Jul 9, 2009 5:06 PM
A Rebirth of '80s Cool
The 2009 Regeneration Tour is perfectly timed with rock's retro obsession
By Steve Palopoli
MARTIN FRY remembers when '80s music was unquestionably, unconditionably uncool. "In the late '90s," says Fry, "Duran Duran was like a swear word."
As the leader of British '80s hitmakers ABC, Fry charted at home and in the United States with songs like "The Look of Love," "(How to be a) Millionaire" and the U.S. Top 10s "Be Near Me" and "When Smokey Sings." At the height of the band's success in the latter part of the decade, Fry was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a type of lymphoma, and was unable to tour.
A trickle of ABC releases had dried up by the late '90s, but after more than a decade away from the studio, Fry surprised everyone with the album Traffic last year, and joined the first Regeneration Tour, a package of big-name '80s pop bands.
This year, ABC was promoted to headliner of the 2009 Regeneration Tour, and returns to Mountain Winery on Friday with Berlin, Wang Chung and Cutting Crew. The tour arrives in Saratoga just two days after the sold-out appearance of another '80s act—Duran Duran.
Its timing of this year's tour couldn't have been better. In the year since the 2008 edition, the '80s sound has become the hottest thing around. Boston's Passion Pit has given the throwback dance party an indie cred that's seemed unthinkable ever since Nirvana broke almost two decades ago. Since then, electronic music has had to be geek-smart, electroclash angry or cool as ice to be taken seriously.
But the new wave of New Wave is different. There's a return to a certain innocence and playfulness—it's the first truly fun synth music to find a mass audience since Michael Jackson ruled the airwaves. His death, and the subsequent explosion of demand for every beat he ever touched, is likely to push this '80s comeback to new heights. Already, Jackson's glove prints can be heard in the high pitch and angular synth notes of Passion Pit's "Sleepyhead," the song that arguably touched off the retro trend in the first place, or the kid-chorused "Little Secrets" from their debut album Manners.
"There are quite a lot of young bands with an '80s flavor. Lady Gaga and the Killers, there's definitely an element of that maverick spirit," says Fry. "The 1980s has been revitalized and reinvented, and I think it's going to be reinvented again now that Michael Jackson has died. If Michael Jackson walked into an A&R office today, he wouldn't get signed."
It's not just Jackson whose influence is on the rise. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs' latest album is pure '80s revival, from the Blondie vibe of their hit "Zero" to the New Order moodiness of "Hysteric." Prince, the one '80s pop icon who never seemed to lose his cool factor, has been imitated by alt-rockers like Beck and the Flaming Lips. And L.A. duo Chester French had everyone from Kanye West to Pharrell Williams interested in making their record on the strength of their song "She Loves Everybody"—the opening of which is pure ABC.
'Love' in the Balance
Perhaps what's held up most about ABC's music, especially their classic 1982 debut The Lexicon of Love, which was one of the best albums of the decade, is the balance of dance hooks with conceptual lyric hooks, the end result as mental as it was physical.
"We wanted to make funky tunes that would compete on the dance floor, but we were reading NME, too. We loved Bowie, and Bowie's stuff was quite cerebral when I look back on it now," says Fry.
The pop gloss of ABC's music and image, from the orchestral swells to the arthouse videos to Fry's trademark gold lamé suit, masked an edgier side.
"I grew up listening to punk bands. I loved punk," he says. "But we wanted to do something shinier, something bigger. There's a lot of stuff we were doing that was very experimental. Bands are getting back to that—something more ambitious."
Lexicon of Love's success might have earned ABC enough cachet to milk a post-punk Roxy Music shtick for their entire career. But following in the footsteps of his chameleonlike idols Bowie and Andy Warhol, Fry felt the need to change direction with every album. ABC's second, Beauty Stab, was a guitar-heavy rock record that didn't make much of an impression. Then, with the band pared down to himself and longtime guitarist Mark White, Fry hired two members who didn't play instruments for the next one, How to Be a ... Zillionaire. Once again, the move was met with disbelief.
"In Britain, they didn't like it. They didn't want to put out the record," says Fry.
He felt vindicated, however, when "Be Near Me" gave ABC its first American Top 10 hit. Another single, "(How to be a) Millionaire," was the group's hardest-edged dance song yet, and contained some of the cleverest of Fry's trademark lyrical couplets, like his vision of the future: "Larger than life and twice as ugly/ If we have to live there, you'll have to drug me."
