Tuesday, April 3, 2012

ABC: The Lexicon Of Love

"I don't know the answer to that question? If I knew I would tell you." -The Look Of Love, ABC [from the shining classic The Lexicon of Love]-

What happened to ABC? For the answer to that question, please see above. Honestly, to this day, I'm not entirely sure. Most of all, where is Mark White? There are disbandments and then there are disbandments. I miss Scottish band Danny Wilson, Aztec Camera [Roddy Frame] and even When In Rome, but ABC disassembled in a big way very quickly.

The Lexicon Of Love [1982] was the culmination of a chemical reaction that owed its power to lead singer/ songwriter Martin Fry [the sole remaining factor behind ABC and certainly the key to its magic], guitarist/ keyboardist Mark White, drummer David Robinson and David Palmer, bassist Mark Lickley and sax man Stephen Singleton with meticulous production by maestro Trevor Horn [The Buggles, Frankie Goes To Hollywood].

Together the act struck immediate gold with their masterstroke that was The Lexicon Of Love. Gold, of course, came in the form of gold records and gold lame suits.

ABC was at the forefront of the New Romantic movement and the new wave that delivered us a melodic antidote to those raucous punk rock years, owing a debt of gratitude to the likes of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music. Along with Duran Duran, OMD, Spandau Ballet, Thompson Twins and The Human League, ABC was in the thick of it. But, like many of those acts the media loved them, lifted them up, labelled them and then attempted to bury them. Like many of those acts, ABC proved versatile, adaptive and ultimately resilient out from under the labels to generate a legacy of its very own. These bands, with ABC, have long been considered instrumental in defining an era and a sound. Perhaps Duran Duran being the only band to get the short end of the legacy stick, although that appears to be changing in recent years given their staying power as one of the few still ripping it up as pop alternative pop goes.

But ABC as it was assembled would last for but a single, shining, bright moment on the world stage never to be the same again beginning with its art rock commercial disaster that was Beauty Stab [1983] a year later.

Interestingly, ABC managed to avoid the perception issues concerning legitimacy of talent that would dog Frankie Goes To Hollywood out of the gate under Horn's direction in 1984. Frankie's Liverpool was a disaster and ended the band. Beauty Stab shared a similar fate under one of Horn's apprentices, Gary Langan, guidance, but Fry regrouped and moved on undeterred and unmolested by the failure.

Martin Fry led something of a charmed existence regarding people's perceptions of him musically. Avoiding the pigeonhole, ABC is still often regarded as an artistic triumph, one of the ground breakers of a period. Of course, Fry deserves credit for sticking to it and not faltering. He altered the trajectory of the band's legacy with his third effort.

ABC's rebirth arrived in the form of a thoroughly experimental pop adventure called How To Be A Zillionaire [1985], an over-the-top studio production that was as vibrant and colorful as the animation and characters he assembled for it yielding the pop gem Be Near Me.

Back in the fold as a legitimate player, Fry calmed things back down, dropping the gold lame in favor of suits oozing cool, sophisticated pop suave in the form of Alphabet City [1987] secured that legacy. Quite frankly, it was When Smokey Sings that assured Fry's staying power in the history books.

Fry became something of a duo with Mark White by this point. The original quintet shrunk to a threesome for Beauty Stab with Fry, White and Singleton remaining from The Lexicon of Love. In fact, it was White and Singleton who enlisted Fry's talent for their initial band, Vice Versa, following an interview by Fry for his magazine Modern Drugs pre-The Lexicon Of Love. The ill-advised re-direction of Beauty Stab led to the cartoon gimmick of How To Be A Zillionaire before ending in the resulting duo of Fry and White.

Fry and White added a visual gimmick with American photographer David Yarritu and British fashion journalist Fiona Russell-Powell [she wrote for The Face] for the cartoon fantasy that was How To Be A Zillionaire.

Fry and White took the reins, donned the suits sans gold, went all debonair and lullaby for Alphabet City. Fry was indeed one silky smooth crooner who proved fearless in covering a range of styles. All of this followed an unfortunate diagnosis of Hodgkin's Lymphoma [a cancer originating in the white blood cells] for which Fry was treated successfully. To this day, Fry continues to surprise, but more on that in a moment.

Each successive ABC recording stood in marked contrast from the one that preceded it. Fry was, if nothing else, an original. He and White continued to endure and ventured into the house-infused era of the late 80s with the underappreciated Up [1989] and even worked with Paul Rutherford [Frankie Goes To Hollywood] for selections on his solo classic Oh World. But Up is a true joy - a music celebration.

The lush, cosmopolitan feel and sophistication of Abracadabra [1991] was unfortunately released to diminishing returns with MCA and the duo of White and Fry went their separate ways dissolving ABC as a duo. Fry was left essentially a solo act still operating with his much deserved and well-established ABC moniker.

