'80s - ABC (2008)
'The ABC's Of Music - Still Played To Perfection'
One of the more popular new wave bands of the early '80s, British group ABC built upon the detached, synthesized R&B pop of David Bowie and Roxy Music, adding a self-conscious, campy sense of theatrics and style. Under the direction of vocalist Martin Fry, the group scored several catchy, synth-driven dance-pop hits in the early '80s, including "Poison Arrow," "Look of Love," and "Be Near Me."
It all began in the late '70s, when Fry ran his own fanzine, Modern Drugs, while he attended Sheffield University. ABC formed in 1980 and by the fall of 1981, the band had signed a record deal. ABC then released their first single, "Tears Are Not Enough," in November; it peaked at #19 on the UK charts.
Two singles, "Poison Arrow" and "The Look of Love," became British Top 10 hits in the spring, paving the way for their debut album, The Lexicon of Love, to enter the charts at number one. "All of My Heart" also became a Top 10 hit in the fall of 1982.
Featuring a harder, rock sound driven by guitars rather than keyboards, and with band members leaving, Beauty Stab was released late in 1983. Supported by the #18 single "That Was Then But This Is Now," the album didn't perform as well as the debut, peaking at number 12. Late in 1984, ABC - now consisting solely of Fry and White - released (How to Be A) Zillionaire, which also failed to set the charts alight.
In the summer of 1987, ABC released "When Smokey Sings," which was a major hit, reaching #5 in the US. Alphabet City came next and two years later was followed by Up. Absolutely, a greatest hits collection, made it into the British Top 10 in 1990 and was followed y Abracadabra.
After a break from the business, Skyscraping (UK only) was followed by The Lexicon of Live (1999), which in turn was followed by another greatest hits package, Look of Love - The Very Best of ABC (2001).
With the original drummer from that last album, David Palmer, returning to the ABC line-up in 2004, the band released an album of original material in 2008 entitled, Traffic.
Chatting now one-on-one with the original lead singer, Martin Fry, I took him right back to those early days.
ABC formed in 1980 in Sheffield (England) after you, as a music journalist, interviewed the band Vice Versa for your fanzine Modern Drugs. Had you conducted any other interviews before that one? “Well, I was into imagining that I was interviewing people because I love music. I would imagine I was interviewing Bryan Ferry and David Bowie. I mean, if it was today I’d be a keen blogger, definitely. But the fanzine was definitely nothing more than a collection of thoughts, opinions and dreams about music. I’d write about stuff I liked. I’d go and see a pop group I liked, like Public Image, Ltd, Joy Division and Iggy Pop. There was myself and this guy Mike Pickering actually. I’ve just recently looked at a copy of Modern Drugs and it wasn’t all me actually,” he laughs. “There were other guys working on it. Yeah, so there was also Mike Pickering who went on to form a band called M People and he’s gone on to sign The Ting Tings and other bands. We were all dreamers.”
“But yeah, I did go and interview this band called Vice Versa on the local music scene in Sheffield where I lived and they invited me to go to a gig after the interview. And in a way I’d always been dreaming about being in a band. So they invited me down to Middlesbrough Rock Garden in the North of England and we just did this gig. They had all these synths and such so I just had a go and I’ve never looked back since.”
Isn’t it also true that Vice Versa at the time were thinking about giving the lead singer position to Fiona Russell Powell instead of you? “Yeah, now, Fiona Russell Powell she kinda joined ABC years later in 1984 as Eden. Mark White and myself were down to a two-piece and we were kind of uncomfortable with being like a duo; like Tears For Fears and Wang Chung. We didn’t want to be a duo so we pulled in Fiona Russell Powell and David Yarritu to do ‘How To Be A Zillionaire.’ They were kind of drafted in as extras to the band, really. And then we did all the cartoon stuff. But funnily enough she was a journalist and she did interview people like Mick Jagger and David Bowie.”
How was she to work with? “Oh, she was a nightmare,” he quickly responds, not missing a serious beat. “A night-mare. We went to L.A. at the height of our success and I think we just about got banned from Los Angeles. She was pretty wild, yeah. She was bad trouble. She was pretty hardcore, when I think back.”
But that wasn’t the ideal image the band wanted to portray, was it?! “Well, in a way that’s what we wanted. We didn’t really want to be the boys next door. ABC was a bad boy band, ‘cause when we started off by the time we got to ‘Zillionaire’ the record company had had enough of us! They didn’t want to know why we were dressing the way we were - in cartoons or characters - they wanted us to just keep doing ‘Look Of Love’ and ‘Poison Arrow.’ So yeah, it was pretty wild when I look back. It was very, very negative. I‘m not a bad boy now. I just think you‘ve got to push it a little bit.”
