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True: Behind The Failed Romance That Inspired Spandau Ballet’s Hit Song
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In Depth

True: Behind The Failed Romance That Inspired Spandau Ballet’s Hit Song

True became a worldwide hit for Spandau Ballet, but do you know the story of unrequited love that inspired it?

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Spandau Ballet’s career had got off to a flying start with To Cut A Long Story Short and the success of their debut album, Journeys To Glory, in 1981, but they’d dipped in and out of the charts during the months that followed. The Diamond album had, however, served notice of the group’s ambition, and the five-piece returned to the UK Top 10 courtesy of Trevor Horn’s smart remix of Instinction, in early 1982. The following year, True became the song to finally take Spandau Ballet to the top of the UK singles chart, elevating them from New Romantic frontrunners to global pop stars.

But though True was an unqualified success, its story includes a failed personal relationship and the fear of revealing one’s feelings…

Listen to the best of Spandau Ballet here.

“I wanted it to be a love song but felt inhibited”

The band’s decision to decamp to Compass Point Studios, in Nassau, and draft in pop producers of the moment Steve Jolley and Tony Swain, fresh from success with Imagination and Bananarama, proved a masterstroke of necessity for their third album. What emerged from those sessions were eight songs that neatly straddled the pop-soul divide and repositioned Spandau Ballet as an act determined to win over radio- and record-buying audiences with accessible, slick singles. Spandau Ballet’s hit-making era had dawned.

Their chief songwriter was also in love – even if he was reluctant to make the first move. Gary Kemp had met Clare Grogan, Altered Images’ frontwoman, at the BBC, and the pair became close, even though the Happy Birthday star appeared to have plenty of other suitors. Kemp was already in a relationship, too, and it wasn’t clear if the Glasgow-based singer was looking for more from him in any case. “Clare played me Al Green and Marvin Gaye,” Kemp recalled in his appropriately titled 2009 autobiography, I Know This Much. “The music posted itself through my heart and I knew that I had to reply. But I found it hard – hard to be truthful. So far everything was unspoken.”

“I started to write about the fear of saying in song what was true”

Working on demos with Jolley and Swain, Kemp found a riff that he describes as “mesmeric”, and which was inspired by the records Grogan had been playing him; the band’s signature song, True, was starting to take shape. “I wanted it to be a love song but felt inhibited, shy even,” recalled Kemp. “So I start to write about that very thing: the fear of revealing oneself, of saying in song what was true.”

Creating a memorable solo that could be filled by band saxophonist Steve Norman – recorded in just two takes – and with lead singer Tony Hadley delivering perhaps his strongest vocals to date, both management and Kemp knew they had something special. But the decision to hold back what would become the new album’s title track proved a smart one. Initial singles Lifeline and Communication first repositioned the band as slick ambassadors of the new pop revolution of the early 80s, battling chart contemporaries such as Duran Duran and Culture Club for Radio 1 airplay, appearances on Top Of The Pops and features in teen magazine Smash Hits. These smart, stylish British bands were also finally seeing their videos create some buzz in the US, through the newly launched MTV.

With demand growing for the release of True, the single finally hit British shops on 11 April 1983; it entered the UK charts at No.10 and went No.1 the following week. The band were on tour when they heard the news, and Kemp had recalled returning to his home city of London, feeling like they were heroes. The success of the song just grew and grew, eventually managing four weeks at the peak of the domestic charts and – critically – even breaking into the US Top 5, where it would also top Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts and become one of the most played records of all time on US radio.

A modern-day standard speaking to something in every one of us

Unquestionably one of the best Spandau Ballet songs, True remains almost as ubiquitous today as it was back in 1983. You still hear it played everywhere, and its distinctive hooks were reworked to create one of the classic singles of the 90s, PM Dawn’s Set Adrift On Memory Bliss, which topped the Billboard chart while introducing Spandau Ballet to a new audience.

But for all the success it brought the group, it’s probably fair to say that True’s richest legacy is the fact that it has become a modern-day pop standard. At the time, Spandau Ballet were on fame’s frantic roller coaster – their follow-up single to True, Gold, proved almost as successful – and there were many more hits to follow, plus appearances at Live Aid in 1985, where the band closed its set with this song. Spandau Ballet have disbanded, reunited, and called it quits again since, but nothing can diminish the impact of a song inspired by feelings so personal, yet which speak to something in every one of us.

Buy Spandau Ballet vinyl at the Dig! store.

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