The greatest music debuts of all time #5: ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love

Few tracks evoke the spirit of 1982 as vividly as ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love. In an era of post-punk synth-poppers, the Sheffield group — guided by high-concept producer Trevor Horn — managed to create a widescreen sound that soared from the speakers in boiling technicolour. 

When U2 and Brian Eno hitched a ride to became Passengers and went for weird on 1995’s Original Soundtracks 1, their stated ambition was to create a suite of cinematic pieces to serve as an imaginary soundtrack (mostly) for imaginary movies. Well, ABC got there a good thirteen years earlier, without even trying.

The Lexicon Of Love, the album for which Martin Fry—my former Kilburn compatriot who turns 60 today*—and ABC are best remembered, is still considered a classic. In fact, its legend has only grown in time and is one of the defining albums of 1980s pop, a record that turned the grey skies of Britain to vivid cerulean blue.

Let’s do this.

Vice Versa circa ’80: Fry, Singleton, White

The context: A chance collision between a broken heart, a producer trying to figure out what the ‘80s ought to sound like, and a journalist singer with a poetic gift for wordplay came together to create The Lexicon Of Love. Martin Fry had joined Mark White and Stephen Singleton in Vice Versa after he interviewed them for a Sheffield fanzine called Modern Drugs. Little of their work reached the wider public, but a couple of singles and a cassette album were released. After seeing Chic in concert, the band retreated from view to work up a new sound. Out went the edgier electronica and in came strings – lots of them – and a more club-oriented approach.

The band now known as ABC, in honour of the Jackson 5, had a hunch that Martin’s sharp lyrical wit would play well against a more rhythmic orchestration, and they caught the ear of Trevor Horn, the former Buggles boy who’d started making a name for himself as sonic synthesist for one-time MOR act Dollar, an intriguing “Vince Hill does Kraftwerk” hybrid which Martin later billed the production as “widescreen”.

In an era when rock, punk, and disco had all faltered, Horn was high-end, and working with future Art Of Noise musicians Anne Dudley, JJ Jeczalik and Gary Langan he was to find cinematic scale again. He kept an eye on the future, finding it in a band fronted by a fellow whose slightly awkward looks weren’t going to get in the way of his glamorous, lovesick art. Fry bestrode the territory like a knowing nouveau-glam mastermind, treading in the ironic footsteps of Bryan Ferry and David Bowie as he effortlessly juggled camp, kitsch and sardonic wit

Band and producer gelled immediately when they met to record Poison Arrow. Dance music had rarely been as literate: Horn described Fry’s songs as “like disco, but in a Bob Dylan way”. Fry was equally effusive, observing that “most producers look in terms of limitations,” says Fry. “Horn looked in terms of possibilities.”

The greatness: We all fell hard for The Lexicon Of Love didn’t we, in that summer of Smash Hits, 1982? It felt like it. To say that ABC injected some glamour back into the people’s music was an understatement. The album stands as a landmark record in British pop, yet it almost felt like contraband in my record collection, which was dominated by the dark and dirty (Visage, Echo & The Bunnymen) or the stark and silly (Human League, Adam Ant)

In a way, Lexicon’s synthetic Eighties’ drum-thwacks and Chic-esque bass lines actually sound better now than they ever did. It gave disco a whole new vocabulary and helped pave the way for the dance movements of the late Eighties and Nineties. A certain Smash Hits journalist and would-be songwriter was furiously taking notes.

The rhythm section bolted right through the door onto the dance floor, the strings enveloped poor lovelorn Martin Fry, and the whole shebang was so beautifully florid, so exaggerated, so damned catchy – you wanted to hear the whole album a second time before it was even half over.

That heartache offset whatever pleasure Fry took in being recruited by ABC, but he put it to good use throughout Lexicon. Across 10 tracks, he describes the exact dimensions of his romantic discontent using the cold terminology of business and fashion. “When I accepted this job, I was resigned to my fate,” he sings on the opening of Many Happy Returns, a take on love only slightly more gentle than that of the hit single The Look Of Love (Pt. 1), in which the very idea of beauty seems to drive him crazy.