OK, so with the release of your albums through time you’ve always tried to change musical styles, never to stick to the same musical persona. So, did this so-called bad boy image just get old after a while then? “Yeah, because I grew up watching The Clash and Joy Division, the Pistols, Siouxsie And The Banshees, and The Buzzcocks and our generation was slowly coming through at that time also - Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran. But we were never going to be punk rockers because we were kids watching them and they were grown up men. Yeah, it was definitely rebelling against what was around you. And that spirit is around now. I mean, the suburbs are boring wherever you live. Maybe they’re more exciting now with YouTube and more home entertainment, but they were deadly places back in the day; back 20 years ago.”
“I mean, we did mess things up for ourselves more times that we triumphed. We did it to our own careers. By pushing for what we believed in. We might not have sold as many records that we could have done had we had kept repeating the same format, but in a way now in 2009 our audience, they kinda like it. They kind of enjoy the moments that weren’t big hits alongside the ones that were. But I think that’s kind of an artistic pursuit. It’s the journey you’re on. Trying to find yourself. And I’m glad I did because I feel good about what I do now.”
Well, like they say, all press is good press! “Yeah, absolutely.”
Who cares about the odd arm chair that flies out of a hotel window anyway! “Yeah,” he laughs. “But we’d go in and redecorate and restyle it! We were the style generation!"
Your first single, ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ made the UK Top 20 in 1981 … what were your feelings around that time with the new wind of euphoria that was whistling through you? “It didn’t really sweep us up. And it didn’t kinda make you feel euphoric either. It’s strange really. As soon as you step on that cavalcade you kinda know that your next record has got to be something special - and the one after that. Which gives you total anxiety immediately. And I think you see that with a lot of artists back then and even today. I enjoy the music more today.”
“But with ‘Tears Are Not Enough” we wanted to be at the vanguard of a whole pop/funk thing we were doing. And we were very, very concerned in case someone came along and stole our thunder. So there was that. Making a record was a joy, obviously, and then to be on Top Of The Pops, and then for people to suddenly know who ABC were and what we were about. So yeah, I guess it was kinda euphoric but at the same time it was pretty scary, but it’s true of any band. Because you have an idea in your head of perfection but only until you make your first record that you kinda realize if you’re capable of it. It’s great bullshitting about it prior to that in rehearsal rooms and bars, but when you’ve actually got to deliver the goods, that’s tough.”
“And I always remember feeling a bit like I never really wanted to let go of some of that music. I mean, as soon as it goes in the back of the van and goes off to the production plant it’s not your property any more. But then again, a song like ‘Look Of Love’ or something from way back then, it’s kind of public property now. It’s in adverts or people sing it in bars. So, it’s nice for it to be public property now.”
The debut album, ‘The Lexicon of Love’ was a huge hit and now is a cult classic in the business. When you were recording it did you have a feeling you were making something special? “No, and I’m surprised by that, but I’m obviously pleased, you know. We did the whole album again in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall in London about five weeks ago with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Trevor Horn came down and made a speech, Anne Dudley was there, and we had David Palmer on drums. It was phenomenal. It was interesting to go back to the album. I mean, people seemed to like it.”
Will there be a live recording on CD or DVD of that show, perhaps? “It was recorded, yeah. The BBC put it out over the radio. It was great and worked out real good. So, I hope so, yeah.”
So, why do you think the sophomore album ‘Beauty Stab’ performed poorly in comparison? “We were stupid! We kinda thought we could take our audience with us and real fast. We changed all the time and in a way we thought that’s what made us what we were. We wanted to be like David Bowie - changing from Hunky Dory, to Ziggy, to Young Americans, to Diamond Dogs, to Aladdin Sane, but in an even faster space of time. We always wanted to walk off in totally different direction to the last album, to be more polished, to be more cosmopolitan.”
“And the other thing about ‘Beauty Stab’ was that it was OK, some of it’s alright, but we were impatient. Trevor Horn was finishing off his Yes album, so as that was going to take another 12 months, we just got on with it. We just wanted to produce more music.”
“It would have been interesting to do another record like ‘Lexicon Of Love,’ but maybe we’d have just split up after that instead of making more albums. Swings and roundabouts, really.”
So, why did the original line-up break up in the first place? “Internal differences. It’s different being successful. I’m surprised we survived that period. Very surprised.”
In 2004, the VH-1 show Bands Reunited attempted to get you all back together as the original band, but only succeeded with both you and David Palmer. And wow, you really looked taken aback in the restaurant at the start of the show! “Yeah, it was classic,” he laughs. “I went to this restaurant with Nick Beggs [Kajagoogoo] who was just trying his hardest all day to get me to go out to dinner with him. And it was kinda weird as he kept looking over my shoulder at the table. And then I got the tap on the shoulder and there’s this big film crew there. They kinda pounce on you!”
But, come the end of the show, they could only get David Palmer and yourself to agree to the reunion. Expected or unexpected? “Yeah, Dave Palmer agreed to it, but the original core member Mark White didn’t. He was very talented but retired from the music totally. He rarely leaves the house and became really reclusive. And the other guy was Steve Singleton who left many years ago who still lives off that, but didn’t show either.”
