ABC’s Martin Fry talks
by Josh Rotter
Not fitting in is something everyone, gay and straight, can relate to, whether it’s being a Cher fan in a room full of heshers, or in ABC vocalist Martin Fry’s case, a Frank Sinatra in a music industry full of Johnny Rottens. But Fry, of Sheffield, England’s most famous New Romantic band, was and continues to be nothing short of singular, both musically and stylistically.
Straddling the fence of two popular genres of the late ’70s, electronic-based disco and hard-core punk, Fry, with his gold-lame suit and Elvis ‘do, sang highly produced, melodramatic songs to an all-too-gray world still obsessed with punk authenticity — and still managed three Top 10 singles hits with “Poison Arrow,” “The Look of Love” and “All of My Heart,” all off 1982′s No. 1 UK LP “The Lexicon of Love.”
Not satisfied with the niche they carved (not found) for themselves, they continued to counter contemporary trends on 1983′s guitar-based “Beauty Stab,” featuring singles “That Was Then But This Is Now” and “S.O.S.,” 1985′s dance and samples-based “How To Be A … Zillionaire!”, featuring U.S. Top 10 hit “Be Near Me,” 1987′s neo-soul LP “Alphabet City,” best known for “When Smokey Sings,” 1989′s house-based “Up” and 1991′s techno-disco LP “Abracadabra.” Bereft of a strong fan base in the Brit-pop era, they split up in 1992. In years since, Fry has released “Skyscraping” (1997), an homage to his musical heroes, David Bowie, Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols, under the ABC moniker.
Subsequently, record companies capitalizing on the ’80s revival issued a series of greatest hits packages including “The Look of Love — The Very Best of ABC” (2001), featuring new songs “Peace and Tranquility” and “Blame,” along with remasters of their original albums to tide fans over. But that was then and this is now. Today, following a 2004 appearance on VH1′s “Bands Reunited,” Martin Fry and original ABC member David Palmer have co-produced a new ABC album called “Traffic,” scheduled for an August release.
Preceding their upcoming spot on the Regeneration Tour alongside Human League, Belinda Carlisle, A Flock of Seagulls and Naked Eyes, Fry spoke with Gay.com about the tour, dressing and singing differently, the gay fans and the very merry nights at Taboo.
OK, so the gay-ties fans want to know what they can expect to see at the Regeneration Tour.
Well on stage, ABC is me. I’m carrying the flag. I think it’s a fascinating thing to carry off, because I’m old, not young. But you learn something as a performer. You perfect what you do. In 2008, if I deliver a lukewarm performance of “Poison Arrow” or a jaded “When Smokey Sings,” the audience will say that’s crap. You have to be committed to performing. On stage, we play “When Smokey Sings,” but love to throw in some new songs.
Gay-iconic band Dead or Alive was supposed to be on the tour, but has been replaced by A Flock of Seagulls. Whether fronting Dead or Alive or on “Celebrity Big Brother,” Burns has always seemed so larger than life. Have you worked with him before?
It was absolutely very memorable with Pete. Pete and ABC were under the same management, so we would run into each other a lot. We’ve done shows together and we’re both pretty theatrical. His legend walks before him. He is outrageous. He’s wild all the time, not like an act. He’s a movie. Somebody should film him, off stage and on stage; it would be great.
What’s it like working with the bands still on the tour?
The Human League is great. I know all the words to “Don’t You Want Me.” Then I realized that a whole new generation knows the words as well. Belinda Carlisle, I’ve done shows with her. Everyone is great. I know this is sounding a bit show-business. Back in the late ’80s, everyone hated each other because there could only be room for one No. 1, but now there is a great deal of respect and friendship for anyone who’s survived. And playing with a whole group of different bands is like joining the circus. But it works well for the audience, because they can head to the bar if they don’t like the band.
One album that’s certainly stood the test of time is “The Lexicon of Love.” Why does it remain a “Best Of” album?
It’s the benchmark of our career. We started in the ’80s, which was a highly flamboyant time, a different age from today, and people like to remember a time that they didn’t have debts, loans and didn’t have to lie about waistlines — the happy innocent time of the ’80s pop world. People enjoy the stupidity and brilliance that came about then. Now it’s an art form, and more defined.
Growing up in the age of punk, you could have followed that path to stardom. Yet you chose to go in an entirely different direction.
