Wednesday, April 15, 2009

ABC - Alphabet City - The Later Years

Following the relatively disappointing reception offered ‘Beauty Stab’, ABC shifted their base operation to New York, and opted for yet another intense makeover. They retained Fry’s core manifesto of adhering to an acute sense of style, but skewed to a gimmicky, almost cartoonish image, and started playing around with dance beats, hip-hop rhythms and sampling. Their next single, the cynically laced ‘How To Be A Millionaire’, continued ABC’s slide down the pop ladder in Britain (#49), but attracted more attention Stateside (#20), in part due to regular rotation of the outlandish animated promo video, and in part due to the scheduling of its release in the U.S., which actually followed on the success of ABC’s next single (in Britain), the catchy and melodic ‘Be Near Me’. Both tracks featured a distinct flavour of mid 80s dance pop, reflecting ABC’s intuitive feel for the current mood in popular music. But whilst their finger may have been well and truly on the pulse, ABC’s willingness to incorporate new sounds into the mix, didn’t always gel so well. That said, ‘Be Near Me’ became the duo’s biggest selling single to date in the U.S. (#9), and racked up respectable numbers at home (UK#26). I have to say, that the promo video for ‘Be Near Me’ ranks as a tragically kitsch effort, with pseudo-members Yarrith and Eden adding little in terms of value, aesthetic or otherwise. The ensuing singles, ‘Vanity Kills’ (UK#70/US#91) and the sweet ballad ‘Ocean Blue’ (UK#51), both kept ABC’s name in the charts, albeit the lower reaches, into 1986, and were both lifted from the band’s third album, ‘How To Be A…Zillionaire!’, released in October of ‘85. I rate the up-tempo ‘Vanity Kills’ as a better song than ‘Be Near Me’, but I’m obviously in the minority there. Two promo videos were produced for ‘Vanity Kills’, the British version being a more story based, less brash affair, and featured the spoken word dialogue at both start/finish of the song (excluded from the original British album pressing).

Having regained some commercial momentum via the largely conceptual ‘How To Be A…Zillionaire!’ (UK#28/US#30), ABC were dealt a savage blow during 1986, when vocalist Martin Fry was diagnosed with Hodkin’s Disease (a form of cancer). The band were forced to take an extended hiatus, during which Fry received ongoing treatment. By early ‘87, Fry had reacted positively to treatment, and began working once more with Mark White, writing material for the next ABC album. With the long term diagnosis for Fry still unknown, the duo approached the recording process as if it may be the swansong album for ABC. Producer extraordinaire Bernard Edwards (ex-Chic - see earlier post), co-produced the sessions with Fry and White, who were now comfortable with the idea of carrying on as a duo (without the aesthetic baggage). Time for a new album, time for another change in musical style, but this time around ABC returned to an element that provided a strong undercurrent on ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ - soul. More particularly, facets of Motown brand soul, and British based ‘Northern soul’. In May of ‘87, the lead out single ‘When Smokey Sings’ was released, and within weeks was surging up the charts on both sides of the Atlantic. The brilliantly crafted track was an unabashed homage to the legendary Smokey Robinson, and Motown soul in general. It combined the finest elements of ABC’s pop-savvy melodies, sleek and stylish production values, and Fry’s impassioned vocal delivery. ‘When Smokey Sings’ deservedly became ABC’s biggest selling single in the U.S. (#5), and re-established the band’s profile at home (UK#11/OZ#25). Once more, ABC’s collective finger was on the pulse of popular music vogue, with Northern soul enjoying a resurgence during 1987, thanks also to the likes of the Kane Gang, Deacon Blue (see previous posts), Simply Red (see future post), and The Style Council.

The follow up single, ‘The Night You Murdered Love’ (UK#31), hit the British charts in September of ’87, and once more offered up a very catchy soul-pop number, with a mischievous funk edge (featuring the vocals of Tessa Miles AKA Contessa Lady V). The clever, and witty promo clip also showed that both Fry and White were enjoying this latest resurgence in ABC’s fortunes. Both recent singles were included on ABC’s fourth studio album, ‘Alphabet City’, named so in reference to a section of Manhattan, that Fry and White resided in during the recording of the album (ABC…Alphabet City…it works whichever way you look at it!). Following the success of ‘When Smokey Sings’, and ‘The Night You Murdered Love’, the album climbed steadily to a peak of #7 on the British charts, spelling the biggest album success for ABC at home since ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, not surprising given their latest effort encompassed elements of the same cinematic majesty that defined ‘Lexicon’. What did surprise, was the album’s sluggish sales in the U.S. (#48), perhaps in part due to the five month delay between hit single (‘When Smokey Sings’) and album release (you’ve gotta strike while the iron is hot!). Critics hailed ‘Alphabet City’ as a return to form for ABC, with co-producer Bernard Edwards no doubt having an influence on the group recapturing their earlier sublime studio slickness, though Anne Dudley returned to weave her orchestral magic on the tracks ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘One Day’. The album’s third single, ‘King Without A Crown’ (UK#44), was released late in ‘87, and stuck to the same soul infused pop feel of its forerunners.

It was almost two years before ABC surfaced once more, with 1989’s album ‘Up’. Ever the style-chameleons, Fry and White introduced elements of house music to several tracks, but the lead out single was more of a straight up melodic-pop offering. ‘One Better World’ (UK#32) was ABC’s explicit plea for love, peace and tolerance, and featured an appropriately celebratory brass section. ‘Up’ managed to crawl up to #58 in Britain, but became ABC’s first album to miss the U.S. charts completely. The follow up single, ‘The Real Thing’ (UK#68), was a minor league performer, and it could be argued that ABC should have stuck to what they had done best, via ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ and ‘Alphabet City’ sets. ‘Up’ also marked the end of the group’s five album tenure with Phonogram/Polygram, who subsequently released the obligatory ‘best of’ compilation, ‘Absolutely’ (UK#7/OZ#99).

