ABC Singles Ranked, 21-28

If you’re just joining us, check out the About This Project link for details. Basically, I make playlists of all the singles by certain musical artists and then try to order them using the guiding principle “do I like each song more than the last song.” I define “single” in a broad enough way to include any song that was released as a purchasable single in any format in any country; as a promotional single in any country; as a video; or generally any song that I know charted anywhere. My main sources are Wikipedia (mostly reliable) and Discogs (reasonably reliable). I welcome editing feedback since sometimes I favor speed over spelling.

Just to clarify, for the next few entries I’m writing about ABC the Sheffield. UK band fronted by Martin Fry that had several huge hits in the 80’s and not about Another Bad Creation from Athens, GA, USA.

I first heard ABC on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 when their song “The Look Of Love” was first climbing the charts. This is significant because – at least initially – I was not hearing this band on WXCI (our local college stations in Fairfield County, CT) or I-95 (our local rock station). Both of these stations picked up some ABC tracks later (both played “Poison Arrow” as it was becoming a pop hit) but the presence of the song on American Top 40 suggests that it was being played on a bunch of pop stations that weren’t local to me. I was taken right away by producer Trevor Horn’s rich orchestration and Martin Fry’s clever, playful lyrics. Like many songs that became pop hits in the early 80’s, “The Look Of Love” (and later “Poison Arrow”) didn’t much sound like anything else on the air.

I bought Lexicon of Love on vinyl soon thereafter and have had a copy of it in every format that has been available to me. In this apartment right now, I have the cassette (though I’m about to donate all my cassettes), a CD and the MP3 version of that album. More than any other album (just edging out The Cure’s Disintegration#20 #12 #2 #1), Lexicon of Love has helped me through break-ups, homesickness, depression, and loneliness. If the rest of their album catalog never quite reached the height of their début, well, what could? It’s one of the crowning achievements of pop music.

As it happens, they released a bunch of other excellent singles and a couple other good to great albums (including 2016’s remarkable Lexicon of Love II). I’ve not liked everything they’re released (indeed, the first few songs on this list are among my least favorite that I’ve written about thus far and even then I like them better than Bowie/Jagger’s “Dancing In The Street” #147) but when they’re on it, they’re one of the finest pop bands of the last century.

I would be remiss not to point out that – also like Robert Smith and The Cure – ABC has essentially become synonymous with Martin Fry, the band’s primary songwriter, singer and only permanent member. He’s one of the few musicians that I follow on Twitter but I never check Twitter. Sorry, Mr. Fry, if I’ve missed any important announcements.

And with that…

28. Vanity Kills

Third single from How to Be a … Zillionaire! (1985), released as a single in 1985

ABC’s first three albums explored three distinct different styles of pop – according to Fry, they “wanted to be like David Bowie changing from Hunky Dory, to Ziggy, to Young Americans, to Diamond Dogs, to Aladdin Sane, but in an even faster space of time.” Lexicon of Love was lushly produced and focused on heartbreak, Beauty Stab was more of a rock album with political overtones, and How To Be a…. Zillionaire was a cartoon dance-pop album that explored contemporary materialism. The latter album has a couple of ABC’s truly great songs (the singles “Be Near Me” and “How to be a Millionaire” and the deep cuts “So Hip It Hurts” and “Tower of London”) it also includes a couple of songs that I find to be excruciating (this one and the deep cut “15 Story Halo”). While I enjoy Martin Fry’s sassy, scolding “vain vain vain” vocal, the song’s production is hopelessly dated in 2018 (an I didn’t much care for it in 1985 either). The lyrics almost work, but the “Vanity kills/It don’t pay bills” chorus irks me and the rest of the lyrics are a little too on the nose. This is a shame because the last line (“if the blast don’t get you then the fall out will”) is biting, clever and multi-layered. I wish the whole song rose to that level (as their best songs do).

27. Say It

Second single from Abracadabra (1991), released as a single in 1992

By the time Abracadabra came out, I’d lost track of ABC. The last ABC album I purchased before disconnecting with them was their 1990 greatest hits package Absolutely. I owned that on cassette and for a time was listening to it as frequently as I did to Lexicon of Love. Abracadabra was their next album after Absolutely but I didn’t see the album while I was a dj at KTUH, I didn’t hear tracks on the radio, I didn’t see the video on MTV and didn’t notice it on the shelves at Tower Records (and I was looking just in case they released a new album). I figured they’d broken up. I think I finally ran into a vinyl copy of the album in the late 90’s but I’d not owned a turntable in a decade by that time so I just shrugged and moved on. My understanding is that there’s several excellent tracks on that album (my research suggests that “Unlock the Secrets of Your Heart” is particularly well-loved by ABC super-fans – I’ve only listened to it once but it sounds promising).

