With their flamboyant visual sense and lush romantic blend of polished post punk pop music, the band ABC emerged in the 1980's with a string of well-crafted albums that rose high above most of the music of that decade. Singles such as "Poison Arrow," "The Look of Love," "Vanity Kills," "Be Near Me," and "When Smokey Sings" (among many others), combined intelligently poignant lyrics with solid rhythmic and melodic arrangements.
Led by so hip it hurts lead singer Martin Fry, ABC continues to this day to record and release stellar and soulful pop music, which shimmers with the best elements of the 1980s while still sounding contemporary, and the band has recently received an upswing of well-deserved attention. Fry toured with Robbie Williams in 2003, while 2004 brought the release of the remastered and extended version of their first breakthrough album - The Lexicon of Love. A DVD was also released in 2004 titled "Made in Sheffield" - which featured many of the bands from the 80's that emerged from that northern British town - such as The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17 and of course ABC. 2005 saw Fry and ABC touring as a double bill with former Spandau Ballet frontman Tony Hadley, as well as the release of the 30 track The Look of Love - The Very Best of ABC. Finally Universal Music has just released remastered versions of beloved albums Beauty Stab, How to Be a Zillionaire, Alphabet City and Up - all including bonus tracks and rarities that should delight any fan of the band.
Livewire's Brad Walseth caught up with Martin in the midst of a lengthy tour of the US, Belgium and the UK to discuss where he and ABC are at these days and to address rumors of an impending release of a new ABC album.
LIVEWIRE: You certainly seem to be riding high these days - are you experiencing flashes of Satori?
FRY: Yes the beloved back catalogue is back! Yeah I am riding high, it's been a great ride. I mean sometimes I think - it's 2006 and I almost feel guilty having so much fun on stage performing "The Look of Love," and "Poison Arrow," "When Smokey Sings" and "Be Near Me", but now I'm kind of guilt free really - I think I've earned my place up there. The band has never been stronger and it's a real boost getting out and performing - getting up close and personal with an audience. There's a real roar of enthusiasm with the shows and you know it's just a buzz.
LIVEWIRE: Well, your music has always been so finely and beautifully written and produced that although it hearkens to the 80's it exits outside of that narrow label and is just simply great pop music.
FRY: Well the songs have served us well. It's been interesting to see in recent years a whole slew of bands come through like The Killers and Scissor Sisters that are influenced from similar sources. Even Gnarls Barkley - it's just great music around. So it feels good to be out there writing and performing. It's very different from when you first begin - they treat you differently... For a while you become part of the scenery, but if you go through that a couple of years go by and people really do revere and respect that you still got the stamina and the survival instincts to be able to perform. One day I want to climb up onto that James Brown level of performing, or the Neil Young or the David Bowie - those guys are out there - they're a different generation to me and they're doing it - so they're an inspiration in that respect.
FRY: But it is good when the old records get reissued because they definitely shift into focus again. That is rewarding and people do go out and buy The Lexicon of Love - somewhere in the world somebody's buying it. I guess in a funny sort of way we never sold as many records as some of our contemporaries. My contemporaries were people like Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince and Chili Peppers and Duran Duran and people like that. So in a way we are trickling along nicely. So you see it's just a great, great feeling to know people are still interested in what we're doing.
LIVEWIRE: Judging from your sophisticated sense of melodicism your parents must have played Sinatra records to you while you were in your cradle.
FRY: Well yeah, he (Fry's father) did sing a bit of Sinatra in the bath - I mean he wasn't a musician, but when we made The Lexicon of Love we were thinking what would Sinatra sound like if he were making a record in the early 80's with a Fairlight machine. I mean Swing was kind of contemporary dance music of its time, wasn't it? Sinatra was pretty astute - he used the best songwriters around, he used all the resources, he covered every song from the era basically. There was a wit and humor in a lot of the writing and in Sinatra's delivery - so the humor is kind of something I always enjoyed in those records and something I would like to continue with.
