In 1982, ABC transformed pop with ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. How did they throw it all away? And can Martin Fry pull off ‘Lexicon II’? “We kept rebelling against the success,” he tells Andrew Harrison

What do you do when you realise that that the first thing you did was the best thing you did? With its extravagant strings and ultrasuave showbiz stylings, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ by ABC was the unsurpassed orchestral pop masterpiece of the 80s. Its statement singles – ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘The Look Of Love’, ‘All Of My Heart’ – were five-star examples of critically-acclaimed perfect pop which in time also attained Heart/Magic FM immortality.

Martin Fry, ABC’s gold lamé suited frontman, became an unlikely role model, a careworn Sinatra for a new dole age. Producer Trevor Horn would become synonymous with the couture megapop of the 80s. But ‘Lexicon’’s artistic and commercial success was so daunting that ABC couldn’t even try to repeat it. From their commercial peak in 1982-3 the band wilfully swerved into various antitheses of ‘Lexicon’ – unfashionable out-and-out noise-rock, Warholian plastic dance pop – shedding members and sales as they went.

“We kept rebelling against the success,” says Martin Fry on a bright Spring afternoon in 2016, over mineral water and a chicken sandwich on the airy top floor of a Soho member’s club. “We wanted to be as unorthodox as we could possibly be.”

While ABC zigzagged all over the stylistic map and their fortunes faded in the mid-80s, Fry also fought a remarkable battle against cancer, losing his spleen to Hodgkin’s Disease at the shockingly young age of 27. “I asked the surgeons, will I still be able to vent my spleen if I haven’t got one?” he says. “But I’ve been doing it ever since.”

LOVE UNLIMITED: ABC’s new video for ‘Viva Love’ revisits ‘Poison Arrow’

Now, 34 years after the original album, Fry returns to the lush ‘Lexicon’ sound with a sequel that looks at love and romance from the perspective of an older, wiser man. Recorded on a tighter budget than its predecessor, ‘The Lexicon Of Love II’ is just as luxuriously-orchestrated as its forebear – sleek, sizeable and far better than any sequel has a right to be.

 Though producer Trevor Horn was not available this time around, ‘Lexicon I’’s gifted string arranger Anne Dudley returns to superintend ABC’s Chic-meets-Nelson-Riddle modus operandi. It was only when Fry reconnected with Dudley for a 30th anniversary performance of ‘Lexicon I’ at the Albert Hall in 2012 that he realised he wanted to reprise the ‘Lexicon’ sound after all.

“I’d always shied away from that challenge,” he says. “In fact I never thought I’d make another studio album. I’d stopped writing. But playing live gave me confidence and the focus to write again. I began to accept that people will always be drawn to ‘Lexicon’ so if you’re going to do it, do it justice. Do it big, glossy and dramatic.”

‘Lexicon I’ concerned a young man’s pursuit of impossible femmes fatales. The new record’s themes might resonate more with ABC’s current, nostalgic audience: the challenges of love and fidelity as time eats away at you. It’s all there in a clever reversal of ‘Poison Arrow’’s famous spoken-word moment. “I thought you cared, but it seems you didn’t love me,” Fry whispers on new song ‘Kiss Me Goodbye’, adding the punchline: “I cared enough to know I could never leave you”.

EPIC L.O.L: Two luxurious volumes of ‘Lexicon Of Love’, separated by 34 years

“I’ve been married 30 years now,” says Fry. “That’s the best thing in my life. We’ve been through cancer together. We’ve been through the mill, like our audience has. So why not write songs that are emotional, but not sentimental, about that life story? I can’t pretend I’m chasing young women down the street. That would be preposterous.

“But what I’m saying is that life is romantic. Someone, at one of our shows or out tonight in a bar or a club, is going to fall in love. That’s exciting, that’s romantic. That’s still inspiring to me. Springsteen and Bowie used to write songs like this, songs that made me feel like I owned the universe while I was eating my beans on toast as a kid in Bramhall.

“Great pop music,” he says, “makes your life feel bigger.”

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“A careworn Sinatra for a new dole age”: ABC promo picture, 1982

This archetypal Sheffield musician is actually a Mancunian. Martin David Fry was born in Stretford in 1958, well-timed for formative experiences like watching England win the World Cup with his father (an engineer at Carborundum Tools in Old Trafford), then prog rock and Bowie. As a teenager he fell for the Buzzcocks and the Subway Sect, and saw the Sex Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall.

“That was a Road to Damascus moment for me,” he says. “This was the first indication that someone like me could be in a band.” He remembers John Lydon staring into the crowd and telling them they were “a bunch of fucking statues”.

“I’d never seen anything that confrontational. It was fantastic.” Fry became a “low-key punk… I painted my shoes green but I didn’t do the hair,” and lived in fear that he would never escape the boredom of suburban Bramhall.

