David Bowie looms large over the early 80’s New Wave/New Romantic landscape. Artists were influenced both by his music but also by his artistic path. As I quoted in the previous entry, ABC “wanted to be like David Bowie” and switch styles with every album. Part of Bowie’s genius was that he had a sense of which way the cool stylistic winds were blowing. He didn’t randomly change styles – he had a plan. I think many bands (and fans) missed this at the time (one artist who truly “got” David Bowie’s 70’s/80’s working method was Madonna and she was able to employ it to great success).
In 1982, ABC released their first and greatest album – Lexicon of Love – to respectable chart success and critical acclaim. They then proceeded to commit commercial suicide by releasing Beauty Stab in 1983. It was a huge stylistic shift (more of a rock album than a lush pop record). it’s themes were more political than romantic and it was met with such a backlash that two of the band’s members – saxophonist Stephen Singleton and their great drummer David Palmer – departed in the aftermath.
I propose that in 1983, the band simply overestimated the willingness of their fans to follow them into new territory. Martin Fry and Mark White have both expressed frustration about how everyone just expected them to release albums exactly like Lexicon at the time. Creating a great record with a signature sound can be an albatross around your neck (as I described when writing about Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ “Come on Eileen” – #22). Success can be a trap that sometimes keeps people from listening fairly to your development as a musician or songwriter. I argue that Beauty Stab was a pretty decent album that suffered both from the disappointment of fans of Lexicon but also from the fact that the kind of rock ABC was recording in 1983 didn’t necessarily stand out in a pack of similar new wave bands.
Anyhow, both tracks from Beauty Stab are in this section and I’ll make a bit of a stronger case for it as a decent record in those entries.
20. Stranger Things
First single from Skyscraping (1997), released as a single in 1997
Meanwhile, in 1997, after a hiatus, Martin Fry returned to the studio with some friends and recorded Skyscraping, the first new ABC album in six years. I’ve already written about “Rolling Sevens” (#22), which was quite good, but “Stranger Things” (no relationship at all to the recent TV series) is even better. The lyrics can be read in a couple of ways. On a surface level, the song is about a couple who have grown apart as they’ve changed with time. On a perhaps tin-foil-hat level, they read to me like Fry describing his relationship with his fans coupled with a hope that they might want to give his music another chance. Can an 80’s superstar come back with a hit in the late 90’s? Stranger things had, indeed, happened. The goods news is that even though this track didn’t crack the Top 40 in UK, it did get enough airplay to chart and its parent album received some very positive reviews. Five years off (perhaps coupled with less pressure to make hits on this album) seems to have freed Fry up to create the songs he wanted to positive effect. All three of his post-break albums have been pretty great.
19. The Night You Murdered Love
Second single from Alphabet City (1987), released as a single in 1987
I didn’t much care for this song in 1987, but it’s really grown on me over the years. When I first heard it, I thought it was a self-conscious attempt to write a song that sounded like it was from Lexicon of Love. The lyrics are about a failed romance and I thought the title even suggested the cover of that album – which is of a scene of a lover firing a gun on the set of a play. I imagine “The Night You Murdered Love” could have been the title of that play. Perhaps it was a deliberate attempt to create a song that sounded like it was from their first album (or perhaps I’m overthinking it). The thing is, I was that fan that actually did enjoy following them on their stylistic journey and was disappointed at the time that they seemed to be moving backwards.
You know, you can’t win when you’re in a band. You explore new sounds and you lose fans who are disappointed that you don’t sound like you used to. You stay the same, you lose fans who think you’re just treading water. If I liked Lexicon of Love (and I did!), how on Earth does it make sense to penalize a band for creating a new song in that style? How many times did I penalize bands for doing both of those things?
“The Night You Murdered Love” is a great song with a couple of really great little hooks (the descending “close your eyes and say….” and the syncopated phrasing of “Yet I love… to love you” for example), a strong vocal and strong production. It has also aged well since there’s not a whole lot of 80’s-specific production flourishes in it. Seriously, on its own terms, my only complaint about it is that it isn’t quite as good as the songs from Lexicon but it comes close enough. 30 years later, I can now write with confidence that I do, indeed, enjoy this song.
18. The Real Thing
Second single from Up (1989), released as a single in 1989
I was mostly disinterested in Up but “The Real Thing” is a lost gem. Since I don’t recall the rest of the songs on the album, I can only cautiously assert that “The Real Thing” featured the cleverest lyrics on the record – a litany of fake things contrasting with the “real thing” of the chorus. I’m pleased to report that it doesn’t sound like an ad for soda at any point. I mentioned that there was (what sounds to me like) a subtle nod to the Madchester sound on 1991’s “Love Conquers All” (#24). On “The Real Thing,” Mark White’s keyboard work is much more similar to the then-emerging Happy Monday’s sound (almost certainly coincidental). It works extremely well to my ear. I find “The Real Thing” has a laid back dance groove that is different from ABC’s prior work in an effective, exciting way. I wish more of Up was as aurally interesting. Definitely worth your time.
