ABC's Martin Fry on writing '80s love songs as "an act of rebellion"

The "Poison Arrow" and "Be Near Me" musician spoke to Salon for the 40th anniversary tour for "Lexicon of Love"

Published July 9, 2022 11:00AM (EDT)

Martin Fry of ABC (Paradise Artists)
Martin Fry of ABC (Paradise Artists)

When considering iconic '80s albums, the new wave cultural needle-movers include LPs such as the Human League's "Dare," Duran Duran's "Rio" and Tears for Fears' "The Hurting." However, ABC's 1982 orchestrated studio album "The Lexicon of Love" easily ranks among these greats. Indebted to the glamour of Roxy Music, rhythm-heavy post-punk and sudsy symphonic pop, the album swoons with romance and heartbreak.

MTV rotation — and leader Martin Fry's eye-popping suit jackets, like one in stunning gold lame — helped ABC's cause. "The Lexicon of Love" spawned two Top 40 hits in the U.S. while topping the UK charts. The band would find even greater U.S. success later in the decade, with the sparkling pop single "Be Near Me" and Motown-influenced "When Smokey Sings." 

"We would always experiment every time we got to make an album," frontman and ABC leader Martin Fry tells Salon. "The band would evolve and radically alter, I suppose. We had an album called 'How to Be a Zillionaire,' and that was very electronic. We tried to portray ourselves as cartoon characters." 

To celebrate "The Lexicon of Love" turning 40, ABC recently played shows in London and throughout the UK with a full orchestra, the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Anne Dudley. "She's somebody I've worked with for many years, and she's a brilliant conductor," Fry says, while noting ABC's current North American tour is a bit different. "It's the band. We get up there and play the hits."

The affable musician Zoomed in from a room full of bicycles with a Sex Pistols poster on the wall behind him. "This is the kind of room that started off as mine, but lots of other people live in this house. So, they've taken over," he says dryly. "They just let me sit in this corner now by the bikes." 

Fry discussed the differences between playing with an orchestra and a rock band, what he recalls about making "The Lexicon of Love," the David Bowie advice ABC didn't take, and the unexpected perk he received thanks to MTV. 

What are the biggest differences in presenting ABC's music via an orchestra versus a band?

Well, with an orchestral show, there's no room for error. Everything's scored; the violinists have got their sheets, and even the guy with a little triangle at the back, he waits and he plays his triangle. It's very structured. The hard thing to do there is to stay on the script. You can't veer off for a couple of bars.

"What you're trying to do is to do something totally original. So we set about writing songs that were very emotional, that were love songs ... It was kind of an act of rebellion."

But with the band, there's a lot more freedom. And I have to say, as the years have rolled by, you learn the tricks of the trade. You learn how to set it on fire and how to cool it down again, on stage playing together. When you first start, it's really exciting. But there's still a great deal of excitement now because the musicianship improves in time, especially playing the songs over and over.

I play festivals. Sometimes you'll play with a lot of other bands from the 1980s or when we started. But other times, if I play a festival, you're playing with all sorts of different groups from different genres — young acts, old acts. And we're sitting in there, and you have to win an audience over. It's interesting playing to an audience that has no idea who you are. That's where you kind of learn your chops, definitely. All of that's going into the show.

Obviously, when we tour, it's people who go, "Oh, I want to go and see ABC. I'll come down and watch them." In any audience, there's a lot of people who've been dragged down by their boyfriends and their girlfriends — the mums and dads sometimes. And then you have to work that side of the audience too. Makes for a great show.

As a musician, that must be really interesting, because that keeps you on your toes. You can't get complacent at all when you're in a situation like that.

Many years ago with ABC, we opened up for Robbie Williams, who isn't that popular in America, but he was very popular in the UK. This is maybe 20 years ago. And you used to look out into that audience. Sometimes it was like 60-70,000 people. It was kind of like fields of people. And you could work out where different sections of the audience were buzzing to certain things. The first couple of miles was people that had queued and waited. And then at the back there was other people, and then the side. You learn your stagecraft that way.

I'm happy you're celebrating "The Lexicon of Love" turning 40. What are your most indelible memories of recording the album?

In Sheffield, where we were from, there were a lot of really experimental bands — bands like Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League. Def Leppard were playing. Very defined, very different bands.

