ABC: Alphabet Super

ABC ARE currently the hottest three letters of the alphabet. The band of that name’s debut album, The Lexicon of Love, contains some of the most elegantly crafted, intelligent and danceable pop songs since Motown’s heyday. 

The Sheffield, England-based ABC formed in June 1980 from the wreckage of a synth band called Vice Versa. Vocalist Martin Fry, drummer David Palmer, saxophonist Stephen Singleton and guitarist Mark White (in alphabetical order, of course) signed a recording contract in June, 1981; by June, 1982 they had had three hit singles in the UK (two of them in the Top 10 and gold), and one gold album. Unlike many British groups, they’re making a big impression here as well, with both their album and ‘The Look of Love’ single inside the Top 40.

From the beginning, ABC has constructed a clever mythology around itself. Fry, the former editor of a fanzine called Modern Drugs (!), chronicles his personal and artistic struggles on the back covers of ABC 45s. The first, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, includes the following:

“Marble Arch — London’s richest and most fashionable quarter… Into this jungle of terror came Martin Fry…Six months later the ABC sound had developed into a catalogue of songs that were to excite the hearts of many a record company mogul…”

MIDTOWN MANHATTAN is the center of New York’s record company moguls. Into this jungle of terror came Martin Fry and Mark White. ABC knows no fear; several days spent in mind-numbing Los Angeles [Watch it! — West Coast Ed] only convinced Fry that his tall, lean frame is underweight. The clean-cut duo are suave and debonair in snappy, matching blue suits. Fry especially is like an English Fred Astaire (with a bit of Bryan Ferry thrown in for good measure), he could break into song without the least bit of self-consciousness. His manner falls between golden-tongued glib and wittily tongue-in-cheek.

“We felt it necessary to build a history around what was a new group,” Fry says of ABC’s back-cover narratives. As he talks he shakes back a lock of blond hair that is constantly falling over his eyes. “It was just a chance to utilize 49 square inches of space. Rather than have four guys in leather jackets against a brick wall, I thought it’d be a great chance to express something about the group. But we don’t want to keep repeating the same trick. They’re really like humorous open letters; it’s great having the personal touch with 300,000 people.”

The idea of springing fully formed, gold lame suits and all, into the eyes and ears of the listening public is not exactly new. But unlike the manufactured pop stars of the early ’60s, for example, ABC sounds like it will have some staying power. Most of the songs on The Lexicon of Love have the earmarks of quality: clever lyrics, good melodies and near-impeccable production.

“We made all our mistakes” in Vice Versa, Fry explains. He joined founding members Singleton and White after interviewing them for Modem Drugs. That group chose the name ABC as it “didn’t tie us down to any fashion or period in time. We didn’t want to call ourselves the Travelling Country-and-Western Hampers, or the Four Funky Guys, or the Soul Men or the Punks. We wanted to choose a name that was even less imaginative — bigger, bolder and blander — that we’d have to fill with associations and connotations, and a spirit that people could associate with ABC.” He pauses. “Plus, of course, we’re going to merge with the American Broadcasting Company.”

FOR A NEW band, ABC has accumulated an admirable catalogue of material: ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘Show Me’, ‘The Look of Love’, the panoramic ‘All of My Heart’. Writing credits go to ABC as a group. Explaining the process by which an ABC song emerges, Fry ends up talking about originality in an almost existential sense.

“It’s four people guiding our own destiny,” Fry says. “You become your own harshest critic. When the four of us write songs we kick ideas around. It’s like tag wrestling sometimes.

“I think the crux of writing is taking an idea and examining and re-examining it — being big enough to kick it out if it’s no good, and not be precious about it. Ultimately we get something that is finely tuned, polished, something the four of us have faith in.

“Some people might claim an artistic vision in writing songs: Suddenly the ‘artiste’ plucks genius from thin air. I don’t think the artistic process is like that at all. It’s more like walking around with an empty suitcase. You pick up all sorts of experiences, images and tidbits, choose those that are good and glue them all together.”

LEXICON CERTAINLY doesn’t sound glued together. Producer Trevor Horn’s work with sugary-sweet British pop group Dollar brought him to ABC’s attention.

