Monday, 3 May 2010

11. The Lexicon of Love - ABC

Purchased : July 1982

Tracks : Show Me / Poison Arrow / Many Happy Returns / Tears Are Not Enough / Valentine's Day / The Look of Love / Date Stamp / All Of My Heart / 4 Ever 2 Gether / The Look Of Love (Part Four)

I've long regarded this purchase as the real start of my album collection. It took place while the record was still at number one in the charts (a rare occurrence in this story) and was bought with regular pocket money. No longer dependent on gifts and windfalls , the collection grew steadily over my last year at school and, barring the odd financial hiatus, has done so ever since. But that's the silver lining. The money was freed up by the demise of the Littleborough Travelling Society in which was bound up the last of my childhood friendships (a tale told in more detail on sister blog ). The last ever LTS event took place just a month before this album arrived. So it was born out of pain and the next few entries (especially the one immediately following) reflect that.

But back to ABC. I already know that this is one of Marcello's favourites but it will take him some time to get to it on his own blog. For this is the "New Pop" album par excellence, lush, stylish, technologically advanced, knowing and of course a major commercial success to a degree that, say, Scritti Politti and the Associates rever quite managed. To its detractors and there are some; it is cynical and ugly, the sound of clever white boys repackaging the best of Motown and Philly without the soul.

Although they are often tagged wrongly as New Romantics, ABC came out of the Brit-funk movement of 1981 hitting the charts at the end of the year with the rather raw "Tears Are Not Enough". The leap from that to the next single "Poison Arrow" was quite astonishing, the vital new ingredient being the input of producer Trevor Horn and his team who had impressed with their work on a couple of singles by Dollar but this is the work which would seal their reputation.

Now Dollar were just the two pretty faces that The Buggles lacked so the question arises, how much of ABC is there on this record ? Well the words and vocals are indisputably Martin Fry's, his pale approximation of Tony Hadley's vocal style being one of the easier points to attack on the record. David Palmer has been much in demand as a drummer since leaving the band after this LP and there's no other credited so one presumes it's all him. Mark White is credited with guitar and keyboards but there isn't that much of the former and after J J Jeczalik on the Fairlight and Anne Dudley on the piano have done their stuff it's unlikely much of the keyboard work is White's. Steve Singleton, the archetypal underemployed sax player is barely heard throughout. On the other hand bassist Mark Lickley's work is retained on the first three singles despite being sacked for commitment issues after "Poison Arrow" and being clearly inferior to session man Brad Lang who appears on the other tracks.

This is a very homogenous album. Despite boasting three top 10 singles plus a buffed-up version of "Tears Are Not Enough" it is best heard as a whole. While not a concept album in the "Tommy" sense, there is a unifying theme as Fry explores the nature of love as both participant and observer using customary tropes in both language and music to express himself. Horn uses serious musicianship in the shape of Dudley and advanced synthesiser technology in the form of Jeczalik's Fairlight (there are no real strings on the LP at all ) to bring the vision to life.

Jeczalik is heard straightaway with a little overture before "Show Me" begins in earnest with a bendy Bernard Edwards bass line from Lang and solid drumming from Palmer. It owes a lot to Chic. The verses are two part- the first being urgent and personal, the second laid back and observational with "strings" swelling in the background. The chorus sees Fry demanding some sign of love from his girl while referencing the Motown classic "I Second That Emotion" which goes to the heart of people's objections to this record. Can you make "authentic" pop music if you're that self-conscious about the process ? The line "She might look pretty but there's make up on her face" seems provocative in this context.

"Poison Arrow" follows next, a perfect pop single that left the world of Beggar & Co and Funkapolitan far behind. This is an entirely personal song with Fry in the same boat as Joe Jackson on "It's Different For Girls" , humiliated when he sought commitment. Even so the Stupid /Cupid rhyme has of course been used before on a Brill Building classic. The climax of the song is the devastating "I care enough to know I could never love you " delivered in appropriately deadpan tones by one Karen Clayton (unfortunately forgotten in the sleeve credits).