And we realized what you're trying to do is to do something totally original. So we set about writing songs that were very emotional, that were love songs, hate songs: "Poison Arrow," "The Look of Love," "All of My Heart." Very different to the style of the predominant style of the bands in Sheffield. It was kind of an act of rebellion. You wanted to rebel.

We played small club dates. You'd play to an audience, maybe 200 people, but they were all in bands. That's the toughest show you can ever play. They're looking at you going, "Mm, yeah. I don't like your shoes. Nice bass part, but his shoes aren't right. You know what I mean?" [Laughs.] Kind of the most hypercritical audience you will ever play to in your whole career.

Anyway, "The Lexicon of Love," memories of making it . . . Well, one beautiful thing happened when David Bowie came to the studio. We were working in the studio called Good Earth Studios. Tony Visconti owned it. He was Bowie's producer. We're doing the record with Trevor Horn, our producer, and we're making the record, and Bowie came down. We were Bowie fans. It was terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time.

Did he come in? Did he say anything?

"It was our first record, so all you want to do is sleep on the floor and get up and do the next day's work. There's nothing outside of the music."

Yeah, he came in. He was interested, and he made a couple of suggestions. We were recording "The Look of Love." There were two middle eights in it, because we never wanted a guitar solo in our records back then, and we didn't want a sax solo. So he said, "You should have a section where Martin, the lead singer, kind of is putting messages on an answering machine and nobody's replying." It's a great idea. We never pursued the idea, but that was a great memory of those sessions.

You know, every time you make a record, it's different. We made most of it in a studio where they'd recorded Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," but it was a tiny, tiny studio underneath a wig shop on Brick Lane in the East End of London. Now that's kind of a hipster place, a place you should go to if you ever come to London. It's a really nice, cool place. But back then you took your life into your hands if you walked down the street outside. It was a rough old part of London.

It did mean that we just kind of stayed in the studio and worked, worked, worked. We were very focused. And it was our first record, so all you want to do is sleep on the floor and get up and do the next day's work. There's nothing outside of the music. Many, many good memories.

You only make your first record once, and there's that excitement. 

The thing is though, everybody that goes into a studio . . . at the playback point, when you play it and go, you turn up those speakers play at high volume, everybody kind of has that moment where they think, "This could go to No. 1." I love that idealism. I love that sort of dream that everybody has.

Doesn't matter what the music is, everybody has that feeling. Which is what it's all about, isn't it? Of course, not everything gets to No. 1. But it's kind of that sort of pursuit of your dreams, I suppose, when you make a record.

And you did! "The Lexicon of Love" went to No. 1 in the UK. That must have been so exciting, but also terrifying at the same time.

You gotta be careful what you dream of, what you wish for. I've never really thought about that, but yeah, it was kind of bizarre to go to No. 1.

Roxy Music were No. 1. I'd idolized them as a kid, and we were the No. 1 the following week. We edged them off the No. 1 spot. So, how does that work? But I mean, what you learn is somebody has to be there. I don't know, really.

I did spend the whole of the 1980s thinking about whenever we had success, you were always thinking about the next thing. How do you follow it up? Say you get to No. 3 on the charts. You're thinking, "Well, who's No. 2, who's No. 1?" That's a terrible thing, if you think about it. And you're encouraged to think that way by the labels. It's nuts. And none of it really matters. It's about the music.

And it's true, because once you start getting that mindset and start thinking about that, then that's when things can get a little askew. You should be focusing on the art, not that element of it, the other element.

Yeah. It's good to step off that cavalcade and just get back to the ideas. The ideas and the kind of raw material and the art, the core of what you're doing. Yeah, definitely.

Martin Fry of ABCMartin Fry of ABC (Paradise Artists)

What was it like working with Trevor Horn? What did he bring the proceedings, and what did you learn from him?

"When you're there, you should never compromise while you're recording. If you want a clarinet player on your record, bring in a clarinet player. Don't wait 30 years to learn to play the clarinet." – Trevor Horn

Trevor Horn, he'd made Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," but he'd made a record with Dollar we'd heard on the radio we thought was incredible. Incredible sound.

