When Nick Mason announced his live project Saucerful Of Secrets in early 2018, there was a collective ‘WHAT?!’ from Pink Floyd fans seeing one name in particular in the line-up: Gary Kemp. What the hell did this former Spandau Ballet pop star and actor know about Floyd, or Syd Barrett, or psychedelic and progressive rock?
At their debut gig at Dingwalls that May, Kemp had a lot to prove. And what Prog and the rest of the audience witnessed was an utter joy as the five Hawaiian-shirted members interpreted early Floyd material with gusto and delight, Kemp particularly gleeful to let rip with a complementary guitar solo, or holler lyrics from the prog psalter of his teenage soul. Following three more nights at Putney’s Half Moon, word quickly spread of Kemp’s merit and he was formally allowed into Prog Club. But he’d been a card-carrying member since the age of 12, when as a working-class north London boy he started to get in with a middle-class art crowd.
“The first time I heard prog it was at this guy Miles Landesman’s house,” Kemp reveals in a lunchtime Zoom call. “I’d met him at the Anna Scher drama club in Islington. His dad was this bizarre character, [bohemian editor and writer] Jay Landesman, and they lived in this mad house that had books on the shelves and a Che Guevara poster up on a wall. It was the first time I’d seen a wok, smelt garlic or saw a bottle of wine, open, on a table. I was slightly horrified because their chairs and sofa didn’t match!
“We went into Miles’ basement with [budding actors] Peter-Hugo Daly and Phil Daniels, who I was in a band with,” he continues, “and Miles and Peter played us Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun. I’d brought along my electric guitar, so we tried to work it out and we jammed it all day.”
“You know,” Kemp smiles, “it’s kind of sweet that nearly 50 years later I’m onstage at the Beacon Theatre in New York with Nick, and Roger Waters comes on and we do Set The Controls…. I’ve obviously been practising it for a long time [laughs].”
Kemp’s world was very different to Landesman’s. Renting one floor of a council flat with an outdoor loo, the Kemp family owned little, but they did have a radiogram and two records, one by Frank Sinatra and one by dance band personality Billy Cotton. Kemp’s father dismantled the ’gram one day, and the turntable element ended up in the bedroom Kemp shared with his younger brother, Martin. “We both bought records,” says Kemp, “but I brought prog into the house.”
Kemp’s first single had been Apeman by The Kinks, and his teens were soundtracked by Bowie, Bolan and The Faces. “Pop music was made by working-class kids and I liked it,” he says, “but then I went to grammar school and met posh kids. They’d walk around with album sleeves under their arms, like heraldic shields on a battlefield. I think that’s what prog did at that point; it gave the middle-class kids who grew up with books on their shelves and with classical music playing an ‘in’ into popular music.”
Kemp was aspirational and impressed by his new network. “I remember going to one of the one of these kids’ houses and his parents were talking about theatre. He had Close To The Edge and Foxtrot by Genesis.” A watershed moment was Kemp hearing Supper’s Ready for the first time. “I lay on the floor and listened to it again and again. You’re introduced to comedy, tragedy, soulfulness… this was me going to church. Every time my parents went to the market, this went on the turntable so I could listen uninterrupted.”
Kemp’s location meant easy access to pop culture – gigs, instrument shops, clothes, records. At Pop-In, on nearby Chapel Market, you could “buy a pair of loons, or scoop-neck, long-sleeve T-shirt with stars on it – and you could browse vinyl at the same time.”
“Theatre had to come with my music,” he nods. “There had to be an element of production value in the artist, whether it’s Bowie as Ziggy, or Keith Emerson and the knives in the Hammond, Peter Gabriel’s fox head outfit or Rick Wakeman’s cape with mirrors.”
Kemp’s sonic kicks also included folk music. “I got really into the rebirth of folk with Fairport Convention and Gryphon,” he says. “I used to go to folk clubs with [future Spandau member] Steve Norman, and the grammar school had our own Morris dancing group. This led me to permanently borrow a book from the school library on English ballads from the 17th century, which I set to music myself. I played one about a highwayman to Steve in return for him teaching [Yes’] Clap to me.
“I’d gotten hold of a solid body Epiphone guitar,” he continues, “and got obsessed with Steve Howe and learning to play Clap. Then I joined a rock group to learn how to get it [laughs].”
Aged 15, Kemp joined a band of mellow-rocking 30-year-old double-denim guys, “but I was obviously a bit more proggy because one of the songs I contributed was called Lothlórien, which is the place where the elves live in The Lord Of The Rings. You can’t get more prog than turning The Lord Of The Rings into music.”
Inevitably, punk broke and Kemp got swept up in the zeitgeist after seeing the Sex Pistols play at the Screen On Islington Green. “To my own disappointment, I took most of my record collection to Cheapo Cheapo in Soho. Spandau Ballet formed, and then came my soul boy period, and getting into jazz funk.”
It seems that not a lot of prog went into Spandau then…
“You haven’t listened to the B-side of [second Spandau album, from 1982] Diamond then!” Kemp exclaims. “We were influenced by Floyd, and used their engineer, Andy Jackson. We did field recordings of rowing boats and roundabouts in a playground, and there’s a track about a pharaoh… but then I met [Altered Images singer] Claire Grogan, moved to Scotland and my head was turned by Al Green and Marvin Gaye.”
Nonetheless, if you listen to some of Kemp’s later catalogue – try Shadowman from 1995 debut album Little Bruises – progginess lurks, and when Kemp met fellow “sociable being” Nick Mason in the 90s through their mutual friend Guy Pratt, the prog embers were still smouldering. When the idea of SOS came up, Kemp was in. “I think Nick just wanted people that he could have a nice dinner with afterwards [laughs].”
“See Emily Play had been in my life for years via David Bowie’s Pinups,” Kemp expands on the thrill of being asked to join Mason’s group, and the catalogue they’d celebrate. “Syd was a key figure for me in the 70s and for any elfin, urban London frontman that saw themselves as effete in any way. I felt very comfortable that I could channel these people who that had been so significant in my musical education.”
Kemp’s new, second, solo album is laced with a lifetime of progressive influence – there’s definitely some 10cc and The Dark Side Of The Moon here – and graced with prog personnel. Insolo’s line-up includes Guy Pratt on bass, Peter Gabriel percussionist Ged Lynch and Trevor Horn collaborator Ash Soan on drums. One track, Waiting For The Band, has been remixed by Steven Wilson (“We met after seeing David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall”) and features Bowie wingman and superstar pianist Mike Garson, as well as sax by Theo Travis (“Soft Machine supported Saucerful in Warsaw in 2019. I got to know him then.”)
“There are 70s references on the whole album, and I’m pushing the guitar and psychedelia to the fore,” Kemp says, “Playing with Saucerful has allowed me to embrace the guitar playing I’ve always loved, and Insolo joins the dots between the 12-year-old me then, and me now.”