By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘True’ is Spandau Ballet’s signature song. But what is the actual meaning of this pop-soul ballad which topped the UK charts in 1983? The song has its roots in Gary Kemp’s feelings about the lead singer of another 80s band, while aspects of the lyrics and melody pay tribute to some of the greatest names in soul and pop music.
To discover the truth about ‘True’, lets take a closer look at its lyrics and what they mean.
Gary Kemp, the guitarist with Spandau Ballet and their chief songwriter, wrote the song as a way of expressing his feelings for Clare Grogan, who was then the lead singer with the Scottish group Altered Images. The song is about someone trying to make their feelings known to somebody, wanting their ‘true’ feelings – the truth of the matter – to be known and understood.
But it is also a self-referential song: a love song about the difficulty of writing a ‘true’, authentic, and honest love song about (or to) someone.
The person in the song is ‘head over heels’ in love with someone, and when close to them, such as dancing ‘toe to toe’, he is reminded of the strength of his feelings. The song is, in effect, the ‘sound’ of their ‘soul’ trying to communicate the depth – and truth – of their emotions. Whether his feelings for the other person are returned is not stated: the idea of dancing toe-to-toe implies a degree of intimacy, but the ‘nerves’ he later admits to feeling could suggest that his love may be unrequited.
The speaker has tried to ignore his feelings and go out into the world, but he’s realised he cannot hide from them any more, so he’s come back again to confront them. And yet trying to put his feelings into words is difficult: he wants the truth to be known, but it is hard to articulate.
He turns to stimulants (that pill) and inspiring music (Marvin Gaye) to try to help the words to flow, but it’s no good. Time is slipping away like the sand in an hourglass. The unusual reference to ‘seaside arms’ was, like the pill on the tongue, taken from Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; Grogan had given Kemp a copy of the novel, and he had underlined these phrases (although Nabokov actually wrote ‘seaside limbs’). So this line is almost nothing more than a little in-joke.
The song, then, is about trying to write an honest love song, while acknowledging the difficulty attendant on undertaking such a task. However, it is also a song that hints that the love the speaker feels may be unrequited: he is ‘never in line for dreams’, never the one whose dreams come ‘true’.
‘True’ is a an example of what might be called blue-eyed soul. It is also, though, a classic example of how multiple influences drawn from numerous places – and not just from soul music – can feed into a new song, becoming subsumed into the new work so they don’t strike the listener as brazen borrowings. Several elements of ‘True’ were reportedly suggested by other songs, but these took on a new life of their own in this slow, pensive ballad.
Gary Kemp was reportedly listening to a great deal of Marvin Gaye and Al Green around the time when he wrote ‘True’. Gaye’s influence is commemorated in the lyric about listening to ‘Marvin’, while the chorus to ‘True’ was inspired by the opening words to Green’s song ‘Let’s Stay Together’.
Meanwhile, the distinctive ‘huh huh huh hu-uh huh’ line from ‘True’ was, it turns out, inspired by the opening line to another song. Kemp had seen the Beatles documentary Let It Be on television in 1982 and the beginning of their song ‘Dig a Pony’ stayed with him, with the ‘I hi-hi hi-hi I’ of the Beatles track becoming those memorable ‘huhs’ in Spandau Ballet’s hit.
Given the song’s subject matter – being unable to find the right words or write the next line – the fact that probably the quintessential part of the song is the one without words, which instead sees the singer(s) descend into melodic ‘huhs’ which at once fall short of and go beyond language, is significant.
Not every critic has been a fan of Spandau Ballet’s signature tune: Sean Daly of the St. Petersburg Times called ‘True’ the worst song of all time, while Robert Jamieson of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer named it as the worst ever love song. Whether such judgments are true, we leave up to our readers.