"Many Happy Returns" belies its greeting card title. It seems to be about an office romance gone wrong though the lyrics become less focussed as the song progresses. There's maybe a sly nod to fellow Sheffield act Heaven 17 in the "axis /fascist" rhyme. It begins with White's teasing guitar riff and Fry's introductory verse before Palmer's drums and White's power chords turn it into a rock song. Fry sings the middle eight in a weak falsetto before giving way to Tessa Webb (soon to become session royalty as Tessa Niles ) for the final chorus. There's then a jazzy organ solo to round things off before four crashing chords from Dudley signify the end.

Then we're into the re-worked "Tears Are Not Enough" where the roles are reversed and it's Fry who's doing the rejecting. The sound has been considerably filled out with extra horns and Dudley's elegant piano and the striking percussion only break on the single has been replaced with a dainty harpsichord line possibly influenced by The Stranglers' recent success with "Golden Brown".

The mighty "Valentine's Day" follows with its huge drums and blaring Fairlight intro. A short interlude of xylophone and piano underscored by Lang's fretless bass precedes Fry's entrance with the line "When the postman don't call on Valentine's Day" as the synthetic strings swell up to meet him. Musically this is the most dramatic track of all with Jeczalik using the same Fairlight sound used to such heart-stopping effect in the outro to Dollar's "Videotheque" but I don't think Fry's lyric matches up to it. "That umbrella won't work on a rainy day" is unnervingly reminiscent of Alanis Morrisette's "Ironic". But worse than that is ending each verse with the nonsensical "Don't ask me I already know". And the last couplet which includes the words dancing lessons in order to rhyme "millionaire" with "Fred Astaire" is both clumsy and corny.

Side Two begins with "The Look Of Love" , the biggest hit and probably their signature song. Fry has once again been abandoned but still has faith in the ideal of love. The track is dominated by syrupy strings although White's Nile Rodgers choppy guitar is prominent in the chorus. There's a spoken middle eight where Fry actually namechecks himself, perhaps picked up from another Sheffield singer Phil Oakey with his "This is Phil talking" line in "Love Action" . In some ways this LP is the successor to "Dare" , taking the idea of putting state of the art technology to pure pop one step further.

The next track "Date Stamp" is probably my favourite with Fry successfully nailing his all too topical metaphor of love as commerce for the whole song and Horn finding the crunching bass sound that would give him his biggest hit of all 18 months later. It also boasts the most effective use of a cash till as instrument since Floyd's "Money". Another reason to cherish this song is the prominent part given to Tessa Webb whose warm-hearted rebuke of "Love has no guarantee" cuts right through Fry's carping and when he joins in with her on the last chorus it seems like she has won the argument.

"All Of My Heart" is many people's favourite but not mine. For me it lacks drama in its medium-paced stateliness. Essentially Fry is mourning a lost love though the second verse suggests a more casual compensatory hook-up which doesn't work out because "skip the hearts and flowers, skip the ivory towers " and sex is lacking something.

"4 Ever 2 Gether" which pre-dates Prince's use of numbers as shorthand is a strange song which points to the way they would go on their next LP with its big rock chords , thunderous Padgham-esque drum break and preference for analogue synth rather than Fairlight string sounds. It begins with the slowed down vocal phrase "Speak. No. Evil" and a keyboard alarm that recalls the intro to "Echo Beach". The lyric is somewhat scizophrenic with the verses talking of rejected marriage proposals and the chorus proclaiming the strength of the bond.

Then we're just left with the "The Look of Love Part 4" a short instrumental reprise featuring harpist Gaynor Sadler which had the misfortune to be adopted as the sign off tune for Gary Davies' "Bit in The Middle" Radio One show for the rest of the decade. Still I don't suppose they minded the royalties.

I have to come down on Marcello's side on this one. It is a great LP even if you don't buy into the whole "New Pop" concept. ABC never managed to follow it up though the speedy fragmentation of the band can't have helped. We will eventually come to its flawed and fascinating successor but I lost interest when they became a cartoon band. When they re-emerged with "When Smokey Sings" in 1987 a facsimile of the "Lexicon" sound they conceded the point themselves.

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