Out of the ashes of punk and disco came the New Romantic movement; it was a British explosion of style, substance and melody that remains unmatched. A rush of bands emerged from this cultural shift of the early 1980s that included Spandau Ballet, Culture Club, Duran Duran, and ABC.
Led by vocalist / songwriter Martin Fry, ABC’s The Lexicon of Love (1982) was an instant sensation. Its legend has almost swallowed the band whole, so much so that ABC is finally making a loop around to it on their ninth LP, The Lexicon of Love II ― due out May 27 in the United Kingdom.
Is this return to the sound of their first record an admittance of “jumping ship” from said sound with their latter LPs? On the other hand, that pop music wanderlust has made ABC’s discography rife with treasures to rediscover. To mark ABC’s upcoming release, this overview will give context to The Lexicon of Love II, the arc of their musical canon, and prove that ABC is well beyond mere 1980s nostalgia.
The Lexicon of Love (Neutron / Mercury)
Year of Release: 1982
Notable Staff: Anne Dudley (orchestration arrangements), Martin Fry (vocals), Trevor Horn (producer), Gary Langan (engineer), Mark Lickely (bass guitar), David Palmer (drums, percussion), Stephen Singleton (brass), Mark White (guitars, keyboards)
Summary: One couldn’t necessarily call ABC’s debut LP a “disco record,” but its lushness (courtesy of Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn) recalled the best part of that movement’s thrust. The Lexicon of Love was a spry project that drew on art rock, the swing of soul and married these mediums with a pop acuity that made it one of the many zeitgeist recordings to emerge from the United Kingdom in the early 1980s.
With Martin Fry’s unmistakable crooning and whip smart lyricism ― musically held aloft, primarily, by Stephen Singleton, Mark White, and David Palmer ― the songwriting, vocals, and arrangements converged into one (sonic) space to deliver a long player that produced hit singles and a host of deep album cuts.
The singles were immediate landmarks (“Poison Arrow,” “The Look of Love, Pt. 1”), but as stated, it’s the non-single material that cast a lingering spell over listeners after all these years: “Show Me,” “Many Happy Returns,” and “Date Stamp.” Undeniably classic, The Lexicon of Love manages to exist separately from the period of its creation as a fantastic pop vehicle for a band that knew exactly where it wanted to take their sound.
Check Out: “Show Me,” “Tears Are Not Enough.” “Many Happy Returns,” “The Look of Love, Pt. 1”
Beauty Stab (Neutron / Mercury)
Year of Release: 1983
Notable Staff: Martin Fry (vocals), Gary Langan (producer, orchestration arrangements), Andy Newmark (drums), Stephen Singleton (brass), Alan Spenner (bass), Mark White (programming, guitars, keyboards)
Summary: Career suicide, from a commercial point of view, is the phrase that has been bandied about when Beauty Stab is discussed. The second album from ABC, in actuality, was a deliriously difficult, daring and thoroughly British about-face to repeating themselves. The group, now pared down to a trio (Fry, White, and Singleton), managed to tighten their sound with guitar gusto that did not shortchange melody or lyrical snap.
The resulting sound of Beauty Stab created an appetizing tension between muscular rock boom and pop sophistication on affairs like “That Was Then, This Is Now,” “Bite the Hand” and “Unzip.” There was room for new sounds too; the reggae funk of “King Money” compelled and the icy chamber pop soul of “S.O.S.” was a portent to later forays into certain production aesthetics traversed on the albums to follow Beauty Stab.
True, it was a sales misfire, but Beauty Stab was a thinking man’s pop album, one that continues to accrue affection as the years pass.
Check Out: “That Was Then, This Is Now,” “By Default, By Design,” “Bite the Hand,” “S.O.S”
How to be a…Zillionaire! (Neutron / Mercury)
Year of Release: 1985
Notable Staff: Martin Fry (vocals, producer), Keith LeBlanc (beatbox programming, drums), Gary Moberly (Fairlight C.M.I.), Fiona Russell Powell (vocals, background vocals), Don Snow (piano, synthesizers), Mark White (producer, synthesizers, Emulator II, Fairlight C.M.I.), David Yarritu (vocals, background vocals)
Summary: Beauty Stab may have shocked, but How to Be A…Zillionaire! completely baffled fans, critics, and ABC’s own label when it was unveiled in 1985. Fry and White expanded the group line-up to include performance artists David Yarritu and Fiona Russell Powell (a.k.a. Eden) to mixed reception.
But, with this new line-up, ABC embraced synthetic dance-pop and American soul affectations. Who could contest the charms of the glass-like “Be Near Me” or the razor edge floor filler “Tower of London”? “Be Near Me” opened ABC up to the aforementioned American audience in a big way.
How to Be a…Zillionaire’s fortunes were sidelined due to Fry’s diagnosis with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma (from which he eventually recovered) and ABC lost chart momentum. Regardless, the recording was ABC at their most humorous and odd, even if it was uneven in spots.
Check Out: “Fear of the World,” “Be Near Me,” “A to Z,” “Tower of London”
Alphabet City (Neutron / Mercury)
Year of Release: 1987
Notable Staff: Graham Broad (drums), Howie Casey (brass), Anne Dudley (orchestration arrangements), Bernard Edwards (producer), Martin Fry (vocals, producer), Richard Niles (orchestration arrangements), Mark White (guitars, keyboards, programming, producer)
Summary: When pseudo-members Yarritu and Powell departed ABC, this left Fry and White to return with a set of songs called Alphabet Street in 1987. ABC was still enamored with American R&B and black pop, and they showed it on two superb tributes to the classic (“When Smokey Sings”) and (then) present (“Minneapolis”) epochs of said urban sounds. “When Smokey Sings” ended up as one of ABC’s largest hits on both sides of the Atlantic.
