In the early ‘80s, ABC was part of a wave of British bands who pushed music in new directions while taking full advantage of the video revolution. They evolved out of the experimental electronic trio Vice Versa, adding funk, soul, and lush orchestrations to craft the sound of their hugely successful debut as ABC, The Lexicon of Love (1982). Featuring such hits as “Poison Arrow” and “The Look of Love,” the album was accompanied by Mantrap, a Julien Temple-directed long-form video that wove a tale of espionage around the band and their music. ABC didn’t initially try to re-create the sound of The Lexicon of Love, as their follow-up albums varied stylistically. For example, Beauty Stab (1983) was more guitar-oriented, How to Be a … Zillionaire! (1985) veered towards electronic pop, and Up (1989) had a darker, house influence.
Frontman Martin Fry continues to record and perform as ABC. In England, he is doing shows celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Lexicon of Love with a full orchestra. He’ll soon be doing a regular band tour of America. In the following interview, Fry discusses the history and current work of ABC.
Are there any particular songs from The Lexicon of Love that your attitude or approach to has changed over the years?
The Lexicon of Love came out 40 years ago. And I get the chance to climb on stage, into the spotlight. And it’s a funny feeling, really. “Poison Arrow,” “Look of Love,” “All of My Heart,” it feels right to sing them 40 years on. You kind of grow into your material. It’s bespoke, you wrote it once, but obviously, four decades changes you as a man. The audience changes, the world changes. But, yeah, there is one song, “4 Ever 2 Gether,” which has great elements to it, but there are parts of it, I kind of think, ‘yeah, I would’ve written that differently now.’ You know, ‘I stuck a marriage proposal in the waste disposal.’ Some of those rhymes; they’re great, they rhyme. But I’m a bit more relaxed about how I rhyme things these days.
We’re just about to tour The Lexicon of Love and a whole bunch of other ABC stuff with a full orchestra, with the Southbank Sinfonia, with Anne Dudley conducting and with the band, in the UK. I’m 64 years old now; the world has moved on. But, it does kind of feel right to stand in that spotlight, on that stage. And for the audience, it still means something. But the material, it’s this funny thing really; it has evolved through the years. And people still seem to like that collection of songs. So, in a way, it has aged pretty well. But somebody was talking to me about ‘How To Be A Millionaire.’ And they were saying, ‘well, it should really be called How To Be A Gazillionaire.’ It’s a bit like that moment in Austin Powers, when Dr. Evil [coming from the past] demands ‘“One million dollars,’ and people shrug it off. So I think The Lexicon of Love has aged pretty well. There aren’t many parts of the record that I feel self-conscious singing. It’s funny. I’ve grown up with it.
ABC’s sound evolved over the years, from album to album. Did the experience of going in different musical directions impact your return to this material?
Yeah. I mean, it was our debut album, so we had a big hit with ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ in the UK. But that was the first song we ever recorded. The first single we ever put out. Then we recorded ‘Poison Arrow,’ then ‘Look of Love’ ‘All Of My Heart’, all the other tracks on the album. I was kind of, I think, naivety and the arrogance of youth, you have to use them when you’re young. You take on the world. We used to sit around saying we’re gonna be bigger than the Beatles. You know, you only say that because you don’t really know what’s involved.
It’s kind of a conversation you have in your hometown. You get out of your hometown and you learn a bit more about the way the world works, the way the music business works. It’s a very sophisticated record, The Lexicon of Love. After recording Beauty Stab and How To Be A…Zillionaire! and Alphabet City’ and some of the other albums, it’s really nice to come back to it. Especially as a writer, as a songwriter, to come back to it. I guess McCartney must feel that way about his early Beatles stuff, you know? But I’m sure he still likes singing ‘Hey Jude.‘ The world is moving all the time. A millisecond is a long time, you know, 15 minutes of fame. Well, 40 years later, it’s not really got anything to do with me or my skill set or my ability. It’s nice to be invited by the audience to, to come and play those songs because they still like them. They’re in charge, not me. That’s the deal.
Could you discuss the role of music video in launching the band?
My generation came through in the early eighties and it was time to clean the slate. Every generation’s birthright is to recreate everything, in their name. When Kurt Cobain came along, it was kind of destroying everything that was before, or when house music came in, it kind of changed the world. With us, I tend to think it was a whole generation that felt pretty invisible and ignored, especially coming from those industrial cities in the UK. There was a lot of unemployment, there was a generation that sort of felt a bit ignored. So it got really flamboyant. You’d go to a jumble sale or a vintage store and try to big yourself up. And you see that in bands like Duran Duran and Depeche Mode and The Cure and The Human League and ABC; very defined looks to the bands, very defined sounds as well. And there was a lot of innovation, a lot of experimentation musically back then. I think Bowie had a big influence on a whole generation. So it was like, yeah, let’s make a promo, let’s make a clip, a little film. We’re gonna be film stars in our own little universe. And that’s what happened. That’s what Adam Ant was doing and The Talking Heads and The B-52’s. They were all very kind of charismatic characters. Same with ABC, I suppose. You know, we had a very defined kind of power and Pressburger sort of cosmopolitan world inside our heads. And we wanted to kind of put that into the video, and it coincided obviously with MTV. MTV was piping this 24 hour music channel in, but there weren’t that many videos. So I think that’s what led to the kind of British invasion part two. Where all those bands like The Police and The Pretenders showed up and they had a defined look to them. So it was definitely a symbiotic meeting. It wasn’t like MTV said ‘climb aboard the good ship MTV, we’re gonna make you famous’. It was kind of like a two-way street. It was great. “Poison Arrow” was on heavy rotation. Suddenly people knew who ABC were.
