Martin Fry: When Martin Sings…

“IT WAS GREAT doing interviews when I first started, cos I’d just tell everyone what a brilliant, worldwide phenomenon ABC were going to be as I was signing on in Sheffield. But as the years roll by, the biography gets longer and longer, so – ask me whatever you want.”

Thing is, I don’t get a chance. Martin Fry, 43 going on 23, rattles away at such a breathless pace, leaping from topic to topic, year to year, Duran Duran to Daft Punk, Cabaret Voltaire to Dr Dre, that I can’t break into the monologues. If, by bluntly shouting, I do get half a question in, he blithely ignores it and carries on free associating, giving us, as he puts it, “the gospel according to Fry”.

We’re in the kitchen of his Kilburn house, sun streaming in from the garden, and as he’s such a zealous, cheerful student of pop’s meanings and meaninglessnesses, he makes the interviewer’s job as easy as pie. Back this morning from Glasgow, having played to 50,000 people as Robbie Williams’ opening act, and off to his place in France for a holiday tomorrow, Martin Fry is hardly a candidate for the where-are-they-now file. An ABC Best Of recently dovetailed with the Robbie tour, and a new single, ‘Peace And Tranquillity’, is just out (album planned). “I’m writing about where I’m at now, cos I’m interested in that again.” So should we be.

As the Eighties pop world dawned, dressy synth bands like Soft Cell, The Human League and many cruelly-forgotten New Romantics were demonstrating that punkish attitude and dance rhythms weren’t mutually exclusive. You could be a fan of both The Sex Pistols and Chic, of Iggy and Sly Stone – suddenly, it was allowed. This played into the eager hands of Martin Fry, born near Stockport, then studying English (what else?) at Sheffield University.

For his fanzine, he interviewed local band Vice Versa. Soon, he was their singer. He would yell out “Democratic dance beat!” Repeatedly. By late ’81 they’d called themselves ABC, decided they were “starring in our own movie”, and had a hit with ‘Tears Are Not Enough’. Linking up with Trevor Horn, they forged ahead with such sheeny unforgettables as ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘The Look Of Love’ and ‘All Of My Heart’, squatting in the charts’ penthouse suites. Debut album The Lexicon Of Love – Number One for a month in the summer of ’82 – is one of the few records of that era to have grown in stature since. When you bemoan the dearth of wit, vitality and pizzazz in present pop, you point to ABC to prove it can be done.

“The instant success was terrifying. We knew we’d stumbled across something – a vision of the pop future. One minute John Peel was phoning up to tell us he was playing our single, the next we were on TV. There was never enough time to enjoy every aspect – we were caning it in the UK, then we were off to Studio 54 and meeting Andy Warhol and hustling out there. When you’re working class and from the north of England, you understand Catholic guilt even if you’re not a Catholic, and going from the bean factory to the band exploding was, well, it was what I think all success should be – insane. The food’s good, though. To this day if I meet someone I’ll go, ‘Hello, I’m Martin,’ and often they’ll smile and go, ‘Yeah, I know that.’ So I think: wow, if nothing else, I’ve thrown a shape!”

Fry doesn’t regret that ABC were too radical for the role we assigned them. They followed The Lexicon Of Love with the abrasive, rocky Beauty Stab (1983) and the techno-taut How To Be A Zillionaire! (1985), confusing critics, confounding fans. “We always get it wrong and yet so right in our funny way. It’s said that we got it right with Lexicon but got it wrong by not releasing four more of those babies. But you’re searching for freedom, to break out of yourself. Twenty years on, those songs are still in people’s field of vision. People tell me they got married to ‘The Look Of Love’, got divorced to ‘When Smokey Sings’, took their first E to ‘One Better World’. It’s joyous!”

What grabbed ABC fans in that first flush was the alignment of slick foot-stomping floor-fillers with wry, quotable, romantic, soundbite-style lyrics, recently roasted by Ian MacDonald in Uncut for being not “meant”. “How does anyone know whether anyone means anything?” chuckles Fry, more than affably. “I don’t have to slash ‘4 Real’ on my arm. We work in a different way, against the grain, often just taking the piss, playfully. ‘The Look Of Love’ simultaneously wound up Dylan fans and was genuinely about the moment you get your teeth kicked in by somebody you love fucking off. You feel like shit but you have to search for some sort of meaning in your life.

“You have to remember this was pre-rap. I loved Grandmaster Flash cos Melle Mel was saying something. I’d loved Luther Vandross but when Young Americans came along a lot of us soul boys loved the fact that there was something there to listen to lyrically. Then again, much good music just works as a sound, on a different level, stating the obvious. So we were into The Subway Sect and The Temptations, wanted to redefine the boundaries. And to redefine how much success you could get. And then grab some more.”

There must, then, be some chagrin that Beauty Stab was too jagged for the masses?
“A lot of people bought it, actually, but not comparable numbers, sure. We’d had enough of Lexicon by then, that movie was over. We stripped things down because coming back to Sheffield after touring the world, it looked desolate, hard – ’83, ’84, there was no work around and a lot of nasty drugs were killing kids. This was pre-Smiley [acid house]. We wanted it to be raw, to deconstruct it, write protest songs. But we were already typecast. That’s how it is if you’re a commercial artist in any field.”

ABC bounced back with the Zillionaire! LP (“as synthetic and un-rock’n’roll a record as possible, inspired by Shannon and Cheryl Lynn – America got it, it’s the biggest seller we’ve had worldwide, predominantly in what they call ‘black urban’ areas, so that was a triumph”), and enjoyed further chart success on both sides of the Atlantic with Alphabet City (1987) and ‘When Smokey Sings’.

Later records like Up (1989) and Abracadabra (1991) probed house and techno. “We aimed to get things out of time, out of tune: like Lydon doing PiL, Marvin doing ‘What’s Going On’. It was an accelerated career, with things changing week by week. That’s what I thought you should be in a group for, really. You should be out there.”

Drawing breath between analysing Mercury Rev and Goldfrapp, Dexys and Bowie, Martin remembers that half an hour ago I asked him what he’s been doing in recent, low-profile years. “Going to IKEA, having kids, things like that. I’d never done it, really; from age 20 I was obsessed with ABC. But the new stuff will be confident, that’s the thing. Wanna hear a track?”

I do. It’s smoother than a marble baby’s bottom.

“See, I’ll do the New Romantic story and that, I’ll be ‘Eighties geezer’, sure, but it’s not purely what I’m about. I may be associated with nostalgia, but whereas a lot of my contemporaries are afraid of the present, I love it. Nobody else can do Martin Fry, can they? I’m like Harvey Keitel. Who else do they go to for Harvey? Nobody. He’s unique, man. It’s like that with me. Stick me in the movie; I’m there.”


© Chris RobertsUncut, November 2001

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