Meanwhile, Horn produces and polishes the whole thing to within an inch of its life, using all his tricks to create irresistibly funky crease-sharp pop that, uniquely, layered Nile Rodgers’ and Bernard Edwards’ immaculate productions for Chic with Nelson Riddle’s dramatic orchestrations for Frank Sinatra. 

The result was slick, sophisticated and melancholy, a cinemascope study of romance spun out across orchestral strings and golden age Hollywood glamour. It borrows the rich orchestration of Norrie Paramor records of great British Sixties pop and spun it through Horn’s crisp production cycle to create something effortlessly modern, but somehow rather classical as well. And with his anxiety-ridden lyrics about illusions of beauty and improbability of love, it sometimes felt as if Fry owed as much to pre-Beatles heartthrobs Adam Faith and the gold lamé-clad Billy Fury as he did to anything more contemporary.

Defining songs: Album opener Show Me is a call to arms, insistent in its tone and the perfect sonic manifesto the band had set its sights on – fusing the ambition of groups such as Magazine with the sound of Chic. 

Although stuck in the watery bongos and brass broth of late ’81 cult punk-funk (Pigbag, Spandau Ballet’s Chant No.1), complete with a thick bassline that is trying very hard not to be Good Times, debut single Tears Are Not Enough was evidently a strong song, as proud and unforgiving a statement of intent as any since the Futurist manifesto.

Second single Poison Arrow was where Horn moved ABC away from the funk, and towards the old Chic device of deploying disco memes as emotional minefields. The scenario of Tears is reversed; here Fry is the one being dumped, and the music resonates and rages all around him like an irate cathedral (Singleton’s saxophone, now determinedly late Roxy Music era Mackay, swarms around the singer’s head like an admonitory bumblebee). Nobody else was daring to rhyme “Cupid “with “stupid,” nor with such force.

Poison Arrow is a pop record of such greatness it more or less sent everybody else back to the drawing board. Just as soon as the Human League’s Dare had been felt to be pushing the pop envelope as far as it wished to be pushed, Poison Arrow elevated the bar again (“Raise your aim!”). A record so brilliantly and logically constructed that Noel Edmonds was moved on his Sunday morning  Radio 1 show to offer a lengthy peroration on the tactics and strategies which made it such a great record, both subverting and expanding the disco norm, as Martin Fry extrapolates:

“We were trying to fuse our love of Chic and Earth, Wind and Fire and Change with our love of Joy Division and Bowie and Roxy and Costello….and countless others. Two worlds colliding. We tried to make Poison Arrow like a mini-opera with an emotional charge that took you through the highs and lows of unrequited love. We milked the drama . We didn’t want any of our songs to have fades. Just a big explosive ending. Everlasting Love and Eloise do that too, I guess. We wanted everything to be amplified and exaggerated. That’s why the drums are as big as we could make them in the middle section. Crashing down.”

As Trevor Horn revealed in Simon Reynolds’ post-punk history Rip It Up And Start Again, The Look Of Love has a meta moment that cuts through all the layers of irony at play: “Lexicon is all about Martin getting dumped by this specific girl… When Martin sings, ‘When your girl has left you out on the pavement’ and then there’s a girl going, ‘Goodbye!’, well, that’s the girl.” That it borrows its title from the Bacharach and David songbook seems perfectly fitting. There was much in the way of ear-grabbing sonic trickery, too, not least Stephen Singleton’s saxophone parts swathed in AMS digital delay and Lexicon 224 digital reverb. Horn again:

“I said to Gary, ‘You’ve got to get a sound on this record where all that Steve has to do is play one note and it sounds fantastic.’ And he did it. I thought it was amazing.”

