Agony and Ecstasy of ABC

ALL EDUCATION begins with ABCs. This particular education is of the musical sort, concerning one Sheffield-based trio (formerly quartet) that took its alphabetical beliefs and translated them into a clever pop pastiche that won the hearts and dancing feet of music fans the world over. ‘The Look Of Love’! ‘Poison Arrow’! ‘All Of My Heart’! Was The Lexicon Of Love far from your turntable in 1982? It certainly wasn’t in this house.

I wasn’t a quick learner, however. First hearing the band in England, sometime after its first single ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ was released and right at the time ‘Poison Arrow’ was beginning to hit it big, I (mistakenly) shrugged them off as just another disco band, just another bunch of white English boys acting funky. Funny thing was, when I got back stateside, all I could think about was ‘Poison Arrow’. I talked about the band, waxing nostalgic. And when the album came out it seemed I had, after all, learned my lesson.

Intelligent lyrics, solid melodies, sophisticated and tasteful arrangements, and a subtle but ever-present sense of humor. An elegant band. A band that wasn’t afraid to perform in gold lame suits, with a string section that included a harpist.

ABC came into the public eye prepared, having carefully built up a pseudo-history around itself: a mythologized version of pop band setting out to conquer the world; of a lanky Romantic singer vulnerable and tender; of a pure pop, perfect world where slogans are all the ammunition you need. Be alphabetical.

Interviews with the band from the first time around tend to portray the lads as glib, cool, poised and ever-so-fashionably cynical. As the song says, though, that was then and this is now. After the elaborate world-wide tour, the band came to the simple philosophy that there’s no place like home. Martin Fry, this year’s model, seems a totally amiable fellow, sincere, funny and down-to-earth (or as down-to-earth as you can get in a bold and largely plaid wool suit). He explains what perhaps was behind the superficial quality of the band’s past image.

“Very early on, nobody had heard the music, so it was necessary for me to describe it, or explain the attitude behind the music. So invariably you end up talking in catch phrases, because you couldn’t sit down and go through everything. In the end I realized that just belittled it. I’m sitting here talking to you and it’s like an admission of defeat. Everything I’ve got to say is in the record, or in the sleeve design, or in the videos. I used to try very hard to be poised and cynical but I found myself explaining things too much.

“I do think you have to be more direct these days; you have to be more specific, and more honest. I’m a polite person, sometimes over-polite. I’ve learned lately that I got tired of trying to reach my own idea. Where questions are concerned, there’s no answer that’s right and there’s no answer that’s wrong.”

Beauty Stab, ABC’s latest album, has a rougher, rawer sound than Lexicon, which parallels the rougher, rawer themes running through the lyrics. ABC has turned outward, exploring more, dare I say, political ideas than purely socio-romantic ones.

The Lexicon Of Love was like a version of glamour, like a version of Americana through television and films. A lot of it was the idea that everything is theatre and everything is staged. All the action, like the record sleeve, took place in between two curtains. When we actually went to Los Angeles I realized that the place was, in its own sweet way, made out of papier mache. It wasn’t a kind of idealized dreamland, it’s just a place where people live, and not a particularly fabulous place at that.

Beauty Stab is that moment when you realize that all the things that you thought were beautiful, like opulence or a vast amount of money or traveling or the whole Hollywood idea of cosmetic beauty, become less attractive; and all the things that you thought were everyday and maybe ordinary take on a greater significance, and you realize that they are, in fact, very important, and you shift your focus towards them. Beauty Stab sums up something of the shift of focus that was taking place with our group. So for all of the traveling I’ve done, the United Kingdom becomes the center of attention rather than some of the Americana by association that was the center of attention for Lexicon.”

As opposed to the gloss and sleekness of Lexicon, the overdubs and layers of texture, Beauty Stab is stripped down, recorded with more of a live approach, and produced by the band with Gary Langan. Lexicon was produced by Trevor Horn (who was busy “raking through the old dried-up bones of the dinosaur Yes; he’d put on his archaeologist hat for a few days”).

Comments Martin: “Playing live taught me that sometimes the magnificence of something comes when you have the flaws and imperfections, and that this whole airbrushed, glossed view of the world isn’t perhaps the best one to take. One of the oddest things, I always think, is when people do take themselves very seriously and begin to believe their own myths, or they begin to see themselves as what is essentially the result of soft lighting. I wanted to record the spirit of the group in the studio, with all the flaws, imperfections and impurities, because in the end that’s what goes to make the personality of a piece of music.”

Unfortunately, Beauty Stab has failed to take off with the audience as Lexicon did, perhaps because it was such a change of direction. And the Second Album Syndrome strikes again. It always strikes harder when the band becomes hugely successful on a first album; it makes it that much more difficult for a second album to find favor. What the media build up, the media tear down. A successful debut band is rarely allowed the luxury of making a small mistake, or experimenting unsuccessfully. If such a band puts out a second album different from the first, it’s slammed because it’s not like the first. If the second album is like the first, it’s slammed because it’s too similar, therefore not creative or exciting enough. You can’t win.

“We weren’t going to repeat Lexicon, we were never going to just rewrite ‘Posion Arrow’ and have a large string arrangement a la Lexicon,” says Fry. “It would’ve been second-rate. It would’ve been the easiest thing in the world to do; it would’ve been the most lucrative thing, but it would’ve been a mistake. Making records isn’t just simply, you know, market penetration or that sort of stuff. It’s about following your heart, and it’s an adventure – it can be. And it’s wise to move against the grain and do what people might least expect of you.

“Being in a band is beyond holding a plectrum in your right hand and hotel keys in your left. It’s a chance to express how you see the world. And as long as you make your point, it doesn’t matter what people think about your group. Sometimes people are wrong. It’s not worth concerning yourself over, otherwise you get very bitter and twisted. It’s the modern disease; everybody goes out with a scalpel. Like you’re looking at the TV guide and you think, ‘oh, I really want to watch that film but it’s too lowbrow…I really should be watching something Italian’,” Fry laughs. “People who spend two hours choosing a meal off a menu, or two hours choosing which seat to sit in, or maybe choosing which restaurant to go to.

“You have to realize that in this day and age you’re expected to have an opinion about everything. Everybody’s got to be an expert, and most people aren’t. They haven’t got the vocabulary – by vocabulary I mean the knowledge, or the street suss, you know? Like music magazines – there’s about three-and-a-half feet of them each month, and you’ve got to read through them all and assimilate that.” Fry puts on a confused look. “I don’t know if it’s New Music or New Romantic, man! What the fuck’s happening to me?” He laughs. “There’s a great fear of being out-of-date, of having no opinion. Who cares? Anyway, that’s my opinion…”

ABC is planning to record another album before embarking on a second tour. The band’s first idea was to record in the Big Apple (“New York is like every city will look in 10 years”), but they decided on Merrie Olde again, producer unknown at, as they say, “presstime.”

“For us it’s about making records that are either magnificent successes or magnificent failures, but magnificent. We don’t want to make music like wallpaper that people just listen to while they’re ironing, or playing TV football or something. I really feel that it’s important to get some sort of extreme response out of people in this day and age.”

And the fate of the lame suits?

“I’ve still got one,” sighed Fry. “I had three. One got stolen in Coventry. And I left one in a hotel room, tried to flush it down the toilet…” He laughs.

© Karen SchlosbergCreem, June 1984

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