ABC Singles Ranked, 1-10

I do wish that there was more music by ABC and Martin Fry out there in the world, but at least the music that does exist is excellent.

After leaving ABC, Mark White and Stephen Singleton eventually reformed Vice Versa, the band that turned into ABC. This 2015 Christmas single – “Little Drum Machine Boy” – was their most recent release to my knowledge. “Little Drummer Boy” has always been one of my least favorite Christmas songs (I even ranked Crosby and Bowie’s iconic version of it at #133 of 147) and this reinterpretation of the song doesn’t especially lead me to reevaluate my stance. However, this is not representative of Vice Versa’s otherwise excellent work – let me draw special attention to their single “Stilyagi” and an EP track titled “New Girls Neutrons” for some excellent under-heard classic era synthpop.

Martin Fry (according to his Twitter) still tours and performs as ABC. He recently completed a “Back to the 80’s” cruise. Not to quote his lyrics, but I hope and I pray that maybe someday he’ll perform on Oahu. It’s a faint hope at best, but I never thought I’d see The Cure or Duran Duran out here, so I can dream, right? Right?

And now, ten really fantastic songs.

10. Ride

Promo single from Traffic (2008), released as a single in 2008.

If you enjoyed ABC’s foray into guitar rock on Beauty Stab (and I’m on the record as being a fan of that particular album), then you are already inclined to enjoy this (relatively) hard rocking single from Traffic. Perhaps because they’re a little hard to understand, the sites hosting lyrics for “Ride” all exclude the last three lines. They include the “you like Starsky, I like Hutch” part but exclude the “are you getting used to the cut and thrust (?)/of a man (?) in ten of the losing the trust(?)/of every single one of us.” I welcome your interpretation. As with all the songs from Traffic, this one really benefits from the one-off return of drummer David Palmer. “Ride” is the first song on Traffic, which I ordered on CD after I downloaded Lexicon of Love II and I was sold on the record almost immediately. I especially like the line about inhibition being suicide.

9. (How to Be A) Millionaire

First single from How to Be a … Zillionaire! (1985), released as a single in 1984

Though it suffers a bit from its 80’s production, this song is the central thematic statement of How to Be a … Zillionaire! and is incredibly catchy to boot. “(How To Be A) Millionaire” was a surprisingly big hit for a dance-pop anti-capitalist song in the 80’s – it reached #20 on the US charts. ABC (not unlike The Archies or Gorillaz) designed a cartoon pop look for How to Be a … Zillionaire! – Mark White’s “Alfalfa” hair is a thing of pure 80’s beauty – and hired a pair of interesting looking people to be their third and fourth band members. One-off member Eden contributes record scratching and some vocals (apparently she is the female harmony on “Ocean Blue” – #25). Fellow new member David Yarritu contributes some spoken word vocals to a song or two (specifically, if I recall, stating his name). Both are featured prominently in the videos from the album and I have no idea whether they toured with the band at the time or not. At any rate, both were gone by the time Alphabet City came out.

8. The Look of Love

Third single from The Lexicon of Love (1982), released as a single in 1982

This is the first single I ever heard by ABC. I am absolutely certain I first heard it on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 (which I listened to religiously in the early 80’s). I recall feeling like I wasn’t sure how I felt about the song when I first heard it. There are a ton of songs that made the top 40 in the 80’s that most people have never heard. “I Couldn’t Say No.” “Whirly Girl.” “A Penny For Your Thoughts.” “The Clapping Song.” The 80’s were a weird time where “Come On Eileen” (#22) and “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (not likely to appear on this blog because I just don’t know enough Twisted Sister) could be on the charts next to each other like they were friends or something.

So I didn’t know if I liked “The Look of Love” or not at first. It certainly didn’t sound like anything else I was listening to (in other words, I never heard it on local college station WXCI or on local rock station I-95), I didn’t have MTV so I’d not seen the video, and I wanted to pigeon-hole it in a genre before I committed to a feeling about it. If it was “New Wave,” I’d embrace it. If it was “Pop,” I’d reject it. Simple! Quick! I had no idea that all the New Wave hits (particularly the ones I loved from England and Australia) were pop. Isn’t that the way? Another culture’s pop is your culture’s exotic treat. Anyhow, I’m sure at some point Kasem identified them as an English band and I decided they must be cool. Ah, to be 14 and shallow again!

I wasn’t sold on the idea of buying Lexicon of Love until I heard “Poison Arrow,” but I enjoyed “The Look of Love” enough to attempt to write a song parody of it. This is where by burgeoning passion for ABC overlapped with my long-held passion for Weird Al. If I recall, the parody was Dungeons and Dragons themed and built around the refrain “That’s the book – that’s the book – the DM’s guide.” I imagine the venn diagram overlap of people who were familiar with “The Look of Love” and people with an intimate knowledge of Dungeons and Dragons in 1982 was vanishingly small. I remember nothing else about this parody but I bet there’s still a hand written copy of it somewhere in Newtown, CT just waiting to emerge and haunt me.

