‘I came second in everything’: Martin Kemp on Spandau Ballet, George Michael and stepping out of his brother’s shadow | Martin Kemp | The Guardian Skip to main contentSkip to navigationSkip to navigation
‘Parenting is all about listening …’ Martin Kemp.
‘Parenting is all about listening …’ Martin Kemp. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian
‘Parenting is all about listening …’ Martin Kemp. Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

‘I came second in everything’: Martin Kemp on Spandau Ballet, George Michael and stepping out of his brother’s shadow

The bass player publishes his third book this month, reflecting on life in one of the 80s biggest bands. He talks about recovering from two brain tumours, acting and why he would like to apologise to Tony Hadley

After Martin Kemp had two brain tumours removed, people kept teasing him. “A few of my friends said: ‘I don’t know what they’ve done but they’ve put something in, instead of taking something out. They’ve put intelligence in, Mart.’” He is laughing. “Making light of it,” he says. “But all I mean is: we all learn at different parts of our lives.” Kemp turned 61 last month, and is very much still learning and creating. He took up writing in the late 1990s as part of his psychological recovery from those tumours, and next week publishes his third book, Ticket to the World – My 80s Story. He has had all his old Spandau Ballet outfits out of their vacuum packs in the loft. But it’s his older writing self that is the real hero.

Kemp read a lovely thing in a self-help book after the tumours – that “every cell in your body is replaced every seven years. So you’re a completely different person.” The idea has stuck with him, because on this basis, he’s “about six times removed from that kid” of the 80s. And he does have a newly made look: with those glittering blue eyes and silver hair, he positively gleams. He says it’s the makeup, but his skin glows as if he has just shed an old one.

It’s this sense of self-renewal that has allowed him to look back at himself as “somebody else”, with unflinching honesty and – occasionally – guilt. I wonder whether he ran the book past Gary, his older brother and Spandau bandmate. They remain close, and text every other day. But Kemp says no. “I will leave it to him to buy one from Amazon. Then he can talk to me about it when he has time.”

Spandau Ballet at Live Aid in 1985 … Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp and Tony Hadley.
Spandau Ballet at Live Aid in 1985 … (from left) Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp and Tony Hadley. Photograph: Pete Still/Redferns

They might need to set aside a few hours, because Gary features quite heavily. “I love Gary dearly,” Kemp says. He has a habit of reaching for an affirmation, especially a loving one, after saying something hard.

The relationship with his brother has clearly been defining, loving and sometimes challenging. All the stresses and tensions of life in a five-man band seem to have been pressed through the funnel of the Kemps’ brotherhood. “It was always his band,” Kemp says. “We gave the impression that it was a joint democracy. But it wasn’t.” (The three non-sibling members would later sue Gary unsuccessfully for a share of the songwriting royalties.)

Kemp’s role was “mediator”, he says. “If there were arguments, me and Gary could go into a room, argue it out. Even to the point where we used to have proper fist fights. Because the pressure of the whole thing was too much.”

Fist fights sound like a failure of mediation, but maybe they were the best form of communication available. “Because I knew that me and Gary were the only ones that could do that. If two of the other boys had that fight, it would be all over. Once, we were rolling around on the floor, fighting,” he says. “Then all of a sudden we called it off. And we’d walk outside and the others would be standing around as if the band was finished. And you could feel the atmosphere that you’d created. And it wasn’t nice.”

You would call it dysfunctional, except “it really worked”, he says. “It was easy for me and Gary. We loved each other underneath all of it. We could forget about it because we’d been doing it all our lives.”

There was verbal abuse, too. “If you imagine five boys in the playground, there’s always going to be one guy that’s going to take the brunt of the jokes.” In Spandau Ballet, Kemp says, that guy was the lead singer, Tony Hadley.

“Now, I’m not saying that Tony was bullied, as such” – though in the book Kemp does say the behaviour “tipped over into bullying” – “but he took all the banter. I can look back at it now with space. And I don’t like the way that we used to group up on Tony, and I feel guilty about that … If it was me, I think it would have been too much for me.

