by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
For some inexplicable reason, Spandau Ballet constantly gets mislabeled in the U.S. as a one-hit wonder, but a brief consultation with The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits will show you that the British quintet – who were always reinventing themselves, beginning their story as an art-disco outfit but finding their greatest success internationally as a soul-pop outfit before taking an equally shocking turn towards arena-rock – actually had not one, or even two, but THREE American hit singles. The most famous, of course, was the soul-pop classic and Top Ten hit “True” (#4), but the band also reached the Top 40 with “Gold” (#29) and the wildly underrated “Only When You Leave” (#34). But it’s easy to see why someone might assume the band were only one-hit-wonders here, because nothing other than “True” really got the exposure that it genuinely deserved in America (in contrast, the band amassed a very impressive total of fifteen Top Twenty hits in the U.K. during the same time period), and why singles like “Only When You Leave” or the lesser-charting “Communication” didn’t do better (and why equally strong U.K. hit singles like “Round and Round,” “Highly Strung,” “Lifeline,” “Chant No. 1” and “To Cut a Long Story Shot” either didn’t reach the Hot 100 or even get released here as singles at all) is a bit baffling. Because of that, the band is arguably – at least on American shores, anyway – one of the most wildly underrated singles acts of the ‘80s. While the band had sadly faded from prominence by the end of the ‘80s, splitting shortly afterwards (guitarist and primary songwriter Gary Kemp would interestingly become more visible in the ‘90s as an actor, playing the manager of Whitney Houston’s character in the major box-office hit The Bodyguard), the original lineup of the band would reform in the ‘00s for several tours, a surprisingly strong album of stripped-down re-recordings of old classics, and a high-profile best-of package, and the reunited band is still performing to this day (and, more importantly, they still sound good!). But what about their albums? Where should a new fan start? Let us help you explore their catalog …
Journeys to Glory (1981, Chrysalis)
If you’re only familiar with Spandau Ballet through the single “True,” you might be surprised by thoroughly different this album is from that song. In its earliest years, Spandau Ballet was a much more new-wave-oriented act, clearly influenced by the art-rock of acts like Roxy Music. The biggest hit here, actually, the danceable and insanely catchy “To Cut a Long Story Short,” is mildly reminiscent of Duran Duran, another act whose sound owed a great deal to Roxy Music. The band is still clearly developing here, but Gary Kemp’s potential as a songwriter is already evident, and songs like “To Cut a Long Story Short” and the pounding “Musclebound” (featuring some deliciously soulful guitar playing from Gary Kemp and some fittingly muscular drumming from John Keeble) are fantastic. “The Freeze” was also released as a single, but the album cut “Confused” is catchier and “Toys" is an overlooked gem, too.
Diamond (1982, Chrysalis)
The band moves a little closer on its sophomore album to R&B territory while still demonstrating its early inclinations for Roxy Music-like danceable art-rock. A noticeable improvement on their debut album, Gary Kemp is in fine form here as a songwriter, and there’s a great batch of singles here in the horn-heavy avant-garde disco-funk of “Chant No. 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On),” one of the most immediately and deliriously catchy songs the band ever cut, the dramatic “She Loved Like Diamond” (Tony Hadley’s excellent vocal on which hints at the passion and power that would become his trademark on later cuts like “True” and “Gold”), the synth-heavy stuttering grooves of “Instinction,” and the haunting “Paint Me Down.” The album cuts are better this time out, too, and very playful, the band dabbling with funk on “Pharaoh” and the vaguely Earth, Wind & Fire-like “Coffee Club” and, even more unexpectedly, Asian music textures on “Innocence and Silence,” on which Gary Kemp impressively plays a cheng to great effect.
True (1983, Chrysalis)
Maybe it was the regular comparisons to acts like Roxy Music, Duran Duran, and ABC that provoked the change, but the band’s third album finds them unexpectedly abandoning the art-rock and the funk experiments of the first two and completely remolding themselves as a soul-pop outfit (and a very elegantly-dressed one, at that!), Steve Norman (who served as second guitarist on the debut and percussionist on Diamond) just as unexpectedly switching over to saxophone. The musical makeover could have been a fatal mistake, but the band is just as good at soul-pop as they were at danceable new-wave cuts like “Chant No. 1” and “To Cut a Long Story Short.” (It certainly helps that they had a songwriter as strong and as versatile as Gary Kemp to ease that transition.) Lead singer Tony Hadley also sings with more power and passion than ever before, most notably on the epic, six-and-a-half-minute, sultry and silky-smooth title cut, which would deservedly become the band’s first and biggest American hit, sailing all the way into the Top Five and being sampled repeatedly in later years on such hits as P.M. Dawn’s “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss," Lloyd's "You," and Nelly's "N Dey Say." It’s not just the title cut that makes this album so good, though, and there are quite a few other truly first-rate songs here, including “Gold” (which became the band’s second Top 40 hit in America), the gently-bopping and slightly jazz-tinged “Communication,” and the incredibly soulful synth-heavy “Lifeline.”
