As pop theorists go, Martin Fry has been there, done that more than most. As vocalist and lyricist with ABC, whose Trevor Horn produced 1982 debut album, The Lexicon Of Love, was one of the earliest definers of glossy, state-of-art ambition, Fry wore his heart on his gold lame sleeve, but archly. He also understood the value of a classic melody, and how, when set to a studiedly lovelorn lyric, it could produce something achingly timeless. The way it’s turned out, a quarter of a century on, The Lexicon Of Love’s mix of over the top strings, white-funk slap-bass, airbrushed sax and Fairlight sheen, all wrapped around Fry’s suburban croon, now sounds as quintessentially 80s as a pink neon-lit cocktail bar.
How all this will translate when Martin Fry dusts down the gold lame next week to join his technologically inclined peers The Human League and Heaven 17 for the Glasgow leg of the grandiosely named Sheffield Steel City Tour, remains to be seen. ABC, after all, haven’t exactly been in the spotlight of late. Nor indeed have they been that way for a couple of decades. The Lexicon Of Love may have captured the spirit of what Paul Morley dubbed New Pop in a way that set the template for Morley and Horn’s ZTT label a couple of years later, but Fry was too smart to stand still.
New Pop was a grandiose confection that aimed to streamline post-punk via a form of musical entryism that sounded subversively conceptual. But the albums immediately following Lexicon, 1983’s Beauty Stab and the cartoon styled How To Be A…Zillionaire!, released in 1984, moved too fast for the public to grab hold of them. Even the title of Beauty Stab’s first single, That Was Then, But This Is Now, was telling. Three more albums marked a band increasingly out of, or possibly ahead of their time. Maybe Fry was a misunderstood victim of 1980s excess and the fickleties of fashion. More likely, he was probably just too clever for his own good.
“What would Frank Sinatra or Cole Porter sound like with a Fairlight?” a chipper sounding Fry muses today with still lofty-sounding hindsight. “That was the thinking behind The Lexicon Of Love. It was frustrating not seeing Subway Sect on Top Of The Pops. That came out of a desperation really, of having to put up with people like Queen and Tangerine Dream. But people like the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and Dr Feelgood, they were incredible.”
This litter of reference points is telling of Fry’s beginnings as a writer for his Sheffield-based fanzine, Modern Drugs.
“I reviewed anything and everything, Fry says of his initiative. “Even what was going on in the super-market. It impressed girls and got me into gigs for free, which, as a young man at the time, these were the things that mattered.”
It was while interviewing local electronic act Vice Versa that Fry and his subjects found common ground enough to prompt a shift into a more ambitious direction. Following the commencement of Fry’s tenure as lead vocalist, a band wasn’t so much formed as a pop manifesto forged.
The end result, The Lexicon Of Love, is an astonishing album, and remains one of the most consciously epic set of post-modern moon-in-june love songs ever made. Brash, audacious, aspirational and just a little bit naff and out of its depth, its singles, Tears Are Not Enough, The Look Of Love (parenthesised with a portentous Part One) and Poison Arrow, raised the bar both in terms of production values and in its attempt to reinvigorate pop music itself. Most over the top of all was All Of My Heart, a lushly sentimental heartbreaker that was lyrically cheesy enough to resemble a Jackie magazine photo romance penned in rhyming dictionary couplets. Wrapped up in an orchestral arrangement so big it teeters on the edge, and some might say falls in head first, of camp, the song is irresistibly massive.
“When I was growing up,” Fry says, “the charts were full of Val Doonican and Cilla Black. My generation – Duran Duran, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Pet Shop Boys – there was a feeling of us all wanting to take our music forward. That was a very political statement, to do something so glossy as well as so funky. We loved Shack Up by A Certain Ratio, but we wanted it to be like Earth, Wind And Fire as well.”
Fry was born in Manchester, and was weaned on a local music scene itself full of incident and colour via Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. Moving to Sheffield for college, Fry discovered a scene that was “more oblique and very left-field. It was more influenced by Kraftwerk.”
Bands including Cabaret Voltaire and an early incarnation of The Human League known as The Future would play to each other. As with The Human League, and that band’s offshoot Heaven 17, ABC had their eye on the main pop chance. Over the last twenty years, fortunes for both bands have been mixed.
“You just burn out,” Fry says calmly. “I had a good run at it for twelve years, but it’s like you’ve got a camera and take pictures all the time, then there comes a point when you just leave it on a shelf and stop using it. It’s about where your head’s at. You can try and write to order, and meet someone in a hotel room on a Wednesday afternoon, but as you get older, you don’t necessarily want to be doing that any more.”
Fry revamped the ABC name a decade ago, and in 2004, VH1’s Bands Reunited attempted to get the original ABC line-up back together. Fry and drummer David Palmer made it, and the pair continue to tour today. Fry has also toured with former Spandau Ballet vocalist Tony Hadley, and in 2006 appeared on Just The Two Of Us, a reality TV show that paired singers with showbusiness personalities. Coupled with Gaby Roslin, Fry’s new dream team lost out in the first round to Nicky Campbell and Beverley Knight. The experience was by Fry’s own admission, “S****! There’s something about television that flattens everything out. Rick Astley was a really personable guy, though.”
Despite such misguided adventures, Fry perhaps shouldn’t be written off as a revivalist cabaret turn too soon. In 2007, after all, ABC and The Human League played in front of 15,000 people at The Hollywood Bowl. The scale of the event on the back of a 1980s nostalgia boom is clearly something which awes Fry still.
“You’re standing up there where Frank Sinatra played,” he swoons. “That’s a really strange feeling, but the 1980s have become part of history now, and you hear your records on the radio again. But because of video it’s very visual as well, and lots of videos from that time have become like this weird art form. People had nerve then, and pop was this devil-may-care world.”
When he’s not playing, these days Fry is rather fond of the Robert Plant and Allison Krauss album, and is even more partial to a bit of Goldfrapp. But “everything’s in a state of flux now, accelerating so fast, with access to everything.”
Including, one presumes, the recent ABC album, Traffic, which was released in April this year.
“I realise the world’s not holding its breath waiting for another ABC album,” Fry observes, “so I thought I may as well make it big. The Steel City tour’s great, and it’s a great honour in 2008 to be able to sing The Look Of Love, but Traffic’s the icing on the cake.
There’s a line on the song Many Happy Returns, which appears as track three on The Lexicon Of Love that illustrates perfectly the place where Fry and ABC occupy just now. ‘Like The Phoenix Coming Back From The Ashes,’ it says. ‘I Know What’s Good, But I Know What Trash Is.’
“There really should be a spa or a hospital or somewhere for anyone who’s had a hit record and then doesn’t anymore,” Fry reflects. “It’s painful when you’re number one and then you’re not. You stick around and people say are you still here, but give it another couple of years and the same people are calling you a hero.”
ABC play as part of the Sheffield Steel City Tour with The Human League and Heaven 17at Carling Academy, Glasgow, Sun 30th November
The Herald, November 15th 2008