The ABC Of Making Hit Records - The Early Years
I’ve said it before, and no doubt will say it again - 1982 remains to this day my favourite year, in terms of the output of popular music released. Doubtless, most people likewise have a favourite year, or era, in popular music history, a period that resonates strongly with them through the increasing haziness of memory, brought on with the passage of time. Of the 200 plus songs that reached the Australian top forty during 1982, I would struggle to name more than 10 or 15 that would prompt me to hit the skip forward button. If I could view 1982’s popular music harvest objectively, I might temper my enthusiasm, but therein lies the charm of the era for me - I simply cannot think of the songs and artists of that time without feeling a sense of warmth and connection. One artist that burst into the public’s consciousness, as well as my own, during 1982, was British band ABC. In the quarter century since the release of their landmark debut album ‘Lexicon Of Love’, the title has assumed the status of being one of the seminal works of the early 80s era. It not only launched the band on a decade long career at, or near, the top of the pop music tree, but also yielded a string of major hit singles, that conquered world charts.
ABC weren’t, strictly speaking, a new romantic outfit, nor could they be neatly pigeon holed within the synth-pop bracket, but they drew heavily from both areas. Their smoothly blended composite of musical styles and influences, combined with the ubiquitous layering of campy, self-conscious theatrics so strongly associated with the new romantic movement, served to forge an engaging identity for ABC, and aided in the band’s eventual rise to become one of the most successful British based pop groups of the 1980s.
During 1979, twenty one year old Sheffield University student Martin Fry was the editor and chief of a British fanzine called ‘Modern Drugs’. As part of the fanzine’s scope of keeping a finger on the pulse of cutting edge popular culture, Fry often interviewed up and coming artists (Sheffield was a hive of activity during that period, with the likes of Human League, and Cabaret Voltaire also on the rise). 1979 also saw Mark White (guitar/synthesizer), and Stephen Singleton (sax/synthesizer), as two thirds of the Sheffield based synth-pop act Vice Versa, along with vocalist Dave Wyndham. In 1979 Vice Versa released their debut mini-LP, the cassette only ‘8 Aspects’, along with the single ‘Stilyagi’, boasting a moody synth-based sound, not unlike contemporaries Human League and Ultravox (see future posts). In January 1980, the trio released the single ‘Music 4’, on their own Neutron label, and Fry had occasion to interview the band for his fanzine. The single tanked, and in the months following, vocalist Dave Wyndham left Vice Versa, leaving White and Singleton in need of a new front man. The whole ‘New Romantic’ phenomenon had just exploded, with Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet suddenly offering a glamorous, high fashion, stylised form of pop group, which banked on attracting an audience tired of punk’s nihilistic posturing, and anger mongering. White and Singleton remembered the charismatic Martin Fry from their earlier interview, and invited him to join Vice Versa. The trio recorded one single, ‘Stilyagi’, released in June 1981, before they changed their name to ABC, and added the rhythm section of Mark Lickley (bass), and David Robinson (drums).
The newly expanded alphabetic enterprise, retained some of the synth-pop sensibilities of the earlier Vice Versa era, but with hints of R&B style pop, and in Martin Fry they now boasted a singer and front man possessing matinee idol looks, matched with polished pop sensibilities, and a silky smooth voice that would propel them to the next level. Fry also gave the band an image makeover, in line with his grandiloquent vision for a modern pop act. Like all associated with the ‘New Romantic’ movement, there was a deliberateness and excessive self-consciousness in everything ABC planned, both musically and image wise. Fry had more than a hint of David Bowie’s ‘Thin White Duke’ about him, both in vocal cadence, and refined, graceful presence, whilst his singing style evoked the romanticism of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry at his emotive best. The original ABC quintet released just one single together, with ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ released again through the band’s Neutron label, distributed via Phonogram. The single hit the British charts in October of ‘81, and reached a very respectable #19 before year’s end. Shortly after, both Lickley (bass), and Robinson (drums) departed, and replacement drummer David Palmer came on board for the recording of ABC’s first album.
Ex-Buggle (see Feb 09 post) Trevor Horn had recently turned his energies fulltime to production, and ABC counted among the first artists to reap the rewards from Horn’s in-studio genius. In fact, Horn’s influence can’t be understated, in terms of aiding a relatively new band to record one of the most polished and lavish sounding records in pop music history. Much of the production team that supported Horn, including Anne Dudley who provided much of the sumptuous orchestration, helped to form the basis of operations for Horn’s soon to be realised ZTT label. Over the course of late 1981/early 1982, ABC and Horn worked in partnership to record ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album, released via Phonogram/Mercury during June of ‘82. The album had been preceded by the dramatic synth-pop opus ‘Poison Arrow’, which was released in Britain during February of ‘82. ‘Poison Arrow’ penetrated the British charts almost immediately, and shot to a high of #6 (the female vocal refrain was by Karen Clayton). The track’s release elsewhere was delayed to coincide with the release of its source album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. As would become synonymous for ABC, the promo video for ‘Poison Arrow’ was tailor made for the new ‘MTV’ generation, and pushed the refined suaveness of Fry and co. to the limit. Australia were struck with a ‘Poison Arrow’ during mid ‘82 (#4), whilst the U.S. were effectively targeted in early ‘83 (#25). The song itself, adhered to a general conceptual theme which ran throughout the album’s lyrics, focussing on heartache and doomed relationships, not much new ground there, but in terms of living up to its title, ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ succinctly defined its own content.