LIVEWIRE: Did you grow up listening to Ol' Blue Eyes?
FRY: All sorts of stuff really. First record I bought was Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. That, Sinatra, I don't know, all sorts of stuff. Bowie, Roxy, stuff like that. Later - The Sex Pistols and The Clash. I've always liked stuff that sounded like it was from another planet - you know when you first hear something you sort of feel strange - then it becomes part of the musical scene and influences other people.
LIVEWIRE: How did you get turned on to American soul & Motown?
FRY: When I was about 13 I used to go out to clubs and lie about my age - I used to pretend I was 14 - and they would always play Motown and Stax and Atlantic and Sly Stone. It was kind of pre-disco I suppose. There is a tradition in the north of England to play soul music. So that's where I heard a lot of that music - it wasn't on television or anything - and from that I got interested in buying records.
LIVEWIRE: This was in Sheffield, right?
FRY: Manchester, which is near Sheffield.
LIVEWIRE: You grew up in Manchester?
FRY: Yes, Manchester.
LIVEWIRE: That's interesting - what led you to go the high tech route when so many of the bands from Manchester went the Sex Pistol direction with a low tech sound?
FRY: Ah yes well The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks and The Clash they all played there and they were brilliant, but I was growing up in the next generation and I realized that there was no way I was going to form a punk band that was going to be better than The Sex Pistols. I was listening to music by Kraftwerk and we were buying synthesizers and that was how we developed our music alongside Depeche Mode and Soft Cell and people like that - and The Human League - who doing sort of the same thing. And then we kind of wanted it to have a funkier edge to it. We were listening to Chic and Sister Sledge and Earth Wind and Fire and were trying to make records that had the same momentum and swing as that. So that's really very much how ABC formed.
LIVEWIRE: To go back to the origins of the band. If I were a fly on the wall what would I have seen and heard the first time you met up with (Stephen) Singleton and (Mark) White (cofounders - no longer with the band)?
FRY: Ummm... probably a long argument about what's called a band. Yeah we went and played some dates in Amsterdam - there's a guy called Mike Pickering who later formed a band called M People - he DJ'd out there and he set some shows up for us - and we went to this party and just started jamming and that's how our early sound developed. We did a show there and then this guy said we could play at his party and we played for about 7 hours - just throwing ideas around in the studio in Rotterdam, and a lot of our ideas came out of that session really. We were very obsessed with fusing the world of disco with the world of Joy Division and The Cure - the contemporary rock sounds we were listening to.
LIVEWIRE: I understand you were writing a fanzine at the time - one with a bit of an unusual name?
FRY: Well it was called "Modern Drugs," but it was just about anything that would stimulate me - about how music would make you feel better, or worse, and looking back - it was really a way for me to get into gigs free - because I could turn up and say I want to interview the band - which is what all journalists get into journalism for - free food and wine...
LIVEWIRE: (nervous laughter)
FRY: ...and to impress girls. But I went to interview this band called Vice Versa and they let me be in their band I suppose - they said - "why don't you come join us?" and that's the early days of ABC.
LIVEWIRE: Well, you've done a lot of innovation through the years. The visuals, the videos... but one thing I've always thought was completely fascinating was the experiment you tried when you had David Yarritu and Fiona Russell Powell (aka Eden) - two people who couldn't play or sing, but were hired for their unique appearance, join the band.
FRY: Yeah, yeah - and some experiments fail. They were only in the band for about 20 minutes but we did do the cartoon video for "How to Be a Millionaire," and couple other clips.
LIVEWIRE: What was the mindset behind that time?
