ABC: Romancing Tongue In Chic

FOLLOWING IN the footsteps of Barbara Windsor, The Professionals‘ Martin Shaw and Crossroads‘ Benny Hawkins ABC are tonight making a Public Appearance at Sheffield’s Top Rank Suite.

The PA is a showbusiness tradition dating back to the Motown acts of the ’60s, but not often acknowledged by pop music, though it has been coming more into vogue recently with Heaven 17 and Linx.

Martin Fry first got the idea from seeing Chris Spedding in the mid-’70s, and ABC have been travelling around the country to various nitespots recently, the extent of The Performance (in this context definition becomes arbitrary) being little more than a three minute stint miming to either ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ or ‘Poison Arrow’, sometimes both.

The advantages of a PA are that it’s quick, effective and intimate. It puts the group in a proper, or at least a rarely considered, perspective. Instead of the supporters club ambience of your actual gig (a carry-out, a scarf and a badge) what is required is quick imaginative animation.

For the floating punter who dances to a succession of records it brings one of those records to life – it’s an exercise in personality impression and market expansion.

Tonight’s PA is different to those that have preceded it; Fry describes it as being half-way between a PA and a gig.

ABC perform four numbers – the two singles, plus ‘Alphabet Soup’ and ‘Hand Held In Black And White’ by Dollar; having secured a copy of Smash Hits from which to read the lyrics; Fry overlays vocals to the original track and doesn’t mime. With 2000 people in the spacious Top Rank suite, it’s the biggest crowd ABC have ever played to and subsequently they’re all quite nervous – needlessly as it turns out.

Fireworks explode into two bright white fountains at the front of the stage, and in a glittering flurry ABC come on. The effect is stirring and immediate, Fry and his cohorts are not only embracing this context of performance, they’re positively stretching it to its limits.

The four musicians are dressed in silver flecked trousers and Flamin’ Star-era Presley shirts, while Fry is wrapped in his trusty suit of armour – the gold lame jacket and trousers. Behind them in the full glory of shining Bacofoil the first three letters of the alphabet are hoisted high into the air.

The group don’t receive any money for tonight’s performance, benefiting from the publicity and enjoying the chance to meet people afterwards. One of their tasks is to present a few records to the winning entrants of a competition in a local paper which required the completion of the sentence “I like ABC because…” An enthusiastic teenage girl (all the winners and most of the crowd at the Top Rank are female) chose to finish the sentence on her winning entry with:”…because they highlight the thoughts, the joys and the misgivings of this generation better than any other group”.

Fry’s face creased into a proud grin when he heard that; he seemed to have enjoyed the whole evening with only one or two misgivings. When two female employees came to meet the group he huddled himself quietly into the corner, cringing as a few bouncers made jibes about “the groupies have arrived”, while the girls chatted good naturedly, unaware of the words’ connotations.

“I was really embarrassed by that, I’m sure they’d hate to find out what being a groupie really means.

“Signing autographs and that is a great chance to meet people but it’s wrong to take advantage of it and think, yeah I can exploit this situation, y’know? Because things aren’t like that, it’s a false situation to try and set up. If you start believing in it then that’s the rock rot setting in.”

IF IT’S NO SURPRISE that ABC are attracting the fresh faced open minded Human League and Ant fans; their drive and character is in direct contrast to the po-faced stolidity of much ‘rebellious’ or ‘underground’ rock music.

It’s ridiculous, however, that ABC should be seen as part of a hollow fashion parade – Fry says he doesn’t even know most of the people he’s supposed to be in cahoots with – and such purist categorisation undermines a whole depth of thought in both his music and attitude. The first single may only have been an incomplete blueprint of that approach, but ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘Theme From Man-Trap’ show a talent for songwriting and performance in ABC unequalled by any of their contemporaries.

Their string of PA appearances having come to an end, the group are now recording their third single ‘The Look Of Love’ and their debut LP with Dollar producer Trevor Horn. They’re also making a video for ‘Poison Arrow’ with Julian Temple, director of The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. The group are a five piece: Mark White on guitar and Mark Lickley on bass, Dave Robinson on drums, Steve Singleton on saxophone, and Martin Fry, vocals. Though they stress equal commitment and participation, Fry is the best focal point for their aims and duly elected as spokesman.

