Then and Now: ABC (Part, 2)

Being a dance oriented band is not an easy thing to do if you want a long career in the genre. The audience you’re going after tends to stay the same age, but you as a performer do not. As ABC continued with their music career in the ’90s, they were able to leave their old label (Polygram) and sign a deal with EMI that Martin Fry described as “massive.” As the group went into the studio to record what would become Abracadabra, Fry also said the hybrid of genres was certainly idealistic (or maybe opportunistic), but throughout the record “You can hear the civil war internally as our lucrative opportunity to make the album of our career slithered through our hands.” Stylistically, the record does what Madonna was doing a year earlier with “Vogue” — but by then ABC’s lead single and video for “Love Conquers All” looked like a retread:

Yes, Abracadabra was pretty much a dud in the US — much like the band’s earlier record. The stand out tracks are “Say It” and “Love Conquers All” (both were singles), and the songs did have some minor success in the UK and the US Dance charts.  As I pointed out at the beginning of this post, if it wasn’t clear from ABC’s genesis, they are a dance band first and foremost — and one that seems most comfortable in a disco. By 1991, dance music was still squarely in House mode, and from songs like “Answered Prayer” and “What’s Good About Goodbye” ABC realized that if they had hopes of hanging on to their fan base, it was through dance music. However, by 1991, ABC was an ’80s holdover among those who craved “the new.”  Why spin ABC to a crowd of 18-25-year-olds in a club when a whole host of new music was coming out of urban centers around the world?  The band probably saw the writing on the wall, or at least Andrew White did, and after Abracadabra, ABC vanished for a several years.

In 1997, Martin Fry (by now the only original member of ABC) resurfaced with Skyscraping — an album of songs that stylistically pays tribute to his influences (i.e., David Bowie and Roxy Music). You can certainly hear Roxy Music in “Light Years:”

Fry said about this record, that it was “[T]he jigsaw puzzle that challenged me to re-enter the ring after a long period of absence.” The thumping beats of Up and Abracadabra were muted in favor of songs like “Skyscraping” — that’s more than a nod to David Bowie.

Many of the songs on Skyscraping are good, but for Fry, it was a case of bad timing. 1997 wasn’t a year for homages to artists who inspired some of the New Romantic sounds, so while the record was fairly well received by those who reviewed it, it kind of stiffed in terms of record sales. And, in hedging his bets, one of the singles ABC released (“Stranger Things”) tries to capture that “Be Near Me” vibe with a string section with mixed results:

It took almost a decade after Skyscraping for ABC to release another album. 2008’s Traffic saw the return of original drummer David Palmer (who also co-wrote the songs) and it’s kind of a throwback to Beauty Stab in terms of heaviness. Not quite a one to one comparison, but it’s heavy enough to remind people the direction ABC was headed in back in ’83 with a more aggressive sound that harkened back to the drumming Andy Newmark did on Beauty Stab.

You can hear it in the lead single for the record, “The Very First Time.”  The song itself isn’t all that remarkable, but there are noted ABC elements that fans would recognize (the plunk, plunk, plunk of a harp):

The lushness and heaviness of the record was a return to First Position for Fry and it signaled he was done trying to ride the latest dance styles. The songs on Traffic certainly had that “ABC sound,” but again, timing seems to be everything in music, and the record was released in 2008 when Chris Brown, Rihanna, T.I., OneRepublic, and Flo Rida were topping the charts. But Fry wasn’t put off by nostalgia. Indeed his embraced it: “There are nostalgic elements of déjà vu all over it,” Fry said in 2009. “Similar to Forrest Gump’s stories from the park bench. It stands firm and proud, despite the odds.” Perhaps Fry’s comparison to Forrest Gump means that throughout his career, there’s been a central core to his music that doesn’t change with the times…

That’s somewhat the case for an album that kind of bookends his career. The Lexicon of Love II (2016) seems on the surface a bad idea. Why try and do a sequel 34 years later when the first record was so good? The answer is that the record is not so much a sequel as a reflection of what love has done to a man in his late 50s. And while Fry does run over the same ground, he seems a bit more aware of the savagery of love:

You came you saw you conquered me
Right then I knew you wanted me
Burning in flames of desire
Burning in flames of desire
You came you saw you taunted me
High Priestess powers anointed me
This is the torch, this is the flame
This is the passion wild and untamed
Burning in flames of desire

The album has its clunkers to be sure (i.e., “Ten Below Zero”), but it’s a much more sure-footed affair that takes ABC’s strongest assets (both musically and lyrically) and weaves them into a satisfying record that probably won’t garner the band any new fans, but will certainly cater to those who stayed with Fry on his musical journey. One of my favorites on the record is “The Ship of the Seasick Sailor” wherein Fry wants a happy ending — as he sings in the bridge:

The sea is calm
The door is locked
We’re safe from harm
The ship is docked
The battle’s over
The war is won
Screen fades to black
In a setting sun

However, the chorus is where he hopes that — despite all the battles he’s had with this woman — she can love him for who he is, and not the “friend” she wants him to be:

Maybe you could love me again (All I can do is … Love)
Maybe you could love me again (All I can do is … Love)
Then and only then

Because it hurts to be your friend

Fry also reprises the dialogue in “Poison Arrow” in “Kiss Me Goodbye” in a slightly altered from: “I thought you cared, but it seems you didn’t love me. I cared enough to know I could never leave you.” Instead of two voices (one male, one female), Fry speaks both parts signaling that despite all the break ups, put downs, and other unstated volatility of love, Fry is still that poor sucker getting his heart shot at by a multitude of poison arrows. 

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