FRY: I don't know. We just wanted to walk in a completely opposite direction from what people expected of us. So we wanted to make the record (How to Be a Zillionaire) that was completely synthetic and machine made. We spent a long time developing the sounds, and then after we made the record we decided we wanted to be in something like a circus or a Fellini movie, so... Mark White said at the time - David Yarritu came to see him and he's tiny - so he'll make me look even taller than I really am. So we went off from there - we wanted it to be like cartoon characters and it was just kind of insane. But funny enough, the record company in Britain hated it - they really hated it - they were very shocked and wanted me to go and make Lexicon of Love - Part Six - but fortunately, like the cavalry coming over the hill, it was our biggest selling record in America. "Be Near Me" and "How to Be a Millionaire" were big hits off that record.
Now since then, there's been a lot of guys in hip -hop and R&B who really love that record - they use it and sample it a lot. We spent a long time experimenting with drum sounds - chaining up different beat boxes - making stuff sound different. Different sampling machines - before you could do that really. We really had to experiment to get the sounds and there are a lot of guys in trip -hop and electronica today who are very flattering about that record.
LIVEWIRE: You were always at the forefront of the electronics, but ABC were innovators in other areas as well. You were among the first bands on CD, and among the first to have really great videos.
FRY: Actually we used to cut up our videos and do 12 minute, 18 minute versions of the songs off the videos - and then they'd run those in the clubs back then - kind of as MTV was first coming through. It was an interesting time.
LIVEWIRE: It seems to me that "Poison Arrow" was one of the first really professionally done great videos.
FRY: Well we did that with Julian Temple who did "The Great Rock and Roll Swindle."
LIVEWIRE: And it seems to me that "Be Near Me" - another great video - came at the height of the video era and almost signaled the downswing to the end of the age video which just seemed to come and go so fast. What are your thoughts on why video didn't last as an important popular art form?
FRY: Well I once went for a meal with the people from MTV and there were only four people there. It was in its infancy - a couple of talking heads, some clips: Devo, a Rod Stewart one, or Duran Duran - and they'd play ABC - that's how it was back then. The 80's were a very flamboyant time and it was a time when you could experiment and do what the hell you like - basically find an audience and try to push music forward with the clips. But it became professional - after 4 or 5 years the videos became much more professional - the record companies wanted it that way - so it did mean that by the early 90's - there were some entertaining videos, but there were also really a lot of dull, boring ones - where it's just about the vanity of the person involved and they just try to make them look as handsome or as good-looking as they can and that's all that's about it.
When originally, there was a much more maverick strain of making the videos and they were kind of wild frankly. We would often do stuff just to wind up the record company sometimes. On "The Look of Love" - we were meant to do a video that was very chic and I'd be there in my Anthony Price suit, but we told the director that we wanted it to look like Benny Hill - visual slapstick in character because we figured not everybody can speak English. But it has come to haunt me because in the video I have a parrot on my shoulder and I'm singing to kids - children and animals you know... But you know I've met people years later in hard core punk bands who were very entertained by those videos so... it did capture the spirit of what we were trying to do.
LIVEWIRE: I've always been impressed with the craftsmanship that has gone into the ABC songs, especially your lyrics that are intelligent, spiritual, direct yet deceptively simple.
FRY: Well I think music should reflect the times in which it is made, and that is tricky sometimes. It's what feels right. Playing live is great because you see the audience and helps you write songs in a funny kind of way. You can get a picture of what people are about. There are times in a career when it's quiet and it's only the fans that keep things going. When I perform I look out in the crowd and people know the words by heart and sometimes they're crying - they've got memories of situations they were in when the record came out - happy times or bad times in a marriage or a relationship and you think - wow - it brings you alive in the year 2006 for me.
LIVEWIRE: What is your methodology for songwriting? Do you come up with lyrics or a melody?
FRY: It varies... It's about trying to get something exciting going. Sometimes you run into a phrase and you think that's got to be in a song.
LIVEWIRE: One phrase that has been playing in my head today is your clever line: "Montague or Capulet, Be your Shark, Be your Jet."
FRY: Ah yes - "Love Conquers All." We did an acoustic set and I threw that song in and it was great. I hadn't played that for a long time.
