Then and Now: ABC (Part, 1)

The early ’80s were transitional years for popular music in the United States. If you look at the Billboard Year-End Hot 100 Singles for, say, 1982, you’ll see the public was listening a mix of arena rock (i.e., Journey, Foreigner, and Van Halen), light rock/Adult Contemporary (Air Supply, Toto, Quarterflash, Dan Fogelberg, and Little River Band), country crossover artists (Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson, Juice Newton, Alabama and Ronnie Milsap), disco holdovers (Kool & The Gang, Earth Wind & Fire, Donna Summer, and Dazz Band), and what was later called New Wave (The Police, The Human League, Soft Cell, The Cars, The Go-Go’s and A Flock of Seagulls).

Somewhere in this mass of music struggling to get attention, was ABC. Their debut album, The Lexicon of Love (released in June of 1982) was noted for fusing disco beats with the production style of Trevor Horn — who really made his mark in the ’80s with the use of synthetic-sounding horns and sharp, stabbing, keyboard washes that adorned songs by Yes, Art of Noise, and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.  The style of the band was certainly semi-retro, with skinny suits and slicked-back hair that connoted a sense of aspiration, style, and sophistication. But the album had a kind of concept attached to it, too. If you looked at the cover, and then flipped over to the back, you see the band is staging a play — with members of the group playing roles in this production.

But The Lexicon of Love was no concept album. Rather, it was a meditation on the hardships of love as sung by Martin Fry. The songs were catchy — and generally upbeat in terms of the music. However, it was rather dark in the lyrical department. To wit, in “Show Me, it clear Fry’s character can’t seem to connect with his paramour:

Once I needed your love
But that was just one thing left on my mind
Then I needed to feel you near me
You said, “Don’t have the time”

Things get worse in “Poison Arrow” when Fry and maybe a different paramour (he really needs to see women who like him for who he is), have this back and forth:

I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care
I care enough to know I can never love you

Indeed, throughout the record, it seems Fry is trapped by bad relationships wherein he’s in love, but he can’t seem to get the same kind of affection from the women in the songs.  I suppose that’s why there was a long-form video for the record under the title “Mantrap.”  Fry is trapped by is a desire to be in love but succumbs to manipulation, withheld feelings, and outright “I really don’t care about you” in song after song.

And all my friends just might ask me
They say, “Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”
And I say, “Maybe there must be a solution to
The one thing, the one thing we can’t find”

Poor Martin…maybe one day he’ll find true love — but in the Lexicon universe, it’s not to be.

For the next album, the band went through a total remake. Gone were the lush strings and faux horns of The Lexicon of Love, and in were grinding guitars, real horns, and beefed up bass and drums for Beauty Stab (1983).  Stylistically, it was a ballsy move by a band that didn’t want to be boxed in by the New Romantic stylings of the first record (and Trevor Horn’s production). And that was clear lyrically in the first song “That Was Then, But This Is Now” where Fry sings: “Why make the past your sacred cow? ” The sacred cow has been slain in Beauty Stab. The songs are mostly about rocking out with guitars and drum front and center. There are points where the band does revisit The Lexicon of Love era, however (i.e., “By Default By Design” — and to a lesser extent “S.O.S.”), but for the most part, this is ABC either committing career suicide or using the capital built up from the success of their debut to explore other musical stylings in hopes of maybe catching the next new wave. However, whatever motivated Fry and company to say goodbye to their past success left many fans scratching their heads or embracing their new direction. And for decades after its release, Beauty Stab is either seen as a black spot in the band’s career or a stroke of genius.

After Beauty Stab, the recording process took a toll on the original line-up of the band. Out were Stephen Singleton (on sax), and David Palmer (drums). That left Martin Fry and Mark White to soldier on. For the next record, any trace of Beauty Stab heaviness was gone in favor of a return to pop songs with How to Be a…Zillionaire! (1985). But in the mid-’80s, the sterile sheen of the production was clear in many records like Zillionaire. The low-end was sacrificed for a brighter sound in an era when compact discs and digital recording were replacing the analog system of making records. Sometimes the songs could be soulless and vapid as the technology that it replaced. “15 Storey Halo” is a prime example of vapidness on the record. Most of Zillionaire suffers from overproduction that masks the weakness of the songs. The singles like “Be Near Me” and “How To Be A Millionaire” are generally fine, but they lack the brilliance of the first album and risks of the second record. How to Be a…Zillionaire! is not an easy record to listen to. Most of the music sounds like the interstitial music to Beverley Hills, 90210 (i.e., it’s wallpaper for the ears), and lyrics don’t rise to what Fry was able to craft earlier in the band’s history. 

By 1987, ABC was, like on Zillionaire, a duo of Martin Fry and Mark White. Both lived in New York City during the making of the record (hence the title of the album), and the sound is more relaxed on Alphabet City. “When Smokey Sings” and “The Night You Murdered Love” are what they call in radio “A Top of the Hour Sizzler.” Both songs were singles and did better in the UK than the US, but compared the flat-footed effort of the previous record, these songs are a welcome return for the band. Fry and White are still struggling with the conflicts of love, but because they are older now, the songs don’t seem as personal as they did on Lexicon. The music is still bathed in the gloss of ’80s production styles, but it’s not so over the top that it becomes a distraction to the quality of the compositions — which are better than they are on Zillionaire. Indeed if Alphabet City followed Lexicon, I think the band could have avoided the turmoil of losing key members and struggling to find their identity for two records. Fry’s vocals have always been New Romantic — and trying to shoehorn that style into other musical forms makes for an uncomfortable fit at times.  On Alphabet City, he’s more assured in his vocals, and the lyrics are much more seasoned.

Remember House music? That late ’80s softened genre of disco?  Sure, it came and went, but that didn’t stop ABC from riding the House wave into obscurity with their 1989 album, Up. This record stiffed — as in Dead on Arrival. The first track “Never More Than Now” has House flourishes of that ubiquitous piano, but the song suffers from any real hooks and relies on White to carry it with his keyboard noodling. By “The Real Thing” it’s clear that Fry and White don’t have much gas in the tank as they are relying on the House music to mask the weakness in the lyrics and Fry’s lack of melody in his vocal performance. Indeed, the entire record sounds like the duo is lost. Lyrically, nothing all that interesting is going on, but musically, it seems like they are just desperate to stay relevant by the end of the ’80s.

Alas, whatever winds were blowing ABC hither and yon — whether due to personal foibles or changes in the musical landscape — wouldn’t sustain itself into the ’90s.

End of Part 1…


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