I’d never fully understood the true meaning of ‘Spandau Ballet’ or, at least until now, I’d never been inquiring enough to find out why a 1980s British band gave itself the name. The New Romantic era of British music was confusing enough without digging around and working out the history behind band names. Plus, the internet was still waiting to be invented. For a fleeting moment on a recent visit to the Berlin suburb of Spandau, I thought I’d uncovered the truth behind the band’s name.
Spandau was a centre of arms manufacture, and it was here that the MG 08 ‘Spandau’ machine gun was invented in 1908. Firing 500 rounds per minute, the deadliness of the MG 08 would become all too familiar to British and French troops in 1914. As the First World War descended into trench warfare, ‘Spandau Ballet’ became shorthand for the sight of dying soldiers caught on barbed wire. Gallows humour was rarely far from the minds of soldiers in the Great War.
I read this information at the vast 16th century fortress known as the Spandau Citadel and assumed that the band had adopted the name as a nod to the horrors of warfare. How wrong I was. Later, making use of the now invented internet, I discovered the real origins of the name. According to music journalist, Robert Elms, he’d suggested to the band that they change their name to Spandau Ballet after seeing it scrawled on a wall in a Berlin nightclub toilet. Some things are best left unknown.
I once made the trip to the middle of the US State of New Mexico to visit the town of Albuquerque. My only motivation for doing so was because the town featured in a song by another 1980s British band, Prefab Sprout (the post-Punk music scene was a car crash for band names). The song was called ‘The King of Rock N Roll’, the line in it that attracted me to Albuquerque was, “Hot dog, jumping frog, Albuquerque”. I now realise this story makes me seem a little deranged.
Even if I hadn’t read that Spandau had an attractive and historic centre, and a massive fortress, there was no way I wasn’t visiting the spiritual home of Spandau Ballet. We hopped on the S Bahn in central Berlin and arrived in Altstadt Spandau thirty minutes later. It wasn’t exactly the historic old town I’d read about, many buildings seemingly dating from the mid-20th century, and not the nice ones. Spandau did have a market though, unusually it was a cloth market.
Other than the impressive church of St. Marien am Behnitz, the town seemed to have few attractions on a Sunday morning, so we headed to the one world-famous sight, Spandau Citadel. It was a pleasant walk along the river to reach the entrance to the fort, the huge defensive walls surrounded by a wide moat. It’s an impressive structure, no wonder it remained unconquered from 1594 until Napoleon arrived in 1806.
I’d always been under the impression that this was where Nazi war criminals, including Rudolf Hess, were held and executed after the Second World War (the motion of the hanged men also nicknamed ‘Spandau Ballet’). It turns out it was actually the Spandau prison, which was demolished in 1987. No one was held in the Citadel for a very simple reason, it was too dangerous. The Nazis moved their chemical weapons research here in 1935, the lethal nerve gas, sarin, was one of their inventions.
It’s the fear of chemical traces that has caused the renovation of the building to be so slow. Passing through the central courtyard and then along the battlements, providing lovely views of the surrounding waterways, we explored the old fort. Before heading back to Berlin there was just time to climb the Juliusturm, the tower in one corner of the fort. From the top, the whole of Berlin was on show, glittering in the winter sun.
* A lyric from Spandau Ballet’s True