“It Was Like Disco, But In A Bob Dylan Way”: The Lexicon Of Love

FEW ALBUMS DEFINE the resonance and the beauty of a particular era as does The Lexicon Of Love by ABC. It could be said that it even kick-started the musical ’80s as we know them. It’s embedded deep in the fabric of popular culture; more know the album than those who bought it. Name checked, referenced and, now, frequently in “best of all-time” polls; more knowing than anything else then on offer. It doesn’t matter that there may be better individual songs by ABC on their other albums; or that ‘4 Ever 2 Gether’ sounds something like an out-take from Drama by Yes; the album, as a whole, just is: the album that finally signalled the end of the ’70s and really opened up the ’80s wide, in full, glorious Technicolor.

In 1982, ABC briefly became the toast of the world with this album. It launched the production career of Trevor Horn; because of the timeless qualities of the material, it remains a permanently fresh listen. The secret ingredient was, as always, what had been the participants’ previous cultural diet. Mark White, Stephen Singleton, David Palmer and Martin Fry were all astute music historians and in Fry, they had a front man with the appropriate balance of pretence and ability; an English Literature graduate who could not only string a sentence or two together but also recite them eloquently. Fry had grown up in Manchester, and was part of the generation who feasted on the meat and drink of soul, rock, David Bowie and Roxy Music.

In 1982, ABC briefly became the toast of the world with this album. It launched the production career of Trevor Horn; because of the timeless qualities of the material, it remains a permanently fresh listen. The secret ingredient was, as always, what had been the participants’ previous cultural diet. Mark White, Stephen Singleton, David Palmer and Martin Fry were all astute music historians and in Fry, they had a front man with the appropriate balance of pretence and ability; an English Literature graduate who could not only string a sentence or two together but also recite them eloquently. Fry had grown up in Manchester, and was part of the generation who feasted on the meat and drink of soul, rock, David Bowie and Roxy Music.

“I started going to a youth club disco in Cheadle Hulme when I was 14,” Fry laughs. “That was something really liberating, going somewhere public and hearing records you’d only heard on a transistor radio before. I’d hear a lot of things like Donnie Elbert’s ‘A Little Piece Of Leather’ and ‘Reflections’ by The Supremes. But then I’d go and see Dr Feelgood and Tangerine Dream at the Free Trade Hall.”

This twin tradition was to inform a great deal of the music of the early ’80s, but arguably ABC were the most successful synthesisers of it.Fry moved to Sheffield to attend University and it was there he hooked up with Stephen Singleton and Mark White in their band, Vice Versa. “Vice Versa were inspired by Kraftwerk and The Human League. We were anti-rock and roll. The technology side was integral to what we were doing.” Releasing a clutch of singles, Vice Versa became popular. “We would play on bills with Soft Cell and Depeche Mode. We were about 75th on the bill at Futurama.”

When Vice Versa morphed into ABC, Fry, Singleton and White knew what they wanted to emulate. “Back in the day you couldn’t use technology as you can now, so we moved to conventional bass and drums, as we wanted to sound like James Brown’s records. We realised you couldn’t programme that. The records from America we heard sounded immaculate. We wanted to make something as shiny and as perfect as those records. Our generation was Ian Curtis and Mark Smith. It was all post-punk. We wanted to capture the flavour, the drama and the glamour that was in the music we were hearing in clubs and discos – and also that Saturday night feeling of indestructibility. Euphoria and optimism wasn’t in the air in 78/79 – especially in Sheffield.”

To aid them in their new, funk-driven direction, Fry, White and Singleton added bassist Mark Lickley and drummer David Robinson. After setting out their credentials, they struck upon a novel way of a getting a demo tape listened to by the London-based record business – recording a home video; back in the day when it was a tremendous novelty. The three tracks, ‘Surrender’, ‘Do As I Say’ and ‘Boomerang’, too rough for inclusion here, have all the widescreen ambition and lofty conceits that The Lexicon Of Love, just over a year later, was to realise. The promo gained them an international deal with the huge Phonogram label. One thing that was to be an integral part of the package was the manifestos that Fry, former editor of Sheffield fanzine Modern Drugs, was to bring to the group.

