Monday, October 11, 2010

To Cut a Long Story Short by Spandau Ballet

Before introducing this song, I'll give you a heads-up now that I intend to ramble a bit.

In the early 80s, the music press made a lot of a supposed friendly rivaly between Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, both young, photogenic heart-throbs of the New Romantic movement. While from a style and appearance perspective, they were good "rivals" that had a lot in common, from a musical perspective they weren't really all that similar most of the time. Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran had a similar string of UK hits, but Spandau's songs tended to incorporate an overwhelmingly strong influence from funky jazz and soul, which made them sound extremely dissimilar to the polished New Wave of Duran Duran.

Rather, I've always thought that Duran Duran was more obviously matched up against the classic line-up Ultravox--which operated at the same time as the classic line-up of Duran Duran--from a musical perspective. Granted, they weren't exactly the same. Although Duran Duran was formed by a bunch of art school boys and did a bunch of progressive things musically, they were still polished pop first and foremost, and even cultivated an almost "boy band" approach in those early years (an approach they later regretted.) Ultravox, on the other hand, were really progressive, and I think the biggest difference there is legacy. Ultravox weren't a bunch of fresh-faced twenty year olds. By the time they created their classic line-up, they'd been recording for years, and had been ground-breaking synthpop pioneers, punk rockers, and amongst those who created the New Romantic sound in the first place. Midge Ure had played with no less than four other bands already by then (Thin Lizzy, Slik, The Rich Kids, and Visage) as well as having been invited to join the Sex Pistols, and Billy Currie, the other half of the musical genius behind Ultravox, had created the synthpop scene by merging pop songs with the Kraftwerk sound (even working with german producer Konrad "Conny" Plank for Systems of Romance and Vienna.) Not only did his work with John Foxx era Ultravox pioneer the sound of post punk electronic New Wave, but he played with Gary Numan and created the signature Visage sound. Between the two of them, they allowed Ultravox to broach artistic barriers that Duran Duran wouldn't ever have dreamed of crossing, and brought in a wide variety of disparate influences that were the direct results of their past projects. Can you imagine Duran Duran doing anything as noisy and dissonant as "New Europeans" or even "All Stood Still"? How about anything as bleak and coldly cyberpunk as "Mr. X"? Maybe it's just that Nick Rhodes and Andy Taylor weren't as accomplished musicians as Billy Currie and Midge Ure respectively, but I doubt it. I think it was more attitude and willingness to experiment.

All three bands had a string of UK hits during the early through mid 1980s, by which point all three bands, fractured by internal schisms and the evolution of their audience, either called it quits, broke up their classic line-ups, or evolved to the point where they weren't really in the same game anymore. Spandau Ballet, notoriously, became a hotbed of lawsuits and legal wrangling between members of the band, while Duran Duran simply limped along with only a portion of the classic line-up and struggled to find their identify for the remainder of the decade. Ultravox simply lost its way as Midge Ure focused more on his solo career and wanting to morph into a bit of an arena rocker, and Billy Currie ill-advisedly tried to keep the name alive with a completely different line-up doing completely different things. And, oddly, all of them reformed in the "Noughties" with their classic line-ups for new releases, live performances, or both.

During their heyday, Spandau and Duran were able to find the number one spot on the charts at least once, although a #1 notoriously eluded Ultravox, who ended up with a #2, a #3 and several other placements that still easily qualify as hits. "Vienna" was #2 for four weeks, losing out to novelty song "Shaddup You Face" although overall it was a more successful song than that one, or John Lennon's "Woman" which kept it off the #1 spot for an additional week.

So, despite the fact that I think of Duran Duran and Ultravox as more like peers from a musical perspective than either is with Spandau Ballet, it was SB who were considered Duran Duran's true peers and rivals at the time for a number of other reasons. And, occasionally, Spandau could put out a track that sounded like it actually fit in the same scene that Ultravox and Duran Duran ran in anyway. Their debut single, "To Cut a Long Story Short", was much more raw and dark than their later polished and slick work, such as "True" or "Gold." And, supposedly, this track inspired Vince Clark to pen "Just Can't Get Enough." Although this enjoyed some success in its day (reaching #5 on the UK singles chart) it's largely and sadly forgotten today, probably unjustly. It's a great song.

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