How We Met: Gary Kemp & Robert Elms

'Our current obsession is cycling. But in the past it might have been existentialism or tailoring'

Interviews,Rhiannon Harries
Sunday 27 September 2009 00:00

Gary Kemp, 49, was the guitar player and chief songwriter for the 1980s pop group Spandau Ballet, best known for international mega-hits such as 'Gold' and 'True'. The band split in 1990, but reformed earlier this year. He lives in London with his wife and two children

I think the first time I met Bob was at Billy's, this extraordinary club in Soho, back in the days when it was a genuinely sinful, sleazy part of London. Even before that, Bob and I had breathed the same air at a couple of important moments. He went to Bowie's last concert at Hammersmith Odeon, to the Sex Pistols at the Screen on the Green – he was at the places where I had various epiphanies in my youth.

I walked into this place and it was full of the most exotic-looking people I'd ever seen. It was 1979 and we were still in that never-ending winter of discontent so we felt we were kind of dancing on the deck of the Titanic. I saw Bob and he was wearing this kind of sci-fi, am-dram kit with padded shoulders and he had this geometric haircut that fell over one eye that I'd never seen on anyone.

I immediately connected with him: we come from identical working-class backgrounds and both have a hunger for knowledge and an obsession with detail. We want to know everything there is to know about any subject we become passionate about. Currently, we're obsessed with cycling, but in the past it might have been existentialism or tailoring.

Bob was a big part of what made me both a man and a successful artist. He was our spin doctor and he inspired songs such as "Chant No 1 (I Don't Need this Pressure On)". Then, in 1983, when we became more commercial, we lost touch and didn't really come back together until the 1990s.

Bob got me into cycling when he said, "I went for a bike fitting today, it took four hours. It was like having a suit made." As soon as he said that, I wanted one too. I'll go cycling with one chap and it's all about technical stuff, but with Bob it is about weeping over Tom Simpson dying during the Tour de France from an amphetamine and brandy overdose. It's the aesthetics.

I think we both imagine ourselves as characters in a Patrick Hamilton novel. We complement each other's fantasies and don't disapprove of them. I think women like to pierce that, they don't like their men living in fantasy world, but Bob understands it is very important and the fantasies we have designed for ourselves seem to exist pretty nicely together.

Robert Elms, 50, is a writer and broadcaster who wrote for 'The Face' in the 1980s, and is best known as chronicler of the New Romantics. He presents a radio show on BBC London and lives in north London with his wife and children

I was aware of Gary before I met him. We were at the same Generation X gig at the Roxy and he made an impression because he was remarkably like me. We come from identical working-class, north London backgrounds, both with ideas above our station. There weren't many other 16-year-old kids at punk gigs, so if you spotted somebody you made a mental note of them.

The person who introduced us was Steve Dagger, who'd just started at the LSE with me. I'd invited him to Billy's, which was the club to go to on a Tuesday night in 1978, and he brought Gary along. We hit it off straight away – we're both extraordinarily talkative.

From that night we became good friends. He was nominally out of work and I was a student, which is the same thing, so we had a lot of time to mooch around charity shops and second-hand stores looking for a pair of spats. Clothes were one of the big things we had in common. We're not perfectionists, but we are obsessives, and throughout our lives we've had a series of shared obsessions.

In the early stages, I was almost a member of Spandau and famously gave the band their name. For the first two years I went to every gig and it was a great time. We were just 20 and suddenly my mate's band is on Top of the Pops and we are in every newspaper. It actually felt completely normal, because we had both the arrogance and the ignorance of youth. We just took it for granted that we were the most intelligent people we knew and the best-dressed, so it seemed inevitable to be doing what we were doing.

Since then there have been years when I haven't seen Gary, but there have also been long periods when I've seen him three times a week. We've always been there for each other in troubled times. Obviously, after the band split up and his marriage didn't work out, he was very unhappy. But boys don't tend to do long periods of talking about emotions – you go out cycling or you talk about football. That's how you get your mates through that sort of thing. When his parents both died recently I hope I was there for him. All you can do is be around, really.

I think the friends you form at that age tend to stay with you for life, but I think it's our passions that have got us through together – we can both still muster a boyish grin. A real lust for life was something we always had in common. I sent him a little note recently saying we're made of the same blood, and I really think we are.

Spandau Ballet's tour starts on 13 October. Go to for details. 'I Know This Much', by Gary Kemp, is out now on Fourth Estate at £18.99

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments