Four decades on from its release, ABC’s ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ is still one of the most luxurious and glorious widescreen pop albums of all time. Frontman Martin Fry takes a break from rehearsals for a 40th anniversary tour to tell the inside story of this enduring classic, starting in a toilet in a Tokyo hotel room…

“It felt like I wasn’t wearing the suit. The suit was wearing me. The suit could have done the shows on its own.”

Martin Fry is recalling the time when he was suddenly no longer comfortable as the debonair frontman of ABC, one of the most innovative, flamboyant and dashing pop phenomena of the 1980s. 

It was 1983 and ABC were in Tokyo, around 50 dates into a global tour showcasing ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, the band’s debut album and a UK Number One that was still in the charts a year after its release. Fry was beginning to feel hemmed in by singing the same songs every night and by the persona he projected – Hollywood style in an iconic gold lamé suit. So he decided to flush his legendary outfit down the loo. 

“We were staying in the Keio Plaza Hotel,” he remembers. “The Japanese technology was more advanced and the toilets had a wider pan. I’d picked up so much stuff over there, like a Walkman and a watch that looked like a robot, and there simply wasn’t room in my case…” 

The gold suit went into the bigger pan, round the U-bend, into the sewage system and possibly out to sea – which would have been a strange sight for passing fish and crustaceans. 

“To be fair, I had probably lost my mind,” Fry chuckles. “But it was definitely a statement. From day one, our manifesto had always been, ‘Change is stability, change is strength’. We were very serious young men who thought that to do anything more than four times would make you middle-aged and cabaret.” 

He briefly pauses, taking a moment to consider the youthful audacity and bravery of it all. 

“I think that’s a good way of looking at the world when you’re young. I’ve undoubtedly calmed down a bit, but it’s good to burn like that.”

All these decades later, Martin Fry is getting ready to perform the songs from ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ again, on a 10-date 40th anniversary tour across the UK, with additional shows in the US and Europe. The current line-up of ABC will be augmented by the Southbank Sinfonia for the gigs, the orchestra conducted by Anne Dudley, the album’s original keyboard player and strings arranger. 

As part of his preparations for the tour, Fry listened to specially remastered versions of the tracks in a superior audio environment. He describes it as like being inside a “sphere of music”.

“I have to say it was a strange but uplifting experience,” he reflects. “It took me back to when we were making the album at Sarm East Studios, but in a way it was like I was finally hearing it how other people perceive it. I’ve played those songs many times onstage, in many different configurations, but it was fantastic to hear them like that. I really enjoyed it. When you make a record, you’re too close to it and you have to let it go. It’s for the public to decide whether or not something is a classic.”

Which ‘Lexicon’ has surely become. With an unashamedly ambitious mix of pioneering electronica and old school film star style – not to mention smash hits such as ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘The Look Of Love’ and ‘All Of My Heart’ – it is undeniably one of the most defining collections of its era. The combination of terrific songs and innovative technology still sounds fresh. 

Now aged 64, Fry hasn’t exactly stood still in the years since. But although ABC have made a total of nine albums, the singer acknowledges that ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ will always be his ‘Citizen Kane’ – a masterpiece of a debut against which all his other activity is judged.

“I’m not here to sell it as ‘my classic’, though,” he says. “I’m just a small cog in the machine.”

The story of how ‘Lexicon’ was made is quite a tale and Fry was recently reminded of how far he’s travelled, when he was performing on a cruise ship off Orlando and came across a red vinyl copy of the Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’. 

“I had a digital record player with me, so I put the album on. It sounded fantastic, but then I had an out of body experience. I thought, ‘Well, here you are, 45 years down the line’.” 

He was a teenager in Stockport when he’d been lucky enough to catch the Sex Pistols’ second gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall in July 1976, an event also attended by Ian Curtis, Mark E Smith, John Cooper Clarke, Mick Hucknall and Tony Wilson. Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook and Morrissey had seen the seminal punk band at the same venue the previous month, a concert promoted by Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley from the Buzzcocks, who went on to support the Pistols at the July show. 