“It was mainly singer envy,” he says (Kemp played bass, while Gary was guitar, synthesiser and backing vocals). “If you asked Tony about it, he might not even say he recognised it. But I recognise it. And there was part of me that recognised it at the time.” But Kemp kept quiet because he was so young, he says. He was only 17 when he joined and 19 when Spandau had their first Top 10 hit. “I didn’t want the focus to be on me.”

Has he said any of this to Hadley, who has always refused to explain publicly why he left the band in 2017? (They originally broke up in 1990, then reunited in 2009.) “It’s something that I’d never spoken to him about. But I do feel guilty when I look back.”

In the book, Kemp stops short of an apology. “Oh, listen,” he says immediately. “I would apologise to Tony, absolutely, for the way that he was treated. I think it was really poor.”

Why doesn’t he pick up the phone and say all this to Hadley? He really sounds as if he wants to. But he says: “I haven’t spoken to Tony for ages. I reach out to him, but I rarely hear back. I send little messages” – he mimes texting – “if I get two words back, I’m happy.

“Tony is lovely,” he says. “He is a lovely man. I will always, always love him, in the same way I love all the rest of the band. But you drift apart, don’t you?”

Kemp’s book celebrates the 80s as the decade that made him, but in a funny way, it was only as the decade drew to a close that he stepped out of his brother’s shadow. “Quite late on,” he says. Most of the time with Spandau, he “didn’t feel he was doing anything artistic enough. Kemp was so celebrated for his appearance, earning a solo cover of the Face magazine, for instance, that he always felt he was “getting away with it” because of his looks.

The turning point came when he and Gary were cast as Reggie and Ronnie in the 1990 film The Krays. Maybe it was the fact they played twins; maybe it was the way Anna Scher, who had taught them drama as children, got them crawling around the floor in a refresher session, pretending to be preschoolers, but something about the experience “equalised” them.

Before that, Kemp says, pretty cheerfully, “I came second in everything”. We’ve been talking about his and Gary’s Porsches, which must have looked magical parked outside the family’s council house in Islington, north London. Gary bought first, and chose red. “Yeah, I was the blue one,” Kemp says, and all of a sudden he does sound blue. The red one was “the perfect 80s car”.

In Hollywood, where they went on the back of The Krays, it was Gary who “hit a bit of a goldstream”, winning parts in The Bodyguard and Killing Zoe while Martin “was working in C-list movies. Maybe they were D-list,” he says. “Maybe E-list, even. But I was working … And I absolutely loved it.” There he goes again, counterbalancing disappointment with affirmation. (“Always finish on a positive! Always have the answer to a negative” is a habit he picked up in Scher’s youth classes.)

Gary as Ronnie and Martin as Reggie in The Krays.
Gary as Ronnie and Martin as Reggie in The Krays. Photograph: Rank Film Distributors/Allstar

Presumably his envy of Gary had boiled over by this point? “No. Not at all, really. Because at that point,” he says, clearing his throat, “Gary and my personalities are so different. We recognised that. So the parts Gary was getting, I wasn’t right for anyway.”

In any case, in 1995 he noticed the lump on his head, and life took a different turn.

You can see why the idea of self-renewal appealed, because on top of the health worries, being unable to work plunged his family – by then he and his wife, Shirlie, had two young children – into financial difficulty. No wonder that in 1998 when he was offered the part of Steve Owen in EastEnders, he jumped at it.

“Everybody said: ‘Don’t do it, don’t do it – you’re going to ruin your career.’ And I’m thinking: ‘What career? What have I got to ruin?’” At the time, he barely knew if he was “walking left, right, walk over here or walk over there … I knew that I had to do it, not for any other reason but to cure my brain of the leftover effects of the trauma that I’d been through. It was such a good thing,” he says. Learning lines was “brain exercise”, and it brought him back to himself.

These days, if people think of the Kemps, they are more likely to picture Martin and his son Roman than Martin and Gary. He has surely overtaken his brother. “No. We’re a dynasty, I think,” Kemp says. And, sounding as if he is remembering how things were settled in childhood, adds: “We take it in turns.”

