by: Will Harris August 18, 2008
When music journalist Martin Fry popped ’round a practice by the band Vice Versa in Sheffield, England, in 1980, it’s unlikely that he had any idea that he was embarking upon a journey that would, in 28 years time, find him playing dates alongside Belinda Carlisle, The Human League, Naked Eyes, and A Flock of Seagulls on an endeavor known as the Regeneration Tour. And, yet, that’s what’s keeping Fry’s band, ABC, hopping around the USA this summer. For the first time in many moons, ABC even has a new album to promote: Traffic, a record which harks back to…well, pretty much every single stage of the band’s musical evolution, really. Popdose had the opportunity to speak to Fry about the tour, and we took the opportunity to quiz him about not only the new record but also his entire back catalog, stopping along the way to have him explain a lyric, reflect on his VH-1 appearances, and discuss working with Trevor Horn.
Martin Fry: Hello! I was expecting your call. How are you doing?
Popdose: I’m doing well! We actually talked about two years ago…
MF: Oh, yeah?
PD: Yep. So it’s nice to have the opportunity to speak with you again.
MF: I’m still at it! We’re still out there touring!
PD: So you are! In fact, you’re going to be in my area in just under two weeks. So let’s start by talking about the new record, Traffic. How shocked were you when the first single, [Click to listen] “The Very First Time,” was added to Radio 2’s “A” playlist?
MF: It was a good feeling. It was nice to walk back into the BBC. I walked back in, and I saw Doctor Who! Are you familiar with Doctor Who?
PD: Absolutely. I’m a big fan.
MF: He’s a big part of the BBC franchise. And Jonathan Ross, he’s another guy there. But it was nice to be welcomed back, yeah, and it was great hearing a brand new ABC tune on the radio.
PD: Were you pleasantly surprised?
MF: Yeah, I was, really. I’ve been touring a great deal, and I get associated with the 1980s, and I’m proud of that, but it’s good to be able to pepper the set with some new songs, yeah.
PD: Now, reports of the impending release of Traffic were exaggerated, to say the least. By, uh, years.
MF: Oh, yeah! I wrote a new song ten years ago, and I’ve been itching to make a new record for a long time, but what can you do? (Laughs) But having said that, with Traffic, in a way, it’s opened a lot of doors for me, so I’m hoping the next ABC album won’t take ten years to arrive. I don’t want it to be like a lunar eclipse; I’d rather it be a welcome friend you’ve not seen for a little while.
PD: You and David Palmer wrote most, if not all, of the album…
MF: Yeah, pretty much all of it, with Chuck Kentis.
PD: How quickly did you fall back into writing together? Because it had been quite a while.
MF: Well, we wrote in quick bursts. He’s playing drums with Rod Stewart…and still is. He’s in Cincinnati right now, I think. But I went over to L.A., Pacific Palisades, and we started just writing songs in his garage, and it took us right back to when we first started in the early ‘80s. It was just good to get back to doing it for the love of the music. We wrote “The Very First Time” and [Click to listen] “Sixteen Seconds to Choose” and “Ride” and “One Way Traffic” together, and it just felt good again. In the meantime, I’ve been playing live with ABC on the circuit a lot, and, in a way, making a new record and 12 new songs just felt like a sort of added bonus.
PD: Was the “Bands Reunited” show a turning point as far as the attendance of your Stateside shows?
MF: Yes! It was. It’s also what reunited me with Dave Palmer, as you saw in that documentary. But, yeah, Stateside, when we play our audiences have always been people who mostly knew us from [Click to listen] “The Look of Love” or “When Smokey Sings.” I’ve always said that. But it definitely brought us a new generation, a younger audience coming through to check out ABC at that point. Definitely.
PD: I’ve heard horror stories about the way that show worked for some artists, but how was it for you? Did you feel forced or guilted into doing anything? I mean, certainly, it worked out well with you and Dave, but how was the experience overall?
MF: It was fantastic. I mean, I was sitting in a restaurant with my wife, and a guy taps me on the shoulder, and there’s these two guys from VH-1 standing there, pointing a camera up my nose, so that was weird. But it was great. It was kind of…I think the equivalent is saying to somebody, “Do you want to meet all of your ex-girlfriends at once?” D’ya know what I mean? I don’t know how to describe it, but it was great. It was all about the music. And we played a show in London, and it definitely united David Palmer and myself. Some of the guys from way back when didn’t want to do it, but que sera, sera. I’ve spoke to other people, like in Frankie Goes to Hollywood and the Beat, and…I think they did film one with Lionel Richie that never aired, where they tried to reunite the Commodores. That would’ve been interesting. But it’s all how comfortable you are with your past. For me, it’s a great privilege to get on stage in 2008 and perform “The Look of Love,” [Click to listen] “Be Near Me,” and “When Smokey Sings” alongside some new songs. I think the artists that find it difficult are the ones that live in 1984. When I stand on stage, there’s an element of recreating the excitement of the 1980s, but it’s all about now.
PD: ABC regularly finds itself on the bill of various ‘80s-themed shows. How does the “Regeneration” tour compare?
MF: Well, with the “Regeneration” tour, there are definitely five very diverse, very different acts. Different personalities, different flavors. And it works really well. So far, it’s gone down great, singing alongside Belinda Carlisle and the Human League and such.
PD: With Belinda being the token American.
MF: Yeah, but is that a good thing or a bad thing? Otherwise, it’s like an English invasion…although she’s lived in France for 15 years, so she’s kind of semi-European, anyway. But when she gets up on stage, she’s definitely the homecoming queen. She’s very California onstage, but it doesn’t work against her. There’s definitely an Euro-American thing going on up there.
PD: I would guess that you and Philip Oakey go back a fair way, given that The Human League are from Sheffield as well.
MF: Yeah, I used to go to the Human League’s shows when I was living in Sheffield. ABC formed in Sheffield, and I was going to see their shows while the band was being formed, back around the time of “Being Boiled,” so it’s great performing alongside them.
PD: Was there a particular bond between the city’s bands? I mean, did you consider yourselves part of a “Sheffield sound” or anything?
MF: Well, Sheffield is like Pittsburgh or perhaps Seattle, I suppose. Very diverse music. Def Leppard, the Human League, ABC, and Joe Cocker, they’re all from Sheffield. So it’s very different acts. Paul Carrack as well. You know, “How Long.” A lot of music comes from Sheffield, yeah, because you’ve got to entertain yourself while you’re growing up. Unless you become a professional footballer, the only escape is music. And I think there is a bond, but also there’s… (Laughs) …there’s certainly competition as well.
PD: What was it like working with Trevor Horn on The Lexicon of Love? I know you’ve said in the past that perhaps he gets too much credit sometimes for the sound of the album.
MF: No, no, Trevor Horn is brilliant. He’s great. He made everything possible. His philosophy was that a piece of music lasts forever, so if you’re in the studio and you want something, go for it. Be shameless. So that meant we were able to…back then, compared to the music coming out of the whole punk rock world, our music was very polished and cosmopolitan, very different. I saw him recently. In fact, I performed a show with him a few years ago, a Prince’s Trust gig at Wembley Arena in London, and a lot of the artists Trevor had worked with performed together. He’s got a band called The Producers now, and, in fact, Gary Langan, who recorded and mixed The Lexicon of Love and also worked on Traffic, he’s in the studio today with Trevor. Trevor was cool. It was a bit like working with Orson Welles, I suppose. (Laughs)
PD: Beauty Stab was somewhat of a commercial disappointment, but did you at least consider it to be a creative success?
MF: (Sighs) Yeah, the beautiful thing about touring today in 2008 is that people go back and look on YouTube and follow the ups, the downs, the successes, and the failures of every band…and, in a way, I think that’s why people like us. They like the maverick spirit in ABC. Beauty Stab, it did okay. It was more of a blueprint for how we wanted our music to go. Much more raw, like protest songs. We were kind of trailblazing on that day. (Laughs) We were trying to be R.E.M. before R.E.M. became R.E.M..
PD: Well, I will tell you that one of our writers (Mojo Flucke) has often declared it to be his favorite album of the 1980s.
MF: Oh, that’s very kind. Very kind, indeed. There are some good songs on there, and there are some unfinished songs, but…I dunno, it was just nice to be able to experiment.
