Tearstained Memories: Learning the Lessons of Love from ABC

“Dear Bobby:

I never thought even you would be so cruel. All those times you said you loved me, you said you’d be there for me, you said you understood… I believed in you! I defied my parents to go out with you, turned my back on my friends, who warned me that you were no damn good. Well, they were right, you bastard! No one but a heartless, unfeeling creep would have shown up at Karen’s party with another girl — and a scuzzy bleached blonde, no less. And laughed in my face as she wrapped her arms around you every time they played a slow song.

I won’t forget this, boy-o. And you better not, either. If I were you, I’d be looking over my shoulder for awhile. And tell blondie-what’s-her-face, that goes for her, too. You may not care, but I’ll always remember. “Who broke my heart? You did, you did…”

MARTIN FRY, author of 95% of ABC’s first-person lyrics, would find it the ultimate flattery for a song like ‘Poison Arrow’ to be quoted in hate letters, love letters and other angst-laden missives. The idea of a song like that incisive, painfully sincere tune recalling emotion-choked episodes in listeners’ lives is immensely appealing to him. I tell Fry about the songs I remember from certain beachy summers and frosty winters — that freeze events in time. How, just as I will always associate Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde with a permanently scarring relationship, so will other lovesick souls remember The Lexicon Of Love. It’s just that kind of record: elemental, cutting and heartfelt. Fry and saxophonist Stephen Singleton are pleased that their initial creation might fulfill such purposes.

In fact, says Fry with pride, as the pair settle into a Polydor conference room, the song has been used on Coronation Street, Britain’s long-running soap opera. Perfect! “Cliff was explaining to his daughter the ways of the world and why she shouldn’t have a boyfriend, and in the background came the sound of ‘Poison Arrow’. This, to me, was a crowning achievement. Since then, we’ve had to scramble around for another achievement,” laughs Martin, only half-joking.

“To write a song that will appeal to all sorts of people, different geographically and in the color of their skin, and in the age and financially… to appeal to people universally, that’s the trick.” Just to write songs that can transcend your neighborhood,” adds Singleton. “There are some groups in the U.K. who are maybe the most popular groups in the U.K. because they write songs about very specific subjects going on in England, which outside England don’t mean anything.” (That’s always been the Jam’s problem here, I butt in.)

“Yeah, the idea of a million broken hearts here is quite a responsibility,” Martin deadpans, although he, too, often personalizes songs which affect him — those by the Motown greats, for instance. “‘Just My Imagination’, by the Temptations. When I first heard it, I went, yeah, so I’m not the only person in the world that imagines: you might see a beautiful girl and she just sees right through you. I think songs can strike a chord deep inside your heart or then can be very public. And the same is reflected in where you listen to them; you can listen in public, in a disco, and then at home on the hi-fi.

“It’s the power of music, to recreate your memories. Music stamps the occasion, doesn’t it? You go out to a club and they play one record and you say — summer, 1976 — and go right back to that place. (When you write) you have to look into your own heart and see the sort of things that have affected you.”

That ABC have introduced themselves with a record that prompts discussion of fundamental emotional impact means several good things for this young Northern British quartet. The Lexicon Of Love is extremely danceable, for those whose expressive mode is located on the club floor. It’s an undeniable tearjerker for the heartthrob set — that’s already been proven. And it’s a resounding challenge to other artists who’ve confined their lyrics to commentary. There’s none of this “he said, she said,” on Lexicon Of Love. Instead, the message is clear from the first cut onwards: “Show me that you care.” Fry, Singleton, drummer David Palmer and guitarist Mark White have put then-feelings on the line. Lexicon Of Love is in many ways a concept album. But if Tommy, for example, was a multi-act play, ABC’s vision is an unlocked diary.

“Not all the songs were meant to be that way,” Fry explains. “Or at least the person would change: sometimes be angry, sometimes sad, disillusioned, optimistic, never Johnny Cougar (typical macho bravado is not prominent in ABC’s musical vocabulary). People are scared to show their emotional content. It’s either got to be some kind of rock ‘n’ roll mask, or somebody’s cousin did it — never the first person. And that happens all the time. What ABC involves is commitment, to our own statements. Death or glory, we stand or fall. So we don’t give a damn if people find us ridiculous or sublime. Our integrity comes from ourselves.”

Sheffield, the band’s hometown, is three and a half hours away from London by train, and a world apart. Unlike Manchester or Liverpool, two cities which somehow beam a direct aesthetic line into London, feeding talent in and pulling influences out — Sheffield is tucked behind mountains, and is cut off from that mainstream, culturally as well as physically. Within this admittedly self-absorbed community, ABC decided to structure an alphabet that separated them even from their geographical neighbors, such as the Human League.