Martin wanted to be a writer, not a pop star. He loved “Burroughs because of Bowie, Jack Kerouac, Hermann Hesse, JG Ballard, Jean-Paul Sartre… the stuff you read when you’re an isolated teenager in suburbia.” With his school he visited the Manchester offices of the Guardian newspaper, “but I just didn’t have the wherewithal to apply to be a journalist.” Instead he moved to Sheffield to study literature and started a fanzine called Modern Drugs.

“I was opinionated, I wanted to have my say,” he recalls. “The idea was that music and art are the modern drugs. I wanted to tell everyone about Pere Ubu and Public Image Ltd.” One of the local bands he interviewed was a confrontational Cabaret Voltaire-style synth group called Vice Versa. After the interview ended, they asked if he wanted to join them onstage in Middlesbrough that very night. “They set me up in the corner. I just made bleeps and noises on this oscillator. It was a skinhead audience, and the bottles rained down, but I loved it.”

Vice Versa perform ‘Stilyagi’ in Sheffield, February 1980. (L-R Fry, White, Singleton)

Fry soon found himself a permanent member of this unusually organised, ambitious group with Stephen Singleton (“madly enthusiastic, a real catalyst with that ‘fuck it, it’s going to happen’ attitude”) and Mark White (“a really tenacious, defined musician”). They lived and rehearsed in cold-water squats and semi-derelict buildings, but dreamed of transforming themselves into an “international, charismatic” band.

As Fry began to co-write songs, Vice Versa moved away from harsh electronics to towards funk, soul and James Brown – “We thought, why can’t we sound like this?” They changed their name to ABC. And Fry began to sing.

After ABC scored their first Top 20 hit, a jittery piece of white funk called ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, the band cast around for producers for their first album. Fans of Grace Jones’s ‘Nightclubbing’ album, they considered Alex Sadkin, deeply fashionable, minimalist and an NME favourite. Then Mark White heard ‘Hand Held In Black And White’ by Dollar, a bubblegum pop act converted by producer Trevor Horn into something Fry describes as “incredible, widescreen, camp, humorous and ironic. It was just an incredible sound.”

ABC met Horn at a pizza parlour on London’s Queensway. The producer had a wrestling magazine in his bag – “I thought, why?” – and while they were discussing ideas for the record his face clouded over. Horn stood up and asked the manageress to turn the music down.“I can’t stand muzak,” he told her, “it makes me feel ill.” ABC were impressed.

“Trevor took us seriously,” says Fry simply. “When I grew up, nobody listened to me. That’s why I had to create a world of my own. This guy, he took our little vision of the world seriously. We told him our whole manifesto of why we weren’t going to be like Haircut 100 and all the other bands. The songs weren’t punk songs, they were overblown, romantic and commercial. We had this slogan: ‘change is our stability’. We wanted polish, Frank Sinatra on a Fairlight.”

“Sophisticated discotheque music… with a sting in the tail.” Martin Fry interviewed for TV in 1982

At 30 years’ remove, memories of making ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ are necessarily vague. When I interviewed Trevor Horn in 2010 he described a ruthless approach to the music – and the band members. Original bass played Mark Lickley was removed early on. “I dismantled the band a bit,” Horn said, “and I still regret it because I paid a high price in the end. It cost me the chance to produce U2. But they had the English band syndrome of, one of the guys isn’t as good as the others.”

But ABC’s backbone was a strong one. In David Palmer they had a future world-class drummer of power and precision. Though not the best saxophonist, Singleton was “extremely important,” Horn told me. “He had the soul of the record in his head.” And the band were holding themselves to ever-higher standards. 

After completing some early recordings Horn remembers asking Fry, is this good enough for you? Is this want you had in mind? “We want it to be as good as it can possibly be,” he recalls Fry saying. “We want to compete with the Americans.” (In Horn’s recollection they then junked everything and started again, programming and then re-playing entire songs step-by-step “like painting by numbers”. Fry remembers nothing being scrapped. “We were just very fast and very decisive.”)

“The other thing,” Horn said, “is that I brought in Bo Dudley.”

Anne Dudley was a session keyboard player who’d worked with Horn on Dollar. In ABC’s “epic” demo’s she heard “so many ideas for arrangement lines and countermelodies… I could immediately hear the strings. It was really rich stuff.” First she contributed a descending piano to the middle of ‘Poison Arrow’ as a perfect setting for Fry’s “I thought you loved me…” mini-monologue. (“Everybody thinks ‘Poison Arrow’ has strings on it but it doesn’t.”) Then she arranged the orchestra for ‘The Look Of Love’.

MAJOR BLAZER: Fry in the ‘Look Of Love’ video, 1982.