What was the relationship like between these bands? Did you feel competitive in regards to look and videos?
We were trying to outdo each other. You’d look at Duran Duran and go, ‘Man, how did they get to Sri Lanka to do their video? We’re in Shepherd’s Bush,‘ we’re like in some suburb of London. Everybody was chasing the same thing, I think. But having said that, I’m a big fan of all those bands. I mean, The Human League was from Sheffield. I really took pleasure in them, ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and their kind of emergence as a pop act. I thought that was great. But honest answer – yeah, it was fiercely competitive. Very much so. It feels good now all these years on to go and play festivals and meet some of my contemporaries who are still up there, you know, out there doing it. It feels good to meet them. And to hang. But back then, no, there was only one act. It wasn’t like now where you’ve got all the bands coming out, the new releases on Spotify. There was a mainstream of all the old stuff. And then there was this kind of strata of revolutionary new hit bands. And there wasn’t much space in that little area, so it was very competitive. In a good way.
A few other bands did it, but it was unusual doing a full video album like Mantrap Could you talk a bit about that project? How did it come about? What was the experience like?
There was a thing called ‘BBC Omnibus,’ which was a documentary. It was quite a heavy documentary series; they’d do serious subjects. They wanted to do a film about ABC and about how we’d come from working-class roots in Sheffield and they kind of had these ideas. We met them and thought it was a bit cliche. So Polygram said, okay, if you wanna make a movie, a film with Lisa Vanderpump of some description, what are your ideas?
So we really liked working with Julian Temple, who’d made The Great Rock and Roll Swindle for the Pistols. And he directed our video for ‘Poison Arrow.’ He had a really good understanding of where we were at. So we got together with Julian and over a weekend we put together this sort of espionage spy plot line. Instead of it being an authentic documentary, which would’ve been inauthentic, it would’ve been like cliche. We wanted to put together a whole fantasy story, and we hooked up with Lisa Vanderpump, who’s still on TV now I think, after all these years, and James Villiers, who’d been in a Bond movie, and we did a kind of sub-Bond thing.
That’s how Man Trap came about. It was kind of an amplified version of what we were doing at the time touring around Europe. It was like a brand new thing, long form, before Thriller. I remember Madness had done a film, but there weren’t that many things like that. It was a great experimentation.
ABC had its roots with the more experimental electronic band Vice Versa. How did that project transition to the sound ABC had on “The Lexicon of Love”?
First, there was a three-piece synthesizer band. And one guy left. So when I went around to interview Mark White and Steve Singleton, they said, ’Do you want to come to Middlesbrough with us?’ It was at the time when we were building synthesizers; he said, ‘we’ve got an oscillator here, you know, just play with this.’ Like on a Moog, monophonic synths, raw, no sequencing, pre-MIDI. And I just said, ‘Yeah, okay, I’m coming.’ So we had this sort of racket we’d make on stage. And then we were hitting clubs and loved James Brown and funk and soul as well. We kind of thought it’d be great to have a rhythm section, and to change the sound a bit.
And also, The Human League was taking off. They started as an experimental group and were becoming very popular, and it was almost like you couldn’t really surpass what they’d done. They were perfect. So we kind of thought, let’s try and play something that’s funky but kind of angst-ridden, you know, kind of very British as well. And that’s where the ideas for ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ came from, that whole thing. A lot of it’s kind of from ‘Stay,’ Bowie, Station to Station. That fusion of poetry and funk and soul and electronics. In fact Station To Station has got a lot of electronics on it. Bowie always got there first.
That’s where the transition took place. And then we’d written about 10 or 12 songs and we’d heard ‘Hand Held in Black and White’ by Dollar on the radio. Trevor Horn had produced it. He was just getting into production. So we approached him with this idea. We wanted to make everything as polished as possible. The groups we had grown up idolizing, like, The Clash and The Pistols. They were big, but they were never kind of like … our generation was moving in a different direction. We wanted to become more pop, more international. So, a lot of those ideas were floating around.
ABC continued to use electronics, such as on the How To Be A…Zillionaire! album and the more house-oriented Up. How might have the evolution of the technology affected your creative or recording process?
Always saw the creative process first, and then you grab a grab bag of what technology you need to make it happen. So we would spend hours trying to make a [Oberheim] DMX [drum machine] stay in time, or stuff like that. You know, triggering was like a kind of mania back in the eighties. Now you can do it on, I would say on your laptop, but you can do it on your phone. Everything’s synced. So it’s important now to have a very strong kind of blueprint. If you’re writing a song, make the lyric great. And [make] the melody great. And then the beats. It’s hard to describe, but there’s nothing more exciting than being in a studio and you just hear something brand new and you think, ‘oh, that’s gotta be in the next record. That sound.’ Usually an accident, like a planned accident in the great Brian Eno tradition, you know, somebody drops something on the floor. It sounds great.