“It’s isolationist, to the point where we were isolated from a lot of the other groups that emanated from Sheffield — groups like Cabaret Voltaire, Clock dva and Comsat Angels. Some of those groups exemplify the sort of stupidity we just hated. That whole kind of fake mysticism, fake psychedelia, the whole hippie fear of popularity and what we saw as fear of music. At the time,” remembers Martin, “we could identify with the spirit and the power in a lot of the soul men and women. We used to listen to Chic and Rose Royce and Earth, Wind and Fire. At the same time, we’d come from seeing the Sex Pistols, the Clash and the Subway Sect in 1976.

“But by 1978 and ’79, the whole thing had dissipated, and we formed the group to get out of the galleries and burn up some calories (from him, that doesn’t sound pompous) and make an artistic statement. Just to get out of seeing music like a library, or where you enter music like a gymnasium. We formed ABC,” he says emphatically, “so we could make a powerful, exciting music.”

Unwilling to be a part of the laboratory-like environment which originally defined whatever “scene” existed in Sheffield, ABC had little regard, on the other hand, for comparison with the current crop of dance bands. Only when it was firmly established that I was not trying to torture Martin and Steve by unrelenting comparing ABC to the Human League, did Fry and Singleton begin to relax. Admittedly, Dare was released long before Lexicon; Human League has already played its (barely satisfactory) debut American shows whereas ABC will not have toured here until late 1982, and ‘Don’t You Want Me’, as well as ‘Poison Arrow’ are expressive, urgent singles. As far as ABC is concerned, the differences between themselves and the League — and by extension, all the other electropop units — far outweigh any similarities. To which I would add that ABC, simply by making themselves available for this interview, which the League would not, are the more sincere outfit. And that word is very important to the band’s self-definition.

“Listen,” says Fry, somewhat tight-lipped, “I’d rather you compare us to the Human League than to Air Supply or Asia! Obviously, it’s a pain in the ass when people compare us, and that tired old Union Jack gets waved around in the distance. The ‘English invasion’… don’t make me laugh! Then we get painted in a corner alongside not only the Human League but Soft Cell, and those atrocious nitwits, A Flock Of Seagulls, and second-rate, second-division exiles like Billy Idol and Talk Talk. And I have to get a bit angry,” says Fry without the slightest doubt, “since ABC is something far stronger, at least original. Though I’m sure all of those people I’ve just mentioned would have their own categories.

“I don’t know if it’s apparent over here, but in the U.K., people are scared to say, ‘I want to use an orchestra, a brass section, a male voice choir.’ Music should have no limitations at all.

“But there is a sort of fear of opening yourself up. People want to retain a cool, and it’s not cool to appear that way.”

“I’m talking about c-double o-l,” Singleton interjects. “Kool and the Gang’s a separate issue, really.”

“Steve’s just there to put up a veiled smokescreen over what I’m trying to say,” Fry admits with engaging charm. “I’d like our songs to be larger than life, to be grotesque and glamorous. I suppose it’s a fear of being ignored, but I’d rather be a magnificent failure than just a mediocre success. Mediocrity, to me, means sitting on the fence, never able to draw any strong emotional feelings, be they good or bad. I don’t care if people say we’re bullshit or brilliant,”

The members of ABC speak in a constant stream of oppositions, if their frequent comments here are an accurate clue. Just as The Lexicon Of Love concentrates on ethereal happiness, or unrelieved misery — ignoring the grey areas of indifference — so does the band operate under similar extreme passions. Singleton describes observing an actual New York City gunfight through a taxicab window with a child’s joy at visiting never-never land. The pain was real, the tensions were palpable, the movements were extreme, and hot. The dedication to a sequence, in which someone might not survive, was complete.

“ABC is the most important thing in my life,” says Fry, fervently enmeshed in his great adventure, “and I’m sure it’s true of Dave and Steve and Mark. We kicked one member out, because he wasn’t committed enough. He saw it as a way of earning money, but I see it as a way of earning respect.

“We formed ABC with the solid intention of creating something gloss where everything else seemed to be matte. We wanted to make a record that was widescreen. Something with the kind of impact Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Star Wars have on you. It’s layering sound on sound to the point where it doesn’t sound like four young men with their sleeves rolled up, but greater than those parts. Something superhuman! That’s why I think people should make records, not to drive audiences down to some preconceived realism. How can anything be realistic to everybody?”

Dear Bobby:

I just have to see you, one last time.

© Toby GToby GoldsteinCreem, March 1983

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