"Coming out of punk rock, having something rhyme was pretty radical," he says. "There are a lot of jokes in there as well, there's a lot of humor. I loved John Lydon and Lou Reed and Sly Stone, great lyric writers."
It was around this time that Fry was diagnosed with Hodgkin's, and had to turn down huge offers to tour in support of their stateside success.
"The ironic thing was it was when 'Be Near Me' was on the charts," he says. "It was very frustrating to have to go from that to a cancer ward. But I was very fortunate. When I got well again, I wrote 'When Smokey Sings.' I was so relieved to be around, and was really enjoying how music makes you feel."
"When Smokey Sings," from 1987's Alphabet City, turned out to be ABC's biggest hit. After experimenting with house and techno, Fry and White parted ways in the '90s. But VH1's Bands Reunited brought drummer David Palmer, who had played on Lexicon of Love, back into the fold in 2004, and in 2008 they released ABC's first album in 11 years, Traffic.
"I hadn't written songs for ages," Fry says. "It was a lot of fun, and there was a lot of freedom."
He's discovered on these tours that he's been rediscovered.
"There's a younger generation coming through who've seen it all on YouTube," he says.
He's not surprised that the '80s sound has come back around, since despite the ups and downs, he remembers it as an inspiring time in which artists were encouraged to experiment.
"We always thought we were ahead of our time, or a couple steps behind it," he says. "We made some fantastically idiotic moves. But I'm happy where I'm at. I'm very lucky to be here now, and that's why I enjoy touring so much."
And whether the '80s comeback thrives or dies, what's important to Fry is that fans still want to hear the songs, and perhaps more than ever, he wants to sing them.
"You don't want to be out there on a victory parade," he says. "You want it to mean something."
Jun 29, 2009 2:40 PM
Saturday, June 27, 2009
ABC offers up music and memories of the glorious '80s
I think about the 1980s and see milestones and adventures.
I see graduations from high school and two colleges. Marriage and a Mets championship. A real world job and an apartment.
My life probably changed more in that decade than it will in any other. So the soundtrack for that transition from teen to adult will always be special.
Some people might hear Human League and Flock of Seagulls and the Cars and think bad hair and bubbling synthesizers.
But I’m instantly transported back to first dates, dorm parties and road trips. I’ve blocked out anything bad that might have happened.
So I was pretty geeked to discover that The Regneration Tour was coming to Grand Rapids. ABC would headline, with Tommy Tutone, Cutting Crew and Wang Chung filling the bill.
It was a full-scale ‘80s-a-palooza.
Ticket prices started at $24, but by the week of the show they were two for $20. My 17-year-old son quickly announced he was working at the pool the night of the show, and my wife said she couldn’t stay out that late on a work night.
That left my 12-year-old, who, lacking the excuse of a job or a reason to get up early, became my reluctant companion.
“They’re from the ‘80s and still alive?” she asked. I took this as a bad sign. “What if they die on stage?”
About a thousand people were in attendance, many, I noticed were about my age, and my daughter wasn’t the only child dragged along to relive a parent’s memory.
Tommy Tutone was first, with a fun, short set of what he called “soul twang.” Of course, the crowd erupted at the opening notes of “Jenny (867-5309),” which Tommy Heath and his two sidemen turned into an extended jam with a call-and-response.
My mind flashed back to the Vignette’s end-of-year celebration, asking the disc jockey to play the song for a girl named Jennifer I was trying to impress.
Next was Cutting Crew, the act that surprised me the most. I owned “(I Just) Died in Your Arms,” of course. Everybody did. But I was struggling to remember a second song, and didn’t even have a song-specific memory.
But frontman Nick Van Eede absolutely charmed the crowd, darn near stealing the whole show. The new but unfamiliar songs were really good, and I’d forgotten about the balled “I’ve Been in Love Before.”
You got the impression that he’s content with whatever he’s doing these years, and if he can hop on stage once in a while and have some laughs, it’s all good.
Wang Chung followed, and were a little more somber, dedicating the show to Michael Jackson. But Jack Hues and Nick Feldman, who reunited recently, rocked harder than I expected.
Considering the band is named after a Chinese philosopher, its lyrics aren’t especially deep. But it sure was easy for the crowd to sing “Let’s go, baby. Let’s go, baby. Come on!” And people screamed the refrain to “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” which leads to our fun ‘80s memory.