The finely crafted pop-melodrama continued unabated with the follow up single ‘The Look Of Love’, which hit British charts to coincide with the release of ‘The Lexicon Of Love’. ‘The Look Of Love’ was backed by one of the most visually stunning, and engaging music videos of the decade, and expanded on a notion that was hinted at in ‘Poison Arrow’, that ABC, for all its surface pretentiousness, weren’t above planting tongues firmly in cheeks, and having a laugh at themselves. The video in part paid homage to a sequence from Gene Kelly’s star vehicle ‘An American In Paris’. Personally, I’d consider ‘The Look Of Love’ (which lyrically was a mirth tinged exposition of the vagaries of love) to be the centrepiece of ABC’s brilliant ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album. It was a savvy union of new wave posturing with a coating of slick pop polish, and encapsulated Trevor Horn’s measured lavishness of production, Anne Dudley’s sublimely lush orchestrations, Martin Fry’s accomplished and dramatic vocal gymnastics, and the flawless playing of Mark White, Stephen Singleton, and David Palmer. ‘The Look Of Love’ was a near to perfect pop song, and given such, almost underperformed on the charts (UK#4/OZ#7/US#18), though I doubt ABC were complaining about the returns. ‘The Look Of Love’ was actually recorded in four parts, with ‘Part One’, the album version, and the subsequent three parts featuring various instrumental and vocal remixes. A dance remix of the track reached #1 on the U.S. dance charts in December 1982.
By the time ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ hit British stores, in early July 1982, ABC’s popularity had reached fever pitch, and consequently the album debuted at #1 first week in. It held sway at the summit of the British charts for four weeks (OZ#9/US#24/Ca#1), and garnered rave reviews all round from the music press and public alike. There was a minority who saw the set as a being a mite too polished, but I doubt those people would have appreciated much of what the ‘New Romantic’ movement had to offer. ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ basically defined all that was debonair and deliciously kitsch about the whole era, yet through sheer quality, has retained a freshness and crisp vitality far beyond the lifespan of most of its contemporary fare, and more than twenty five years on still rates high on many critics ‘all-time best album’ lists. It also provided the crisp, smooth, densely layered sonic template upon which Trevor Horn built a production empire (and formed the in studio collective, Art Of Noise). It spawned one final major hit, with the dramatic ballad ‘All Of My Heart’ (UK#5/OZ#21), in late ‘82, coupled with yet another high-concept promotional video (they knew how to make ‘em in those days). In fact, ABC were so enamoured with the visual medium, that in partnership with director Julien Temple, they released a full length conceptual video (approx. 55 minutes), ‘Mantrap’, showcasing songs from ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, pieced together around an espionage/thriller style plot. The film also featured a favourite among ABC fans, ‘Theme From Mantrap’, originally released as the B-side to ‘Poison Arrow’.
ABC hit the road in earnest over the latter part of ‘82, and into ‘83, during which time session drummer Andy Newmark replaced David Palmer, who himself went on to become somewhat of a drumming journeyman, initially joining Yellow Magic Orchestra after ABC’s tour of Japan, and later going on to tour extensively with Rod Stewart.
Having enjoyed such a mammoth success, critically and commercially, with ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album, ABC promptly abandoned the formula, and consciously opted for a rawer, grittier, rock infused feel for their sophomore effort, ‘Beauty Stab’, released in November of ‘83. It was a radical departure from the ultra-stylised lavishness of its predecessor, a hard-edged realist antidote for the sumptuousness of ‘Lexicon’, and as a consequence alienated some critics and fans alike, who had waited with salivating anticipation for ‘The Lexicon Of Love - MkII’. The lead out single, ‘That Was Then But This Is Now’, preceded the album’s British release by a month, and peaked at #18 in the U.K. late in ‘83 (US#89/OZ#63) - the title could be read as a conscious declaration by the band to move on to a new chapter, not to mention the cover art featuring an electric guitar (a none too subtle clue that the synthesizer was going to take more of a back seat overall). Next to ‘The Look Of Love’, I’d rate ‘That Was Then But This Is Now’ as ABC’s finest moment on record. I purchased the vinyl 45, after seeing the very cinematic promo clip (which featured ABC sans the designer suits), and the record got a relentless workout on my newly acquired turntable. It was edgy, synth-rock at its best, and simply begged to be played loud, particularly the surging mix of thumping drums, searing guitar licks, and ‘Star Wars’ laser style synth-bullets, during the tracks’ crescendo like finale. Trevor Horn had already committed to his next project with Yes, so Gary Langan co-produced the album with ABC (Langan had engineered ‘Lexicon’). The Roxy Music rhythm section of Andy Newmark and Alan Spenner, augmented the remaining core trio of Fry, White and Singleton, but though ‘Beauty Stab’ surges with raw energy in places, the line-up couldn‘t (or wouldn’t) recapture the pop brilliance that critics and fans expected. The follow up single, the laid back R&B tinged ‘S.O.S.’ (UK#39), failed to attract much of a response to its cry for attention, and though ‘Beauty Stab’ managed to pierce the U.K. top twenty (#12), it was a relative flop elsewhere (OZ#58/US#69). But what the album did achieve, was to mark ABC as more than one dimensional, embracing of growth, and innovation (what they might refer to as their doctrine of change), and it was those traits that would prove crucial to the group’s longevity.
Shortly after the release of ‘Beauty Stab’, original member Stephen Singleton opted to leave the band (joining the growing queue of saxophone players without a home - that queue reached near epidemic proportions post the 80s). David Yarrith, and Eden (AKA Fiona Russell), were recruited during 1984 to provide aesthetic support for the remaining duo of Martin Fry and Mark White (perhaps they wanted to retain the group dynamic, at least for photo shoots and promo videos).