One quick thing about the song – I especially love the spoken word section.

7. The Very First Time

First single from Traffic (2008), released as a single in 2008

We all needed a love song from Martin Fry in 2008 that both acknowledged and rejected his cynicism about love (sort of setting the stage for Lexicon of Love II). “The Very First Time” fit the bill perfectly and if I didn’t in fact hear this song until 2016, well, I still needed it in 2008. Perhaps more so than any other song on this list, “The Very First Time” sounds like an ABC for the 21st century – confident, polished and passionate, but also more mature and self-reflective. It did not chart anywhere (but in my heart) because the world was interested in other stuff in 2008 – though it feels good to blame the marketing, so I’ll do that, too. I was an ABC super-fan and was not aware they’d released an album since Up and they would have completely had m in 2008 if they’d made me aware this record existed. I feel like I missed eight years with a record that I would have loved and I resent that. If you’ve not heard this song previously, play it so you can love it and regret the years you’ve not had it in your life too.

6. Tears Are Not Enough

First single from The Lexicon of Love (1982), released as a single in 1981

ABC’s first UK single was not, to my knowledge, released as a single in the USA. This is a shame because “Tears Are Not Enough” (with its glorious falsetto “teeeeeeeeears are sou-ve-neirs” vocals) is one of The Lexicon of Love‘s glorious highlights. I like to imagine that if this had been the first song I’d heard from ABC, I would have been sold immediately (and wouldn’t have even noticed that I was essentially loving on a song that bordered on disco, which I’d been acculturated to despise by 1982 – despite a strong then-closeted love for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack). The Lexicon of Love is, as I’ve mentioned, a concept album about the flavors of heartbreak. “Tears Are Not Enough” is about being the person who is breaking the heart as opposed to the person whose getting their heart broken. Tears (specifically) aren’t enough to bring love back, but Fry doesn’t come across as proud or bragging as he ends his relationship. Far from it, he sounds like he’s trying to be firm but he feels awful. Well, that’s what it feels like to break up with somebody that you don’t love anymore. In a phrase, it sucks. Not the song, though. The song is terrific.

5. Viva Love

You’re going to need to visit this Guardian link to watch the official video directed by Julien Temple.

First single from The Lexicon of Love II (2016), released as a single in 2016

What are the odds of an artist revisiting his greatest accomplishment 34 years later and releasing something that is close to the quality of that great work? Low, right? Martin Fry did it. Working with Anne Dudley – who provided the orchestration work on the original Lexicon of Love – producer Gary Stevenson and songwriters Charlie Mole, Marcus Vere and 8bit (Rob Fusari), Fry recaptured the spirit of that classic record. If the first Lexicon of Love is about heartbreak, the 21st century sequel is (mostly) a celebration. Fry has been happily married for over 30 years and his cynicism about romance has mostly melted away. While the album isn’t quite the salve for heartache that the first album is (I mean, when you’ve been dumped, you don’t want to hear that love is pretty awesome), the songs are generally splendid and there’s a few that leap off the record in the best possible way (“Kiss Me Goodbye,” “Ten Below Zero,” and “The Ship of the Seasick Sailor” are standouts).

“Viva Love” is about the exhilaration of finding one’s self in love again. You can fight it all you want, but love will win and you know what? Hurray for that. The song reminds me a bit of Benedick from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” a man put entirely our of sorts by the potency of love. This is high praise from me. It is just delightful and if it didn’t chart anywhere, that reflects more on the poor quality of the world than on the greatness of the song. And this is the second best single from that album…

4. Poison Arrow

Third single from The Lexicon of Love (1982), released as a single in 1982

“Poison Arrow” has grown on me over the past 36 years. When I first bought Lexicon of Love (I think I read a sterling review of it before I finally committed my hard-earned allowance money to buy it on vinyl), it was the track that I was most likely to skip over (this meant manually lifting the needle and moving on to the quirky “Many Happy Returns” which I couldn’t skip over because of the “ashes”/”trash is”/axis”/”fascist” rhyme – something I adore to this day). The more I’ve listened to the album over the years, the more I realized that it is structured like a play and the first song – “Show Me” – is an overture (it literally includes an overture, but is itself an overture to the rest of the piece), but “Poison Arrow” is the inciting incident. It’s overly dramatic by design because that’s how we behave when we’ve had our heart broken – we become selfish, bombastic, aching fools. I can’t tell you how many times “Poison Arrow” has slapped some sense into me. “Do you know how you look right now moping around? Snap out of it!” It doesn’t spare a moment of overwrought anguish and in its “who broke my heart, you did you did,” it reminds us of how childish we can be when we’re lashing out. A sublimely genius piece of art that also happens to be a great dance song.