Fry had just started seeing live bands – “Tangerine Dream, Dr Feelgood, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – who were!” – but nothing compared to witnessing the first stirrings of punk.

“John Lydon was incredible,” Fry says. “He came out looking quite Dickensian. He stared at the audience and went, ‘You’re all a bunch of fucking statues’. And then just stood there. I’ve never seen anything as confrontational. Then they started their first song and it was mind-blowing. It was my road to Damascus moment. After that, everything else seemed dated.” 

Three years later, Fry was studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield (who made him an Honorary Doctor of Music in 2012) and it was here that he met Mark White and Stephen Singleton, the three of them going on to form the core of ABC. At that point, though, White and Singleton were an electronic duo called Vice Versa, who Fry interviewed for his fanzine, Modern Drugs. As he tells it, Vice Versa were looking for someone to play keyboards and Yvonne Pawlett, who had been in The Fall and was friends with Singleton, was coming over at the weekend, but they suddenly asked Fry if he fancied it – despite him not actually being a keyboard player.

“I’m thinking that maybe I got her gig,” he grins.

Few who saw the starkly electronic trio at the time would have imagined they’d be a chart act within two years. Vice Versa’s ‘Music 4’ EP (recorded before Fry joined the group) and their contribution to ‘1980: The First 15 Minutes’ (also featuring fellow unsigned Sheffield bands Clock DVA, I’m So Hollow and Stunt Kites) had earmarked them as left-field John Peel favourites. Their underground credentials were strengthened when they appeared at the Futurama 2 festival in Leeds in 1980 alongside a host of emerging electronic outfits, including the recently formed Soft Cell (Steel City pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and The Wirral’s Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark having played at the first Futurama in 1979). 

They were all initially dubbed – not always positively – “the synth brigade”. But after Gary Numan’s Tubeway Army scored a Number One hit with ‘Are “Friends” Electric?’, people realised such artists could actually be popular as well as voguish. 

“Vice Versa were on the cusp of something big,” Fry asserts. “We were part of the same scene as OMD and Depeche Mode… but then we just vacated it.” 

Significantly, the trio had observed the development of their Sheffield peers The Human League from weird alternative types into the slick synthpop group who would soon top the UK charts with ‘Don’t You Want Me’. Fry admits he felt “in their shadow”, but it took a trip to the Netherlands to spark their own radical transformation. Future Haçienda DJ and M People lynchpin Mike Pickering was living over there and had arranged some gigs for them in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. 

“We’d been jamming a lot and we met this guy who invited us to use his studio,” Fry says. 

Although Mark White was Vice Versa’s vocalist and Fry had never sung before, he had a go during that studio session. It was a revelation to them all. 

“Mark always says he handed the microphone over to me after that moment.”

With a new singer and thoughts of a new direction, the trio returned to Sheffield buzzing with plans and possibilities. 

“The idea was to sound like James Brown and David Bowie,” Fry explains. “And have lyrics that reflected our surroundings – that postmodern English vibe. Fusing those two elements became an obsession for us. We pulled in a bass player and a drummer and redesigned the whole thing.” 

Fry claims that the speed of the metamorphosis was such that NME’s Paul Morley reviewed them live as Vice Versa “and by the time we met him for an interview we’d become ABC”. The line-up of the group evolved quickly too, with the bassist leaving and the original drummer replaced by David Palmer, a brilliant youth prodigy they’d heard about from club bands. As Fry describes it, the scene – and ABC – were changing virtually every week.

“In those days, it felt like we were going from matt to gloss,” he notes. “It was this concept of internationalism and being really positive about the world.” 

With the UK economy in recession and both inflation and unemployment rising sharply, there was perhaps good reason for that. Fry claims they felt part of “a generation who had been ignored”. 

“Something that was of great concern to us was the fact that The Clash had never been on ‘Top Of The Pops’. So when you get to us and people like Depeche Mode, Duran Duran and mid-period Dexy’s, there was this idea that we could reinvent whatever we wanted to. We had all been on the dole and I’d worked at Batchelors in Sheffield, dehydrating peas in the factory, but we believed in self-fulfilling prophecies.” 