Thus, I first encountered “Say It” while preparing this list and my first reaction was “in 1991, who exactly was the audience for this song?” As it happens, Italian production team Black Box remixed the song for single release, so the intention was clearly to get it on the dance floor. Indeed, it was a #3 hit on the US Billboard dance chart and I managed to entirely miss this too since I was busy looking for new ABC at my radio station, on MTV and in record stores instead of in the clubs. There’s an interesting line in the lyrics where Martin Fry proclaims “I was baked Alaska/Burning deep inside” that I like because it sounds like this improv metaphor game we do, but in general this is an entirely unmemorable (if inoffensive) song that could have been released by almost any competent pop group during that period.

26. One Better World

First single from Up (1989), released as a single in 1989

All right, so Up. I bought it. I listened to it once or twice. I put it away and I’ve never listened to it again. In fact, the CD is no longer on my shelves and I have no idea where it went since I don’t throw away anything and can’t imagine I’d have lent it to anyone. ABC’s two consistent members from Lexicon of Love through Abracadbra were Martin Fry and keyboardist Mark White (that’s right). I felt like their first four albums all were of a piece conceptually and musically but Up felt a little disjointed. It is their most positive and optimistic album and maybe I just wasn’t having that in 1989. Who knows?

Part of my brain has a difficult time believing that ABC is being sincere on “One Better World.” I believed that they intended the “all people are equal so let’s all get along” sentiment, but I also suspected that the theme was cynically chosen to increase sales (there were a lot of “all people are equal so let’s all get along” songs in the late 80’s). However, when I saw the dancing in the video – which is genuinely goofy. stupid and un-self-conscious – I gave Fry and White the benefit of the doubt here. Their hearts, I believe, are in the right place and that saves this song from last place on the list (it’s 1989 and a pop duo with an established track record are singing “Does it matter if you’re gay or if you’re straight?” so serious props to them). The production and some of the singing on the other hand…. like the opening leaps lines that Fry begins in his natural register before leaping to his normally lovely falsetto… I mean… whew. This is a hard song for me to listen to about 90% of the time, but now and then I can drop my personal baggage and dance like the dude in the video who keeps pointing at the ceiling (seriously, I could steal all of these dance moves for my improv rock band).

25. Ocean Blue

Fourth single from How to Be a … Zillionaire! (1985), released as a single in 1986

We now officially enter the realm of ABC songs that I rather like. Musically, “Ocean Blue” is all right, but the lyrics elevate the song. At first listen, it sounds like a typical love song, but at the end of each verse, Fry makes it clear that he’s separated from the object of his affection. Furthermore, he’s chosen to be separated from her because (in essence) he’s a sailor and the sea is his home. He’s declaring his love to her memory while gazing out at the ocean. There’s no promise that he’d stay with her if they were reunited because (as he sings in the first verse) “the feeling just died” when he was at home with her. He, perhaps, only loves her when they’re separated by an actual ocean. It’s a classic Fry lyrics that shines out and, thankfully, the 80’s production on this song is subtle enough that it doesn’t irk me. I appreciate not being irked.

24. Love Conquers All

First single from Abracadabra (1991), released as a single in 1991

This is the second and final song from Abracadabra on this list. As with “Say It,” I’ve only just encountered this song while preparing this list in the last six weeks. The first verse of the song is one of my favorite things that Martin Fry has ever written. The rest of the song is decent enough, but that verse makes me pump my fist when I hear it. This could be, in part, because I’m a sucker for clever Shakespeare references. I think I hear a faint touch of the Madchester sound in the piano in the chorus – it’s subtle enough to be effective without sounding like it’s pandering. I also enjoy the “L-O-V-E Love” backing vocals which are mixed to the back in a way I find subtle and pleasing. I realize that Mark White felt that he’d put his all into this album and it didn’t quite work out, but I think this tune actually pointed a possible way forward for the band. Of course, “Say It” (which is from the same album and, as you see above, I don’t care for) was a big dance hit and this song didn’t much catch on anywhere, so it is just as well that ABC can’t take retroactive career advice from me.