“From day one, we’d be sloganeering,” Fry recalls. “The idea that you advertised yourself turned the punk thing of pretending to be inarticulate on the head.” Fry held Dexys Midnight Runners in high esteem. “What I really liked was the run out of Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, Kevin Rowland said ‘everything I do will be funky from now on’. When we heard that, we felt very threatened by it. We’d got our funky outfit together and then thought we’d be beaten to the punch.”

A demo in Phonogram’s Marble Arch studios showed again the promise that the new group had. One thing was for sure – they only had a single target in their sights – chart success. “We don’t do anything flippantly or totally without humour, and we know that we’re not in a position to criticise the charts – that’s our competition and it’s up to us,” Fry told Paul Morley in 1981. “We have to compete on those terms, with Smokey Robinson, Michael Jackson, Kim Wilde . . . we’ll take any blame but we’ll go for the prizes. We are committed and if we’ll succeed we’ll succeed magnificently and if we’ll fail, it’ll be a magnificent failure. The magnificence is important.”

Teaming up with Steve Brown, the group cut their debut single, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ and its B-side, their calling card, ‘Alphabet Soup’. The group soon were lumped in with the white funk movement that momentarily provided a diversion in the window of time after new romance and before the high 80s. “It was a real thing; Haircut 100, Stimulin, Funkapolitan, Pigbag, The Higsons,” Fry laughs. “Everybody was trying to get funky out there. I think it was a response to how grey and desolate the ’70s were as a time and place to grow up. In the early ’80s, we wanted something more shiny and fun to happen.”

Much was made in the press of this new movement as ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, released at the tail end of October 1981, reached No. 19 in the UK chart, a very respectable placing for an unknown act. Top Of The Pops and the rush of initial fame – back in a time with just three TV channels – quickly followed. There was also a quick personnel change: David Robinson, who listened to jazz-funk drummer Steve Gadd for eight hours at a time, was replaced by David Palmer.

Although their debut was a very competent production – Brown went on to work with Wham, The Cult and a host of others – it didn’t yet possess the magnificence that the group craved. ABC wanted a new producer. After initially trying to contact Alex Sadkin who had recorded the Grace Jones records, the fivesome heard a record that was to change the course of the group and their future record producer’s life. The record was ‘Hand Held In Black And White’ by Dollar, and the producer was ex-Buggles and Yes bass player/singer, Trevor Horn. Horn was not, by this stage, an established producer. “I was sort of bubbling under,” he remembers. “I’d had a big hit with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’, which I had produced, along with Geoffrey Downes, his partner in Buggles). The first thing I did after leaving Yes was Dollar, which went down really well with the NME. It was extraordinary – it never occurred to me that NME and Martin Fry would be interested in it.”

“We thought it was out there, it had a really sophisticated sheen,” Fry recalls. “The fact it was by Dollar was by the by – the way the machines were sequenced gave it this ambitious sound and scope. That’s how we got in contact with Trevor Horn.”*

IT WAS HORN’S WIFE and manager, Jill Sinclair, who alerted her husband to the group. A meeting was arranged between group and producer at a pizza restaurant in London’s Queensway, after the group had played him their songs. “I liked the fact Trevor made them turn the music off in the restaurant, which he called lift music,” Fry laughs. “He thought music should have its own status. He seemed for real. We would talk about William Burroughs and I realised he was genuinely interested in knowing why we were doing it this way. He liked our manifesto.”

He was also delighted with their reading matter.”When I met them, I thought they were absolutely amazing,” Horn laughs. “I used to read odd magazines, and so did they. I had a copy of Wrestling magazine in my bag and pulled it out at the meeting, and they pulled out the magazines they liked and they had some great ones.” But he was more impressed by what he heard and saw. “Not only did ABC have terrific material, but it was perfectly aimed,” he continues. “It knew exactly what its audience was. I had no idea who their audience was, because when they first played it to me, it struck me as disco music. It was like disco, but in a Bob Dylan way. Martin was using it to talk about things that were really important to him, about somebody who’d upset him. Martin and Mark had the material down.”

