Superstar Martin Fry takes a chair and recites his ABC’s for 99x’s Retro Beach.
“We changed the name of the band because we wanted our records to be at the front of the sales crate.” Pausing with a hiss as he sucked in the heavy air from his home in London, “But we forgot about ABBA,” joked Martin Fry, pristine front man of the Eighties most dramaturgic pop act, ABC. Whereas ABBA’s lifespan barely reached 10 years, ABC has made an unprecedented duration of nearly 30 years. Although the band’s chart success faded out years ago, Martin Fry is a revelation – an ageless performer who towers over whatever stage he owns (Fry measures at a lofty 6’3” in height) belting Vegas glitter pop in debonair suits designed by Savile Row. In the studio, Martin Fry has crafted some of the most eloquent, sophisticated pop recordings ever made including the dramatic Lexicon of Love (Mercury, 1982), considered by many critics on both sides of the Atlantic as one of the greatest albums of all-time. Last summer, Martin Fry and ABC joined the Human League, Belinda Carlisle and other new wave icons in the inauguration of America’s first retro-‘80s concert event, the Regeneration Tour, including an unforgettable evening at Chastain Park last August that Martin remembers as being “the highlight of the tour”. Back by popular demand, these British new romantics are back from the shores of Sheffield, England and returning to the States to headline another Regeneration Tour starting June 17th (Boston) that concludes right back here in Atlanta at Chastain Park (July 15).
With only one week until U.S. Customs stamp their visas, ABC’s Martin Fry took time out from his demanding schedule to share his thoughts with Atlanta on the upcoming tour, the multiple incarnations of the band over the years, and an opinionated overview of every ABC album he’s recorded.
After a rocky start, Eighties veterans Go West, Men Without Hats and Heaven 17 all canceled their appearances on the Regeneration Tour weeks ago. Was there ever a cloud hanging over your decision to move forward and challenge the economic recession in America and tour this summer?
Absolutely there were no doubts here. Last year was an honor to stand before thousands and play “When Smokey Sings” and “Poison Arrow”. The invitation alone is an honor – a real privilege, to play in America. Whether we’re at the Hollywood Bowl or a tiny bar with broken bulbs overhead in Charlottesville, come Hell or high water, we’ll perform at our best. Those bands that declined to join us this year are going to miss out on one great adventure.
Who would you, Martin Fry, like to see on a future Regeneration Tour?
We all have our wish lists, don’t we? I’d like to see Tears for Fears, the Thompson Twins and Scritti Politti on the bill one year. I’m willing to help pave the way for these guys for a future Regeneration Tour.
Can touring in America-Summer 2009 be profitable for a tenured artist like ABC?
(Laughing) Financially, it can be an enterprise risk. I’ll tell you this; sometimes I think I’m overpaid while other times I’m performing for charities or less than our market value. In 2009, the reality is this: it is good to be offered any work at all. You can’t buy that feeling of significance. Am I going to get rich by doing this tour? (Laughing) I doubt it. But, at the same time, to play and connect with the audience you’ve grown with in the U.S. is priceless.
How well do you know your Regeneration Tour mates Berlin, Wang Chung and the Cutting Crew?
In 1986, Mark White (ABC, multi-instrumentalist 1979-1992) and I were invited to see the director’s rough cut version of Top Gun. They were looking to offer a few British bands soundtrack opportunities. Mark and I weren’t impressed with the film and chose not to contribute any music to it. Berlin had a better eye at this than we did. They saw the potential and well, they scored their biggest international hit thanks to that film. I salute them for that decision!
Wang Chung were recently in queue at the American Embassy in London awaiting their travel visas and passports. I love the darker side of Wang Chung like their record “To Live and Die in LA”. I met these guys just recently and trust me; our bands are going to bring humor to the stage!
The Cutting Crew, we’re most familiar with. We’ve been playing on many of the same bills for about 3 years now. They have a strong rapport with U.S. audiences and are well respected on stage.
What can we expect from the ABC catalog of music on the Regeneration Tour this year?
I’d like to open the show with a cover of the Who’s “My Generation” but change the lyrics to the theme of the tour. We’re going to work on that during the sound-checks. From Traffic (the latest ABC release), we’re adding “Love is Strong” and in some places, the Lexicon album cut favorite “4 Ever 2 Gether”. We aren’t committed to a set play-list on this tour as it may change from night to night, depending on the time. This year, we’re joined by extraordinary saxophonist Rob Hughes. He will add a dose of Roxy Music to the ABC watermark.
