ABC: The Next Big Thing Redisappears

Easy as 1-2-3
As simple as do-re-mi
Baby, you and me, girl

—The Jackson Five, 1970

THERE IT is. The money-back guaranteed sure-fire formula for Pop Music Success — written by the Corporation, no less — and while you should know that by now I might sometimes lie to you, the Corporation would never do such a thing. There are only 392 shopping days left until 1984. Thank you.

In truth, the 1970 Corporation was the trademarked name adopted by Motown writer-producers Freddie Perren, Alphonse Mizell, Dee Richards and Berry Gordy. And when you’re talkin’ initials you can’t forget the Motor City. Holland-Dozier-Holland, a.k.a. H-D-H, famously. H-D-H. ABC. 1-2-3. Now, that’s how easy (the look of) love can be. Maestro?

(Strings swell portentously in background.)

ANNOUNCER: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. For those of you who  haven’t guessed, ABC is the trademarked name adopted by a British pop group composed of Martin Fry, Stephen Singleton, Mark White and David Palmer. And when I say pop, I mean popular — both their debut album The Lexicon Of Love and their first single ‘The Look Of Love (Part One)’ are currently bulleting up the U.S. charts. So would you please put your hands together and move them apart, then together again quite rapidly in a warm Hollywood welcome for A-B-C!!! (Symbols crash.)

STUDIO AUDIENCE: Yay, the Next Big Thing, yay!!!

Back in the demimonde, some of us remain predictably unconvinced. After all, the Next Big Thing was the trademarked name adopted by another, very different British pop group a couple years back. As you may have surmised, they never lived up to that moniker, and are all now safely back caning underclassmen in the posh public schools from which they no doubt sprang. I’m lying, of course. There has never been a Next Big Thing — the weight of such an overt display of self-consciousness would be enough to capsize any thus-named concept in the first place. Besides, ABC stands forthrightly behind  the above-quoted precepts of the Corporation, as reflected by their own choice of nomenclature, which is why 1-2-3 obscurity is not to be ABC’s destiny.

Based upon ABC’s Saturday night performance at a sold-out Hollywood Palladium, Las Vegas would seem a far more likely resting place. This modern hit machine seems to have headed the inevitable problem of pop obsolescence off at the artistic impasse. All ABC has to do is emphasize the substantial cabaret elements already present in their conceit and it’s dough-re-me, clever old ABC, from here to eternity. Thank you, thank you. You’re too kind, really

THAT’S MORE of a put-on than a put-down, more send-up than sentiment, more a preview than a review. [Ed. note: The parody’s over, Don, get on with it.] Here’s the review:  Yes, the 12 piece traveling orchestra enabled the quartet to replicate their smashed symphonic recorded sound. Yes they have an album’s worth of truly exceptional material. Yes, little girls were screaming at them in high-pitched, keening wads. And, no, they’re not much in  the way of performers, at least not yet. Once you got an eyeful of the boys’ spiffy gold suits and the tuxedoed orchestra — from the crush at the foot of the stage you’d think some people had never seen a real live string section before — there honestly wasn’t much to focus on other than Fry’s rather forced banter. (Some dancing lessons may be in order.) At the end of the evening we didn’t know any more about ’em than we did at the start.

During their 90 minutes onstage, ABC ran through their entire album, reprising the hit for a final encore, as an apparent thinness of material was stretched to the breaking point. ‘Poison Arrow’ also got the once-over twice, first in a cocktail lounge arrangement — sounded great, Tony Bennett should cut it — and again as an encore in the LP version. And there were two surprises: an intimate rendition of Rodgers & Hart’s ‘I Wish I Were In Love Again’, featuring frontman/vocalist Martin Fry backed by a lone pianist; and a wild, “let’s-introduce-the-band” Philly soul workout reminiscent of Archie Bell & the Drells’ immortal ‘There’s Gonna Be A Showdown’. In other words, no hint of what the second album might be like.

RIGHT NOW, ABC could go anywhere. They could end up a pop group whose fortunes rise and fall with their ability to generate hit singles (Abba, Blondie). They could end up a hip version of Foreigner or Chicago, churning out the same first album under different numerals. They could, as noted earlier, write a couple film scores, accept a few Grammys and settle down in Vegas, or they could evolve into the hybrid pop-funk monster that just might shake things up in the way that Prince seems hell-bent on doing on the other side of the tracks.

If that last statement sounds a bit over the top, you probably haven’t heard Lexicon of Love. It really is one of the year’s best. It covers all the extremes, from bombastic over-production (echoes of Phil Spector), to a sinuous bottom pulse (a la Quincy Jones’s Michael Jackson jobs) and Co-stellar wordplay in the lyrics. On top of that, the band has packed the tunes with more hooks than Randall Tex Cobb’s nose absorbed in the last Larry Holmes fight.

The majority of the Palladium crowd was very young and dressed to be seen-on-the-scene. I wouldn’t exactly call it an upwardly-mobile bunch; I’d say 99 percent of the formalwear came out of thrift shops. Now, I’m as enamoured of glamour as the Midge Ure (Ultravox) lookalike who was standing off to my left or the Marc Almond (Soft Cell) clone on my right — I was wearing my best David Ruffin (Temptations) drag, if you simply must know — so I think it’s great that American kids are finally starting to dress up and feel good about themselves while the economy crumbles around us. You might as well go slouching toward Bethlehem in a tuxedo, ya know?

‘Cause when you come right down to it, Strunk & White’s book Elements Of Style is a better guide to life and what’s cool than any record, including The Lexicon Of Love and The Dictionary Of Soul (Otis Redding). I’m serious. It’s all in there and it’s easy, as simple as ABC. 1-2-3. Baby, you and me, girl.

© Don WallerL.A. Weekly, 30 December 1982

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