17. That Was Then but This Is Now
First single from Beauty Stab (1983), released as a single in 1983
When you’re making an abrupt change in musical style, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to announce it to the world in the form of music and lyrics. While the song is perhaps not literally about ABC’s abrupt change in sound from Lexicon of Love to Beauty Stab, it is impossible not to see it as being intended (in context of 1983) as an invitation to the band’s fans to let go of their preconceptions and join them on a different journey. Many said no just (I think) on the basis of the style change. Critic Robert Christgau (who I only agree with on occasion) agrees that the songs on Beauty Stab are just as catchy and interesting as on the first album. If there is a – as he calls it – “loss of verve” on this album, well, chalk it up to the sophomore slump. I find “Unzip,” “Power of Persuasion,” “United Kingdom,” and “S.O.S.” (coming up) are all top-notch songs. Sure, they don’t sound anything like the tunes on Lexicon, but they’re all well-crafted, well-written songs. I wonder what would have happened sometimes if they’d released this album first and then released Lexicon. Anyhow, NME placed this song at #4 on their list of worst lyrics of all time and Fry was a good enough sport to comment on the list (see the link for his comment). I disagree that these lyrics are bad largely because I don’t think that they were intended seriously – to my ear, they’ve always been deliberately arch one-liners built around the central idea of change. What do I know? I first heard the song when I was 15. Maybe I’ve never grown past my initial reaction to the song. I dig it and years of scorn heaped on it by others isn’t going to change my opinion at this point.
16. High and Dry
I believe this is the first time I’ve written about the same song as recorded by different artists since I’ve started this list. As a preview, when I write about The Pet Shop Boys, this will happen again and it will also be the first time that the same song has appeared on two different lists. This sort of trivia is of interest to nobody but me but I am profoundly interested in it. I used to listen to American Top 40 with Casey Kasem and make line graphs of the rise and fall of different songs from week to week. Useless music data excites me.
Radiohead – you might recall – was reluctant to record this song because they felt it sounded like a Rod Stewart tune. Martin Fry set out to prove them right. Let’s be honest with ourselves here – Rod Stewart has a great voice and if his arrangement of (for example) “Downtown Train” isn’t as musically interesting to many of us as the heartbreaking Tom Waits original, Rod Stewart’s great voice and talent at using that voice to interpret songs made it a mainstream hit. Stewart is not everyone’s cuppa but it’s not for nothing that he’s one of the most successful recording artists of the past half century.
Which brings us back to ABC’s version of “High and Dry.” ABC was well past their hit-making days by 2015, but Martin Fry’s voice is still a beautiful instrument and he understand how to bring the lushness when he wants it. In his hands, “High and Dry” loses its art rock edge and maybe some of its depth, but he’s able to find the heartache effortlessly (because heartache is kind of his thing). It’s purely a coincidence that I’ve ranked this version at #16 on this ABC list and the Radiohead original at #16 on that list. That’s not a statement of quality equality (ha) since it’s a lot harder to get ranked #16 on a list of 61 songs than on a list of 28 songs. That said, I really like this version of “High and Dry” and it made me wonder what songs Martin Fry would include on a covers album.
15. King Without a Crown
Third single from Alphabet City (1987), released as a single in 1987
My favorite single from Alphabet City is also the first song on my “desert island” ABC list – the singles from this point forward are the ones that I love the most of their work. I sort of didn’t notice this single when it first came out – I was in college and while I’d purchased Alphabet City, I wasn’t playing anything from it on WRBC. I had other songs and albums on my mind. However, when I moved to Hawaii for grad school in 1989, I found myself sad and lonely and listening to Lexicon of Love on cassette all the time. Since I didn’t have any other ABC albums on cassette (I owned their first five albums on vinyl), I went out and bought the greatest hits collection Absolutely to supplement my Walkman’s cravings. If I recall correctly, this was my favorite song on side 2 of that cassette and (occasionally) the only reason I flipped the cassette over at all. The lyrics play better in the song than they read – Fry really elevates them through his singing. I can’t say this with 100% certainty since two other back-up singers are credited on the song, but I think Fry’s main partner in this song is Tessa Niles – one of England’s preeminent backing vocalists. Mark White’s piano work is lovely and subtle and really the song deserved to have been a much bigger hit on both sides of the Atlantic.