Manifestos were decided and battle lines were drawn. Leather trousers and rock music were 70s and out. Influences such as ZE Records, Grace Jones and James Chance were in. The future would be DIY, but glamorous. 

“We tried to make everything beautiful with postmodernism,” Fry says. “You could buy an old leather overcoat from Oxfam and I think Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ had a lot to do with our style. And no one was going to stop us. I didn’t want to sing about pylons or alienation. I wanted to sing about love affairs gone wrong.” 

In the scene they’d sprung from, this was an extreme step to take. Although they were now thinking of themselves as a “radical dance faction”, they were still playing insalubrious venues like the George IV pub on Sheffield’s Infirmary Road, while The Human League, Clock DVA, Artery et al watched on.

“Those were the toughest gigs we ever played,” Fry recalls. “The Hollywood Bowl was much easier! In Sheffield, there’d be 200 people watching us… and 180 of them were in other bands.”

Many of the songs they played, songs that are now copper-bottomed classics, were written in a couple of abandoned houses. Vice Versa had rehearsed in Stephen Singleton’s mum’s flat, but ABC had a drummer and needed to make more noise, so they decamped to the derelict terrace that Fry shared with a DJ known as Disco John. 

“Because the two terraces next to mine were empty, we were able to expand and take over the lot,” he says. 

It was here that “around 80 per cent” of ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ came together. ‘Poison Arrow’ was in the live set very early on and ‘The Look Of Love’ came shortly after. ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ began life as a “funk rant” and ‘All Of My Heart’ started out as “a country and western number we would have never dared to play on West Street”, the epicentre of Sheffield’s nightlife. 

Meanwhile, the growing hubbub around the band meant that music industry moguls such as Muff Winwood from CBS would show up at the old houses, parking their limos on the battered street outside.

“It seems surreal in retrospect,” Fry admits. “Back then, it was just where I lived.” 

The major record company scramble for ABC ended when the band were snapped up by Phonogram. Their first output was ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, a track somewhere between new romantic and white funk which reached Number 19 in the UK singles chart in October 1981. By now, the group looked and sounded impossibly sophisticated, although the reality was they were only on £50 a week when they first went on ‘Top Of The Pops’. That was less than Fry had earned at Batchelors.

“We were staying in places like the Columbia, but we didn’t have enough to eat,” Fry says, referring to London’s infamous rock hotel, where rooms with six beds would become the source of in-fighting for many a young band. “I met Marc Almond and David Ball there. And The Associates. And Van Morrison walked in one night. It was bonkers, but fantastic.”

Glamorous it wasn’t, but the success of the single validated Phonogram’s faith in the group and ensured the label would fund an album. Fry corrects a common misconception that production whizz-kid Trevor Horn (who would subsequently take Frankie Goes To Hollywood to successive Number Ones) “waved a magic wand” and turned ABC into a pop outfit. In fact, as the Steve Brown-produced ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ suggested, they were more or less fully formed. What they needed was someone who could help realise their dreams.

As Fry puts it, Horn’s crucial role on ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ was “to knit the fog, to make it happen”. At that point, Horn was the young producer on the rise, having been in the late 70s line-up of Yes and then scoring a huge hit with ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’ as half of The Buggles. ABC were drawn to him mainly because of his work with Dollar, the chart steamrollering duo consisting of David Van Day and Thereza Bazar.

“‘Hand Held In Black And White’, ‘Give Me Back My Heart’ and ‘Videotheque’ were sonic delights,” Fry smiles. 

One of the 1980s’ most significant encounters between an artist and a producer occurred in, of all places, Pizza Express.

“I had dinner with Trevor a couple of weeks ago and he’s exactly the same now as he was then,” Fry says. “Great sense of humour. When we met him, he seemed to instantly understand what we were about. I think he knew we were onto something.”

Operating out of London’s hi-tech Sarm East studios, Horn had all the latest gear, including a Fairlight CMI, the digital synthesiser that introduced sampling technology to pop. As Fry tells it, the ahead-of-the-game producer ran everything through the Fairlight, although the band weren’t entirely unfamiliar with this way of working.