The group, with Horn on board, set out to do something different immediately. “I would say we had a vision of the future; we were definitely trying to fuse two worlds,” Fry recalls. “It was a fantasy we had. At the time I used to say it was Chic meeting the Sex Pistols. It was in the air – people wanted to make music that was more sophisticated, but still had some attitude. Punk rock taught us that your record had to have an indelible stamp; it had to have your personality right through it. We wanted to create our own world, definitely. We wanted to create a stage play, a movie – that’s why there’s a stage on the cover. We wanted to make The Human League sound like Chicory Tip; we wanted to make Cabaret Voltaire sound like Showaddywaddy. We wanted to be as far apart from our contemporaries as possible. While ‘Stay’ from Bowie’s Station To Station was the blueprint for ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, we’d sort of run out of blueprints by The Lexicon Of Love – we were kind of in our own sea of possibilities.”

It was during these early sessions that Horn assembled around the group the team that were later to form the basis of his label, ZTT. “Early on I brought Anne Dudley in to play the keyboards. They loved them,” Horn recalls. “It was then I knew we were going to get somewhere. I’d had a couple of bad experiences with people like The Jags, who didn’t want me spoiling their guitars. When ABC liked the keyboards, I knew we had something. Anne bloomed. The atmosphere was great, when everyone is working hard and the results are being loved, you get the best.”

When the first fruit of this new partnership, the single, ‘Poison Arrow’/’Theme From ‘Mantrap”, was released in February 1982, with one bound, ABC had grown into something that really hadn’t been heard before. “Their ideas for the arrangement of ‘Poison Arrow’ surprised me,” Horn recalls. “They were the kind of ideas that I had been thinking about, but thought I should be careful of using, like layered keyboards and somebody talking in the song. They had a lot of imagination.”

This imagination coursed into every aspect of their image, from artwork and manifestos to their wardrobe. When Fry modelled a Billy Fury-inspired gold lame suit in the single’s Julien Temple-directed promo, it quickly was to become his pop trademark. While ‘Poison Arrow’ was racing up the charts to reach its No. 6 ceiling, sessions for the album were taking place all over London. The majority were recorded in Sarm East near Brick Lane, as well as at Abbey Road, The Townhouse, RAK and Good Earth. The group moved quickly and to a tight budget. Although one may get the impression from listening to the final product of it being recorded in Montserrat or somewhere equally romantic, the reality of Sarm East – a crowded basement prone to flooding with Tom Watkins-designed walls, gave the place an overall feel of a large urinal; it was cramped and not in the least bit glamorous. Work became the focus. The recording was not without its distractions, however. While filming Baal in 1982, David Bowie dropped in on Tony Visconti at Good Earth studios, when the group were recording ‘The Look Of Love’.

“He hung out,” Fry recalls. “He seemed to really like our stuff and suggested to Trevor that we include a section of unanswered answer machine messages in the middle of the song. In the end, we went with the bit where I rant a little speech about finding true love, which, funnily enough, was heavily influenced by Iggy Pop’s monologue in ‘Turn Blue’, produced by David Bowie; ‘Jesus, this is Iggy…'”

“Trevor would want to reflect on the direction of a track, but he gave us lots of space,” Fry recalls. “Every hour was creative. We were trying different things out. It was a great buzz – everything fell together. We believed we were doing something really important. There was never time to think whether it was commercially viable or not.” The sessions were good-natured and upbeat. “It was just a riot making the album. I’ve made a lot of music since then but there was something in the air when we were making it. It was hilarious. Anne Dudley was prominent on the sessions – she was like a school teacher to us, an incredible talent. Engineer Gary Langan was fantastic too; JJ Jeczalik was out there – when he wasn’t at the sessions, he’d be out recording the ambience under Westminster Bridge expanding Trevor’s library of recorded sounds.”

The final sessions received a boost when ‘The Look Of Love’ trailed the album in May. It was quickly within the Top Five. Complete with lyrical cap-doffs to Bob Dylan and Motown and Trevor Horn’s vocals on the coda, it remains ABC’s most well-known tune. “It was an attempt at call and response,” Fry states. “The nod to Dylan seemed like a cocky thing to do in a pop style. I was cocking a snook, really. We tried to bluff Chic with ‘The Look of Love’, laying down block chords. There is a real dignity in that, that was in Chic’s stuff all the time.”