When I grew up, I would see bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, etc., and it was a complete statement. I realized I would never form a band like them and copy them, so my generation growing up, guys like Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, we went clubbing, listening to Sister Sledge and Chic, and then came home and listened to Joy Division. We wanted a band to fuse club music and the poetry of the new bands.
And you also time-traveled to the 40s, adding a splash of Sinatra to the cocktail.
It was a bit cosmopolitan with the shiny suits, and we wanted a band that was totally different than the bands of the years before. We wondered what it would be like if Frank Sinatra made a record in the ’80s. Sheffield is a steel town, like Pittsburgh. If you walked into a bar dressed up, you’d get a face beating. But it was like saying “Fuck you” to the city. It was a generational birthright to be flamboyant, totally different, and in-your-face. A lot of it was wish-fulfillment for something that didn’t exist in Sheffield, but only in our imagination. Wearing tuxedos and suits, with a very polished sound, people thought we were crazy. We faced a lot of ridicule, but as Adam Ant said, “Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.”
And your music always had a flair for the dramatic.
You have to remember, the bands wanted to turn music on its head. “The Look of Love” is a modern love song — very ironic. Everyone goes through those experiences. But we wanted to make songs that were un-rock ‘n roll, that went back to the time of Cole Porter. Bono would send me a postcard saying, “Are you sincere?” I was and I wasn’t. “All of My Heart” is a very heartfelt, sincere song about losing someone. People do love emotional songs. If I perform “All of My Heart,” some people still cry. There’s an emotional bond there, and music makes it possible.
Do you think that the drama and theatricality of your music won gay fans over?
A large percentage of our audience is gay, I think, but I can’t make assumptions. It’s a beautiful thing for everyone to come and enjoy. But the core of our success is built on 12-inch mixes, which clearly came out of the whole gay scene. For me, growing up, I was obsessed with Bowie. Only now I look back, and realize what a left-field band ABC were. We were very dramatic and very theatrical. But we still became pop at a time when it was difficult to do that.
Why did the band change musical directions after the incredible success of the first album?
“The Lexicon of Love” sold over a million copies, but then we wanted to walk in a different direction. For “Zillionaire,” we changed the look and sound of the group. Then we wanted to be a cartoon group — we didn’t want to wear anything from shops. Back then, there was Gaultier, John Richmond, “Destroy, Disorder, Disorientate” and Maria Cornejo, and we had been to Taboo. We wanted to look like The Jetsons. Fiona had a dildo belt. We had a guy make fiberglass instruments. We wanted everything to be very extreme. The music was synthetic, like Kraftwerk, almost. Only now I realize the risk, because only now in 2008 are people into different periods of music. But the fans who bought every album respected the artistic idea of changing all the time. As to why? We were contrary bastards. We pushed artistically, and all these years on, the music is still being sold, because of our reputation. So there is a happy ending.
All that fashion and fiberglass looks an awful lot like a night at gay artist Leigh Bowery’s London club Taboo. What was that scene like and how much did ABC take from it?
Years later, Boy George did a musical on Taboo. Leigh’s iconic, but he was a living, breathing thing. He was like Andy Warhol. He was genuinely outrageous, made up all those incredible outfits, and had a band called Minty. Taboo was a gay club, but it was for anybody extreme, anybody hardcore and sympathetic, as not be dictated to. It was an incredible club. I would go down there, and [band member] Mark White would go down a lot. What was incredible is that it was ’83, ’84, a very conservative time on the streets. But in there, anything went — sexually and visually. People were pushing a lot, pushing boundaries even by today’s standards, and the fashion scene was incredible. We took a lot from it. They were incredible people and should be remembered. Leigh’d stand in a taxi stand in one of his outrageous outfits and would go into a chip shop like that. It was a real lifestyle choice. He was saying “I’m here and you can’t change me.” I thought it was very courageous and inspiring. I had a lot of pop success, and no one would bat an eyelid at me at Taboo. I found it liberating.
Speaking of fashion, when I saw ABC recently at San Francisco’s Red Devil Lounge, I noticed that you’ve traded your William Hunt of Savile Row gold-lame suit for a platinum suit. Has ABC’s musical direction changed — once again — on the new album?
We just finished recording a new album called “Traffic,” with songs like “The Very First Time,” “Sixteen Seconds to Choose” and “Ride,” that will be out in August. It came about from nights like the ones at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco, where I realized that audiences want something new. We brought back ABC’s trademark sounds, but it’s funky, cosmopolitan and quite tough — on steroids. It’s not an apologetic, fey kinda record. It’s in your face.
July 24, 2008