have brilliant sounds on them, and really clever arrangements, but underneath it there's no song. That, for me, doesn't work. If you can't make it sound good with just an acoustic guitar and a voice you never will, that's what I reckon.
"God, that makes me sound like a real old Rocker, doesn't it? Mind you, we're rehearsing next door to Status Quo — maybe it's seeping through the wall!"
Interview by Chris Maillard
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