“We’d been recording on a two-track and we were used to bouncing from track to track. So with Trevor, I suppose it just felt totally comfortable.” 

Fry talks about how Fairlight programmer JJ Jeczalik, who was later in The Art Of Noise, sampled material from the radio and recorded running water from the nearby Thames for the middle of ‘Poison Arrow’.

“Nowadays you can do that stuff on your phone, but in 1981 or 1982 it was revolutionary.”

When they couldn’t create the sounds they dreamed of, Trevor Horn brought musicians in. Anne Dudley, another future member of The Art Of Noise, initially arrived as a piano player, but turned strings arranger after Fry said he wanted the songs to have orchestration, like his favoured Motown or Philly soul records, or David Bowie’s ‘Sorrow’.

“So she went home and came back the following day with all the parts. The next thing I knew, we were laying strings down at Abbey Road… and that made it swing. Anne is an incredible musician.”

The orchestration was unlikely to go down well with the post-punk crowd they’d had as Vice Versa. But that didn’t trouble ABC. They had a new target audience now. 

“We wanted to compete with the Americans,” Fry declares. “We wanted to be played in Barnsley and in Detroit. We had this mythical girl in Barnsley who had mainstream tastes and we’d ask ourselves if she would like it. People such as The Normal and The Pop Group had never got in the charts, so that’s what we wanted to do. We weren’t short of ambition or ego.”

The album production costs were mounting – Fry doesn’t know the exact figure but he suspects ‘Lexicon’ came in at £60,000 for around 10 weeks of recording and mixing – and a lot of money also went on taxis to get the band from the Columbia to Sarm East. With pop progressing every week, time was of the essence.

“It wasn’t cheap, but it never spiralled into insanity figures like a lot of things did in the 80s,” Fry notes.

And throughout the process, he noticed that Horn had a manifesto of his own.

“Trevor would say, ‘A record will last forever. Once you’re done, all people remember is the work’.”

As ‘Poison Arrow’ climbed the UK charts in March 1982, ABC did ‘Top Of The Pops’ on the Thursday before grabbing a cab back to the studio to keep working on the album. They’d often record on the run, holing up at Sarm East at night or, if it was booked, heading to RAK Studios. They also used Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios, which was where they were recording ‘The Look Of Love’ when they had an unexpected visit from none other than David Bowie. Bowie, whose father was from Doncaster, spoke to ABC in a perfectly mimicked Yorkshire accent. 

“I missed him, because I was at Record Mirror promoting ‘Poison Arrow’,” Fry sighs. “But the way that Mark White tells it, he was in the toilets, standing at the urinal, when this bloke came in and said, ‘Ah, pissing with the big dogs are we?’. That was Bowie. He then said, ‘Ah, you’re from Sheff. Me dad’s from Donneh’.”

Forty years on, Fry is still incredulous at this encounter. 

“You’ve got to imagine the impact of Bowie back then. It was like an asteroid hit.” 

Bowie had been working with Visconti on his ‘Baal’ EP of Bertolt Brecht songs. He listened to what ABC were doing and offered them a few suggestions, such as including answerphone messages on ‘The Look Of Love’. 

“He suggested having this forlorn guy in the song leaving messages that she doesn’t answer,” Fry says. “It was a great idea, but we never got round to it.” 

He likes to think that Bowie “sprinkled some of his Ziggy stardust” on the track, though. Instead, he ended up doing a “little soliloquy” of his own, something inspired by the “Jesus, this is Iggy” spoken word section of ‘Turn Blue’ on Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’. 

“So there’s a point in ‘The Look Of Love’ where I go, ‘Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love’,” he laughs. “I mean, how the hell did I get away with that? It was very James Brown. You’re not just the singer, you have to introduce yourself into the song as well.”

Such lyrical twists aside, it turns out that the multitude of betrayals and unrequited loves in the ‘Lexicon’ songbook were all real – or at least rooted in real-life incidents.

“That’s the way it is in your teenage years,” Fry says. “With songs, you take something and amplify it, so there has to be some truth in there. The core emotion is authentic, but I wasn’t as lovelorn or fey as people assumed. I wasn’t walking around Sheffield reading the romantic poets.”

