They were the darlings of the ’80s, the pretty boys of pop who – alongside Duran Duran – topped the charts with hits like ‘True’ and Gold’. But the good times turned bad with an acrimonious split and, later, a bitter court battle over royalties.
However unlikely it seemed, the reunion – almost 20 years later – was inevitable.
Now in a Cape Town hotel suite fit for superstars on the comeback trail, bassist Martin Kemp and multi-instrumentalist Steve Norman tell us about their rocky past, their surprising return, and their bright future.
How is life back on the road treating you?
Martin: It’s been great. It’s been better than we ever thought it was going to be. When we started, it was a case of putting your toe in the water and seeing what happens, seeing what the reaction is because we didn’t really have anything to judge it by. Usually you have a chart position or a record so you kind of roughly know how many tickets you’re going to sell, but we didn’t do that. We just announced that we were going out to play, we put one London show on sale – the O2, 16 000 people – and it went within 20 minutes. And from the minute that happened, the rest of the tour has just followed that kind of shape. It’s been a thrill.
Steve: I remember we were waiting to go on stage at the first concert in Dublin, Ireland and we were looking at each other and a little bit of trepidation crept in because that first reaction was so important, to know where we sit in peoples’ psyche and what we mean to them. And they were just so pleased we were back and it’s been like that everywhere we’ve gone. And we’ve realised how important the band was to people and also how much it meant to us. Through all the ups and downs that we’d had, we realised we were actually very close as friends – like a family unit – and we kind of got back together like that. We’re having so much fun. It’s genuine and that’s what people see on stage – you can’t replicate that.
But, considering the messy split, was there no sense of trepidation on a personal level?
Steve: We talked a lot before we started to actually play music together. Obviously people had ideas in their minds, perhaps wrongly, that we had certain feelings for each other which had been tainted by it all. And it took a little time before that was all swept away and we connected again in the rehearsal room and probably in one or two pubs as well.
Martin: I think what we all realised is that the there was one thing bigger than all our relationships and that was the band and the band’s music. Before we started playing it was all talk, jostling for position in a way, and then as soon as we started playing it was like: ‘This is what it’s about’ and you realise this is the thing that brings you all together.
But was it easy to remember those old songs?
Steve: It’s like a muscle memory thing – it kind of comes back to you. Certain things trigger where you’re going to play, but there has been the odd occasion where you don’t know where you are until the bar before and then you suddenly go: ‘There, that’s it’. That keeps it sharp.
Martin: I hadn’t played music for 20 years. I never had a guitar or anything so I was at home, practising for six months trying to get back into shape.
Steve: That was fantastic though – that was pretty amazing, probably Martin out of everybody knew everything. The bass is a little more difficult – you hit a bum note on the bass and you know it.
Beyond the actual playing, is it difficult to recreate the energy of the past on stage?
Steve: No, those two hours are really full-on energy and excitement. We get excited playing the songs, and the people in the audience get excited hearing them – that obviously feeds itself – and it’s a great celebration.
Martin: This is the first time that we’ve ever been able to go out and just do a greatest hits show. Every other time it’s been about a new album so you always get that bit where everybody’s sitting down, listening, and nobody wants to hear it, and then you get a bunch of old songs. This time, from beginning to end, it’s greatest hits.
Steve: It’s a real singalong. The problem we had when we first started to work on a setlist wasn’t which songs we were going to play but which songs we were going to leave out because you can only fit so many into two hours. So we’re not playing all of the catalogue, but all of the hits, wall to wall.
And off-stage – have things changed? Do you still party like it’s 1984?
Steve: We still socialise and party to an extent. When you come off stage the last thing you want to do is go to bed. We used to go pretty mad back in the day. It’s eased off a little bit, but not much.
Martin: In the old days we were mental. We were kids living the completely hedonistic lifestyle. Everything was about the moment, never thinking about the hangover tomorrow but it was brilliant fun.
And I have to say we did everything that every boy who wants to be in a rock band should do. And if we sat here today never having done that, we’d be really disappointed. So I’m quite glad we did it. Last time was all about the party afterwards, but this time it’s all about being on stage with the band, that’s where the fun is now.
Looking ahead, what’s on the cards?
Steve: We’re playing a smattering of UK dates, primarily festivals. We’ve never done festivals before – the only festival we’ve ever done, if you can call it that, is Live Aid – so it’s going to be a new experience for us.
Martin: So it’s something different, and we finish up at the end of June, take stock and think about new material.
Steve: I think what we’ve proven to ourselves is that we don’t just want to be a 1980s band, we want the band to be moving on. It’s a real band. It’s still evolving. So the shows are the songs as they were, played as they were so people are reminded of that that.
But we also made an album last year. The idea was that it would be an unplugged album, a retake of the songs people know, and we also put two new songs on it which are an indication of where we are now and where we’re going in the future.
Martin: We’re going to be a band that’s moving forwards, not just living in the past.
And looking back at the past one last time – could you pick out one highlight? Live Aid?
Martin: The biggest highlight for me in the band happened very recently. The first show back, in Dublin, and it was a moment before the curtain dropped down and I’d thought for years and years that moment wasn’t going to come. I would say for me personally, that would be the biggest highlight for me personally since I was 17 within the band. It was a fantastic moment, completely electric and I think it was bigger than Live Aid that moment.
Steve: Hearing your single on the radio for the first time, that was something special but if I’m honest, this moment that I’m living now is the best time because it’s so much fun, there’s no pressure, there are no ego problems, and there’s a huge amount of respect within the band. It’s a real pleasure. So I think I’ll be looking back at this time as the highlight.
- This article originally appeared on EntertainmentAfrica.com.