PD: So, clearly, you feel that particular songs work better than others.
MF: Yeah, [Click to listen] “Unzip” would be good to do live, and “That Was Then But This Is Now.”
PD: How To Be A…Zillionaire! was very Fairlight-heavy. How do you feel that it’s aged?
MF: Well, “Be Near Me” and [Click to listen] “How to Be a Millionaire” were very big hits for us in the USA. Funnily enough, they’re not songs that we perform in the UK, so it’s great having two careers! At the time, we wanted to look like cartoon characters. We wanted to be as left-field as we possibly could be. Everything is electronic on that record, yeah. The real magic was in the 12” mixes, the extended club mixes we’d done, which built into a whole new urban audience that’s stuck by us. The club audience.
PD: With Alphabet City…well, actually, one of our writers wanted me to ask you what it was like to have a hit with a song that paid tribute to Smokey Robinson just as Smokey himself was having a comeback.
MF: Actually, I’m going to interview Smokey Robinson next week when I’m in Detroit, for something called “Heroes and Heroes.” But that song made me realize that you should be careful what you write about, because it always comes true. That’s why I wrote “How to Be a Millionaire.” (Laughs) But it was great. I’d grown up on Motown, Stax, Atlantic, and R&B, so it was incredible to meet Smokey Robinson, and very cool that he was in the charts at the same time as our song.
PD: Did any savvy publicists take notice and have ABC and Smokey appear anywhere at the same time?
MF: You know what? That never happened. Maybe it’s something we should still do! But [Click to listen] “When Smokey Sings” is in the Motown Museum as an example of music from around the world that was influenced by Motown.
PD: You know, having asked that question, I actually have a couple more rather specific ones from our writers that they wanted me to ask you.
MF: No problem.
PD: When you did VH-1’s “100 Songs of the 1980s” a few years ago, were your comments completely off the cuff, or were you “directed” to steer them in a particular direction by the producers?
MF: (Considers the question) I can’t remember. Which comment?
PD: Actually, he didn’t reference any specific comment.
MF: Well, I can’t remember what I said! But with me, they point a camera at me and I just never stop talking! (Laughs) I was in the Canal Room in Manhattan; we filmed it down there. My ideas change all the time, though, so I have no idea what I said. I can’t even remember what I was talking about. It probably wasn’t even one of my songs. They probably showed me a Duran Duran video or something!
PD: Another writer asked me to query you on the meaning of the lyrics to [Click to listen] “Power of Persuasion,” and he has requested specific clarification of the following lines: “Cock a snoot / Loop the loop / Hock the hula-hoop / But now it yo-yoed back again.”
MF: Yeah, well, you’ve always got to write lyrics that would look good on a neon sign, haven’t you? That, and rhyme. (Laughs) Actually, I think it’s about the cycle of life, if you think about it. Yeah, it is: all things loop ‘round. It’s funny, speaking of lyrics, they had a list of the world’s top 10 worst lyrics, and they had Oasis and U2, but they also had ABC for [Click to listen] “That Was Then, This Is Now.” There’s a line in it, “Can’t complain / Mustn’t grumble / Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble.” And I had to go to Radio 4, which is a very high-brow radio station, to go explain it. It was great. I was in good company; there was a Doors tune and a Beatles tune, a U2 tune and an Oasis tune. The thing about lyrics is that they’re there to entertain, yeah? I’m honored that, 25 years on, someone’s still paying attention to them. I genuinely believe that lyrics should be really meaningful and really meaningless at the same time. (Laughs) I think they’re the best lyrics. I like Bob Dylan for that. I don’t like guys who like serious, serious, serious poetry. Anybody who says they’re a poet, you’ve got to be suspicious of them.
PD: I’ve also been asked – rather belligerently, I must say – to find out why there are no Beauty Stab songs in the set. I presume the time constraints leave you feeling obliged to perform mostly your biggest hits?
MF: Yeah, although I did do “That Was Then, This Is Now” in San Francisco. And I recently played in Canada, where I did an orchestral show, and we did [Click to listen] “S.O.S.” from that period, which worked well in that setting.