Will original member David Palmer (ABC, drummer 1981-1983) join you on stage for any dates as he has in the past?
David played with us at the recent Royal Albert Hall orchestra show in London last April. He has a day job playing with Rod Stewart and barely does he break away from Maggie Mae! I hope he can make it to at least one show. After all of these years, he and I are still great friends.
ABC have embarked on 3 U.S. tours since 2005 with this year’s Regeneration Tour marking it your 4th. This is an exceptional amount of performances compared to the only singular tour ABC did in America supporting the Lexicon of Love in 1983. With 7 ABC albums between 1983 and 2009, why is now the time to establish ABC as a great live act for American audiences?
We started playing in Europe several years ago after a lengthy hiatus from performing as well as recording, tuning up for the opportunity to play in the U.S. again. We were invited to play at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006, something we never thought possible. There were 15,000 babysitters working overtime that night! I’m not sure if we would have reached that point even with the Lexicon tour in ’83. The years have been good to us.
Would you ever want to take off the retro jacket and play to younger audiences in support of a contemporary artist like Cut//Copy, Empire of the Sun, or Little Boots?
We were framed and hung in the 1980s. Understandable as that’s where we started. But the reality is this: how good are you in 2009? 2010? The past is an imagined place; you can’t live there. It is phenomenal playing on the same bill with bands like the Human League. Yet sometimes, we play festivals with fresh, younger bands and it’s a thrill to reach their audience and observe their reactions to us. They have no presumptions. ABC supported Take That’s Robbie Williams, England’s biggest pop star that summer. We played to over 80,000 people each night, absolutely exponentially larger amounts of people than we did in the Eighties. Playing with today’s popular artists allows you to test the songs that you’ve recently recorded or written in the past 12 months. The retro shows aren’t so experimental! I have affection for Eighties, but I also have affection for last March, you know what I mean?
ABC had many incarnations over the past 30 years yet you’ve always secured the trademark sound and campy image that is ABC. What are your thoughts on the various versions in hindsight?
I don’t shed a tear for any particular version really. Each chapter is unique. It has been a cast of thousands, hasn’t it?
It would be really special to run into David Yarritu (ABC, visual addition, 1984-1986) on this tour. I worked with Gary Langan (ABC producer, 1981-1983, 2008) on Traffic and played with him at the Royal Albert Hall event a few weeks back along with Trevor Horn (Lexicon of Love) and Anne Dudley. It was a great reunion, being on stage with them with the London Orchestra of all places. As for Stephen Singleton (ABC, saxophonist 1979-1983) and Mark White, it’s been a long time since they were in ABC. It would be interesting to work with these guys again on down the line, but I don’t know if we’d create that magic that was there back in the ‘80s. Is that healthy to manufacture a reincarnation? As you age, you mellow. Look at Spandau Ballet; they’re reuniting in their original form and they said it would never happen.
Now that you have found true love, which of your records is your wife’s favorite?
She never admitted to liking any of them! She’s always a critic and not necessarily a fan.
A To Z
Martin Fry examines the ABC catalog one album at a time:
Lexicon of Love (1982, Mercury): An orchestrated, polished neurotic affair of hysteria behind a red curtain. It’s the Yin & Yang of ABC.
Beauty Stab (1983, Mercury): An abrasive protest wrapped in anger and shrilled emotions.
How to be a Zillionaire! (1985, Mercury): A highly entertaining, irreverent coaster ride into outer space controlled by surreal cartoon characters on a quest to make guerilla pop. We built a machine! (Note: “The record label hated it. When we stopped in to the office to meet with executives, they’d drawn distasteful mustaches on our faces featured on a promo poster hanging in the foyer. Ironically, the Americans embraced it and it was a big seller. Go figure?”)
Alphabet City (1987, Mercury): It wears the cuff-lengths of our career. It’s quite suave, like a midnight, seductive beam of moonlight.
Up (1989, Mercury): A weekend party rave to close the ‘80s. This was our swan dance to end the great decade.
Abracadabra (1991, MCA): A hybrid of different genres, it’s idealistic really. You can hear the civil war internally as our lucrative opportunity to make the album of our career slithered through our hands. We perfected the music and atmosphere that became the record, yet the process was indirectly intense.
Skyscraping (1997, Blatant, import-only): The jigsaw puzzle that challenged me to re-enter the ring after a long period of absence.
Traffic (2008, Borough Music): The joints are lubed and the muscles are flexed. There are nostalgic elements of déjà vu all over it, similar to Forrest Gump’s stories from the park bench. It stands firm and proud, despite the odds.
(Martin Fry, June 2009)