LIVEWIRE: Speaking of that song - I understand that EMI has recently come out with the album that song is from - Abracadabra - as a download only release.
FRY: Yeah. There are a couple of nice songs on there. We worked with Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music you know on that record. They were the happiest memories of working on that record.
LIVEWIRE: I've always thought that was one of the great overlooked albums of the 90's - but there was some turmoil going on at the time wasn't there? (co-founder Mark White left shortly after the release).
FRY: Yeah, we kind of burned all the way through the 80's and into the 90's and we signed to EMI and there was a very high level of expectation on the record and there was pressure. We always worked best when we were just mavericks. We want to feel like The Flaming Lips or Gnarls Barkley or Scissor Sisters - they're making very ambitious, very original records - that's what it's about, at least for me. I don't really like groups that make the same statement over and over again. It's good, but kind of predictable. So with that record it was a tough period - we'd kind of run out of energy - we were really burned out and we had to make a great record - I don't know - there's a couple good songs on there - I'm a very harsh critic - we seem to have spent too much time on that record, but there is some good stuff - "Love Conquers All" and "Spellbound" were good.
LIVEWIRE: I still love that album. You don't sound burned out at all on it. I think being on the inside you are maybe too close to it.
FRY: Well yeah, "Answered Prayer..." There was a lot of stuff we did for those sessions that ended up on the cutting room floor that we never finished that was frustrating. We did some stuff with (House Music pioneer) Frankie Knuckles - a song called "What Color is the Wind" - which maybe I should revamp sometime.
LIVEWIRE: You talked about people who revisit and recycle their music - what is it you are trying to do - what are you trying to impart in your music?
FRY: Well I've always had a cosmopolitan sound - I've always tried to make records that you could hear at a fairgrounds or walking down the street in a big city. I'm still trying to make stuff that swings - that has a great beat and great lyrics - that's the kind of music I like - and that's the kind of music I think is toughest to pull off really.
LIVEWIRE: I was talking to a young person recently who said he didn't think they would ever write songs again like they did in the 60s, 70's, and 80's because no one cares anymore about peace and love - what do you think?
FRY: Well... they should write songs about not caring about peace and love then - like the Pistols and The Clash, Buzzcocks - a lot of those songs are about that. No, peace and love... different things happen. Songs are getting shorter now - attention spans are shorter with iTunes and downloads. But there are great songs being written all the time - the Arctic Monkeys are writing great songs today - just as Gnarls Barkley are, and I love that song "Hide and Seek" by the girl from "Frou Frou" - Imogen Heap - that's a great record ("Speak for Yourself") - that's a great song. Great songs still come along - they're like jokes - you think you've heard them all and someone comes along with a new one and you laugh.
LIVEWIRE: Well here's the important part - the question everyone is waiting for me to ask - is there a new album coming out?
FRY: Yes - in our live show we mix in a few of the new songs - one called "The Very First Time," "Ride," sometimes a song called "Traffic" - and we always play a song called "Sixteen Seconds to Choose" which is pretty much about how fast things are these days - you've got to make your decisions pretty quickly in 2006.
LIVEWIRE: Your management shared "The Very First Time" with me and I really like it lot. It retains the classic ABC sound while sounding very up to date - and I think your fans are going to love it!
FRY: Oh good! It's a bit of flavor from the new record that's going to come out next year.
LIVEWIRE: When will it be released?
FRY: Yes, it's going to come out next year. There was a rumor it was coming out this year but we've got to put some strings and orchestration on it.
LIVEWIRE: Do we know the title yet?
FRY: No. The working title was going to be Traffic but I need a far more grand title than that.
LIVEWIRE: Well I'm sure all your fans are excited to see you on your tour and are excited by all the re-releases and the plans for the new album. Best wishes to you and hope everything is as enjoyable in the future for you as "the very first time."
FRY: Exactly. Got to keep that feeling together.