ABC… or First Steps in Funk.

Dave Rimmer meets Sheffield’s finest

MARTIN FRY, singer, chintzy dresser and be-quiffed one-fifth of Sheffield “radical dance” merchants, ABC, has a saying: “Get out of the galleries and burn up some calories”. And another: “Move your body and your mind will follow”.

Martin Fry, in fact, has enough sayings to fill a Dictionary Of Quotations. Taken together they make up a kind of funky manifesto for ABC’s “Democratic Dance Party”.

Here’s another: “We’d rather be a magnificent failure than a mediocre success”.

ABC aren’t either yet. But with a name that’s not only been dropped in all the right places but printed in Capitals and underlined too — and with a decidedly danceable debut single, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, threatening to storm the charts — they’re certainly shaping up to something. Quite what, only time will tell. For now, the music does seem to be living up to Martin’s mouth.

Something that certainly wasn’t true of ABC’s immediate ancestors, the drab electronic combo, Vice Versa who lasted from 77 to ’80. Three of ABC were involved — Martin, Stephen “Sax Equals Sex” Singleton and Mark “Six Strings At His Disposal, ’60s Soul In His Hold-All” White. Coping with these names alright? Good.

In summer 1980, they teamed up with Mark “Let Mr. Bassman Do The Talking” Lickly and later with David Palmer, “The Salvador Dali Of The Tympali”. That’s drums to you and me.

“We just started from scratch with the first three letters of the alphabet,” Fry explains, grinning. “We got the funk vision one morning and saw the future in beats per minute.”

First steps were to start writing “songs we all had confidence in and songs which had confidence in us”. Three months of rehearsal followed. For much of this time Singleton and Fry were working different shifts and never rehearsed together. How did they write songs then? “We kept in touch by boomerang.”

The first ABC gig was in September last year. Since then their concerts have barely reached double figures. But the ones they did do led to such enthusiasm that at one point ABC were thinking of not releasing a record.

“We thought it would be a letdown after some of the reviews we’d got.” But they fortunately realised that “the jiving can take you so far but you’ve got to have the music to back it up”.

Having got a “handsome” deal from Phonogram, ABC set about their ambition of recording songs “that hit that perfect balance between being durable and being disposable”. They cite Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears Of A Clown’ as an example of the kind of quality they’re aspiring to achieve, and assert: “You’ve got to aim high.”

I like ABC. They’re sharp, intelligent and have a fine sense of fun. Martin Fry might make some absurd claims, but he grins while he’s making them. He also jokes a lot about forming a “radical dance faction”.

“Radical Dance” is becoming a familiar phrase. What do ABC mean by it?

“Nobody’s told you? It’s a mystical term that stretches back through centuries. It’s a keystone. We unearthed it in a discotheque one evening and we’ve never looked back since.” Fry chuckles at the thought.

“No,” he decides. “It’s a new idea. An attempt to reach a mass disco audience with a form that’s got one foot in syncopated dance music, and the other foot stepping out using intelligent lyrics and avoiding every cliché like ‘boogie on down’.”

He pauses before the proverb: “It’s like the idea of ‘move your body and your mind will follow’ but making people’s minds follow with lyrical ideas about themselves. About the way they treat each other. About personal politics.”

New? What about Linx, Heaven 17, Tom Tom Club, Human League, Japan, Pigbag, Grace Jones… to name but a few. There’s no short supply of intelligent dance music these days.

No matter. Please welcome ABC to the list.

© Dave RimmerSmash Hits, 12 November 1981

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