FRY IS 23, he’s over six feet tall, and he has a fair bit of acne. He doesn’t socialise much, preferring to go to a cinema or a restaurant. He likes to have a book on the go, and he’s especially fond of Tom Wolfe and Gunter Grass. His interests are corrupting the mundane path of fashion, putting pride into style and enriching entertainment. He’s obviously fascinated by the possibilities that being in a group presents; along with Bono Vox, he’s the most enthusiastic and impassioned interviewee I’ve ever spoken to.

There are quite a few similarities between them – both have the gift of the gab without being pushy or boastful; both prefer the down to earth lifestyle of their hometown and invest great importance in the power of the imagination and self-respect.

So how did you originally become attracted to the idea of making music?
As a kid I always remember seeing various things and I think they kind of got locked in my head. Like Johnny Kidd And The Pirates at my Gran’s house on…l don’t know what show it was…and then going to youth clubs and listening to The Velvelettes’ ‘Needle In A Haystack’; and Diana Ross’ ‘Reflections’ was another big one: these records just came along and got locked into different periods of time.

All the girls used to stand together and then start to dance around their handbags and you couldn’t help thinking that it was really something. When I saw David Bowie and Mick Ronson on Lift Off with Ayshea doing ‘Starman’ I just thought, Whoooah – y’know? When punk came about it was like all these ideas got locked together; like seeing The Sex Pistols at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, it was like they were bringing it all together, sort of damaging something.

With ABC the idea of forming a group just came out of boredom, I know it’s a cliche but it was something to do rather than just signing on. We used to go to a lot of clubs and we were listening to contemporary American disco. There were bands knocking about but none of them seemed to aspire to those sort of values.

Of course before ABC, there was Vice Versa. Where do they fit into all this?
Steve and Mark formed the group and I went down to interview them for my fanzine Modern Drugs. They asked me to come and give them a hand in Middlesbrough and I did. They had a small tour lined up and over the next two weeks I was standing behind this oscillator at places like the Marquee and finding out they were pretty dodgy establishments.

We were a four piece synthesizer group playing what we saw as electronic dance music and we tried to produce ourselves. Ultimately we found we were banging our heads against a brick wall because we couldn’t afford a sequencer so we had to revamp all our ideas. People would write to us and say, Do you respect The Human League and Fad Gadget? But by that time our perspective was listening to Norman Whitfield and Rose Royce, the sort of synthesizer you hear on that.

How did you think of the name Modern Drugs, it would be a good name for ABC.
I lust like the way the words went together but I liked the idea. Because before that I used to have fictitious groups in my head and sing songs to myself. It was just the idea of music being stimulating, the idea of imagination grabbing music. At that time I was knocking round with a lot of dead beat guys, really, and their lives were leading nowhere fast because of drugs. Basically I always thought it was better to buy albums than chemicals. That was the idea behind it.

Did you know Jud? (Bass player with Sheffield’s Clock DVA who died last year from a heroin overdose).
Yeah, he was a good friend in the early days; I used to share a flat with him. I was really depressed when Jud died, not in a sentimental way but just because he was the sort of person who’d go out at night on a motorbike without any headlights or helmet. He was always looking for the extreme, but it’s so tragic and so stupid when people start filling up holes in their lives with drugs.

That’s why I was really pleased to hear Adam Ant say he was sick of fucking junkies. It was something that needed saying for so long because for so long drugs have been an accepted part of The Method; y’know, nudge, nudge drugs!

What brought about the decisiveness of approach and the change in music for ABC?
Through all the hiccups and the time wasting and the loss of faith we experienced from people who saw us as much scrappier and younger than the other groups in Sheffield, we realised we had to do something new.

People still seem to think we were surfing on some sort of wave but at the time it did seem like a radical idea, we didn’t think we’d have any contemporaries and we thought people would see us as a disco band.

At first we just had our ideas thrown back in our faces and other people used them. But it’s not about doing it first, it’s about doing it best; which is why we took a lot of care over our songs and that’s something we’re still maintaining.

