FOR THE PAST MONTH, posters have been plastered all over London advertising tonight’s comeback gig at the Shepherds Bush Empire of the 1980s pop group, ABC.
The lead singer, Martin Fry, is shown with a gold lamé jacket slung over his shoulder: a reference to the days in 1982 when ABC wore similar suits and had a platinum-selling album, Lexicon Of Love.
Where he got his current lamé suit is a mystery, as he ceremoniously flushed the original down the toilet in a Japanese hotel at the end of the band’s world tour. How do I know this? Because Stephen Singleton, the founder member of ABC, told me. He will not be on stage tonight and nor will I, although I, too, was once a member of ABC, masquerading under the name of Eden, while working as a journalist for The Face.
In fact Martin Fry is now the only remaining member of ABC, aided by Glenn Gregory of Heaven 17. During the past few years, I and other former ABC members had noticed that Martin seemed to have rewritten the history of the band. The way he tells it, ABC was his idea. Not so. ABC started life as Vice Versa, a Sheffield electronic three-piece formed by Singleton (sax and rhythm guitar) and Mark White (guitar).
One day, Stephen and Mark rang a Mancunian student, who had interviewed them for his fanzine, and asked him to step in at the last minute to replace the 16-year-old member who had chickened out of her first gig. I was the chicken; he was Martin Fry. In 1980 they changed the musical direction of the band and the name to ABC, and brought in drummer David Palmer and bassist David Robinson.
The next three years saw ABC on the rise, gaining critical and popular acclaim with their trademark funk/pop, only to blow it all in 1983 with a heavier release that many found hard to understand, Beauty Stab. David Palmer was the first to go. During a gig at Hammersmith Palais, he broke into an impromptu and brilliant 15-minute drum solo. “It was only after he left that we realised it had been his audition for the Yellow Magic Orchestra,” said Stephen, who left after rows with Martin over Beauty Stab.
I remained friends with everyone, and in the summer of 1984 went round to Martin and Mark’s Holland Park flat to hear what they had been working on. It had the promise of another hit album. They said: “We’d like you to join the band.” “But I can’t play anything,” I pointed out. “It doesn’t matter. You can pretend. We want you because you’ve got a great look.”
At the time, I was Miss Nightclub Queen, wearing clothes made by my friends Leigh Bowery and John Galliano, with a number one crew cut, and a great collection of wigs and platform shoes. It was a freaky, original image and one that they wanted the new-look ABC to have. An American, David Yarritu, a bold homosexual midget, completed the four-piece.
I joined ABC for several reasons. The money was enticing and I wanted to experience the music industry from the inside. But perhaps the principal expectation I had was one of non-stop fun. And we did have some laughs, at first.
However, the British public did not take kindly to the new image, comparing us to the Addams Family. It was a different story in America though, where the LP did very well. We also had a number one dance record. Things began to go pear-shaped when Martin disappeared. All became clear in September 1985, when we flew to LA to do the US versions of Top of the Pops. Martin arrived at Heathrow looking ghastly. It turned out he had Hodgkin’s disease. He could only perform after being pumped full of drugs. The rest of the time he was in bed. Mark, whom I had known since I was 15, now required an appointment before I could see him. David Yarritu had been sacked, as he had grown too big for his tiny boots. Everything fizzled out and they decided my services were no longer needed.
I did not hear from Martin again until he rang me about this article. I expressed my opinions about defunct bands reforming. I find it rather sad as it flies in the face of our youthful ideals. “I am not a sad man.” Martin declared emphatically.
So why is he going on the road after all this time (14 years since he played live, six since the last LP)? “Because I’m passionate about it, I believe in these songs.” I’ve heard the new album, Skyscraping, and my immediate reaction was: time warp. It’s as if the past ten years haven’t happened.
I shall be down at the front tonight but probably not singing along. I joked to Martin that I’ll wear my gold lamé suit. “Fi, it takes balls to wear one of those. The lamé army. We’re survivors.”
© Fiona Russell Powell, The Times, 7 March 1997