With every track a rumination on a matter of the heart, The Lexicon Of Love could almost be a concept album in its scope. “The idea of writing a love song was very different to the climate that we were working in,” Fry says. “Most of the other people were writing about electric pylons. We wanted to hark back to Cole Porter and his ilk, but in a very modern way.”The songs were high calibre and crafted by the four members. “‘Date Stamp’ felt right as a duet,” Fry remembers. “People took the song at face value as a yuppie anthem. Living in Sheffield, it was cavaliers and roundheads. Some people believed there was a rosy future on credit and to others, it wasn’t reachable – and of course, it’s about pop music. The irony is I still get to sing that song now, 20 years later.”

“‘4 Ever 2 Gether’ was very prog,” Fry continues. “There’s a bit of James Brown in there, too. The chorus came from graffiti on the wall of the lifts in the flats I used to live in. I always thought it sounded great, full of Dave’s big drums.”

“They were incredibly lucky to find David Palmer up in Sheffield, I can tell you!,” Horn laughs. “He was incredibly important to the album.” The album was, unlike Horn’s later work, not overly saturated in the latest technology. There was a great deal on there, of course, but it was all in good measure. “Trevor had worked with musicians who were intimidated with the machinery. I wanted to hear my voice coming out of a Fairlight. I was excited by that prospect. I think that was liberating for Trevor. He had a vision of how he wanted his sound to be, that’s how he made his records for Buggles.”

So prog, punk and disco all fed into The Lexicon Of Love. It was an artistic success – from the fanfare of ‘Show Me’, one of their earliest songs, re-rubbed and rejuvenated by Brad Lang’s slippery bass to the orchestral coda of ‘The Look Of Love Part IV’. Horn was as satisfied as the band. “Trevor gave me a copy of Close To The Edge by Yes at the end of recording,” Fry laughs. “He felt that the record he made was as good as one of his favourite records.”

If The Human League’s Christmas 1981 album, Dare, had raised the bar for what a contemporary pop album should sound like, ABC topped it. The Lexicon Of Love was released on Monday, 25th June 1982. The album’s title originated from the headline of a live review of ABC in the NME, written by Ian Penman; however, the headline was actually written by the paper’s sub, Andy Gill. With its Gered Mankowitz cover photo, the album looked and felt expensive. Its clever, earnest and gritty core meant that the album was a critical and commercial triumph. It entered the chart at No. 1 and remained on the charts for a remarkable 50 weeks. The album was the fourth biggest seller on the UK charts that year: ahead of Haircut 100’s Pelican West, Avalon by Roxy Music and Dire Straits’ Love Over Gold. Only Complete Madness, Kids From Fame and Barbara Streisand’s Love Songs sold more. You could therefore argue it was the true album of the year, once novelties and compilations had been removed. The album’s centrepiece, ‘All Of My Heart’, gave the group another Top 10 hit in September 1982. Written on guitar, the song, about a doomed love affair, got more romantic as it went along.

“Trevor said he wanted to put strings on,” Fry sighs. “We were sceptical – we didn’t want to go Opportunity Knocks. He reminded us that there were strings on ‘She’s Gone’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, so we did. I later met Robert Plant. He told me it was his and his wife’s song. I thought, now that’s respect,” It’s clear to see that here Horn teased the best out of everyone, from White’s powerchords at the beginning to Singleton’s sensuous sax fadeout. With all the success the group was having, it was decided to take the show on the road: the first time ABC had played live since their club gigs, around a year previously. “The live show was pure Purple Pit from The Nutty Professor,” Fry chuckles. “The backdrop, the music stands, we had it all made for us.”

The tour started in October 1982 and went through to the following March, a total of 80 shows. The band grew from the four-piece to a mighty 11-piece on stage. The shows reached Britain in November, and were rapturously received. The Hammersmith Odeon shows were recorded for inclusion in ABC’s forthcoming film, Mantrap.

“We went to America in December 1982,” Fry recalls. “I remember one sad thing. We got back in the early hours of Christmas Eve. By then, there were four limousines to take the four members to their four destinations. A year earlier we’d all been in our little bus. I thought it was quite significant – I didn’t want to be in Simon and Garfunkel land. I think that’s why success starts to get a bit isolating. It’s the story of rock and roll. People start to think you want things like that.”