Mostly, though, it is Kemp’s own family that takes centre stage. Kemp and Shirlie, a former backing singer (alongside Pepsi) in Wham!, released an album together in 2019 (also featuring their daughter, Harley), and co-authored a book about their relationship. Then there’s Roman, with whom Kemp appears on Celebrity Gogglebox. They also co-presented Martin & Roman’s Weekend Best breakfast show on ITV – surely the dispensing of surnames signals the ultimate uncoupling from Gary? Even Kemp and Shirlie’s house has its own Instagram account.

Mind you, there always was a domesticity to Kemp’s fame. He fell in love with Shirlie from the comfort of his living room while watching her dance with Wham! on Top of the Pops. He first heard Wake Me Up Before You Go Go in George Michael’s bedroom in his family home.

At Christie’s for the launch of a George Michael art sale in 2019 … from left: Kemp, Harley, Shirlie and Roman.
At Christie’s for the launch of a George Michael art sale in 2019 … from left: Kemp, Harley, Shirlie and Roman. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

Indeed, Kemp’s favourite memory of Michael, who was godfather to Roman, was “one day, maybe about a year before he left us. And I was painting my living room. The night before, we’d gone out to dinner. He’d said: ‘Oh, I’ll come round tomorrow. I’ll help.’ So at the end of the day there’s me and George in these white painters’ hazmat suits with a glass of wine each, looking round at the job that we’d done … He was just a lovely man.”

The domestic-themed stories make me wonder if the Kemps aspire to a Kardashian-style fame, a Keeping Up With the Kemps. “People have spoken about it several times over the years,” he says. “But I can imagine Roman not wanting to do that.”

Besides, they all get on too well. On Gogglebox, “you see me and Roman absolutely how we have been since he was a kid”, Kemp says. Years ago, he and Shirlie discussed their parenting philosophy and agreed “to bring Harley and Roman up as if they were mates”.

At primary school, “lots of parents said: ‘You’re doing it wrong. You’ve got to have boundaries.’ But we didn’t like to have those boundaries. I never had the naughty step,” he says.

“Parenting is all about listening … If you are going to shut your ears off and say: ‘Sit over there!’, it’s not going to work. You’ve got to listen to kids. What’s the reason they’re telling you to fuck off? Don’t worry about the word. The word is just a word, right?” Roman, for instance, “was allowed to swear at football”. At Arsenal matches, he would shout: “‘Beckham, you wanker!’ and he was only tiny,” Kemp says. “Everyone looking at him, thinking: ‘Where’s this come from?’”

Kemp thinks he gets his approach from his own father, a printer, who was encouraging and nonjudgmental. In the early Spandau days, when Kemp was heading for the front door in a crimplene dress and makeup, he would call out: “Goodnight!” hoping to provoke his dad’s disapproval. But his dad would only glance up from his chair and say: “Have you got your keys?”

Oh, it was “the most disappointing thing!” Kemp says. “I wanted my dad to say: ‘You can’t go out like that!’” But he never did. “Not once.”

Even when Kemp wanted to leave the printing apprenticeship that his dad had organised, his dad didn’t bat an eyelid. He wrote a letter that went something like: “Dear sir, can you release Martin from his apprenticeship because he wants to be a pop star.”

Martin Kemp in London
‘I wanted my dad to say: “You can’t go out like that,” but he never did. Not once.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

“My dad wasn’t taking the mickey,” Kemp says. “He believed in what me and Gary were doing.”

“Do you know what it is? My dad was a really good artist. He used to paint beautiful pictures.” Mostly in oil crayons; Kemp has some on his walls. “But he worked in a factory. And I think in another life my dad would have been an artist. And he knew that he wanted to give me and Gary that chance.”

Kemp became so famous with Spandau Ballet, and later as Steve Owen, that for decades, he says, he “spent his life walking around with my head down, my cap on, sunglasses on”. What he remembers above all from those years was “having a sore neck from looking down all the time”.

Now that he is mostly playing himself – in books, and in all those reality TV shows and presenting roles – he feels much better about being recognised. With the band he used to feel he was “never putting enough of me into it”. “Now it’s different,” he says. “Someone sees me and waves, that’s great. Am I coming into my own? I think I’m a lot more relaxed about life.”

Ticket to the World: My 80s Story by Martin Kemp (HarperCollins) is out on 10 November (£14.99). To support the Guardian, buy your copy from bookshop.theguardian.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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