Music

Spandau Ballet star Tony Hadley on communism, punk and how music saved him from a stint in borstal

He was a fighter at school, dabbled in punk and communism, but it was music that saved him from a pathway to borstal

Tony Hadley

Tony Hadley. Image: PR Supplied

Tony Hadley was born in Islington, North London in June 1960. He met his future Spandau Ballet bandmates at school, though the first line-up was called The Makers. The band was renamed Spandau Ballet when Martin Kemp joined on bass in 1979. The following year, they celebrated when their debut single, To Cut A Long Story Shot, reached No 5 in the UK.

The hits kept coming – Muscle Bound, Chant No 1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On), Instinction, Lifeline, True, Gold, Only When You Leave – as they became one of the biggest bands in the country. The band split in 1990 and Hadley embarked upon a solo career – he’s released six albums to date. Spandau Ballet reformed in 2009, but Hadley left again in 2017.

Tony Hadley is a patron of the UK Huntington’s Disease Association and The Lowe Syndrome Trust. He was  awarded an MBE in 2019 for charitable services for his work with Shooting Star Chase Children’s Hospice Care

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to My Younger Self, Tony Hadley considered how music saved him from borstal, youthful political flirtations and a remarkable career.

I was a little bit wayward as a teenager. My friends from school always remember me having a bit of a biff and a boff. The Angel, Islington was pretty tough and rough back then. So you either went one way or the other. We were getting into a bit of skulduggery, but when it started getting too much, I thought, I can’t do this to my parents. So I had to extricate myself from the whole gang thing, and thank god, because loads of them ended up in borstal. When I found music, that was the massive change.  

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I was 16 when we formed the band at Dame Alice Owen School. We were originally an R&B band, called The Cut, and would do songs like In the Midnight Hour and I Saw Her Standing There. Our first concert was in front of the whole school, which was cool. So at 16, I was really excited and thinking that this is what I want to do. We were all of a singular mind.  

These were different times. There were three families living in one house, the washing was done at the municipal baths, you’d also go down there for a bath. We never had any privacy, you walked through people’s rooms to get to yours. I guess I had a tough upbringing, but it was the only one I knew and behind that were solid parents and strong family.  

Tony Hadley onstage with Spandau Ballet in London, 1980
1980: Tony Hadley performing in Spandau Ballet at Heaven, Charing Cross, London. Image: Graham Wiltshire/Shutterstock

I hate the class system. But as Spandau Ballet all our parents were very solid working-class people who wanted good things for their kids. We were still playing on bomb sites when I was a kid, but there was an aspiration from our parents for us to do well – my mum and dad would say, “You can be anything you want to be.” The generation before it would have been, you’ve got to learn a trade and that is it. So we grew up thinking anything was possible. Me and my band were wholly determined to get a record deal, be on Top of the Pops and take over the world.  

Punk was so exciting. They were going to kick the establishment up the arse. We’d had the three-day week, the electricity and gas were always going off, rubbish was piling up in the street. But it was a great period for bands. And I got to watch them all – I was always getting into concerts illegally. And then, when our band was called The Makers, we were a pop-punk band and would play all the same venues. 

We would play anywhere that would have us for £20 and a pint of lager. But we had an inner belief. So we’d play at The Roxy on Neal Street, the Rock Garden, the Greyhound on Fulham Palace Road, the Hope & Anchor. The big difference then was there were so many more venues to play if you were a young band. Every pub would have a band night.  

Me and John Keeble, the drummer, would get in his dad’s van and go round the pubs and clubs scouting for gigs. They’d say, “I’ll pay you a tenner if you bring in 30 people… and I’ll give you a pint each.” When we played at the George Robey in Finsbury Park supporting The Tom Robinson Band we thought we were on our way! We can still play a two-hour show, six nights back-to-back because we built up sturdiness playing all the pubs. I feel sorry for young bands now, they don’t have enough places to play.  