We approached him, and he seemed to understand innately what we were talking about. Because we were an arrogant young band. We were going to change the world of music. We'd sit in bars and restaurants and cafes telling the people, "This is how it was going to be."

But of course, that is just a wish fulfillment. You throw your manifesto down. I think that's the great thing about being in a band. I think you've got to have that crazy attitude, definitely. Trevor seemed to understand. He had a lot more experience than us, obviously, because he was starting to produce other acts, new acts outside of his own songs.

He did say to me – and he's right because 40 years on, we're talking about this record – but he said, "When you're there, you should never compromise while you're recording. If you want a clarinet player on your record, bring in a clarinet player. Don't wait 30 years to learn to play the clarinet. Do everything in your power to make your record as complete as you possibly can, in whatever form of music." He was very astute. He was great to work with, funny, great sense of humor.

That's really good life advice, too, honestly. "Don't wait. Do it now."

But yeah, it was good. It was really good chemistry amongst the band, amongst Trevor, his whole team. It was great. 

Forty years later, do you think that you achieved what you wanted to achieve with the record?

In a rapid space of time with the success of the debut album, we achieved a lot of things that bands would take 10 years to achieve. It was kind of like living high density — so 15 seconds was like 15 minutes. It was like kind of bang. It took a while to kind of work out what to do next.

But subsequently, it was great to kind of move through the '80s and experiment and make a lot of different records. To answer your question, yeah. Well, you know, you never have a list of things you want to achieve and think, oh, "Tick, tick, tick." No. And at the time I remember saying to Trevor Horn, "Oh, I think we need some extra songs to go on this record."

But as soon as something becomes public, the public decides whether or not they like it or not. They say, "Oh, that's a classic album." Well, I've got nothing to do with that. Do you know what I mean? I was just there at the beginning. It's not my ego that makes it. It's the public decides if they want to listen to something 40 years later, don't they? You know what I mean? Because a lot of great music has come out from that 40 years, incredible music.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

MTV played ABC a lot early on. What was your sense of how the channel was helping the band in America at the time?

In Britain, in London, it was fiercely competitive, so every band would have its own video clip. If you look back and think about the groups that were existing then — the Eurythmics, Culture Club, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode, Dexys Midnight Runners, Human League, ABC — they all had a very defined sort of look. And Soft Cell. It was a very influential time.

MTV was hungry for some quite creative clips. They didn't really want to play the standard sort of rock 'n' roll stuff. They were very into the experimental clips. And a lot of the bands that came out of Britain were on that edge, I suppose. 

I never really thought about it, but there was one time I was in New York and I went in to buy a burger, and the guy says, "No, you don't have to pay for it. Mr. Fry, you're getting a free burger." And I kind of thought, "Well, this is New York," because he got MTV on somewhere in the background. He knew who I was. That was fame. 

Do you find that ABC is resonating with other generations? Because there are so many bands that started in the '80s that do have these fan bases. What is sense?

The 1980s was a lot of things. In Britain, it was like Duran Duran and the whole New Romantic thing. And then it turned to dance rave culture. That had kind of burned out by the time the '90s had arrived, whereas EDM kind of took off later, and grunge took off later in America. Things were moving at a different sort of pace, I guess.

But it's funny because for a long time, I remember people would go, "Ah, it's just synthesizers. It was a very inauthentic period." But then there was a moment where it was like people aren't saying, "Oh, what, you're still here?" They're saying, "Oh, you're a bit of a legend, mate." A younger audience seem to get into the flamboyance and the dayglow of the 1980s.

And now when I kind of listen to [Lady] Gaga and The Weeknd, I can see a lot of contemporary acts, musicians and artists, who've definitely gone to the school of 1980s to check it all out, definitely. As a piece of their influence, basically. It's funny how it's evolved. And now it's revered in a funny kind of way. The interest in the 1980s has lasted much longer than 10 years, much longer than the decade itself. [Laughs.] So that's good. 

I kind of think that it was televised. It was filmed. The '70s, some of it was filmed, but all those clips we just talked about, they're the archeological evidence of the 1980s pop scene. If you want to know about Pat Benatar or B-52s, you go check 'em out. You can see them on YouTube.

Read more

about this topic

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

1980s Abc Interview Martin Fry Music