ABC still shooting their Poison Arrow after 37 years

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IF you think of musical glamour in the ‘80s, you think of ABC’s timeless album The Lexicon Of Love. Its romantic Top 10 singles The Look Of Love, Poison Arrow and All Of My Heart made a star of singer Martin Fry and his trademark gold suit.

Nearly 40 years on, Martin and the band are touring The Lexicon Of Love in full with eight shows backed by Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Anne Dudley, who first worked with ABC on the album. Martin is keenly aware of how much the album means to fans, saying:

“You’re playing with people’s memories. Everyone will have gone through a lot – kids, illness, divorce, keeping up mortgage payments – and our songs go alongside all of that.

There’s always something to learn from these songs, and they still sound fresh.”
Only one of the album’s nine songs, the frantic 4Ever 2Gether, gives Martin trouble to play live now. He laughs: “I wouldn’t have made that song so rapid if I’d known I’d still be singing it in 2019! Then again, how often do you get to hear lyrics like ‘I’ve thrown the marriage proposal down the waste disposal’? Preposterous rhyming schemes have always been part of my work. For years, I tried to get the word ‘umbrella’ into a song. I was heartbroken when Rihanna showed up with Umbrella.”

From its dramatic sleeve of Martin dressed like James Bond rescuing a fainting woman, The Lexicon Of Love seems steeped in luxury. But it was made in a rundown studio in East London where, as Martin says, “There wasn’t even a tap, just a pair of pliers to turn the sink on.” Imposingly tall at 6ft 3ins, still trim and debonair, it’s hard to imagine Martin and his ABC bandmates in such squalor. He recalls: “The area is gentrified now, but you took your life in your hands going out around there back then. One reason the album is so good is because there was nowhere to go! It was a really small room, and there was only one studio in the building. You had to focus on the music, because you weren’t going to bump into any other bands like Depeche Mode to chat to at the vending machine.”

Recording the album, Martin met Anne Dudley, who went on to win an Oscar in 1998 for the score to The Full Monty as well as composing the music for the film of Les Miserables and BBC1’s Poldark. “Anne is a brilliant musician and so fearless,” Martin enthuses. “When we made Lexicon, we realised All Of My Heart needed strings. Anne put her hand up and said ‘I’ll do it!’ She went home and had it done in a couple of days. Anne is so good at going ‘Right, how do we make this work?’ and she’s very understated too – if you go to her house, there’s an Oscar in the loo!”

Martin believes The Lexicon Of Love succeeded because it sounded so different to ABC’s musical peers. “I’d grown up on The Sex Pistols,” he explains. “Writing love songs was cheeky for a band at that time. We were trying to be emotional and hyper-romantic.”

ABC changed their style throughout the ‘80s. After The Lexicon Of Love, they made rock album Beauty Stab before presenting themselves as cartoon characters on How To Be A Zillionaire. Soul album Alphabet City and house music record Up followed. The albums contained hits including When Smokey Sings, SOS and Be Near Me, but weren’t quite as successful as The Lexicon Of Love. “I didn’t resent Lexicon, because it was our calling card,” Martin reasons. “To come straight out of the box with that as your first record? That’s not bad.

“I used to pretend The Lexicon Of Love was music’s version of Citizen Kane and I was Orson Welles,” he continues. “I liked Orson’s other films too. I never knew if ABC were ahead of our time or just totally out of sync. I love Gorillaz, but ABC became a cartoon band long before Damon Albarn. Maybe I should have waited 15 years before releasing Zillionaire!”

In 1986, Martin was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Then newly married to wife Julie, he beat the disease and the couple have two grown-up children, Louis and Nancy. Martin stays fit as a keen cyclist. “I’ve had a few close shaves, healthwise,” reveals Martin. “But my life has been a great ride. The last 15 years have been phenomenal, getting another shot at the pop life.”

Martin is currently writing more ABC songs, which may form another sequel to The Lexicon Of Love. In 2016, 34 years after part 1, ABC released The Lexicon Of Love II. It reached No 5, becoming ABC’s first Top 10 album since Alphabet City in 1987. He’d been inspired to make a new album from the reaction to the first orchestral ABC show a few years earlier.

“That inspired me to think about what it would be like to make an orchestral, larger than life, glamorous ABC record,” Martin explains. “About three-quarters of the way through making it, the record label said ‘This is The Lexicon Of Love II, isn’t it?’ That wasn’t my original blueprint, but it was fair. Once I decided to follow through on that idea, it was a joy. And as a fan, the idea of a sequel is appealing. I’d love The Human League to make Dare II, and part of me was thinking after David Bowie died that I’d never get to hear Ziggy Stardust II.”

Martin still enjoys writing more romantic songs today, viewing The Lexicon Of Love II as another angle on the original album’s young person’s guide to love. “The elation, sadness and euphoria when you feel strongly about someone, there are infinite angles to explore there,” smiles Martin. “I’m like Netflix – someone could commission me to do 36 episodes of The Lexicon Of Love. So far there’s only two. Time moves on, so roll your sleeves up and do it.”

ABC’s The Lexicon Of Love tour with Southbank Sinfonia conducted by Anne Dudley comes to the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on Sunday April 7. For tickets and more information visit: www.southendtheatres.org.uk or www.abcmartinfry.com

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