The rest of the long player was cunningly performed, smooth and likable, but the creeping sense of unevenness that plagued How to Be a… Zillionaire! reared its head here too. The fractured songwriting distracted from stronger fare such as the sullen strikes of “One Day” and “Bad Blood.”
But, again, the music was timely and played well while spinning ― though it didn’t leave much of an impression after it concluded. ABC had lived beyond the New Romantic period expiration date that their harshest critics often tried to assign to them, but Alphabet City was not one of their stronger works.
Check Out: “When Smokey Sings,” “The Night You Murdered Love,” “One Day,” “Minneapolis”
Up (Neutron / Mercury)
Year of Release: 1989
Notable Staff: Blaze (producer), Martin Fry (vocals, producer), David Palmer (drums, percussion), Mark White (keyboards, programming, producer)
Summary: Though Fry has described Up as the one of the easiest albums ABC recorded, the album itself did not lend such inspiration (musically) to the listeners during its running time. A shrewd, but tasteful, acclimatization to the house music happening at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s found that ABC didn’t sound too out of place on this aural stage.
In fact, with its finest songs (“The Greatest Love of All,” “North”) ABC was down right intoxicating. Their blend of sensuality and musicality orbited some of the intelligent eros that made their first two recordings so influential.
In the end, Up is their second transitional recording and third to be haunted by soft lyricism, Fry’s voice remained staunchly charismatic, but the material just was not up to par with his performance energy level.
Check Out: “One Better World,” “The Greatest Love of All,” “North,” “Paper Thin”
Abracadabra (EMI / MCA)
Year of Release: 1991
Notable Staff: Martin Fry (vocals, producer), Phil Manzanera (producer), Matthew Rowe (producer), Steve SideInynk (producer), Maurius de Vries (producer), Mark White (keyboards, programming, producer)
Summary: The exact opposite to Up, according to Fry, Abracadabra was a strenuous creation. Ironically, ABC had not sounded this relaxed since The Lexicon of Love, nor had they been so organic. A silken assimilation of post-modern Philadelphia soul and dance music, through ABC’s own unique filter, gave them their first solid album back to front since Beauty Stab.
It’s all in the music ― “Unlock the Secrets of Your Heart,” “Answered Prayer” and Spellbound” saw Fry make an awesome songwriting return to form, with production that matched the vivaciousness of his lyrical visions.
Abracadabra was sadly never going to receive its due, as many had moved on from ABC in lieu of “changing tastes” ― despite the duo rolling with the sonic tides through the 1980s and into the 1990s. The record was also the final Fry / White collaboration, with White retiring from music permanently. Only Beauty Stab rivals this recording as ABC’s most maligned and misunderstood one – it needed reassessment.
Check Out: “Love Conquers All,” “Unlock the Secrets of Your Heart,” “Spellbound,” “This Must Be Magic”
Year of Release: 1997
Notable Staff: Martin Fry (vocals, producer), Glenn Gregory (keyboards, background vocals), Keith Lowndes (guitars, keyboards, drum programming)
Summary: Fry returned as the sole proprietor of the ABC nom de guerre with a new LP, Skyscraping. It did not disappoint, for the most part. The backdrop of the recording looked to Britpop and cut that sub-genre with constant ABC touchstones like R&B (“Who Can I Turn to You?”) and synth (“Love Is Its Own Reward”).
The urgency typically surrounding an ABC album was missing in action though, possibly caused by a seasoned outlook from Fry himself. While it was far away from austere, its subdued temperament may have limited its longterm appeal when placed next to other projects in the ABC discography.
Skyscraping received a loving reissue treatment via the Cherry Red label in 2013 and collected the original album alongside its b-sides and live recordings. Notably, within the former category, was the stunning “The World Spins On” (the flip to “Stranger Things”) which was epic ABC downtempo fare.
Check Out: “Stranger Things,” “Who Can I Turn To?,” “Love Is Its Own Reward,” “The World Spins On”*
Traffic (Vibrant / Borough)
Year of Release: 2008
Notable Staff: Andy Carr (bass), Martin Fry (vocals, producer), Chuck Kentis (keyboards), Gary Langan (producer), Oliver Leiber (guitars), David Palmer (drums, percussion)
Summary: Another mammoth stretch of time distanced Skyscraping from Traffic, ABC’s eighth long player. What’s uncanny about Traffic is that it’s an ABC album that managed to stand on its own in the sound sphere of 2008, but it emitted a “classic vitality” that eschewed nostalgia.
The songs were “fusion experiments,” bringing together disparate elements like distorted rock guitar crunch with a bottom-heavy funk groove (“One Way Traffic”); hip-hop sampling pranced alongside gossamer-spun string touches too (“Fugitives”). All of it was rendered without error. Then, ABC traveled back in time, to the days of How to be a…Zillionaire! / Alphabet City, for the soul-pop gloss of “Minus Love.” The lyrical ebb and flow of the record had ABC at the height of their abilities; unsurprisingly, Fry’s voice was as handsomely agile as ever due to consistent touring.
Traffic evinced that ABC’s pop instincts sharpened, aware of their strengths, but not hostage to the ghost of any one particular recording.
Check Out: “The Very First Time,” “One Way Traffic,” “Lose Yourself,” “Minus Love”
For current information on The Lexicon of Love II and ABC, visit their official website.
[The second part of “Many Happy Returns: ABC in Focus” will be a formal review of ABC’s new album, The Lexicon of Love II, up for reading on 5/30/16. / * ― Note: “The World Spins On” is only available on the maxi-CD single of “Stranger Things” or the 2013 Cherry Red reissue of Skyscraping. ― QH]