The tour ended in Japan in 1983. David Palmer stayed on to record with the Yellow Magic Orchestra and left the group. Fry had, momentarily, had enough. The gold lamé suit, first seen in the Poison Arrow video, was flushed down the toilet at the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo. “I was sick of wearing the gold suit by then,” Fry laments. “It was ABC in aspic. It had become something else. Loos are bigger there, the plumbing is different. I had three of the suits, anyway. It was like a pair of overalls for me.”

There was one final artefact from The Lexicon Of Love era: the 50-minute film, Mantrap, glamorously heralded with the blurb, “File under Espionage Thriller. Follow ABC on a path that leads from obscurity to International Stardom. From London to the heart of the Soviet State. Across the stages of some of Europe’s most famous venues; towards a darker secret.”

The idea originated from an approach to the group by London Weekend Television’s The South Bank Show to make a documentary about four guys in the North making good. “We didn’t appreciate where it was going, and then Polygram pictures got involved and asked us who we would like to direct our film,” Fry recalls. “We loved The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, so we got Julien Temple.”It was, simply put, not very good. But what it lacked in coherent plot and acting talent, it made up for in imagination and, um, vigour. What it give us, is this marvellous live recording of The Lexicon Of Love tour, which was used in the film for the group to mime to.

“I looked at Mantrap on my 40th birthday,” Fry laughs. “We didn’t realise that it would involve acting. We were somewhat alarmed by the results. The acting is so wooden, it’s pure mahogany, but it does seem to add to its charm. Andy Warhol loved it. I put it up there as a camp classic. Warhol was very complimentary about it – he recognised what we were doing. He talked to me about dermatology. I had acne and so did he.”

So within 18 months, the world of cold rehearsal studios and a head full of dreams had been replaced by David Bowie standing in the wings at the Hammersmith show, Stevie Wonder checking out the material and Andy Warhol talking to Martin Fry about dermatological issues. “Warhol and Wonder – east coast and west coast,” laughs Fry.

“It still puzzles me how a group as successful as ABC managed to evaporate,” Fry sighs. “We were very successful. We were Westlife popular. But it was like a car gathering speed and then it just crashed. We’d have made Lexicon Reloaded and Revolutions if we had realised. We should have gone on to do our Dark Side Of The Moon – if anyone could have done it, it would have been us.”

While Trevor Horn went on to be the biggest British producer of his generation, ABC went on to be a fantastic, flawed pop group but with varying degrees of success – they predicted the big rock direction of U2 with Beauty Stab and then got the hell out. Stephen Singleton left. Fry and White invented big beat with How To Be A Zillionaire; Alphabet City found Fry recovering from serious illness and working with Chic’s Bernard Edwards; Up found pills, thrills but few bellyaches and unfortunately, fewer sales. It contains some of Fry’s most affecting material, but the world had simply moved on. White left in 1992 after an expensive move to EMI. Members came and went, until ABC was simply a solo Fry, with crack sessioneers. Looking back, Fry is satisfied.

The Lexicon Of Love is a bit like Mount Rushmore, it’s finished – I really don’t feel the need to chisel another face in. We always felt like outsiders. You had to be an outsider to make The Lexicon Of Love. We weren’t following trends. Other acts have been more successful using the blueprint, well, good luck to them.”

“I’m very fond of The Lexicon Of Love,” Trevor Horn reflects on the album that made his name in production. “I think it’s a lovely record. I’ve never really tired of it. Every couple of years I play it in the car. I always get a kick out of it. I love the lyrics, you see, especially “A pirate station on the radio, a sunken ship with a rich cargo”.

The Lexicon Of Love‘s afterlife winds on. Pop has moved through many revolutions and the vinyl dreams of Lexicon have long been replaced. It was one of the very first CDs on the market, then it was remastered in the first golden age of bonus material and then, third time lucky it was re-rubbed one more time in 1999. Leaving a decent gap of five years, it’s time to elevate The Lexicon Of Love to the status of Universal’s other Deluxe Edition releases by fabled artists and acts such as Marvin Gaye, The Who, Cream and The Velvet Underground. For a generation, it is their Velvet Underground and Nico. This may be the last time. But, with a work of heart like this, you know it will never really be the end. So redevelop product, redesign the package . . .

© Daryl EasleaNeutron/Mercury Records, November 2004

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