Arch enemies united in song; Emma Johnson talks to ABC front man Martin Fry about the pop pairing that was unimaginable in the 1980s.



Byline: Emma Johnson


WHEN Robbie Williams was on the hunt for an opening act for his mammoth 2001 stadium tour he didn't bother with wannabes or budding boybands.


Instead the entertainer turned to a showman of yesteryear he knew could deliver - Martin Fry the flamboyant front man of 80s pop purveyors ABC.


It was inspired casting. Fry of the blond flick and gold lame suit must have cut quite a formidable figure, more than a match for young Robbie and his Freddie Mercury-esque posturing.


So what if the screaming fans would not even have been born when ABC was riding high in the charts with such pieces of shameless pop music as Poison Arrow and The Look of Love?


The audiences lapped up Martin's energy and charisma and a star was re-born. ``Robbie could have had dogs playing football for his opening act but he chose us, '' Martin said at the time. ``It was great playing to this audience who did not know us but who were so receptive. ''


The Robbie gigs were the biggest concerts ABC had ever done and a fitting way to celebrate the group's 20 years in the music industry albeit Martin is now the only original member.


Formed in 1981 ABC's earliest incarnation featured Manchester-born Martin and guitarist Mark White and saxophonist Stephen Singleton along with Mark Lickley on bass and drummer David Palmer.


While the group's first track that year Tears Are Not Enough which just made the Top 20 hardly set the music world alight by the time 1982 had breathed its last the group had become one of the UK's most successful pop acts.


Three top 10 singles back to back - the forceful Poison Arrow, the moving All of My Heart and national treasure The Look of Love cemented ABC's reputation for crafting catchy, poignant lyrics and bouncy tunes.


The group's debut album The Lexicon of Love produced by master studio man Trevor Horn reached number one and made the US Top 30.


Sadly such high-flying success would be fleeting for ABC, no follow-up release created the same buzz and in 1986 when Martin was forced to take time out of music after being diagnosed with Hodgkins' Disease observers expected the group to take to the sidelines permanently.


The rough patch was interrupted in 1987 when the classic When Smokey Sings went top five but by the mid-1990s ABC's heyday had passed.


With various line-ups Martin continued to release tracks as ABC then the nostalgia bandwagon came beating down the group's door in the late 1990s. Suddenly the 80s were fashionable again and everyone from The Human League to Howard Jones was back on tour.


Martin, who had been writing and releasing music throughout the intervening period admits he hesitated at first about getting involved - having once said: ``I respect the past I don't live there. ''


``I was apprehensive originally, '' he says. ``Then I was in LA around that time and I remember hearing Tainted Love played on the radio and I thought - there is definitely something going on here people. ''


Soon ABC was hitting the road as part of a huge stadium tour alongside other '80s greats The Human League and Culture Club. Sharing the limelight with his former chart rivals took Martin some getting used to.


``Everybody hated each other in the 80s, '' says Martin, now 46. ``We were saying to each other this would never have happened back then. We would never have dreamed that we would even be speaking to each other never mind touring together. ''


The three bands played sellout gigs to 100, 000+ size audiences filled with old devotees and brand new fans drawn by the 80s revival.


``The 80s is massive right now, '' says Martin of the phenomenon, ``Why does everyone know the words to Don't You Want Me Baby? And there's that Stevie Winwood track. ''


Martin is referring to Valerie Winwood's 1982 anthem which, courtesy of a little remixing by dance music DJ Eric Prydz (and a new title Call on Me), became one of the biggest-selling records of 2004.


The song is just one of dozens to have been pillaged from the era by dance music producers lately although ABC's back catalogue to date remains untouched.


``I was asked about five or six years ago to go out to Ibiza and look at the dance scene there, '' says Martin. ``But I'm just not into the whole club scene.


I have been tempted (to have songs remixed) but it's nicer to me to be getting up on stage and re-creating tracks there. And I'm interested in releasing new stuff. ''


Martin will of course be re-creating the ``old stuff'' next month when he sets off on a huge UK tour with Tony Hadley.


``We were arch rivals you know, '' he laughs at the irony of the pairing.


``Really, '' he insists, ``Tony Hadley was my nemesis - Spandau Ballet were the Arsenal to my Man United. ''


The competition persists but these days Martin, who actually duets on some numbers with Tony in the shows, says it is all good-natured.


``We try to out-sing each other. When Tony sings True I'm there thinking I've got to beat that and I throw down Poison Arrow. ''


Anyone planning to take in the Liverpool leg of the pair's tour can expect plenty of the famous Fry flamboyance but Martin is keeping fans guessing as to whether that infamous gold lame suit will get another outing.


``I don't know if it is going to come out on this tour or not - I have had that suit for quite a few years now, '' he teases. ``I think I am going to go for something along a three amigos theme this time.


``No, the gold suit will probably have to come out. Whenever I get it out of the suitcase I can see Tony gets a bit tetchy!''


p MARTIN FRY vs Tony Hadley at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, February 27