It is confusing sometimes when people put songs up and there are like 48, 64 tracks of choices. Choice is a big part. And taste is a big part of making music. And being very dogmatic in saying, “I love that”, “I hate that”, “That’s never gonna be on, that’s gotta go.”
A few years ago you put out “The Lexicon Of Love II.” What was the motivation behind doing a sequel?
Well, for years and years and years people would say, ‘come on, would you do another record, like with the strings, a larger than life emotive sort of record, like The Lexicon Of Love?’ And I shied away from that; it was the last thing I wanted to do. But I did a gig at the [Royal] Albert Hall about eight years ago, and I looked out into the audience and it just struck me, you know, as we moved through time, we’re all getting older, but there are still interesting stories to tell. You don’t have to pretend you’re kind of 21 years old to write something. So I was thinking about the drama in people’s lives, everybody’s lives. The divorces, the houses you buy, the businesses that collapse, your kids, just stuff in everybody’s lives. And it inspired me. I worked with Charlie Mole, who’s a really good string arranger, and Marcus Vere from Living in a Box. We put together “Viva Love”, “Ten Below Zero”, “The Flames Of Desire”. And there were kind of songs like B-movies, you know, “The Flames Of Desire” is like a B-movie, kind of an amped up, emotional sort of track. And that definitely gave me the confidence to work with [people] like Rob Fusari, Anne Dudley. I started to write songs in that style, and I played something off my phone actually to somebody who said, “listen, this is great. You should put it out”. So that’s how it evolved. And it was also time. It was also nice to play a sequel for the people that wanted to hear it. The audience had been waiting a long time for that kind of stuff. Even though it didn’t make commercial sense, it felt right. So that’s how “The Lexicon Of Love II” came about. Originally titled “The Lexicon Of A Lost Ideal”. It was very successful. It didn’t come out in North America, but it was very successful in Europe.
I read that you have around 40 songs written at the time. Was it obvious which material would fit the album?
Yeah. Time has elapsed because … I mean, throughout the eighties, it was like you write 10, 12, 15 songs, do an album, next tour, album. Time had moved on, I hadn’t made that many records, but I’d write all the time. Same now. So there was always an element to choose from. I remember Bruce Springsteen said, you write the same song three times and then pick which one you like and then move on to the next batch. So it felt good. It was a nice way of working for me. Because it meant there was more, more choice. It made me up the ante a bit and made the quality better. Because not everything you write is great. It takes a long time to accept that humility; you can write some really boring stuff sometimes. I don’t know how many songs people have in their souls anyway, to write. Maybe a hundred, if you’re Walter Becker and Donald Fagan or Bowie. But realistically, maybe everybody having 10 good songs is a great ratio.
Is there a particular reason it didn’t come out in North America?
It was on Virgin EMI. No, it just didn’t happen. It was offered to the [North American] label, but it didn’t happen. So maybe one day it’ll come out. I don’t think it’s on Spotify either.
What can we expect from the upcoming tour?
I played some shows in November and really enjoyed working with the musicians I was working with. So I figured we’d play some shows in July, summer shows, through North America. And it’s nice to kind of open the catalog up and play songs like ‘Be Near Me’ and ‘How to be a Millionaire”, which I don’t normally do in Europe. But also 40 years on with Lexicon, it’s nice to play those songs too. So a whole, whole range of stuff.
You were talking about how each generation wants to re-make things their own way. And obviously the music industry has changed so much over the years. What do you think of the current state of things, and what changes have affected you most as an artist?
Sometimes a band will come on … I’ll like Alt-J or something, the record will come out, and then it’s gone. I don’t know if it’s like that in North America, but in Europe, blam. Something’s up there, like Arcade Fire’s album was number one and the next week it’s gone. It’s like that, you have to kind of pursue acts you really like, contemporary acts. But it’s funny. The fundamental things still apply. I watch a lot of bands when I play festivals. You have to stand on that stage and introduce your audience to your world. It’s not about fitting in. You can get a job; you could have got a job in a bank or something to do that. It’s about saying, ‘No, I’m here. Underneath the same sky as you guys, I’m here, welcome to our world for the next 45 – 50 minutes, hour and a half, whatever.’
But things have dramatically changed. It’s tough. It’s really tough on new acts. It feels good now to have a kind of back catalog. And in the past, when our records weren’t successful; some were successful, some weren’t, commercially. It just didn’t feel good if it wasn’t climbing into the top 10 or something. But now with Spotify, people like to follow the ups and downs of people’s careers, the detail, the minutiae. I think that happens a lot, but that never used to be before. I mean, I’m in my sixties now and I’d enjoy performing live and being on stage, and only while I can sing. But once that stops, you have no right to be there. Really. An audience really needs to be entertained now. You can’t just assume they’re gonna like you, you have to make the effort.
For your dates and other info, please visit abcmartinfry.com.