YOU TALKED earlier about The Method. ABC’s strategy seems to be to mark out A Grand Method all of their own, in the form of press hand-outs and sleeve notes. How much of it is tongue in cheek?
It’s more tongue in chic. (He smiles wryly). It’s not that we’re out to become The Baron Knights or anything, we’re not out for pure gag value. But there is a lot of humour around in what we do and sometimes it’s lost on people. They say, Who the hell do you think you are? What are you trying to pull?

We put sleeve notes on our records because it’s a chance to monopolise seven inches of space, and if it can wind people up onto discussions about the state of art or about pastiching other groups, then it’s fine by me. The main thing is confrontation as long as you’re confronting the reader with something rather than just letting them go back to the TV.

Releasing a record or going onstage is a chance to make yourself larger than life. That’s what any group does when it goes onstage; that’s what The Fall do when they go onstage; that’s what the Bunnymen do when they go onstage; anybody – from a non-visual spectacle to Liberace. It is larger than life to stand up onstage and hold people’s attention for more than half an hour.

You seem to accept and at the same time deflate the ridiculous aspects of the process, or The Method.
Pop music, rock music or whatever you want to call it, is ridiculous. There’s so many things in it that are taken as the gospel truth when in fact it’s just a pile of bullshit. Things like the meglomaniac lead singer, the cult of the artist, or artistic inspiration – that’s bull. The idea of hanging around in a garret for half a decade waiting for divine inspiration…those are ideas thrown up to try and surround people with myths. I think we exploit them and deflate them at the same time.

Like with the sleevenotes on ‘Tears’, the idea was to speed up the process, we didn’t have to wait five albums – we create our legend on the back of a record sleeve and our immediate history was there for the taking.

With ‘Poison Arrow’ the idea was extended and with our next single it will be followed up again. I think continuity is important.

Do you have to argue the case for yourselves a lot with Phonogram?
Yeah, we have to justify everything we do, I think that’s a good thing because it keeps you on your toes, you have to make sure your ideas are always going to be strong.

AS YOU are mainly a studio group crucial emphasis must be placed on the equal quality of the songs.
Well, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ was a strong song but we stumbled on the production side of things. We were working with a guy called Steve Brown who was a bit of a sugarfoot really. So for the producer of the next record we looked through our record collection at the records we liked the feel and the sound of and found most of the producers were either in America or dead or both. But ‘Hand Held In Black And White’ by Dollar was one that struck us as a very extreme record, not artistically, but just the way that the sound had been put on tape.

Trevor was a bit suspicious about meeting us because he’d produced The Jags and they’d slagged him off afterwards in interviews. I think he was expecting us to be a crowd of leather clad funkateers. We met him and just told him that we wanted to make records that would be really good, superhuman if you like. Trevor doesn’t say much, he tends to keep himself and his projects to himself but he came down to Top Of The Pops last week to see us do ‘Poison Arrow’ and you could see the tear in the corner of his-eye. He was really chuffed, which was great.

Do you spend a lot of time writing your songs?
We’ve got about 25 songs, we tend to keep coming back and chewing them around, kicking them in the air to see if they come back down with the ideas still strong, intact. When we are satisfied that it’s moving in the right direction, that’s when we know it’s going towards something polished. It’s not as calculated as it might sometimes seem. It’s not the idea of a human jukebox where you just put in the cassette and out comes an instant masterwork.

But we do a lot because we’re intrigued by songs, the way songs are put together like ‘If You Leave Me Now’ is a really strange song the way it’s got together with all those tubas. At first our attitude was DIY, but I’m getting interested now in using technicians. I think it’s important to look at it in those terms, as craftsmanship.

From what we’ve heard so far it would seem you’re something of a love junkie. The two singles you’ve released to date show a great vulnerability towards love but also a great faith in it as well.
It’s just how I see human relationships – people keep coming back to it time and time again, from the point of view of writing songs to the way you run your life. Your face gets slapped and doors get slammed in your face and you get disillusioned but you always come back to it.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that – the ultimate love song has never been written. You just start from something as simple and as stupid as your own surroundings and work it out from there, there’s so much scope. It’s not even just about love, it’s just down to the way people act, the way friends treat each other.

