Spandau Ballet

Gold: The Best of Spandau Ballet (Chrysalis/Capitol)

The further we get from the '80s, the more the whole decade feels like a long dream. Did anybody really look like that, we ask ourselves, or did we just imagine it? Did people actually talk that way? Was the Top 40 really that bizarre?

Yes. Yes, it was. There was a band called Duran Duran, for instance, whose records charted high and hung around for weeks even though nobody had any idea whether any of the group's songs actually made any sense. (Dig up your copy of "The Reflex" if you're prepared to wonder whether 10 years of your life was actually a prolonged hallucination.) A band called Dead or Alive, fronted by a statuesque drag queen named Pete Burns, enjoyed considerable aboveground success, to say nothing of Culture Club's decadelong ride. Finally, there was the curiosity known as Spandau Ballet, whose single "True" was the slow dance of choice at proms across the country in 1983 even though there is no way of saying what, exactly, the song is all about.

Spandau Ballet began life as part of the post-punk proliferation of dance-oriented bands with chilly synthesizers and angular haircuts, taking its cues from Roxy Music -- smooth, cool, sensuous-but-civilized -- but added a noteworthy flourish in the lyrics department. Gold: The Best of Spandau Ballet reminds us that Spandau Ballet is perhaps the only band ever to have reached and retained mainstream viability on the merits of songs whose lyrics cannot under any circumstances be forced to bear meaning. Take this, from "True": "Always slipping from my hands/Sand's a time of its own/Take your seaside arms and write the next line/Oh I want the truth to be known/I know this much is true." Huh? Or take the title "She Loved Like Diamond," or the deeply puzzling bridge to the chorus of "Lifeline": "You never really know just what you're giving till you're living on the lifeline." It's not that you don't get it; it's that there simply isn't anything to get.

This very impenetrability, though, is what makes Spandau Ballet a truly great and timeless band and what makes the release of this best-of collection a real occasion. These songs slide languidly through the speakers and insinuate themselves into the room like a house's former occupants, never really there but never fully absent. Their synth drums and slick effects call to us from our fairly recent past like voices from the grave. What is going on in these songs? Were they really popular? (The chart positions noted on the sleeve indicate that they were.) Is there any way of finding out what they were actually about? The more you listen, the deeper the mystery gets, and by the end of the album, as we drift through the celestial "Through the Barricades," we find ourselves surfing waves of gorgeously decorated, utterly empty language: "Yes I know what they're saying/As our sun begins to fade/We made our love on wasteland/And through the barricades." Acoustic guitars send trembling notes through the ether as Tony Hadley's perfect voice soars into the upper air. We may never know what was going on back then, but at least we have this relic to puzzle over.

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