35 Years Ago: ABC Combine New Wave and Funk on ‘The Lexicon of Love’
Some bands have to struggle for years before they hit the big time. For ABC, on the other hand, it seemed about as easy as 1-2-3.
In reality, although the group made an immediate impact with their earliest releases, they didn't really come out of nowhere. ABC's roots lay in the synth-pop outfit Vice Versa, which started out in the late '70s with original members Stephen Singleton, Mark White, and David Sydenham. Toward the end of the decade, Sydenham left and was replaced by Mark Fry, who initially played synths while White handled the singing. After the other members heard Fry doing vocal vamps during a studio session, however, they decided to overhaul the band's entire approach.
The result was ultimately that Vice Versa faded into ABC — and under its new name and New Wave direction, the group scored a U.K. Top 20 hit with its first single, 1981's "Tears Are Not Enough." As Fry later argued, their quick success reflected their unique approach to pop music in the early '80s.
"We wanted to take our audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride," Fry recalled. "We tried to incorporate two different worlds. We were listening to the Cure and Joy Division along with Earth, Wind and Fire and Chic. It has been a lifelong attempt to try and fuse those two worlds together."
That effort was reflected in a polished sound that embraced sweeping melodrama and danceable rhythms in equal measure, topped off by Fry's achingly emotional vocals and distinctively suave appearance. In an era when image was increasingly important in pop music, ABC drew on the power of a strong visual aesthetic — but it wouldn't have meant much if they hadn't had the music to back it up.
Fortunately, that wasn't a problem for their debut LP. The Lexicon of Love, released June 21, 1982, found the band striding confidently onto the world stage with the assistance of producer Trevor Horn — then still a relative unknown, but facing a decade of incredible success on both sides of the studio boards.
Watch ABC Perform 'The Look of Love'
Woven together as a sort of concept album about the travails of romance for the twentysomething man in the early '80s, the record made its way to the airwaves early in the year, when "Poison Arrow" — soon to become one of their signature hits — started its run up the charts.
"Trevor took us seriously," Fry later explained. "When I grew up, nobody listened to me. That’s why I had to create a world of my own. This guy, he took our little vision of the world seriously. We told him our whole manifesto of why we weren’t going to be like Haircut 100 and all the other bands. The songs weren’t punk songs, they were overblown, romantic and commercial. We had this slogan: ‘change is our stability.' We wanted polish, Frank Sinatra on a Fairlight."
Fresh, fashion-forward, and classic yet cutting edge, ABC's approach was further augmented by the involvement of Anne Dudley, a keyboard player and arranger who handled the string charts for the Lexicon of Love LP. Although never an official member of the lineup, Dudley's work on the album helped distill the "ABC sound" that typified much of the band's most successful material, both here and on subsequent releases, and signaled the arrival of a major talent in her own right; the following year, she and Horn would make their debut as half of the art-pop collective known as Art of Noise.
The Lexicon of Love proved a major success on either side of the Atlantic, peaking at No. 1 in the U.K. and breaking the Top 40 in the U.S. while spinning off a trio of hit singles: "Poison Arrow," "The Look of Love" (both of which entered heavy rotation in the U.S.), and "All of My Heart." And although their relentless experimentation and rapid turnover would hamper their ability to maintain that momentum in Britain over the ensuing decade, they'd continue to score hit singles in America through the late '80s before splintering after disappointing returns for 1991's Abracadabra LP.
Of course, in pop, breakups and retirements rarely last, and by the late '90s, Fry was back in action under the ABC mantle — a second act that came full circle in 2016 with the release of the ninth studio album credited to the group, The Lexicon of Love II.
Insisting he had no ambivalence toward the continued allure of a debut release that, in some respects, overshadowed the work that followed, Fry looked back on the group's first album with fondness while seeking to add a more mature second chapter to its story. "It set the benchmark," he told the Scotland Herald. "People loved that record. They still do."
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