Martin Fry, the voice and sole remaining member of ABC, is a man of no regrets. The affected schmaltz, the gold lamé suits, the saxophones, and the earnest odes to Motown were all parts of the grand design envisioned when the group evolved out of Vice Versa in 1981. While Vice Versa featured minimal electronics and obtuse lyrics in keeping with other Sheffield bands of the era like The Human League and Clock DVA, he and collaborators Mark White and Stephen Singleton decided they needed to make a bigger, broader pop statement with ABC.
Fry also loves being a man “out of time.” For many, ABC begins and ends with the Lexicon of Love album. The Trevor Horn–produced debut arrived in 1982 at the height of the new romantic movement and pushed those aesthetics over the top with a series of hits replete with spy thriller narratives, swells of orchestral drama, and glossy synths. Hit single “The Look of Love” is the unmistakable sound of the excess present in the halcyon days of the early ‘80s.
These days, Fry is quite content to represent that era, but also wants, in retrospect, for listeners to realize ABC continued to evolve. By their third album,1985’s How to Be a Zillionaire, they were experimenting with sampling and 808s, and in 1989 they traveled to Detroit to glean insight from Frankie Knuckles and the burgeoning house scene there for their criminally under-appreciated fifth record, Up. ABC came full circle in 2016 with the release of Lexicon of Love II. That sequel, though indebted to the pomp and circumstance of the original, arrived fresh and invigorating, revealing how the blueprint ABC created four decades ago is still relevant in the now.
I caught up with Fry via Zoom in the middle of ABC’s current tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of Lexicon.
This being the 40th anniversary of Lexicon of Love, I’m curious to know how you arrived at that sound. I just saw a video of Vice Versa in 1980 for the first time, and it was very “punk” and had a much darker edge to it than ABC. What brought about the transition to what you would do on the first ABC record?
Martin Fry: Vice Versa was very underground, very leftfield. They started as a trio and one of the guys left right as I was interviewing them for my fanzine. They asked me if I wanted to join the band. This was before synths; people were making their own synths with oscillators in Sheffield. Vice Versa didn’t have hit records, but they were quite successful. Long story short, a friend in Holland let us use his studio, and that’s when we decided to rip up the blueprint and start from scratch. It is odd because we were doing well as Vice Versa. But we were listening to Motown records, funk records, The Cure and Bowie, Bolan and Roxy, so with ABC, we made an amalgamation of that. When we all of the sudden blew up Vice Versa, it catalyzed us and really made us focus. I remember doing an NME interview with Paul Morley, and he kept asking Vice Versa questions. We had to keep insisting that we weren’t that anymore.
How did Trevor Horn become involved? Did you have the idea of the super-orchestral, polished sound before he joined on? Was he the producer you wanted from the beginning to help with that sound?
MF: If you ask Trevor, we had a very strong idea of how we wanted to sound. Lexicon is one of the first albums he ever produced. He didn’t wave a magic wand and all of a sudden it was there, it was a collaboration. There was never a battle of egos, and it was always meant to be flamboyant. We wanted to move away from post-modernism and reinvent show business, and Trevor definitely helped us do that. We came out with our tuxedos with the goal of both antagonizing and entertaining. We should have definitely done the follow-up with Trevor, but he was working with Yes. So Mark (White) and I had to learn a few things in the studio. Learn by failing, I guess.
How was the camaraderie with other successful Sheffield bands at the time? Both Human League and Heaven 17 were both breaking around the time of Lexicon of Love. Was there animosity or did you all cheer each other along?
MF: It wasn’t a hippie community of peace and love, because there was definitely competition. But you’d see the guys from Clock DVA and Human League just walking down the street. When we played in Sheffield, we’d play to about 250 people, and 247 of them were in bands. So those were the toughest shows. I remember seeing Joe Elliott of Def Leppard or even Saxon at our shows, and they were all really helpful because we were so naive when we started. Everyone in Sheffield was trying to be as original as they could and avoid doing what anyone else was trying. It was a very stimulating place to be in the ‘80s.
I suppose you could say this about each subsequent record—and that’s something I don’t think gets talked about a lot—but after the huge success of Lexicon, the shift to Beauty Stab was equally dramatic. What was the drive to steer away from that original sound?
MF: At that point, we had so much success with Lexicon that we thought we could take the audience wherever we wanted to go. That’s the sophomore jinx. That’s what a lot of acts do. We had traveled all over the world by the time we returned to Sheffield, and we wanted something that was rawer. So either we were ahead of our time or quite behind the times at that point. What we didn’t realize is that people really wanted to hear more of the Lexicon, and some people resented the fact that we didn’t come back with more of that.
Strangely, that huge success in America didn’t come until Alphabet City and “When Smokey Sings.” Why do you think that album caught hold when it did, particularly in America?
MF: Then we got back in the frame. Tina Turner actually wanted us to tour with her on that album, but we couldn’t do it in the end. We were on the cusp of something big. We did stupid things. We got invited to a screening for a film and they wanted us to provide some music, but it was about air pilots and some guy named Maverick, and I remember Mark saying, “No one will ever watch this.” We would often shoot ourselves in the foot. It’s just part of being an artist.
Were you able to hear the impact those ‘80s records made in the ‘90s and ‘00s? What do you think was the lasting impact of those records?
MF: I really think that the Weeknd in particular has honed in on that vintage mid-80s sound. I’ve met a lot of bands that consider us an influence, so that’s always nice to hear. The nice thing about something like Spotify is that everyone can hear everything now, the highs and the lows.
What prompted you to do a sequel to Lexicon? For some reason, I can’t find it anywhere here in America, and I think it’s important for people to hear this next chapter. It’s exquisite.
MF: For years I kind of ran away from the idea. I didn’t like the responsibility of carrying that up the hill. But then we did a show at the Royal Albert Hall where we were doing orchestral versions of those songs, and people were very invested in that music. I thought about how much people have changed and evolved over the years. I’m not 22 anymore, but in a lot of ways, that’s much more interesting to me. I suppose we approached it more like Tom Waits might. So I started writing songs that were tied to that orchestra again. It was originally called Lexicon of the Lost Ideal, but then as we were putting it together, it just had the feel of the first album, especially “Flames of Desire” and “Viva Love,” so we made it a sequel. Who knows? Now I’m thinking of making a third record.
What can audiences expect from the 40th anniversary shows in America? You’re obviously not touring with an orchestra?
MF: We’ve got a really great six-piece band and we just journey through the ABC catalog.
On Lexicon of Love II, the song “Brighter Than the Sun” says, “I’m a man out of time, looking for a mountain to climb.” So what’s that mountain?
MF: I like being the elder statesmen. I quite enjoy younger musicians asking me why I sang “yippee-ai-yippee-ayai” on a record 40 years ago or hip-hop producers letting me know how much they appreciated the beats on “(How to Be A) Millionaire.” The rewards feel good. The mountain to climb? There’s got to be a challenge when you perform, or else you’re putting people to sleep. The challenge for me is to make another record.