ABC then signed with Parlophone (EMI), and released their first album for the label in August of ‘91. The advance single, ‘Love Conquers All’, proved anything but conquering on the charts (UK#47). Its source album, ‘Abracadabra’ (UK#50), was sadly lacking in the melodic-pop magic ABC had cast so effectively in their early career. Flirtations with techno, and Philly brand soul, provided some daring ingredients to ABC’s latest recipe, but though under the tight studio guidance of David Bascombe, the album failed to gel into a cohesive final dish. The follow up single, ‘Say It’, featured an additional mix by Italian house group Black Box, and edged into the lower reaches of the British top fifty (#42), in early ‘92.

The ABC brand then went on indefinite hiatus, with Fry stepping away from the music business for several years during the mid 90s. In 1996, Fry was ready to resurrect ABC, but guitarist Mark White elected not to be involved. Fry essentially returned as a solo artist under the ABC banner, for the 1997 album ‘Skyscraping’. Heaven 17 front man Glenn Gregory (see previous post), co-produced the album with Fry and Keith Lowndes. The trio had worked together in 1995, and recorded some experimental dance tracks under the moniker of the Magic Skulls. The chemistry was good, and on ‘Skyscraping’ Gregory and Lowndes co-wrote all eleven songs, and provided most of the instrumental backing on the set, which witnessed Fry returning to some of the pop-grandeur of ABC’s earlier ‘New Romantic’ incarnation. Contemporary dance beats provided the rhythmic baseline upon which layers of glam-style guitars, and lush synthesizer arrangements were built. Once more Fry returned to the Bowie and Ferry school of style, in a virtual homage to his musical heroes, and once more he managed to pull it off. ‘Skyscraping’ received only limited release, initially in the U.K. only, through Blatant Records, and spawned the minor U.K. hit ‘Stranger Things’ (#57). The album’s released coincided with a bit of a nostalgic resurgence in the ‘New Romantic’ era artists in Britain, and buoyed by positive reviews for ‘Skyscraping’, Fry took a revamped ABC line-up out on the road. The tour resulted in the 1999 live set, ‘The Lexicon Of Live’, featuring a rejuvenated Martin Fry, resplendent in his trademark gold lamé suit. A repackaged greatest hits hit shelves in 2001, featuring two knew songs from Fry, ‘Peace And Tranquility’ and ‘Blame’, and ABC were soon supporting Robbie Williams on tour.

In 2004, ABC became the focus of VH1’s ‘Bands Reunited’ programme. With the assistance of ex-Kajagoogoo bassist Nick Beggs, a good mate of Fry’s, the programme not surprisingly obtained Fry’s commitment to the proposed ‘one-off’ reunion show, and drummer David Palmer agreed to take time out from his Rod Stewart touring commitments, but sadly neither Stephen Singleton or Mark White agreed to participate. Regardless, Fry and Palmer played together on-stage for the first time since Palmer’s departure post ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ world tour in ‘83. Nick Beggs joined in on base, and the audience was thrilled to hear Fry belting out some of ABC’s best. The same year, Fry, Palmer (and Beggs) joined forces again for the Prince’s Trust concert, dubbed ‘Slaves To The Rhythm’. The concert was a 25th anniversary celebration of the work of writer/producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn, and featured those artists who had benefited immensely from his in studio wizardry. I recently saw the video for ‘Slaves To The Rhythm’ for the first time, and there’s no doubt that Martin Fry had lost none of his vocal dexterity, as he belted out ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘All Of My Heart’, and ‘The Look Of Love’, from the Horn produced ‘The Lexicon Of Love’.

Extensive touring continued throughout 2005 to 2007, with the likes of Go West (see future post), Spandau Ballet’s Tony Hadley, and many reformed and rejuvenated acts from the 80s era. Following a stint in the U.S. during 2006, Fry, Palmer, and new keyboardist Chuck Kentis, began working on material for a new ABC album. ‘Traffic’ finally drove into the stores in April 2008, and reunited Fry with ‘Beauty Stab’ producer Gary Langan. ABC toured Britain soon after, alongside fellow 80s alumnus Heaven 17 and Human League, on the ‘Steel City Tour’. Fry and co. show no signs of slowing down, with tour dates slated throughout 2009, including a proposed performance of ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ album at the Royal Albert Hall in April. The band will be backed by the BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by none other than Anne Dudley (who knows maybe Trevor Horn will drop by - STOP PRESS - thanks to Chris for letting me know that Trevor Horn did indeed make a guest appearance at the Albert Hall show - all reports are it was a magic evening for all concerned)


Chris said...

Great article. Trevor Horn did indeed turn up at the ABC Albert Hall gig!

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks Chris :)
Great to hear that Trevor Horn made a guest appearance at the Albert Hall show - I hope it was captured for future DVD release.

Andy said...

The gig was recorded by BBC2, but audio only. A DVD won't be making an appearance sadly, however there are a few clips on YouTube doing the rounds.

A. FlockOfSeagulls said...

Thanks for the info Andy. It's too bad that a DVD won't result from the show. Watching and listening to 'Lexicon Of Love' with full orchestra in 5.1 surround - now that would be cool.