23. When Smokey Sings

First single from Alphabet City (1987), released as a single in 1987

I like the “wha wha” backing vocals, dig the bass and love the brass (saxophone?) bits on “When Smokey Sings,” but its my least favorite of their major hit singles. While recording Alphabet City, Fry was in the process of undergoing treatment for Hodgkin’s disease but you’d never know it from his committed, passionate performances on the album. Alphabet City sounded a little like a return the style of Lexicon of Love albeit with less orchestral accompaniment and a little more of a nod to North soul. There’s a bit of an edge to the lyrics on several of Alphabet City‘s songs (“Rage and Then Regret” and “Bad Blood”) that sound like a response to Fry’s cancer struggle. He didn’t take any time off to recover and semi-famously appeared on Soul Train looking thin as a rail (“thinner than Bowie” is how Fry describes it).

In case you’re not aware, “When Smokey Sings” is a tribute to Smokey Robinson, one of the all-time great R&B singers. It’s not a song in the style of a Smokey Robinson song (and this is important) but a song in the style of ABC about Smokey Robinson – not unlike how U2’s “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” (#22) #22 is a U2 song about Joey Ramone. The single version of “When Smokey Sings” is inferior in one key way to the album version – it omits an excellent verse that acknowledges some of the other greats of American soul music. Anyhow, I don’t doubt Fry’s sincere love for Smokey Robinson in specific or soul music in general, but I only just kind of like this song in toto. In fact, Fry says:

“I was really ill and so was listening to a lot of music. And realizing that music’s really uplifting, makes you feel good and changes your mood. It’s really powerful. So, I started thinking about Motown and Stax and Chess and then Bowie and Roxy, all the music I listened to as a kid. So that’s where the song ‘When Smokey Sings’ came from. It’s about how good you feel when you put a dime in a jukebox and hear your favorite tune.”

As I wrote in the introduction, Fry’s songs have helped me through many of the tough times in my life and I’ve always appreciated this song’s view into the music that has helped Fry through his tough times.

22. Rolling Sevens

Third single from Skyscraping* (1997), released as a single in 1997

Try finding this whole song online. I dare you. I could find a computer voice reading the lyrics as well as the live version I’ve shared here. ABC (as a Martin Fry solo project) returned after six years of hiatus in 1997 with the first of three (so far) excellent late period albums, Skyscraping. For this record, Fry shared songwriting duties with Heaven 17’s Glen Gregory (who also plays keyboards and contributes backing vocals) as well as producer/songwriter Keith Lowndes (guitars, keyboards and programming). I bought a used copy of this CD in 2016 and it’s really very, very good. The album was intended as a tribute to some of Fry’s musical heroes (Bowie, Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols) though this is more organic (as a better writer than I describes here) and less song-by-song specific. “Rolling Sevens” reminds me a little of ABC’s attempts at rock on Beauty Stab and if I don’t rank it higher than that albums’ singles, it could be nostalgia. It’s a quite good and genuinely rocks.

*All right, so, at Wikipedia, this song is said to have been the first single from Skyscraping, released on June 30, 1997. However, if you go to Official Charts, you’ll note that the two others singles from Skyscraping charted before “Rolling Sevens” was released – “Stranger Things” in March and the title track in May. Thus, I am confident that “Rolling Sevens” was actually the third single from the album.

21. Peace and Tranquility

First single from Look of Love: The Very Best of ABC (2001), released as a single in 2001

“Peace and Tranquility” was the single from ABC’s 2001 compilation album Look of Love: The Very Best of ABC. It was their first song that failed to chart anywhere and that’s really a shame because it’s a very well crafted pop single that sounds like their classic work but updated to the 21st century. In a sort of interesting twist, I find the verses to have stronger hooks than the chorus. This is ultimately a good thing because the choruses are a little shorter than the verses. “Peace and Tranquility” doesn’t exactly sound like anything from ABC’s previous album, Skyscraping, or from their next album, Traffic, but it does fit in very nicely with the whole compilation. I imagine Fry deliberately designed this song so it would fit in nicely on a disc with to “Poison Arrow” and “Be Near Me.” Well done.

Coming Soon: We wrestle a little with Beauty Stab and enjoy ABC’s only single that was a cover song.

ABC Singles Ranked – 21-28 – 11-20 – 1-10

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