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Gary Kemp

Gary Kemp


Words & Portraits Kirk Truman


“There’s an artistic decadence about the area which still lingers – it’s the most artistically vibrant neighbourhood in London…”

It’s just shy of 10am and we’re siting up on the first floor of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery on Conway Street: me, Gary Kemp and Piper, his friendly miniature labradoodle. Gary has been coming to the gallery, just round the corner from his home, for many years. On this particular grey Monday morning in March, we’re surrounded by the work of the artist Barbara Macfarlane. But we’re chatting about fashion, not art, as Gary tells me how clothes have been an important part of his career, upbringing, and life. Designer Oliver Spencer joins us to dress him in a number of pieces from his latest collection, while Gary and I reminisce about Fitzrovia’s past, moving back and forth between Victorian London and the seedier side of the neighbourhood during the New Romantic era, when he first discovered Warren Street, Fitzroy Square and the Post Office Tower. To cut a long story short: we’re talking Spandau Ballet, music, fashion and Fitzrovia.

Born just up the road in Islington to working class parents, Gary was raised in a council house with his brother, and later fellow band member, Martin Kemp. As he was growing up and becoming a musician, place was everything. In his words: “You couldn’t find your tribe unless you went out the door. Today, you can find it on your laptop. In those days you couldn’t.” For Gary’s new wave band Spandau Ballet, the legendary clubs of Soho’s yesteryear – Billy’s, The Blitz Club and Le Beat Route – served as the colourful backdrop to the New Romantic era and helped propel them to massive popularity and lasting fame as one of the biggest British acts of the 1980’s.

Kemp’s relationship with music started at the age of 11, when his parents bought him a guitar from a shop on Holloway Road as a Christmas present. “I still can’t work out to this day why my father thought it was a good idea,” he says, “but for me, it was an immediate epiphany of wanting to write songs. I didn’t want to play anybody else’s songs, so instead I wrote my own. I think, in truth, I quite like being alone – I quite like the company of a guitar. When you’re a creative person, you sort of make your own friends, whether it’s a piece of art or a song.” Despite having started acting as a youngster, Gary now focused on a career in music, forming a band called The Gentry with school friends. His brother Martin was later to join the group as a bassist. After a friend of the band, DJ Robert Elms, saw a phrase scribbled on the wall of a nightclub lavatory during a visit to Berlin, The Gentry was renamed Spandau Ballet. Soon, they became a staple act of The Blitz Club in Soho, a hotbed of talent for new music and fashion, boasting an array of rising stars, from Boy George to Steve Strange.

Frequenting Soho during these early years of his career meant Gary soon discovered Fitzrovia: his first encounter with the area came in 1979, when he visited Boy George’s squat on Warren Street for a photo-shoot after a gig in Soho. “At this time, Fitzrovia was quite a seedy area. The square was a slum, the centre of the used car trade. It wasn’t residential, not in the way in which we know it today. Warren Street was where Boy George and his crowd lived. At the time it was the most famous squat in London, and we used to visit quite a lot. It was painted completely white inside, and they’d hung up lots of nets that would float around the place, with mattresses on the floor. It was full of the most interesting, cross-dressing, wild people. Costume designer Michele Clapton was there, stylist Kim Bowen, Steve Jones and Christos Tolera too; it was full of St Martins students, so it certainly wasn’t a squalid place like you might imagine,” he says. “The first time we went there was after we’d played at The Blitz that night for a photo session with the photographer Graham Smith. In those days, George – who wasn’t called Boy George back then – was a cloakroom attendant at The Blitz Club on a Tuesday night; he’d famously steal everything from peoples’ pockets. I remember him shouting down the bannisters ‘I can sing better than your fucking singer’, so I shouted back to him ‘Get your own band then!’ And of course he did,” laughs Gary.

Buying a synthesiser, Gary wrote what in 1981 became Spandau Ballet’s first album, Journeys to Glory, which led to the band becoming a household name. During the 1980s, Spandau Ballet’s success went from strength to strength, with Kemp writing many of the band’s early hits in his parents’ council house. In 1990, the band split – the same year that both Gary and Martin Kemp appeared in lead roles in the film The Krays, with Gary starring as Ronnie Kray. Tensions between the former bandmates spiralled over the publishing rights to songs, with singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble, and saxophone player Steve Norman taking legal action against Kemp.