An example of how much scope your songwriting can cover is given by the alluring ‘Theme From Man-Trap’ which is a poignant. improvised re-reading of ‘Poison Arrow’, with just piano accompaniment.
The idea was to take elements of ‘Poison Arrow’ and see how far you could take them. Taking them to an edge where the song almost crumbles apart but still regains control. It’s something that you’ve got to mature, but I was pleased with ‘Man-Trap’.

I think it’s good to have a twist; like with ‘Tears’ the guy had just reached a point where he asked himself what was the point of continuing to cry over spilt milk. I have a vision of him packing up a suitcase and heading off. It’s the end of an affair but it’s also the start of something new.

I’m still always reticent to say that is this and that is that, however, because things are never that definite.

Do you envisage yourself eventually writing songs for other people?
Yeah, that’s what we want to do ultimately, pretty soon actually. We’ve got plans to use a girl singer, there’s songs that we’ve written and put in a box because I don’t really feel comfortable singing them. I’d like to write songs for people like Barry Manilow or Cliff Richard just to hear how they sing them. I don’t really like what they do, but I like their scale of operation. Like people say if Barry Manilow covers a song he covers a classic so it’s an acknowledgement of something when he covers one of your songs. But it’s really hard to get our songs put into these channels because we haven’t got a publisher yet.

I like the idea of writing for other people, of writing to order like the Holland, Dozier and Holland set-up where their persona became the writer’s persona, it takes a great deal of care and understanding. I’m not saying I want us to be the new Motown because everyone from Heaven 17 to Scritti Politti is saying that and it sounds so glib and cheap, but I want to maintain that sort of quality.

Do you think you’ve written or produced music of that value yet?
Well, I don’t think someone could really cover ‘Poison Arrow’ and put the emphasis on the things we found exciting in that song. But I think it’s something we will achieve eventually.

IF YOU achieve that sort of fame aren’t there traps you have to be wary of? Like softening up and reverting to formula.
It’s not so much traps. Y’see I think there’s room for stars, there’s a need for stars – new stars. Young people that buy records now need a whole new backdrop in the way that I needed the backdrop of Bowie and Roxy Music when I was a teenager and Tamla when I was even younger. I don’t see why they should have to look back to James Brown or Elvis Presley or Bob Dylan. I think there should be something fresh now and if we can slide in on that backdrop then that’s fine by me because there are examples we want to set.

There are so many channels of communication just left high and dry. The real tradition isn’t to wear a gold suit; from the way the music industry is put together, to the way people handle themselves in interviews, in public, in cars, in bars, the real tradition in anything is to be mediocre.

There’s never enough time, everybody is rushing you all the time. we’re just finding that out now. That’s why I’m glad we can do this interview today, because I feel at this point in time we’re changing. We’re not going to change the way we feel or the kernel of our ideas but we’re adapting, getting stronger.

I think bands lose sight of their perspective and The Method is to blame quite often. The Method is to release a record, tour every bloody club in the UK, come back and release another album and that’s how things are geared. There’s so many groups, I meet them in hotels and they’ve just dilapidated so badly, I couldn’t hardly believe it. Basically being in a group in this context, apart from everything else, is about setting an example.

People need stars, that’s corny but that’s true.

But in the relationship between the star and the listener, the listener doesn’t have to be subservient?
No, no what it means is having an inspiration, something to aim for because life in general is so boring, heartless and hard. I don’t mean that dramatically but there’s always got to be something to aspire to.

I did an interview with Dave McCullough on Sounds and we discussed a song of ours called ‘Your Place Or Mine’ which has a line “Nothing much now, nothing much later/ When you’re going down the up escalator/No room at the top if you’re glued to the spot”.

It’s about having aspiration, the idea of just burning towards something. He was saying it just shows people the distance between them and others, but I don’t think it does. I just think it gives people heart, and if we can set an example to anyone even if they only say, Jesus Christ – the dogshit! What are they doing? I can do that ten times better’, that would be great.

Our everyday life is bombarded with images from many sources – advertising, the media, the cinema and pop music. If you can make the image you project loud, positive and inspirational then that makes it worthwhile?
Yeah, what is the point of feeding people mediocrity, feeding them something that’s not tender, that’s not constructed with quality and care. In that sense we could be compared to Dexys Midnight Runners; we’re not looking for the Young Soul Rebels, but I can understand what Kevin Rowland meant when he sang that.

