Martin Kemp says he owes Tony Hadley an apology after 80s Spandau Ballet tensions
Martin Kemp vividly remembers the letter that changed his life. It simply said, “Martin wants to leave to be a pop star. I feel I have to give him a chance in life.”
That letter, written by his dad Frank, was sent to Martin’s bosses where he was a printer’s apprentice in London.
It led to Martin joining Spandau Ballet at the age of 18 and the band went on to sell millions of records, with hits including True, Gold and Through The Barricades.
"I use Dad’s letter as an example for my kids," he says. "It was an amazing example of how to be a father. It taught me how to be a dad. It was about pure belief. Dad wrote that letter for me a year after getting me this job.
"It was a good job in the area I grew up in at that time. He had no money, they were skint, they could have done with every penny coming in from me going to work, handing my mum housekeeping.
"He wanted to give me and Gary [his older brother, also in Spandau Ballet] a chance."
That chance, says Martin, was his Ticket To The World, the title of his new memoir, which captures the music, characters and zeitgeist of the 1980s.
"The 80s were larger than life," says Martin. "Everything was huge – the shoulder pads, the hairspray, the style. When you look back at pictures – the Lady Diana hair, the Joan Collins shoulder pads – it almost looks like pictures from the Elizabethan era.
"It was this explosion of colour. People were dressing up – they had ambition."
It was a time of excess and fun – without any of it being documented on social media. "With no social media, you could just live it," says Martin.
His stories from that era cover everyone from George Michael and Boy George to David Bowie and Duran Duran, all written with great warmth.
He recalls a time when Spandau Ballet raced Duran Duran back from Germany on Learjets in 1984, to record Do They Know It’s Christmas?.
"We got a call from Bob [Geldof] to say come back home and make this Band Aid track," he says. "I think Spandau had lost touch with the world at that point.
"Everything was excess. Everybody was turning up in their small cars, like Bananarama in a GTI Golf, Paul Weller walking along the road with a newspaper under his arm. Spandau turned up in this great big limousine. We completely got it wrong.
"Duran Duran were always our rivals – or so we like to think. I like that pop rivalry because it’s part of British pop culture. You’ve got The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Oasis and Blur, Spandau and Duran. It’s nice to be up there with that."
Reflecting on his time in the band, he says, "I’m 61 now, so I look back as if it was somebody else doing it. I see that boy in Spandau Ballet as a different person."
Do They Know It’s Christmas? raised £8 million within a year of its release and continues to raise money for the Band Aid Trust. The British Phonographic Industry made a platinum disc for everyone involved and it’s now a festive decoration in the Kemp household.
"The Band Aid triple platinum disc always gets put on the wall," he says. "I had a funny conversation with George [Michael] at the time. We were in the studio and he said, ‘I don’t like the words to this, it’s not very happy. It’s not going to last this song.’
"So it shows you we’re not all right all the time."
Christmas is a poignant time for the Kemp family, as George, who died on Christmas Day 2016 aged 53, was a close friend. Martin’s wife Shirlie, 60, was a backing dancer for Wham!, the pop duo George was in with Andrew Ridgeley, and George was godfather to their son Roman.
"He was one of my best friends," says Martin. "It was a tough period of our lives. It wasn’t about George Michael, it was about losing a member of our family, which he was.
"He was a wonderful human being. He was the most generous man, with not just his time, his money but also his emotion. We miss him dearly."
One of Martin’s career highlights was playing Live Aid at Wembley Stadium on 13 July, 1985, which had one of the biggest global audiences ever.
"I was spending so much time away from Shirlie and she was on tour with Wham!, so we didn’t get to see each other very much,” he says. "But Live Aid was the day that brought us together. I did the show and as soon as it finished, I went home to Shirlie and watched Live Aid from TV in bed.
"Then I went back afterwards just in time to see Queen. I saw it from both sides."
By the late 80s there were tensions in Spandau Ballet. Martin addresses it with honesty, particularly with regards to lead singer Tony Hadley.
"When I look back, I think I owe Tony an apology sometimes for those days," says Martin. "It’s because I’ve had a whole life’s experience now of how to treat people and how to live your life and become a different person. I look back at it now as a grown-up.
"We all make mistakes as young kids. When you get a group of boys, it becomes a kind of playground mentality where somebody has to be the brunt of the joke most of the time because if it’s not them, it might be you."
Ticket To The World is dedicated to Steve Strange, who founded the Blitz Club, a meeting place for New Romantics in the early 80s, and who died in 2015.
"I had two big influences in my life," says Martin, who has also acted in EastEnders and the 1990 film The Krays. “I grew up a really shy kid. My mum put me in the Anna Scher drama club when I was eight years old.
"When she got me I was just a piece of blotting paper. She gave me the good side of my personality.
"I think it was Steve Strange who gave me the bad side, the side that wanted to be a rock‘n’roller. The Blitz was the nucleus for so many people’s lives – so many bands started there. Boy George was in the cloakroom on our first gig. He was taking coats.
"There was Ultravox, fashion designers, hat designers. So many people owe their livelihoods and fortunes to Steve Strange."
Steve introduced Martin to his idol David Bowie at a party. "The first person I saw every morning was a poster of him on Gary’s wall as we shared a bedroom when we were kids.
"At the party I saw Bowie come in but I waited until the end of the evening to meet him. But by the time I got over there, I was absolutely sloshed.
"As I touched his hand, I went flying across the room, lost my balance and ended up in a pile by the wall. All I remember is Bowie looking at me and laughing."
His other huge influence is Shirlie, the woman who Martin first spotted on Top Of The Pops in 1982 with Wham!. George Michael even joined them on their first date.
The couple married in November 1988 in St Lucia. Nine months later their daughter Harley Moon, now 33, was born, followed later by Roman, 29, who’s now a successful presenter.
The idea for Martin’s book came when he started DJing at 80s nights. "We do something like 150 shows a year and it’s the most euphoric thing I’ve been involved with," he says.
"Everyone knows every word and sings at the top of their voices. People forget when they grow up how good it feels to sing out loud."
There are more gigs planned and he has other projects in the pipeline for 2023. "I’ve reached a point in my life where if things come along and I think it’s going to be fun then I’ll do it," he says. "The nicest thing about being in this business is you always get surprises."
Ticket to the World: My 80s Story (£22, HarperCollins) is out now.
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