At this time, he lived in Highgate. By the early 2000s, many friends and acquaintances were beginning to move either to the then up-and-coming Primrose Hill or Marylebone, but Gary had other plans. “Even at this time, Fitzrovia was still run down. It’s always been this kind of no man’s land between Soho and Regent’s Park. It’s always had a kind of roughness about it, and has only recently become a decidedly upmarket area,” he says, “I like that Fitzrovia has a uniqueness about it. That’s what’s exciting about it; it’s inviting and is creating its own social existence. I suppose, the truth is I’m quite fascinated with the history and the people of this place. I like the idea of walking around the area and sensing the ghosts that came before us: the Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf. A pet topic of mine is the furniture, architecture and art of 19th century London, especially the work of architect-designer E.W. Godwin, which I am an avid collector of,” he says. Today, the area’s still full of creatives. There’s a very Downtown New York feel to the place now, that when I first moved here wasn’t around. There’s an artistic decadence about the area, which still lingers – it’s the most artistically vibrant neighbourhood in London. Fitzrovia has continued to pass the artistic baton down to the new generations.”

Gary moved to Fitzrovia about 15 years ago with his wife Lauren, having been drawn by the appeal of the area’s Georgian streets and squares. “The architecture and space of Robert Adam’s vision is embracing and wonderful. The square is like walking into St. Mark’s Square after emerging from the back alleys of Venice: the space just opens – it’s an embrace of oxygen. It’s a real pleasure to have Fitzroy Square as the centre and crown-jewel of the area,” says Gary. In 2009, Spandau Ballet reformed, with their reunion documented in Soul Boys of the Western World (2014), which Kemp co-produced. Following on from a nine-month world tour, relationships between band members are stronger than ever, and it looks as if there’s more to come: Gary and his band-mates are now talking about recording a new album and continuing to play live.

Gary Kemp

Gary Kemp


Words Kirk Truman

Portraits Sandra Vijandi


“In those days, place was everything. You couldn’t find your tribe unless you went out the door…”

He explains to me, “Now, you can find it on your laptop. In those days you couldn’t.”Gary Kemp is talking about the reality of his youth. He goes on to say that where the internet has triumphed, the place has died out. “Any important youth movement was based around a place. Our place was Billy’s, The Blitz Club and then Le Beat Route club.”Guitarist and chief songwriter for new wave band, Spandau Ballet, Gary Kemp unravels his own youth at the epicentre of the new romantic era and the origins of Spandau Ballet here on the streets of Soho.

Born and raised into a working class family, Gary grew up alongside his brother and fellow bandmate, Martin Kemp, in a council house in Islington. Kemp began acting in 1968, appearing on TV and film from an early age. When he was just 11, his parents bought him a guitar that they’d seen on Holloway Road, for Christmas. “I still can’t work out to this day why my father thought it was a good idea” he says, “but it was an immediate epiphany of wanting to write songs from the age of 11. I didn’t want to play anybody else’s songs so instead I wrote my own. I think in truth I quite like being alone, I quite like the company of a guitar. When you’re a creative person, you sort of make your own friends, whether it’s a piece of art or a song.” Here, moving away from acting, Kemp began to concentrate on a music career.

Kemp began his relationship with Soho as a youngster. The neighbourhood has been an integral part of his life–forward from his upbringing and into his career as a musician and songwriter. During the 1960s, after a screening of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’at what was then The Cinerama on St. Martins Lane (now London Coliseum), Gary’s mother and father walked him and his brother through Soho for the very first time. “My father was completely confused by the artistry of Stanley Kubrick’s movie,”he says. “On the way back, we walked through Soho to get a bus. In those days it was incredibly seedy. There were pictures everywhere of various models and naked women. I remember having this red face. There was this silence in the Kemp family; my parents were old working class Islington people, and anything remotely to do with sex wasn’t spoken about. I remember Soho having this danger about it.” And, of course, inevitably post-pubescent Kemp was quite excited by the place, unlike the child who had seen it in the mid-sixties.