I was in a University of Missouri Journalism School graphics lab, working with that first wave of Apples Macintoshes with the black and white screens. We were allowed to play the radio while working, and it wasn’t unusual for people to quietly sing along to themselves.
One day “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” came on, and spontaneously a chunk of the room sang the second line of the chorus -- “Everybody Wang Chung tonight” together, then broke out laughing.
Finally it was time for ABC. It seemed like I was the only ABC fan in college. I’d run laps in the Brewer Fieldhouse with my bulky Walkman playing my “Lexicon of Love” and “How to be a Zillionaire” tapes, imagining what the group would sound like live.
Best I knew, the group didn’t play live. Partly because it was really just Martin Fry and side musicians, and also because the lush sound with strings, horns, complicated arrangements didn’t seem easy to replicate on stage.
Fry, in a stylish shiny black suit and skinny tie, was certainly a little older than the dashing figure on the LP covers, but was sure strong in voice.
He was backed by a six-piece band, including one guy who bounced between keyboards and a huge saxophone and a percussionist with an array of bongos and larger drums.
They band tore through Fry’s hits like “Be Near Me” and “Poison Arrow,” deeper tracks like “Date Stamp” and “Tears are Not Enough” and two songs from a recently released CD that I just ordered from Amazon as an import. It was wonderful.
I didn’t think too many people are into ABC. But a several people I chatted with asked which of the bands I was most looking forward to seeing. And when replied, they all said, “Me too.” So the concert was kind of like a gathering of people into a semi-obscure 80s band. Very cool.
I left with ears ringing, voice hoarse and memories revisited. My daughter had a t-shirt and candy from a radio station promotion.
And I now realize why some people took offense to a post last year where I bemoaned that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was filled with one-hit wonders from the 1950s.
Where I heard echoy recordings of do-wop singers, they heard their memories.
Jun 25, 2009 2:40 PM
Regeneration Tour 2009 at NYC’s Fillmore
Regeneration Tour 2009 rolled into New York on June 18th in front of a standing room only crowd at the Fillmore. This year’s lineup featured The Cutting Crew, Wang Chung, Terri Nunn & Berlin and ABC. The show show boasts great performances from top classic alternative artists with some new music and several interesting surprises.
Leading off the concert was Nick Van Eede and his new incarnation of the Cutting Crew. Van Eede and company brought with them a sense of humor throughout his set from playing along with some sound adjustment problems in the beginning to kidding around with the audience about their wanting to hear the more familiar songs. The band seemed to have a loose attitude on stage and played as if they were a free-wheeling 70s classic rock band. Four songs in, however, Van Eede reminded everyone at the Fillmore of why he is considered one of the better balladeers of the 1980s with his early hit “I’ve Been In Love Before.” This was after one of the band’s deeper cuts and a selection from their forthcoming Spectra records album (due out this fall) called “Shot of Democracy,” as the band tool a political tone here — a turn from their more romantic approach of the 80s and 90s. They saved their two most well-known hits for last as they played “One For the Mockingbird” before closing out with “I Just Died In Your Arms Last Night; the latter featured a more classic rock-reminiscent surprise guitar solo by Asif Illyas.
Wang Chung to the stage next with their first appearance together in New York since 1987. Jack Hues and Nick Feldman reunited and are set to release their new album, Abducted by the 80s, in 2010. During our interview a few weeks ago, Hues indicated he and Feldmnan would take a jeans-and-acoustic approach to the Regeneration Tour; with that, the duo delivered a new hybrid of the Wang Chung fans know best and the eclectic musical backgrounds of both Hues and Feldman. They led off with “Don’t Let Go,” performing it with a blues/rock influence and a heavy guitar sound. Keyboards were again exchanged for strings in “Let’s Go,” which took surprisingly well to the different sound. The set seemed to be heavily influenced by the twosome’s post-Wang Chung projects, including Hues’ new jazz band, The Quartet. Old time fans, however, might remember the Huang Chung days of more guitar and percussion-oriented sound ahead of the keyboard stylings of the Points and Mosaic albums.