And the song just won’t stop building; the “Arrow” drum rolls are back but now exultant and celebratory, until strings scrape the sky, Fry rejuvenates some old Stax memes (“Sisters and bro-THERS!”) and by the time he is screaming a Frankie Laine cowboy paraphrase, there was the warm knowledge that pop music could get no greater than this. Mind you, one of the most stunning tracks, Date Stamp, was never even a single. As cash registers ding and saxes moan, Fry sings about his heart being up for sale, concluding, “Everything is temporary, written in the sand / looking for the girl that meets supply with demand.” It’s the sound of someone who sees a market depression coming on fast.

All My Heart is described by Jess Harvell of Pitchfork as “ABC’s slickest and most gorgeous single, and yet also possibly their most bitter. Martin Fry alternates between open hearted and suspicious, warm and resentful with the turn of a phrase. The outro–a powerful swirl of soundtrack strings, plucked bass, and cascading piano–is undoubtedly the most purely beautiful music of the era.

The mixes on The Lexicon Of Love proved to be as dramatic and dynamic as its songs, with much in the way of volume contrast, and the strings and key drum fills pushed to the foreground. “That’s what we were aiming for,” says Horn. “We were aiming to keep you interested all the way through, not let it flag anywhere. Keep the arrangements exciting, because that’s what Nelson Riddle used to do with Frank Sinatra.”

Released in the UK on 21 June 1982 (the week I became a teenager, apropos of everything) The Lexicon of Love boasted a triumvirate of huge hits, not only in the charts but most certainly at my school disco. Poison Arrow reached number 6, The Look Of Love at 4 (despite or maybe because of the terribly cheesy video) and end-of-the-night-smoocher All Of My Heart was their third consecutive top tenner when it reached fifth position. 

I think part of the reason the trio were such huge hit singles because they captured a wonderful dramatic but elegant quality that only a well constructed pop song can do. Martin had taken on the task of penning the liner notes on the rear of their records (the whole sleevenote-as-manifesto schtick must have come from label mates Dexys Midnight Runners, who in the summer of 1981 had a hit with a very different song entitled Show Me).

Fry’s liners for the Look Of Love 45 were probably his best, and I think he meant it rather than sending up the pre-Beatles concept. “My ambition is to make a record you can cherish and be ‘Number One’ in your personal chart,” he wrote. “maybe ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ will be such a record.” We were about to find out.

The Lexicon Of Love had created a platform the band ultimately struggled to build from. The success had been so sudden, the praise perhaps a little too loud. Martin famously tried to flush his gold lamé jacket – so evocative of this era and central to the band’s look – down a toilet in Japan, and 1983’s follow-up, Beauty Stab, was a determined attempt to leave the sound and style behind. In time, however, the band would feel comfortable enough to return to it.

There are echoes of The Lexicon Of Love in 1987’s Alphabet City and the band’s greatest later success, the glorious When Smokey Sings. Fry, now the sole remaining member, bravely returned to it for a sequel with Anne Dudley and producer Gary Stevenson… naturally entitled The Lexicon Of Love II in 2016.

Alas, lest we forget that Lexicon remains a distrusted record in some quarters, probably because it doesn’t really comfort the listener. It is not a reassuring record. And history, as we all know, gets written by the victors, and so it is people like Duran Duran and Culture Club who are now regarded as avatars of the era, whereas nearly all of the originators of New Pop are never mentioned, or confined to the oldies package tour trail (hello fellow Yorkshire pioneers Human League, Heaven 17), as though New Pop and New Romantic were interchangeable, rather than two parallel developments.

People generally prefer to be told things they already know, though some people really know nothing.

Heaven’s above.

Steve Pafford

Martin’s main residence is a six-bedroom Edwardian house on the borders of Kilburn and West Hampstead in North West London, round the corner from Edwin Collins and non-relation Stephen Fry. It’s also the area of the capital I lived from 1994-2010. Yes, I used to see him around, no we didn’t speak, though I did manage to bag an invitation to catch the ABC episode of VH1’s Bands Reunited in 2004. That’s not me in the 69 top or anything, obviously…

BONUS BEATS: “Down in space it’s always 1982.” — David Bowie, 2002 

While The Look Of Love was being tracked David Bowie and Tony Visconti dropped in to say hello. Hugely impressed by ABC’s work, and by The Look Of Love in particular, Bowie made various suggestions to Fry about what could be done with the song, including possibly the talkover section (“They say, hey Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love…”) and an idea for a montage of telephone answering machine messages which wasn’t taken up but was used on another important album later that year. ABC must have felt blessed, and you kinda wonder if Bowie had stayed loyal to Visconti for 1983’s Let’s Dance instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what ABC et al were doing at the time.