Kemp recalls his first solo trip to Soho as a teenager very clearly. “I went to buy a pair of trousers that looked like the pair Bowie had on the back of the Hunky Dory album sleeve, sort of big loons, and then I bought one of those long-sleeved big scoop neck t-shirts covered with stars trying to look all glam-rock”he says. On another later visit, he attended a David Bowie gig at The Marquee Club when it was based on Wardour Street, Bowie’s last ever gig in Soho. After the gig, The 1980 Floor Show, he wandered with a girl and some of his friends about the streets of 1970s Soho, which was to be his first real glimpse of the neighbourhood. “I really felt it that day. There was this frisson of sexuality in Soho when wandering around its streets.”

With music becoming an ever-prevalent part of his life, he was quick to form a band with school friends, called The Gentry. His brother, Martin, who was more a sportsman than musician, was later to join the band as a bassist. The band started to make their mark on Soho’s club scene, and Kemp regards Billy’s as the club that changed everything. At this venue, the band became acquainted with the late Steve Strange – who, in 1978, began organising ‘Bowie Nights’, a club night that was later moved to The Blitz Club. At this time, The Blitz had been a normal wine bar in Great Queen Street. Soon, a mass of outrageously dressed former punks, soul boys, rockabillies and art students descended on the club. Thanks to Steve Strange and ‘Princess’ Julia Fodor, The Blitz Club became a thriving realm of creativity – the beginning of the Blitz kids. “Soho was a very scary place for us to dress up in,” says Gary. “We’d arrive looking like space men from the 1920s. There were teddy boys, punks and skin heads patrolling the area. To me it was just full of rats and old rubbish. It was very, very seedy.”

The Blitz was a collective – the most out-there of former punks. It became a hotbed of talent for new music and fashion. The club boasted an array of rising pop-stars, from Boy George to Steve Strange. After a friend of the band, DJ Robert Elms, saw a phrase scribbled on the wall of a nightclub lavatory during a visit to Berlin, The Gentry was to be renamed Spandau Ballet and became a staple act of the club. “Steve Dagger and I decided this was our time. I bought a synthesiser and wrote what became the first album. We became a household band. We’re more of a 70s band, really – the blue plaque is still there where The Blitz Club was, to say we played our first gig there in 1979.”

Their first album, ‘Journeys to Glory’ (1981), propelled Spandau into the limelight, with subsequent albums seeing them rise to worldwide fame. “Our band started on the steps of a club in Soho. As the band succeeded, became globalised, and our lifestyles changed, so did Soho,”he says. During the 1980s, Spandau Ballet’s success went from strength to strength, with Kemp writing many of the band’s early hits in his parents’council house. In 1990, the band split –the same year that both Gary and Martin Kemp appeared in lead roles in The Krays, with Gary starring as Ronnie Kray.

Tensions between the former band mates spiraled over the publishing rights to songs, with singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble, and saxophone player Steve Norman taking legal action against Kemp. “There were various no-go areas on the map in fear that we might run into each other,”he says. “The day I won the court case was the same day the Admiral Duncan was bombed in 1999. I thought to myself, ‘my band is destroyed and somebody is trying to bomb Soho back to the dark days’. It was a bad day. Nobody really won, I just didn’t lose.”

With Gary taking on a number of acting roles in-between living his life and having children, 19 years since Spandau’s break-up had soon passed. “I was remixing a live DVD of the band about 10 years ago and I couldn’t believe the legacy of the band. I felt that the records that got played on the radio weren’t a true representation of the band and what we were best at. We gave a good show, my God we were good, and we had so much fun.” In 2009, the band reformed, with their coming together documented in ‘Soul Boys of the Western World’ (2014), which Kemp co-produced.

After a nine-month world tour and relationships between band members stronger than ever, Fitzrovia-based Kemp expresses a desire to record a new album and continue to play live. At present, he is starring in the suitably entitled play ‘The Homecoming’by Harold Pinter, directed by Jamie Lloyd, at the Trafalgar Studios. And Kemp is walking to work, through his old haunt of Soho, six days a week until the end of its run in February.