This was a natural breaking point that resulted in a significant hiatus for Fry. To this point, Fry had capped off a decade of classic music beginning with The Lexicon Of Love, a unique recording to end all recordings. As always, we deal with essential productions here at Musings Of A Sci-Fi Fanatic and The Lexicon Of Love could arguably and easily make any top ten list from the 1980s. Each and every track is undeniably perfect. It remains a critically important recording and one that influenced a generation. NME ranked it in its Top 15 of the 1980s best. It listed at number three for 1982. Q Magazine listed it within the Top 50 British recordings of all-time. That gives you a swagger and some cachet in the music world.

The Lexicon Of Love's ten glorious tracks include: Show Me, Poison Arrow, Many Happy Returns, Tears Are Not Enough, Valentine's Day, The Look Of Love, Date Stamp, All Of My Heart, 4 Ever 2 Gether and The Look Of Love Part 4. Like other Horn productions, The Lexicon Of Love is worth noting as a production masterpiece too. With Horn's hand in the studio at the launch of ABC, so commenced an unprecedented run of studio work that cannot be understated. His influence here is profound. Additionally you had alumni from The Art Of Noise, including Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik and Gary Langan, all backing Horn for ABC's debut. This is not insignificant. Still, what the legacy of a decade of great pop music proved was that Martin Fry had the goods. He was the real deal. ABC was not a mere flash in the pan or puppet of the Trevor Horn show. The Lexicon Of Love instead was not merely the magic of Horn, but the convergence of extraordinary talents at just the right moment in time. How does that happen? I don't know the answer to that question indeed Mr. Fry. These intangible facts are one of music's great mysteries.

Following the magnificent magnum opus that was the production overture of ABC and company, Fry continued his pop reign.

When the 1990s continued following Abracadabra, Sheffield, England wunderkind Fry had to map out a return at some point. There was just too much warmth and talent in that voice. A much anticipated Viva Love stalled and disappeared from a planned release schedule only to appear on a compilation years later. Eventually things took off again for Fry, six years after Abracadabra, with the soaring grace of Skyscraping [1997], a production that featured the epic beauty of its title track and that old ABC style in Stranger things. It was pure Fry. It was pure sophisticated ABC pop. Two delightful new songs arrived for Look Of Love: The Very Best Of ABC [2001], particularly Peace And Tranquility.

A stunning eleven years later, more than a decade and a lifetime in dog years, Fry surprised the retro music fan world with Traffic [2008], an imperfect effort, but one with a solid handful of terrific pop songs including Minus Love, Way Back When and Love Is Strong to name just a few. The pop effort reunited Fry with David Palmer in the studio and gave fans a welcomed return to the pipes of Martin Fry. We can only hope it's not the start to another decade long dry spell before ABC rises again, but don't hold your breath.

Nevertheless, Fry never sat idle for that eleven year gap and his extracurricular activities have indeed been interesting. Much of his time has been spent performing live. Still, if you look hard enough you will find Fry has contributed vocals to a handful of interesting tracks including Burt Bacharach's This Guy's In Love With You from Harry Hill's Funny Times [2010] project. New Man is a cracking electronic number with a sample of Gary Newman's Cars for Sonic Hub. He also contributed a remake of the James Bond theme Thunderball for Shaken And Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project [1997]. Fry's contribution to remixer Arthur Baker's project, Merge [1989] on Mythical Girl is another highlight as well as a collaboration with M People's Northern Soul [1991] on Life. These small side projects are certainly a pleasure, but nothing can compare, nothing can compare when Martin sings on a full-on ABC effort.

When it comes to essential classics, what do you do after delivering one of the true pop classics in The Lexicon Of Love when it's your first. Martin Fry's been looking for that answer and it's been a pleasure to listen to those new discoveries, but you never forget your first. Thanks Mr. Fry.

ABC Discography: The Lexicon Of Love [1982] */ Beauty Stab [1983]/ How To Be A Zillionaire! [1985]/ Alphabet City [1987]/ Up [1989] */ Absolutely [1990] / Fantastic Compositions [Japan; 1991]/ Abracadabra [1991]/ Skyscraping [1997]/ The Lexicon of Live [1999]/ The Look Of Love: The Very Best Of ABC [2001] */ The Ultimate Collection [2004]/ Traffic [2008]. * essential. There were various compilations and too many to count. The list above is the key to the ABC kingdom.

6 comments:

le0pard13 said...

Great piece, SFF! I always love your musical looks at artists in their time. You're very adept at these posts, my friend. Well done.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks L13. You and I do love the tuneage!

I'm not sure who is next these look backs but Tears For Fears is definitely due.

Larry Descartes said...

awesome article about ABC!
during the last months I'd reviewed many other articles, blogs, critics and more for my new ABC fansite -
but yours is really great!
I'm also asking where is Mr. White?

check out my site www.facebook.com/ABClexicon for being in contact

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Thanks Larry for the kind words. It's easy to write passionately about an act worth writing about. Thank you.

Really, where is Mark?

Larry Descartes said...

I only know Mark is a Reiki master in London......

did you seen our ABC fansite - what you think about it?

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

First chance I've had, and your site is exceptional!

It looks smashing even debonnaire. Well done!

I'll investigate further when time permits. Tku!