In 2019, Mark White and Stephen Singleton Dailed up the studio story for the Electricity Club: 

MW: “Have you heard the Bowie and ABC story? Ok, well, we were recording The Look Of Love in Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio. We were down in the basement recording and the phone rings ‘Oh, hello, would you mind if David sits in on the session?’ And we were like, ‘David who?”’And it was Bowie!” (laughs)

SS: “He kind of blessed the whole thing.”

MW: “He made a suggestion for the middle of the record, because at that point, there was just a big hole, nothing going on and he said ‘Oh, how about having someone dialling an answerphone, you could have that in the middle.’ But we couldn’t really tell him that we’d already done something very similar in the middle of Poison Arrow.”

SS: “We don’t like your idea!” (laughs)

MW: “This is how utterly stoked I was. We bumped into him again coming in and out of the studio and apparently I had a very erudite conversation with Bowie about Bertolt Brecht. He’d just put out the Baal EP and I said, ‘Oh, I studied Bertolt Brecht for A-Level German’ and we apparently had this amazing conversation, but the trouble is I can’t remember anything about it! I was so nervous and I still don’t know whether Steve’s made the whole thing up!”

SS: “I was sat there nodding my head and thinking ‘What are you talking about? Bertolt who?’; Bowie was going ‘…that was his first play’ and Mark was like ‘ha, ha, ha, yes, you can tell, ha, ha, ha!’ and they were having these in-jokes about Brecht and Weill.”

MW: “I probably did say that, but I have absolutely no memory of it! He was there at the door, I was talking to him, but I blanked out for like half an hour… no memory at all, tragic, that’s fandom!” (laughs)

SS: “Another funny thing about meeting David Bowie was that he did a great Sheffield accent. I remember him hearing me speak in my Sheffield accent and he said ‘Ohhh or, reight thas from Sheffield are tha?’”

MW: “Didn’t Bowie reply ‘Me fatha wo from Donneh?’”

SS: “Yes! Hahaha!”

MW: “To translate. that means ‘My father was from Doncaster!’” Anyway, he then came to see us at Hammersmith Odeon, thank God the roadies didn’t tell us until after. Bowie came and asked to sit with the sound engineer, imagine? I would have wet myself!”

SS: “My brother and sister had to go to the Hammersmith Odeon show and I’d arranged to get them tickets. We were just about to go on the stage and somebody came backstage and said ‘somebody claiming to be your brother has been trying to get into the venue and he’s not got a ticket’. And I was like, ‘Was he with a little girl?’ thinking ‘fuck, that’s my brother and sister, they should have had tickets’ and he said ‘they’re outside’. So five minutes before I’m meant to go onstage, I’m running round the streets of Hammersmith in a glittery suit looking for my brother and sister! Then I find them and I’m like “where are the tickets?” and they go “we never got given them”, so I got them in and they stood at the side of the stage. I remember playing and then looking across and Bowie was watching the gig with my brother and sister. I was still so p***ed off that my brother and sister didn’t get their tickets for the concert.

Years later my brother was up in Sheffield and we were talking about ticket scalpers and he said ‘Yeah, I remember when you played Hammersmith Odeon and you got us tickets and I sold them for so much money’. And I was like ‘What? You sold the tickets? Where’s the fucking money then!’ So he’d sold the tickets and then tried to blag his way into the concert!” (laughs)

MW: “Brothers eh? Fuck ‘em! You know who else was at that gig? Debbie Harry! And she came to the afterparty. My brother was trying to chat up Debbie Harry, I was very proud of him!” (laughs)

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