THERE ARE many suggestions and associations attached to what you do; that gold lame jacket alone crosses quite a few eras from Elvis Presley to Roxy Music. The microphone (a 1930s upright, bandstand-type microphone) you used on Top Of The Pops recently, the various elements in your music. Are you making an amalgam of bygone eras?
Well, it is and it isn’t; it’s not like going up to a vendor machine and saying I’ll have a bit of Fury, a bit of Elvis ’58 and Stranded era Roxy Music. It’s just utilising ideas that come from yourself and operating with them. It’s like putting the U in Fry or the E-R for Ferry – I like the idea of being malleable. It’s not treating yourself as a product it’s just pushing yourself to a limit and finding out how far you can go.

Isn’t there a danger of creating a monster?
Yeah, I think ultimately that’s what happens but there’s always going to be that danger no matter what you create. If you sit down to write a song it could be atrocious, then again it could be a gem. We must be part of some form of pop tradition – I’m aware of that when we’re on Top Of The Pops or when we’re staying in the Columbia Hotel, which is like the London 1980s equivalent of the Chelsea Hotel.

You go into the bar and Soft Cell are at one end, Human League are at the other and Teardrop Explodes are in between. I sort of think maybe I shouldn’t be here, we should be separate from this and keep our own identity. Because that’s what is important, if you lose that you just dissolve. The Method is to create something larger than life and you have to live with that thing all the time. Some people like James Brown can carry it off, he could spend his time just going, Hi! I’m James Brown – I’m the best. But there’s got to be wider scope for that, the way I want to design is that I can write a song from any angle because the human character is big enough to house it.

How do you respond to the ailing mentality that says you are just uppity honkies ripping off the black man’s music and diluting it into a palliative to take the attention of the nation’s youth away front more pressing concerns?
Well, I won’t entertain those sort of racist overtones at all. Music is there for the taking, it’s down to how you use it, how you carry yourself. I think people who say that are ignoring a lot of the subtlety and tension in what we do.

Like when The Jackson 5 recorded ‘I Want You Back’ they weren’t ignoring the work of Martin Luther King or the political situation that surrounded them. They were creating something potent of their own. By writing about one thing you aren’t ignoring everything else, you’re just focussing your attention on something you can feel passionate about.

It’s just I hate to see things handled badly as they quite often are. I hate to see caricatures of the original situation, of the truth. There again some people are able to express what they feel about writing with potency and conviction, and if they can that’s great, but it’s the potency and the conviction that’s important.

So what would you say is ultimately important about ABC?
It’s all there to find out. Our effect is not going to be to create a movement. I won’t appear on TV one week wearing a gold lame jacket and the next week thousands of people will be wearing one. Our function is going to be to make music of lasting value with polish and durability.

These days the length of a group’s career has shrunk from five years to five minutes. There’s a lot of people would like to think that’s what is happen to us but we won’t go away, we’ve got far too much belief in ourselves and our ideas for that. It’s a challenge to see how many ways you can twist yourself and see how much you can accomplish within the Top 30.”***

IT’S CLOSING time at the Top Rank now; drunks look despairingly at cigarette butts in half-dead pints and the bouncers get ready to clear the hall. It’s been quite a night for Martin Fry; he’s been onstage once with his group and then with some friends as he led the audience in a suitably choreographed dance to ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’. And then there were all those autographs to sign. But now it’s time for a private moment and he clenches his partner in the time honoured style of a closing hour smooch as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson provide the soundtrack.

Later we walk through the streets of Sheffield as he escorts me to my hotel.

“Well, at least I got to dance with my friend Julie,” he sighs. “But we’re so busy I probably won’t see her for a while. Ah, things never work out the same in real life as they do in books…or in records,” he says with a certain wry resignation.

Tucked up in bed a few hours later with only a nightcap and F. Scott Fitzgerald to keep me company I mused on what he said and felt quite sorry for myself. Y’see, gentle reader, I too have my private moments.

© Gavin MartinNew Musical Express, 6 March 1982

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