3. Be Near Me

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

I remember New Years Eve 1985. I’d just spent my first semester at college and was back with my old friends from Newtown and Bethel. We were celebrating at my friend Joyce’s house (technically Joyce’s parents’ house, but when you’re a teenager, the house is always your friend’s and not their folks’). I think WXCI was doing a countdown of the top 100 songs of the year and this one ended up being number one. So, as the countdown to midnight began, this song played and I lay down on my back like Martin Fry does in the video and lip-synched the lyrics while my friends dumped streamers, balloons and other stuff on me. It is one of my favorite memories of any time in my life and I owe it in equal parts to my fantastic friends and to ABC. The song was a top ten hit in the USA (making up, I suppose, for the unfair lack of success of Beauty Stab). One thing I appreciate about it is that the lyrics suggest that Fry’s desire to be near the object of his affection may not be requited – note that the both good dreams and nightmares came true and that they came true a second time in tears. The music is so uptempo that it’s perhaps easy to miss that “be near me” is more of a plea than a request. How to Be a … Zillionaire! puts everything in a cartoon package, but most of the lyrics have a sharp little edge to them that elevates the whole endeavor.

2. The Flames Of Desire

Second single from The Lexicon of Love II (2016), released as a single in 2016

Yes, I’m ranking a song from their 2016 album at #2. Yes, it deserves this placement. This is a lush, overly dramatic love song built on an extended metaphor about ancient Rome and Egypt. The chorus begins “you came, you saw, you conquered me/right then I knew you wanted me.” I will live my whole life never writing or improvising anything that awesome. Then there’s the delightful melodic build to the extended title line in the chorus, the Anne Dudley orchestration that kicks the whole thing off, the subtle electric drums that hearken back to The Lexicon of Love, the semi-chanted “Veni Vidi Vici” and a dozen or so other little musical moments that press all of my “yes” buttons. I don’t have a pile of memories associated with this song – it’s both too new and at any rate, I listen to music more as a personal thing and less as a social thing these days – but it’s also a surprisingly great late career highlight from Martin Fry and ABC. ABC’s new music may have fallen out of public favor years ago, but it’s still well worth your time.

1. All of My Heart

Fourth single from The Lexicon of Love (1982), released as a single in 1982

I can no longer remember the year, but in the early 90’s, I was dumped bad. Worst break-up I’ve ever experienced in my life. I thought we were going to get married. For years after, I dreamed that I was going to wake up next to her and was crushed when I didn’t. I made mix tapes, people. Tons and tons of mix tapes, imagining that if I could just find the exact right combination of songs to express how I felt that she’d listen to it and decide she wanted me back. Nope – she’d moved on and I spent several years trying to piece together the wreckage of my heart. Through that whole period, The Lexicon of Love was the one cassette that traveled with me everywhere (other cassettes would rotate through my backpack, but this one was ever-present). The album takes you from the bombast of “Poison Arrow” to the pained resignation of “All of My Heart,” the most perfect song ever written about the depression and acceptance stages of romantic grief. Honestly, if Lexicon of Love is their crowning achievement, “All of My Heart” is the jewel in the front of that crown. Fry uses his voice to communicate the hopelessness, frustration, desperation and small glimmers of hopefulness that you go through when it’s over or it’s never going to happen. Even the “ooo ooo” sounds he makes sound like some wounded songbird crying for help. Anne Dudley’s orchestration and Trevor Nunn’s production give it a proper sense of gravitas. That final, falsetto “all of my heart” suggests a lifetime of agony.

There is some research that suggests that sad songs genuinely help us get through grief – that listening to them “releases the hormone prolactin” which balms our heartbreak. That same article suggests that sad songs reaffirm our own feelings and make us feel like we’re not quite so alone. There have been times in my life where I felt like Martin Fry (and Robert Smith) were the only ones who understood what I was going through. I mean, obviously, there are other people who understood. Billions of them. But Fry put those feelings to words and with ABC put them to music and honest to God I don’t know if I’d have made it through my heartbreak alive without this album, this song. I can’t honestly say if this is my favorite song ever, but it’s been one of the most important pieces of art in my life and I am forever grateful for it.

Coming Soon: INXS is still in process and might start appearing any now. In the meantime, let’s all listen to 85 or so songs by The Pet Shop Boys.

ABC Singles Ranked – 21-2811-201-10

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