Parade (1984, Chrysalis)
For some reason, it didn’t do nearly as well in America as its predecessor, but the band’s fourth album just might be its best yet. There’s nothing here quite as epic as “True” was, but Gary Kemp is still in top form here as a songwriter and this is the band’s most consistently engaging and hook-heavy album. “Only When You Leave” dented the Top 40 in the U.S., but it should’ve done much better – unlike “True,” it’s not a ballad and is actually mildly danceable (if not nearly as much so as the band’s earlier, more disco-oriented material like “Chant No. 1”), but it’s just as pretty and nearly every bit as catchy. The fun and clever “Highly Strung” boasts one of the catchiest choruses in the band’s entire catalog, while the alluring “I’ll Fly for You” showcases the band’s sultrier side and the masterful “Round and Round” – arguably the band’s single-most underrated song – boasts a melody that’s simultaneously one of the simplest yet one of the prettiest that Gary Kemp’s ever penned. The surrounding album cuts are even better than usual, too, highlighted by the breezy “Always in the Back of My Mind” and the catchy “Revenge for Love.” Most fans will probably want to spring for True first, if only because of the title cut, but this is definitely the one to pick up after that and it remains one of the most underrated albums of the ‘80s.
Through the Barricades (1986, Epic)
The most head-scratching of all the Spandau Ballet albums, the band’s made two sweeping changes since its last outing. Disappointed with what they perceived as inadequate promotion for Parade (and they had a right to be upset; the album deserved to do much, much better in America than it did), the band left Chrysalis, signing instead with Epic (then the home of the biggest ‘80s star of all, Michael Jackson). Secondly, and much more inexplicably, the band decided it was time for another sonic makeover, playing down the R&B and soul-pop influences of the last two discs in favor of a more stadium-rock-oriented sound with lots of distorted guitars. The title cut is a fine piece of songwriting, but the arrangement is so radically different from the band’s previous work as to be completely jarring on first listen; its starts off gently, with Hadley crooning over some acoustic guitar picking from Gary Kemp, but three minutes in, the band shifts into pure power-ballad mode. “Cross the Line” sounds just as alien. “Fight for Ourselves” fleetingly sounds a little bit more like the Spandau Ballet we know from True and Parade – or at least it does during its verses, anyway – but the chorus is far beneath the band’s usual standards (as is the chorus in “Man in Chains”) and the addition of female backing vocalists on the cut is just tacky. The album bombed in America, failing to yield any hit singles, but they really couldn’t fault their label this time – as the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and this is a simple case of the band ceasing to write the type of songs that fit them so well. The title track is still very much worth hearing, and “How Many Lies?” is fairly good, too, but it’s still easily their weakest album yet.
Heart Like a Sky (1989, Columbia, U.K.)
For a band that started its career with such a magnificent string of singles and even briefly seemed on the verge of bigger things in America in the mid-‘80s, it’s both sad and surprising that the band closed the decade on such a sour note commercially, its last album of the ‘80s not even getting an American release at all while also becoming the band’s first album to not yield a single Top 40 hit in Britain. The risqué dance-pop of “Raw” is just flat-out embarrassing and smacks of desperation, sounding more like it belongs on Paula Abdul’s Forever Your Girl than on a Spandau Ballet album, and it’s clear from the track that the band is still having some issues trying to figure out how to keep up with the changing music scene yet still be true to themselves. But, “Raw” aside, Gary Kemp is generally in noticeably stronger form here as a songwriter than he was on most of Barricades and the band also seems a lot more in their natural element here than they did on that album, dialing back on the rock and injecting more soul back into the mix. There are several hidden gems to be found here if you can track down a copy, namely “Empty Spaces,” the appealingly breezy rocker “Be Free with Your Love,” and, best of all, the gorgeous mid-tempo soul-pop of “Crashed Into Love,” where the band finally hits on the perfect blend of the Spandau sound of old and the sound of pop music in the late ‘80s, to the extent that, with enough promotional support from radio, it might have even made the Top 40 if it had only been released here. The disc still isn’t nearly as essential as any of the four Chrysalis albums, but it’s an admirable step back in the right direction.
Once More (2006, Mercury)
It’s not an essential purchase, but the band’s most recent studio outing is a fairly interesting affair, finding the full original quintet reuniting for two new songs (including the first song lead singer Tony Hadley has ever written for the band, the fine “Love Is All”) and a set of eleven back-catalog songs re-recorded in an acoustic setting. Naturally, the band’s ballads fare the best, “True” and “Through the Barricades” being particularly ideal for an “unplugged” album. What prevents the disc from being even better is the odd song selection. The art-disco of the band’s earliest years is poorly suited for a project of this type, and “To Cut a Long Story Short” and “Chant No. 1” both sound absolutely ridiculous taken out of their original dance-floor-minded settings. There are also other hits from the band that would have seemed much more fitting to be played acoustically that aren’t present here, particularly “Round and Round” and “Musclebound.” But, for what is here, a lot of it sounds quite good (particularly “True,” “Through the Barricades,” “Gold,” and “Only When You Leave”), and “Communication” is particularly fun to hear played this way and is easily the best of the re-arrangements of the up-tempo songs that were chosen for the package. Considering how long it’s been since the last disc by the band, Hadley’s voice is also impressively still in fine shape and the band’s chemistry and instrumental chops are still intact as well.
You really can’t beat Capitol’s 2000 single-disc package Gold: The Best of Spandau Ballet; it’s essentially a slightly updated and expanded version of the out-of-print 1985 best-of The Singles Collection and has all the U.S. & U.K. hit singles released by the band from “To Cut a Long Story Short” through “Through the Barricades.” There is a more recent best-of package available in 2014’s The Story: The Very Best of Spandau Ballet (available in both single-disc and double-disc versions), which boasts three new studio cuts, but they come at the expense of some of the band’s ‘80s singles like “Paint Me Down” and “She Loved Like Diamond” (which are included only on the double-disc deluxe version); while the new songs are great (particularly “This Is the Love”), newer or more casual fans who are simply curious to get a sampling of what the band’s iconic ‘80s work sounded like are better off sticking with Gold.