Why ABC still have the look of love
Back in the glorious heyday of the New Romantics, he was the man in the gold lamé suit; and ABC’s Martin Fry remains a sharp dresser. “I don’t live in the 1980s because I love what I’m doing now”
It befits a man who has, on several occassions, worn a gold lamé suit, that his current pastime, cycling, should depend on what kind of kit his club is selling. “I’ve always been into looking good,” says ABC’s Martin Fry. “I suppose if I don’t wear nice threads I think I’m invisible.”
That’ll be the day, Mr Martin Fry from Sheffield. He may have a much lower profile than he had 30 years ago, but the album for which ABC and Fry are best remembered is still considered a classic. The Lexicon of Love, released in 1982, is one of the defining albums of 1980s pop. Produced to within an inch of its life by Trevor Horn (“most producers look in terms of limitations,” says Fry. “Horn looked in terms of possibilities”), the album mixed slick, crease-sharp pop music with Fry’s anxiety-ridden lyrics about the illusion of beauty and the improbability of love.
These days, Fry is largely absent from the charts but has a steady following on the 1980s nostalgia circuit (especially in the United States). He is savvy enough to realise that The Lexicon of Love has more or less provided him with a job for life.
“It’s kind when people say that it’s such a good album. It has a lasting appeal and people are still buying it, which is remarkable – and flattering. To stand on stage and think that Poison Arrow, The Look of Love, All of My Heart, and Tears are not Enough still hit the mark . . . I’m the last person to ask regarding the merits of the album, but even from this distance I can say that it’s an original piece of work.
“That said, I think the album unfairly defines us, especially in Europe, but then I’m sure many other people get slightly fed up with just one of their works defining them, so ultimately I don’t have a problem with it.”
Considering ABC’s present status as a nostalgia band (much revered though they may be), is it a bonus or bore to be asked questions about The Lexicon of Love? “Hey – it beats working in a mine. I’ve never been one to go on stage and say I’ve suffered for my art so now it’s your turn, and then play 17-minute B-sides. It’s about entertaining an audience – I wanted ABC to be gloss instead of punk rock’s matt.”
And so they were for a time. The Lexicon of Love was followed in quick succession by Beauty Stab (1983) and How to be a . . . Zillionaire! (1985), but as the years passed the sales declined. ABC’s final album of the 1980s – 1989’s Up – barely scraped into the Top 50. Ten years after The Lexicon of Love, ABC ended up in the XYZzzzzzz racks.
“I’m just a time-traveller now,” admits Fry, “but I don’t live in the 1980s because I love what I’m doing now. That’s the beautiful thing about being on stage – even though I’m performing mostly hits from the days of yore, at the same time it’s about how you do it in that particular moment. Is it nostalgic? Yes, sure, but it’s also about how the audience feel today. The audience isn’t thinking necessarily about the past – I really think they want the show there and then to be good – or great, even. That’s the challenge and that’s why I still enjoy playing live.”
Fry also likes – and is proud of – the original idea behind ABC. “We wanted something that was unapologetically stylised. We also had a manifesto that we wrote down – which was that we wanted to be as different as we possibly could from every other band – not only in Sheffield but everywhere else. We loved Chic, but we also loved Joy Division and The Cure, so we aimed to fuse those two worlds.”
He agrees that it seems as if he and Trevor Horn had strategised The Lexicon of Love from A to Z, but claims it wasn’t really like that. “We definitely had a focus as to what we as a band, and the album, wanted to be like. It wasn’t about following trends, but rather finding our own beat and rhythm.”
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Fry, ambitious Sheffield-based musicians in bands as diverse as Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire and Human League were sitting in greasy-spoon cafés, nursing mugs of tea, eyeing up each other’s girlfriends, lighting each other’s ciggies, and aching for success.
“ABC’s music was veRry different to all of those bands,” asserts the man who shone in the gold lamé suit. “That was the whole point.”