Wang Chung offered fans a taste of Abducted by the 80s with their performance of “Driving You.” Interestingly, while the emphasis on the classic hits was carried by guitars and less synth, the new song was performed with more dominant keyboards. While possessing all the aspects of a quintessential 80s song, “Driving You” seems to carry a timeless relevancy and has the potential to be an international hit after the single’s release. It was back to the 1980s and back to the guitars with “To Live and Die in LA,” the only ballad hit for the band who rarely released their underrated slower-paced tracks as singles. Like the Cutting Crew, Wang Chung’s biggest hits were played at the end: the big band-influenced “Dance Hall Days” and the fast=paced “Everybody Have Fun Tonight (which started out as something of a ballad).” While the horns and keyboards were again replaced by guitars, Hues and Feldman gave concert-goers a new, expanded perception of Wang Chung and left the crowd (and this critic) in anticipation of their 2010 Abducted album.
Concert-watchers appeared to become quite entranced when Terri Nunn and Berlin took the stage. While Cutting Crew and Wang Chung took a more traditional concert approach, in direct contrast, Berlin began their set with an energetic performance of “Masquerade” with Nunn instantly beguiling the crowd. As she picked up from her days of being on the way to acting stardom before choosing to get into singing, Nunn immediately captivated the audience by interacting with the them through her alluring movements, eye contact and interaction. Not only did she use the whole stage to mesmerize the 80s fans there as they sang along with her to classic Berlin tracks, she expanded her performance area into the standing room area and a platform near the balcony. Her new Berlin lineup may have been young, but re-produced the band’s patented synth-based sound with true precision. Berlin also performed tracks from their brand new CD/DVD set, Berlin: All the Way In, including a superbly-done cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” an homage to one of her favorite rockers, Grace Slick. Whether she is singing classics like “The Metro” or “No More Words” or new tracks such as “Ordinary Girl,” Nunn showed her mastery of the spotlight as she sang to the concert-goers and bringing them into the act, which is a lost portion of the art among today’s more generically-processed musical acts.
After a stunning performance of “Dope Show” from the 2004 4Play album, members of the crowd were invited on stage to dance as the band played “Dancing in Berlin.” Nunn made an effort to shimmy with as many of those who joined her as possible; one of the dancers even managed to take a cell phone picture of herself rocking out with her favorite singer. Berlin ended the set bedazzling their fans with “Sex (I’m a…),” a part of the act that could only be described as hypnotically seductive.
Closing out the show was ABC, who were asked back to the Regeneration Tour after highlighting the show last year. Martin Fry entered the stage with a shiny black suit with a chic yellow lining, continuing the tradition that (as I wrote last year) will soon force ABC to change the lyrics to “When Smokey Sings” to saying the Motown legend wears the “second-sharpest suits.” Fry told Revenge of the 80s Radio earlier in the month that he was looking forward to playing a longer set than last year and he did not disappoint anyone expecting him to top the previous tour. After beginning with “Poison Arrow” and “How to be a Millionaire,” ABC mixed more of their big hits with some deeper cuts and a track from last year’s Traffic album, “Ride,” which features guitarist Matt Backer. Longtime fans of the band have taken well to the new ABC guitar-heavier sound as indicated by the success of Traffic, and some of that translated extremely well into their classics: Backer’s talents offered a new bend to the live performances of songs like “That Was Then, This Is Now” and “Tears Are Not Enough.” As for Fry, anyone who knows ABC expects no less that rarely-matched command of the stage. The band closed out its portion of the show with “When Smokey Sings” (still waiting for the lyrical change stated earlier) and “Be Near Me” after being called out for an encore with “The Look of Love.”
From the moment he took the mic, the original Lexicon of Love’s patented presence and soothing voice ‘
instantly won and kept the attention of the crowd. Fry moved flawlessly from early ABC love songs to their dance hits into more rock-oriented versions of some of their standards into the new music and back to the early pieces. His voice is as strong as it has been since the 80s and so is his ability to run a show. Martin Fry’s act in New York City that night was simply more proof as to why Martin Fry is considered the de facto standard-bearer of the New Romantic genre of the early 80s new wave movement.
This year’s Regeneration Tour continues their relatively new tradition of bringing some of the legendary bands of the 1980s. While last year’s concert was at a large venue, the Jones Beach Amphitheater. In contrast, this year’s show at the Fillmore had a more intimate setting for the fans. The tour ends on July 16th; ticket information is on the official Regeneration Tour website. Fans of classic alternative music would do well for themselves to see these bands perform when the concert series plays in a nearby city.