“It wasn’t the first string arrangement I’d done,” she says, “but I don’t think the others even got released. I had to do quick research into, Christ, how do you do a string arrangement? Next thing I’m in Abbey Road, the youngest person in the room, telling this terribly experienced orchestra what to do…”

From the scene-setting faux-overture that begins ‘Show Me’ and defines ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ to an actual ‘Overture’ on a later b-side, Dudley’s strings established the ABC sound – and herself as pop’s predominant string arranger of the next three decades. “I was very influenced by Gamble and Huff, the sound of Philadelphia,” she explains, “where the string lines are very simple but they’re big and important. They’re doing something that the record needs.”

The recording of ‘Lexicon’ hardly reflected the glamour of the finished article. ABC and the core of the band who would become The Art Of Noise (Horn, Dudley, producer Gary Langan, programmer JJ Jeczalik) made most of it in Horn’s Sarm East studio underneath a haberdasher’s on Brick Lane, then an utterly dismal and forgotten neighbourhood where tramps haunted the bombsites. In Good Earth on Dean Street, David Bowie popped in with Tony Visconti and suggested they add the sound of an answering machine on one track. “Just to get Bowie’s attention was enough,” says Martin Fry. “We were too young to realise how important that was.”

They borrowed from everyone – the manic, churning strings of ‘The Days Of Pearly Spencer’ for ‘Valentine’s Day’, the spoken-word moment where Fry tells himself “Martin, one day you’ll find true love,” from Iggy Pop and James Brown’s ‘King Heroin’. “The spoken parts worked so beautifully,” says Fry. “They made the records into a little piece of cinema. I always loved ‘And this is Phil talking…’ from The Human League. And it meant we could avoid having a guitar solo. We were against them.”

Released in June 1982, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ swiftly became a UK number one album. For six months ABC toured the world in gold lamé suits they’d bought on Carnaby Street from Pan’s People’s old choreographer (“We wanted to be proto-Vegas cabaret, even though we’d never been to Vegas.”). One night that winter, Fry found himself walking home through Sheffield in the snow. Through the window of a house he could hear ‘Lexicon’ and see people at a party. “They were cheering, singing, dancing,” he says. “It was the most incredible feeling.

“I thought, Yeah, that’s my record.”

With their second album ‘Beauty Stab’ in 1983, ABC sabotaged themselves in spectacular style. Having established a glittering pop proposition, they decided to go rock – at a time when loud guitars were anathema. “When we told the label, it went down like a lead balloon,” Fry says. “We wanted our fans to be surprised, to be taken aback and confused. And they were.”

With ‘Lexicon’’s talisman Trevor Horn committed to producing Yes, Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Duck Rock’ album and a new band he’d signed to his new ZTT label called Frankie Goes To Hollywood, ABC instead made their second record with Gary Langan. Guitars and noise were inexplicably to the fore, as if grunge had arrived seven years too early.

YOU AND WHOSE LAMÉ?: The new, no-frills ABC horrify TOTP audiences in 1983

‘Beauty Stab’ had its moments, including the acerbic Thatcher-era diatribe ‘United Kingdom’ and the well-turned ballad ‘SOS’. “But we’d totally misjudged how affectionate people were towards us,” says Fry. “We thought we were invincible. We thought we’d be Queen or something. Instead the momentum just crashed. We felt crestfallen, like it was a massive failure.” He take a sip of water. “It was like, What’s worse? Being too late or too early?

Afterwards, ABC “concaved”. Drummer David Palmer, the heavy-duty backbeat to ‘Lexicon’, had already left to join The Yellow Magic Orchestra. Now Stephen Singleton, the founder member and sax player who hardly appeared on ‘Beauty Stab’, departed too. Singleton’s mother had been ABC’s manager and his cousin their accountant. “It wasn’t our smartest move,” Fry admits. “We had to pay him off, a six-figure sum.”

Shaken and reduced to a duo of Fry and Mark White, ABC retreated into the new world of clubbing, of electro tunes like Shannon’s ‘Let The Music Play’ and dressy London nights like Leigh Bowery’s Taboo. They began to consider another stylistic curveball. When you’ve done classic glamour and kitchen-sink grit, what’s next but the unapologetically artificial? “The idea was synthetic electronic music with deliberately synthetic presentation,” says Fry. “We’re gonna be a cartoon.”

To give a public face to garish, day-glo singles like ‘How To Be A Millionaire’ and ‘Be Near Me’ they recruited new, non-playing members for a new, artificial band. Fashion designer David Yarritu was a bald and extremely tiny American. Journalist Fiona Russell Powell, an old acquaintance from Sheffield, rebranded herself as man-eating glamourpuss ‘Eden’ and wore a belt made of dildos for an appearance on C4’s ‘The Tube’.

