True – the story behind the song

On the most romantic day of the year, read the inside story on the classic eighties song True by its writer Gary Kemp.

True was one of the songs on our third album.  Spandau Ballet were quite established in Europe by this time but not at all in the US. We were kind of a cult band.

Our first two albums were electronic dance records, very much influenced by the New Romantic scene. The second was also in the club vein and we’d had about six hit singles but we were never going to remain a culty London band forever – we’d done Top of the Pops half a dozen times and for me there was a sense of ‘do we just want to keep up with the dance scene or do we really want to sell records around the world’, which is what I always wanted to do. I’d grown up on pop and it seemed to me that with True it was time to go back to what I’d been doing since I was 11; writing a song, as opposed to finding what the groove is and writing a song on top of that, which is what we’d been doing.

My three biggest influences were David Bowie, punk and soul music. I could play records by Chic and the Sex Pistols at the same sitting. True was trying to make an amalgam of all those influences.

At 22 I’d had two hit albums but I’m a working-class boy. Working class kids don’t move out until they get married. The song was written at my parent’s house off the Essex Road, sitting on my bed.

I had a passionate unrequited love for someone who will remain nameless… I was partly writing a song about her too.

I had a passionate unrequited love for someone who will remain nameless. I was a bit obsessed with her, and she with me, but nothing was ever going to happen. She also listened to a lot of Al Green and Marvin Gaye. I was partly writing a song about her too. The tune came from trying to write a song a bit like I’m Still In Love with You by Al Green. I loved the way he looped the ‘I’ around. There was another song by John Lennon – I was watching Let It Be and he sang ‘I’m so tired and I-I-I-I….’ I really wanted to do that. I ended up with ‘I know this much is true’, about how hard it is to be honest in a love song.  So the line came into my head ‘Why do I find it hard to write the next line, I want the truth to be said’.

The girl I was obsessed with had given me a copy of Lolita by Nabokov and I adapted two lines for the song, one was ‘seaside arms’, the other ‘with a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue’ which I loved as soon as I read it; it was the story of our lives at the time. I wanted to mention Marvin Gaye, I kind of liked that because the song was a homage to different soul singers.

My first choice of producer was Trevor Horn, but I’m glad we ended up with Simon Jolley and Tony Swain, two white guys who did the Imagination records, understood the 12” record, understood the remix, but the song was there.

We said ‘we’re not making an English record, it’s an international record, we can’t make it in London’. The album was recorded at Compass Point in Nassau. I loved that whole Island Records, Chris Blackwell vibe. We hoped it would rub off on the record, and it did. We had a great new keyboard that gave us that chord sound on True, but the big thing was the backing vocal. We decided that the ‘I-I-I-I’ bit wasn’t something that Tony did. I recorded it and Tony put an effect on it.

I’ve got the video from Compass Point, and everyone is singing along in the mixing room and at that moment we knew this was the biggest record we’d ever made.

When the album was released, True started getting crazy radio plays and took on a life all of its own. In those days it wasn’t easy to get to Number one. It was there for four weeks. It got to number four in the US but its legacy is that it’s a black radio favourite, we’re up to four million airplays on the record.

It’s a bit of a wedding song. I had a proud moment in the 80s when it was the last dance on the Grange Hill Christmas Special. When I was doing the film The Bodyguard, Kevin Costner said to me ‘that’s my song – it belongs to me and my wife’. I should have said ‘that’s so funny, I thought it belonged to my plumber!’.