Is there ever hope for an original line-up ABC reunion tour one day though? “Yes, always, of course. It could be good. I mean, the thing is though the musicians I work with now are better. It’s like being in a football team that’s just playing better because of some new signings. There’s a real bond between us here. It’s not like they’re just a bunch of session guys. And funnily enough, I’ve been together with some of these guys longer than I ever was with someone like Steve Singleton. No regrets though.”
It’s been said that you were one of the first bands to do “video scratching” for several videos from the ‘How To Be A … Zillionaire’ album, including the video for ‘Be Near Me.’ Please explain this more “Yeah, in the clubs back in the mid-‘80s they used to play videos but they didn’t really know how to play them. So, we’d just splice our videos up with stuff off TV - amusing stuff, like ‘Abigail's Party' or something - and then cut it in with our own videos. It was mainly to get a video to fit the 12” versions. In club land we were very, very popular and had a lot of Billboard #1s in America, probably from that. Kids were going out to clubs, hearing our stuff, seeing us on the screens, and then buying the records. It was kind of impressionistic. It was alongside MTV and stuff.”
The newest album ‘Traffic’ was released to high praise and does indeed carry some classic-sounding ABC vibes to it. But it did seem to take a long time to get to us “Yeah, it was written over a long period of time. I hadn’t written any new songs for a long time because I was out performing live, so I just collected songs. And when that bag was full I kinda recorded them. It was strange though making a record that lasted 50 minutes with stuff from different periods. To make it all sound immediate and together.”
If I may ask, a while back you were treated for Hodgkin's Disease and I was wondering if that was something that was successful? “Yes, it was. It doesn’t recur. Ten years on and it’s gone.”
Are there lyrics to songs that you sing now that make no sense to you these days and looking back you’ve no idea where they even came from? “Oh yeah,” he laughs. “When we did the Royal Albert Hall we had to kind of go back to ‘Lexicon Of Love’ to do mixes and stuff. We did a couple of songs like ‘S.O.S.’ and putting them in the setting of an orchestra. And stuff like ‘When Smokey Sings’ sounded great in that context. Because with ‘Lexicon Of Love’ it was like a dream come true, genuinely. It was like how we all imagined it originally - as being all lush and orchestrated. And we were able to take it a stage further."
"But there was some stuff like ‘4 Ever 2 Gether’ that we’re gonna do tonight. There’s a lyric in it that’s definitely sort of 17 year-olds Sixth Form poetry. But, it’s kind of interesting singing it now as a 50 year-old man. Where it’s kinda cocky, and it’s full of rhymes and schemes to compete with Elvis Costello or someone. There’s a lot of truth in it still.”
“But some other lyrics are just there to amuse and entertain. Some are there to paint a picture. There’s a song called ‘That Was Then, But This Is Now’ and BBC Radio 4 had this thing called, ‘The World’s Worst Lyrics’ and they had it in there in the Top 10. There was a U2 song and an Oasis song in there also. They were actually analyzing it so I had to go down and talk about. That was kind of interesting. But I kinda thought that 25 years on that it should still be alive to people was great.”
Come March 17 to 26th, 2010, you‘ll be with Richard Drummie (Go West) going to the unspoilt wilderness of Namibia in Africa, to endure a 7-day trek and raise money for sick babies and children. Tell us more “Oh yeah, thanx. It’s for Action Medical Research. We did a past trek in Venezuela and one in Costa Rica and they develop a lot of the technology that goes into scans on new born babies and such. So yeah, myself and Richard Drummie and about 40 other people are all going to be on this trek. If people out there want to go, they get sponsorship. You have to sponsor yourself for about 2,000 GBP or 3,000 GBP for this 3 week journey.”
Where did the inspiration for ‘When Smokey Sings’ come from and did it surprise you the huge amount of success that it garnered? “Not really, no. I was really ill and so was listening to a lot of music. And realizing that music’s really uplifting, makes you feel good and changes your mood. It’s really powerful. So, I started thinking about Motown and Stax and Chess and then Bowie and Roxy, all the music I listened to as a kid. So that’s where the song ‘When Smokey Sings’ came from. It’s about how good you feel when you put a dime in a jukebox and hear your favorite tune.”
And it will be played tonight? “Well, I mean, Detroit … Rock City … ‘When Smokey Sings’ … where else should you play it in the world? It always gets a massive response.”
Can we also expect another dashing suit for tonight’s show? “Oh yeah. I’ve got a nice one downstairs. I’ve got some smart clobber for the stage tonight.”
And finally, with the sudden, and tragic passing of Michael Jackson a couple of days ago, what are your thoughts or memories of the man? “He died young. He died young. He had another ten years in him, definitely. Everybody in the UK was waiting for him because of that sold-out tour. I mean, he was rehearsing at the Staples Center at 10 o’clock Thursday night and then dead Friday 12 o’clock. That’s just wrong. He was a massive icon. He was Elvis of this generation. His music was fantastic. ‘Off The Wall’ and ‘Thriller.’ Yeah, definitely. We had the same manager as him, Ron Weisner. But no, I never met him."
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
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