Fry says ABC was looking for a producer who could not only “articulate all the strong, defined ideas we had” but who could act as a “referee, keep us from fighting in the studio.” He doesn’t like being called a product of Horn’s wizardry: “Most people don’t know what a producer is.

“I objected once on a radio show when somebody said, ‘Oh, I love ‘All of My Heart’; that pause, that open space, is so well-produced!’ I thought, how do you produce silence?”

“People always read into a situation when an album is well-produced,” White says. “They assume a producer has woven a whole world around a group. Any producer worth his salt will tell you that that’s just not possible. You cannot produce something out of nothing. The producer’s job is to bring out elements which already exist, and make those the group’s strengths.”

“Trevor,” Fry continues, “was, most of all, our guide to the studio. We don’t know anything about twiddling knobs. We can imagine a sound; Trevor translates that into real terms. We spent a long time playing the songs to him, and explaining what ABC is, how we saw the group.

“I wanted to make the sort of album Steely Dan would make in the center of London, if they were contaminated with hallucinogens and between the ages of 19 and 24 — to combine the professionalism and virtuosity of American records with the spark and bite that exist in a great many English records.”

HORN, AN EX-Buggle, has done some fancy techno-pop work in his time, but ABC considers the new synth bands a gimmicky and transient movement.

“Electronic instruments lead people into just twiddling about on them and thinking they’re making something new,” White says. “We hold with more old-fashioned virtues, like structure, witty lyrics, a sophisticated melody — things that will last and mean something. When people come to look back on so-called synthesizer records they’re going to sound hopelessly dated, like the psychedelic records of the ’60s.”

As a relatively new English band, ABC finds itself lumped in with a lot of others in the recent wave of musical immigration.

“The British Invasion, don’t make me laugh,” Fry mutters with a sour look. “Just because something might come from England doesn’t mean it’s going to be hot. The floodgates are open to so many second-division, second-rate exiles waving the Union Jack — but they’re crap, or they might be crap.”

White agrees that although America “seems to be opening its doors to newer British music,” it isn’t very discriminating. “We find ourselves bagged with some of the most ridiculous groups purely because we’re over here at the same time.”

Examples? Both immediately and disgustedly reply, “Talk Talk.”

“Or A Flock of Seagulls,” White adds, “or even the Clash. Just ridiculous comparisons! What we religiously avoid is to be associated with some trend — you never escape from those associations.”

“We’re strictly what we are,” Fry says staunchly, “but we are willing to compete with a lot of commercial slop. We want to take our ideas as far as possible — to contaminate the entertainment industry with as much ABC as possible.”

“That doesn’t mean that we have to pass ourselves off as Air Supply,” White says.

“Air Supply are the bee in my bonnet this week,” Fry resumes. “I can’t for the life of me comprehend them. Yeah, we’re going to topple the REO Speedwagons and the Air Supplys of this world. The idea of being successful in the United States is crucial to our master plan: World domination and neighboring planets. In the meantime we’ll settle for a successful LP.”

“WE WANT TO throw all our energies into ABC, Fry explains. “It’s a way of life, an attitude stemming basically from the fact that the four of us write music. ‘Tis a life because it’s not a nine-to-five job. Oh, maybe you get a weekend off when you turn 28 or something…”

Part of ABC’s way of life, Fry continues, includes something called the Code of Gentlemen. “Each member of ABC adheres to the Code of Gentlemen, which means being polite 98 percent of the time, opening doors for ladies in railway carriages, and generally trying to be as well-mannered, well-behaved and gentlemanly as possible. An upholder of the Code of Gentlemen would not be found throwing a 12-channel TV set through a hotel window. Every now and again members of the Code of Gentlemen have to — how shall I put it — I mean, you can lose your membership temporarily due to a misdemeanor. But the less said about that the better!”

ABC still have a few years to go before they get their weekend off at 28. In the meantime, stateside fans will have been treated to a tour, part of the band’s plan to bring their sound to as many places as possible. They will probably be keeping their suitcases empty to collect ideas for new songs.

As Fry signs off on the back of ‘Poison Arrow’:

“Be young. Be foolish. Be alphabetical.”

And, of course, be good.

© Karen SchlosbergTrouser Press, February 1983

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