All the same, he concedes that songs like ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘The Look Of Love’ offer more than memorable tunes. They mirror people’s lives and they connected with a big enough audience to take ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ straight to the top of the UK charts, a period he describes as “a whirlwind”. For Fry, a massive Roxy Music fan, it certainly felt significant when his band’s magnum opus replaced Roxy’s ‘Avalon’ in pole position.

The rest of it was a blur of gigs, travel, interviews and gold lamé. ABC even shot a short film, ‘Mantrap’, directed by Julien Temple, who had made ‘The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle’, the Sex Pistols’ movie. They envisaged it as an “Eastern Bloc James Bond”. 

“You don’t have time to enjoy it in the pub with your mates,” Fry reflects. “And when you do, they don’t really understand what’s been happening to you. So it takes a couple of years to unravel… but it was a fantastic experience.” 

After the gold lamé suit went down the loo in Tokyo, Fry intended the 1983 follow-up album to ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ to be “the same sort of transition as Vice Versa to ABC”. Returning to Sheffield and seeing the place they’d left behind made them want to document how they felt about that. So where ‘Lexicon’ had been “glitz and glam”, ‘Beauty Stab’ was “raw and black and white”. It wasn’t generally well-received. 

“We made a more abrasive record,” Fry says. “But we could have made an even more abrasive record and ended up between the two camps. It was a bit rushed, but no excuses and no regrets.” 

Fry is amused – but not quite convinced – by the reputation of ‘Beauty Stab’ as one of the greatest career self-sabotages of all time – “Give us the trophy!” he laughs – but the album reached the UK Top 20 and spawned two Top 40 singles, ‘That Was Then But This Is Now’ and the superb ‘SOS’, so it was hardly a disaster. By then, however, David Palmer had joined Yellow Magic Orchestra (although he’d frequently come back), with Stephen Singleton deciding he also wanted to leave the group soon after the record came out. 

Still, ABC were far from done. ‘How To Be A… Zillionaire!’ (1985) didn’t do much in the UK, but it gave them their biggest US hit ever with ‘Be Near Me’, while the presentation of the band as cartoon characters pointed the way to Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz. ‘Alphabet City’ (1987) produced another smash with ‘When Smokey Sings’, a tribute to Motown legend Smokey Robinson. Fry even showed a copy of the single to his hero when they appeared on the same TV show in the Netherlands.

“I had an Anthony Price suit on and I knocked on his dressing room door clutching the seven-inch. He seemed surprised that we’d written a song about him. Three weeks later, we met him again in Los Angeles. We were both in the US Top Five and he sent us a lovely handwritten note on Motown headed paper.”

Some years later, Fry visited the Motown museum in Detroit and was thrilled to see ‘When Smokey Sings’ alongside The Clash’s ‘Hitsville UK’ in a section about great artists influenced by the label.

After a brush with cancer in the late 80s and Mark White’s departure from the band after ‘Abracadabra’ in 1991, Fry had a “lean period” in the 90s, before gradually realising “people wanted to hear ABC again”. A concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London featuring ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ in its entirety in 2009 was a particular triumph and he’s hardly stopped touring since, playing everywhere from Butlin’s to Wembley. 

In 2016, he finally made the album that many had wanted him to do in 1983. The heavily orchestrated ‘The Lexicon Of Love II’ returned ABC to the UK Top Five for the first time in three decades. There may yet be a third ‘Lexicon’, although he says, “I don’t want to dial it in – sometimes it’s good to not have a safety net”. For the time being, material from both albums, including all of the tracks on the original ‘Lexicon’, will form part of a 22-song setlist on the anniversary tour.

So will Martin Fry be getting himself a new gold lamé suit for the occasion? 

“I actually did have another,” he reveals. “It was stolen in Coventry, before the trip to Tokyo. But I do have one upstairs at home now, under lock and key.” 

It could possibly find itself back in the public eye at some point, though. 

“I was really impressed when I went to the Victoria And Albert Museum and saw some Adam Ant stuff there,” he adds. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s the place for the gold suit’.”

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