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MADLY DRAWN BOYS (and girl): The cartoon ABC with (left) David Yarritu and Eden, 1985

Anticipating Gorillaz 20 years later, the new ABC appeared in illustrated form in animated videos and record sleeves. They resembled a Hanna-Barbera version of Roxy Music, or the cast of ‘Scooby-Doo’ on the novel new drug Ecstasy. “It was Felliniesque,” says Fry drily.

Though the music was extreme, a fluorescent collision of synth basslines and Tackhead beatboxes, there were hits in America and on the dance charts. And the parent album, 1985’s ‘How To Be A Zillionaire’, holds up remarkably well now – an acid pop freakout that had arrived just too early for acid house. The UK record label, however, hated it.

“We’d turn up at the office and see our posters defaced,” says Fry. “We had to point out that it was in our contract that they had to put thing out.” The new band also proved to be a mixed blessing. Though Yarritu was a “complete gentleman,” Russell Powell was “kind of volatile. She still is. I remember she was dating Zodiac Mindwarp and Clive James at one point… There would always be fights, trouble, drama.”

PLASTIC FANTASTIC: The ‘Be Near Me’ video, 1985

For all that, ABC were on the verge of carving out an unexpected new American career. Tina Turner, then at the height of her powers, had offered them a support slot on a North American tour. But Fry began to feel unaccountably weak and tired. After tests, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy and the removal of his spleen followed.

“When you’re faced with a diagnosis like that you either go into complete denial or you face it,” he says. “My version of denial was to say, No, I can beat this. If I’d actually realised the enormity of it I’d have folded.” Instead he appeared on the US show ‘Soul Train’ only days after an operation. “I looked thinner than Bowie when he did it. I had no idea. But work had become an escape.” He and White would document the whole nightmare on a more sober fourth album, the Prince-meets-Atlantic soul record ‘Alphabet City’, where introspective songs like ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Rage And Then Regret’ sat alongside an optimistic surprise hit ‘When Smokey Sings’.

There would be later ABC records like ‘Up’, 1989’s game attempt to fit in with the house explosion. White and Fry even went to Detroit to write and record songs with techno royalty Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, songs which never saw the light of day. But White left in 1992 to become a therapist; Fry soldiered on for a while , then became “an Ikea and Homebase dad.” ABC’s time seemed up.

It was the nostalgia circuit of the noughties – the Here And Now and Rewind tours – that brought Fry, now sole owner of the ABC name, back into focus. Is it hard, I wonder, to keep your sense of integrity when the audience is a bit less The Face 1983 and a bit more Radio 2? He smiles wryly.

“If you dwell on integrity too much, it’s probably because you haven’t got any. It’s a pub conversation for when you’re 19, really. In later life you realise how important – and hard – it is just to put on the right show. Whether we’re playing to 80,000 people supporting Robbie Williams or doing the Albert Hall, it’s got to be right. I’ve spent ten or fifteen years learning that stagecraft. I couldn’t even do it properly when ‘Lexicon I’ was out.

“When you’re my age you accept that the phone is never going to ring like it used to,” he continues. “You have to get out and make a new career, find an audience.” Hence ‘The Lexicon Of Love II’ – not a remake or a rehash, but a sequel in the best sense.

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ABC’s Martin Fry, 2016: “You’ve got to make a new career.”

Then he talked about how the making of ‘Lexicon II’ put right some of the things that he’d left undone in ABC’s long, convoluted, self-frustrating but fascinating history. Every bad decision seemed like a good idea at the time, he said. But maybe the wrong decisions turned out to be the right ones in the long run. “When I look at Iggy Pop,” said Martin Fry, “I love him for his inconsistencies and his failures as much as his triumphs.” Your mistakes make you what you are. And maybe that’s the one thing, the one thing that still holds true.

‘The Lexicon Of Love II’ is released on May 27.


7 thoughts on “ABC: Suave to the rhythm – Martin Fry interviewed

  1. Thank you for what’s arguably the definitive piece on the ABC of 2016.

    I’d love to have heard more from Fry on the 3 albums between Up (1989) and the Lexicon II (2016), given the sheer length of time between them. Abracadabra and the post-Mark White Skyscraping and Traffic all have their merits, and all were, rightly or wrongly, regarded as “comebacks”. As for 1987’s Alphabet City, it dawned on me only recently that Ark Angel and Bad Blood were a direct response to Fry’s brush with death courtesy of Hodgkin’s.

    Still, it’s Lexicon I, Beauty Stab and Zillionaire that stand out for their sheer audacity, which for me is what ABC were about when I first bought their records. And it takes some audacity to even think about putting together Lexicon II, never mind doing it. Full marks for the effort. Fry wears his “elder statesman” status very well and his ear for a smart turn of phrase seems as sharp as ever.

    Liked by 2 people

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