PD: Well, you’re playing in Portsmouth, VA, on August 28th, so if you can break one out there…
MF: Okay, we might throw “That Was Then” in there. (Laughs)
PD: Talking of some of your other albums, I’ve heard you refer to Up as being your “Spinal Tap album.”
MF: Well, it came out in a black sleeve in the US. The record company had had enough of us by then, yeah, and it was the final contract album – we’d already signed to another label – and it was an album that was inspired by house music and the UK club scene. But I saw it in Tower Records in New York, and it had a black sleeve, and it reminded me of Smell the Glove.
PD: When you go back and listen to that record now, how do you feel about it? I mean, the house sound was very much a particular moment in time.
MF: Yeah, it was. There’s one of the songs, “ [Click to listen] One Better World,” that we do still play live. It’s a very idealistic song about trying to change the world, and it’s kind of remarkable, twenty years on, to be singing it. And the sentiment still seems applicable today. That’s the weird thing about songs: they never really age.
PD: What are your feelings on Abracadabra?
MF: I can’t remember it! (Laughs)
PD: That good, huh?
MF: No, I can. It was a tough time in the history of ABC. But I met Phil Manzanera. He played on it, the guy from Roxy Music, and he’s brilliant. He played on “Spellbound.” But I’m the worst person to ask about ABC stuff. I never really listen to it! I’m always doing something else.
PD: But if you had to pick an ABC album to listen to, which one would it be?
MF: Traffic. The brand new album.
PD: Oh, come on. That’s a cop-out! (Laughs) If you had to go to the back catalog, which one would it be?
MF: No, look, don’t get me wrong, I do listen to it. I’m just my own harshest critic. But Lexicon is a really nice and complete piece of work. That works. And I like Alphabet City. But, y’know, I’m one of those guys that doesn’t have the gold records up on the wall. I’m just not like that.
PD: Does anything from Skyscraping make it into the set? If not, I wouldn’t be surprised, since it never even came out in the U.S., but I love that record.
MF: Actually, no, I’ve not played anything off of that for awhile. At the end of the ‘90s, I got the band back together, and we started playing live again, and there are a couple of really good songs off of there, like “ [Click to listen] Stranger Things” and “Only The Best Will Do.” That really opened a lot of doors for me, and it’s enabled me to play for the last ten years, really.
PD: You worked with Glen Gregory on that album as well.
MF: Yeah, and I saw him last week, actually, ‘cause I’m gonna go and do a tour in September with Heaven 17. I hadn’t seen him in ages.
PD: I also read recently about how you had teamed up with Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet and Peter Cox from Go West to cover “Addicted to Love.”
MF: Yeah, that was just from a live show, actually, but…it’s funny, but I just keep listening to some of Robert Palmer’s music. And that was a great record. Bernard Edwards produced it, who also co-produced “When Smokey Sings.” Yeah, I mean, it was a great fusion, wasn’t it? Of heavy metal and R&B.
PD: The reason I brought it up, really, was because I was wondering if you’ve found that you’ve developed a bond with some of the other so-called “’80s artists” in recent years that you didn’t necessarily have at the time, just because you’re kind of in the same boat these days, as it were?
MF: Yeah, Tony Hadley, he’s a good friend of mine. We went to Venezuela and went trekking – it’s like a charity trek of about 50 people – and then we went to Costa Rica recently. He’s somebody that, back in the day, we were fiercely competitive with each other. If we were footballers, we would’ve been playing for different teams. These days, I think we’ve mellowed a bit. About five percent. (Laughs) But, yeah, that’s the beautiful thing about music: you meet a lot of people. I’ve met all sorts of people. Your paths cross.
PD: And, lastly, is there any song in the ABC catalog that doesn’t translate to the live medium that you’ve always wished you could play?
MF: Hmmm. Not really. I did that two-hour-long orchestral show, and it was really interesting performing ABC songs that I’d never played live before. But we’re very fortunate, because most of our songs work in different ways: with an acoustic guitar, with an orchestra, or with a band. Thankfully, the songs have been good to me!
PD: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you again, Martin, and when you come into Portsmouth…
MF: …please come back! Come back and say hello!
PD: Hey, if it can be arranged, I most certainly will!