We were on the verge of breaking up, but the scene started changing. We’d hear futurist electronic stuff coming over from Berlin when Bowie was there. Things were happening. We were The Cut, then The Makers, then Gentry – weird name – and we stuck together because we knew we were good. Then we started going to Billy’s club and the Blitz, got a synthesizer, and that changed everything. We sort of became the house band at the Blitz and it was exciting. People imagine we were sitting around reading Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre and shit like that. There was a load of artistry came out of that scene, but we were just listening to great music and partying. It felt like the centre of the world.  

Spandau Ballet in 1983
1983: Tony Hadley (centre) with Spandau Ballet bandmates (from left) Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp, Steve Norman and John Keeble. Image: Alamy

We signed to Chrysalis Records, which was the same label as Billy Idol and Generation X. Two years earlier, I was pogoing down the front at their shows and now we were labelmates. I remember meeting The Damned at the Hope & Anchor, I met Joe Strummer on the back stairs somewhere. Then we started meeting them properly because we were in a band ourselves.  

One minute you are playing the Slug and Fiddle, the next you are doing Top of the Pops. The sense of achievement is incredible, but as soon as you have any success, it is non-stop. Then the motivation is that the next record has to be an even bigger hit. I’m still doing it now with the new tour and the swing album. The problem is it happens so fast and you are so caught up in the moment that a lot of it is hard to remember. These days I really try to savour things more.  

You have to follow your heart. I was 22 when I got married the first time and was a dad at 23. We had three amazing kids together – my son has just celebrated his 40th birthday, how can I have a son that age?! It didn’t work out in the end, but Leonie went through some of the best times and some of the worst times with me and I’m pleased we are still friends. It is difficult when you’re in a band and suddenly the world just opens up. At 22, when you are number one in 21 countries around the world, women were just throwing themselves at us. But I was very good. The temptations were enormous, but I didn’t succumb. Then finding love again with Ali, my wife, was amazing. I never thought I’d be a dad again and that is brilliant. Zara is 17 now and Genevieve has just turned 12. Wow, I’m a lucky guy. I’ve got five beautiful kids and I’ve been married to two fantastic ladies. 

I would tell my younger self not to be so gullible. My biggest problem has always been that I’m too trusting, which has caused heartache and trouble, lots of which is well documented. So my advice to my younger self, and to anyone in a band, is get independent legal advice before you enter into any agreement, no matter how well you think you know people. Follow the dream with everything you have but keep your wits about you.   

Tony Hadley performing at Rewind Festival 2023 in Henley-on-Thames
2023: Tony Hadley performing at Rewind Festival in Henley-on-Thames. Image Credit: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News

My younger self would just go wow if I told him what lies ahead. The older me still thinks, wow! All the heroes I have met – from Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett to Freddie Mercury, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Bryan Ferry, Bette Davis, Queen Elizabeth II. I’ve been doing this 43 years, but the people I have met have been incredible. Meeting your heroes and them being as nice as you’d hope is really lovely. I’ve been so lucky.  

All my family were rank Labour when it came to politics. My Uncle Wal was such a staunch communist he wanted to take my Auntie Ivy and live in Moscow. I got into the Communist Party when I was 14, but it wasn’t my cup of tea. I call myself a conservative communist now – which means everybody is equal, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to make money. You are free to make money, but be generous as well.  

I’m still making music after all these years. I look back at Spandau Ballet with great fondness. It’s a terrible shame how we’ve ended up, it’s very sad. But that’s life. And what a great life we had together.  

When Spandau Ballet started out, we would slag off the Stones and Paul McCartney for being really old. We thought they should leave it to the youth. But they were only about 30. I’m 63 now, so I can say, ‘Yeah, you were a bit of a knob there, Tone!’ Because you realise that if you find something you love in life, you keep doing it. And I’m not remotely qualified for anything else. You wouldn’t want me as your heating engineer or your car mechanic – I’d be absolutely fucking useless. 

See Tony Hadley on his The Big Swing Tour 2024, starting on 3 March.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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