14. Love Is Strong
Second single from Traffic (2008), released as a single in 2008
Original ABC drummer, David Palmer, rejoined the band for Traffic in 2008 and co-wrote all of the songs. Something about working with Palmer again (or maybe the 11 year break between Skyscraping and Traffic) brought out some of Fry’s best lyrics. Indeed, his last two albums are among the strongest of his career (though, like the person who compiled the lyrics for this song here, I’m a little confused about whether he’s singing “Bono lost his powers” or what). Palmer and Fry were ostensibly reunited because of a VH1 program called Bands Reunited in 2004 – a show that really scratched an itch for me at the time. The show had some authenticity issues (as detailed by Karl Harland if Information Society) but I watched every episode (even those involving bands I didn’t especially like) and had fervently hoped that Mark White and Stephen Singleton would return for this episode. They did not – they’d didn’t even appear on camera. They did (unrelated to the show and several years later) reform Vice Versa, the band that spawned ABC. I digress.
While Palmer was away from ABC, Palmer developed an extensive resume as both a session drummer and a temporary drummer for a number of bands and artists. While I didn’t necessarily miss his work on the post-Beauty Stab releases, his work on Traffic drives home just how important it is to have the right drummer for your band. Palmer’s work elevates the whole record. It’s no coincidence that 3 of my top 15 songs are from Traffic.
Second single from Beauty Stab (1984), released as a single in 1984
My favorite single from Beauty Stab (but not my favorite song from that album, which would be the aforementioned non-single “Unzip”) is this delicate song about how love is better than money (I think that’s what it’s about but check out the lyrics for yourself). Beauty Stab leaned heavily towards rock so this track sounded a little out-of-place on the record but it works delightfully well as a single. The little “tick-ta-tick” rhythm sound at the start sounds like it could come from somebody’s cheap Cassio keyboard but that sort of deliberately naïve touch is completely in keeping with the song’s idealistic theme. The wish that love and skill will beat piles of money is often a hopeless one, but it’s one worth making none-the-less. I really dig both the “bop bop bop-ba-da-da” backing vocals as well as the slightly modified “S.O.S.” chorus. Lots of people apparently walked away from ABC (or, perhaps, simply didn’t renew their interest) when Beauty Stab came out and in my opinion, they missed out on some great music.
12. Valentine’s Day
Japan only single from Lexicon of Love (1982), released as a single in 1982
Here, at last, the first single on this list from Lexicon of Love. It was only released as a single in Japan, but that’s enough to get it on my list. I’ve already written a number of times about how this song’s parent album has been on of the most important records in my life, so I’m not going to dwell on that here. What I will write here is that there are nine proper songs on the album (a tenth song – “The Look of Love (Part Four)” is a minute long orchestra piece that closes the record) and if they’d all been released as singles, they’d all be in the top half of this list. Trevor Horn famously produced this record and he brought in Anne Dudley (who will be particularly important in the top ten) to create the orchestrations and J. J. Jeczalik to do the Fairlight CMI programming. The three of them got on so well that they later formed The Art of Noise.
The Lexicon of Love is a concept album about heartbreak. Specifically, heartbreak as a young person. “Valentine’s Day” is a litany of metaphors from the mouth of a veteran of heartbreak (I should note that I sometimes can’t remember which song on Lexicon of Love goes by the name “Valentine’s Day” because in my head, this song is titled “Don’t Ask Me I Already Know,” Martin Fry’s regular refrain). This song is pretty good at the start but it becomes brilliant starting around the “Yes, they baked your cake in little slices” verse. There’s these great orchestral stings, wonderful counter vocals and a great dramatic build by Fry. It’s one of the most exhilarating moments on the whole album (and right at the end of side two, as if the first act of the play is coming to a close). It works much, much better in context of the whole album, but it’s pretty darn good on its own too.
Second single from Skyscapping (1997), released as a single in 1997
The last song on this list from Skyscraping is the beautiful title track. The lyrics are in the vein of “Your Love is Lighting Me Higher” in that it’s love that is raising Fry and his paramour over the tops of the skyscrapers. Fry’s band on this song – particularly Glenn Gregory on keyboards – creates a glorious light atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re being elevated with the couple in the song. Gregory is one of my favorite musicians – he was a long time member of Heaven 17 (who will make an appearance on this website someday soon). His work here as both a co-writer and a musician helps bring out some lovely work from Fry. ABC would take a break from recording new studio work for 11 years after this album came out, which is a shame because Skyscraping was a genuinely excellent record.
Coming Soon: #1 is my favorite song from Lexicon of Love, which will come as no surprise. At least not now.