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+ {Vice Versa}

The steel town of Sheffield at the turn of the 80s was a bubbling melting-pot of up and coming acts; from the industrial-pop sounds of CABARET VOLTAIRE and The HUMAN LEAGUE to the molten-metal of hard-rockers DEF LEPPARD, the English city was hot to trot. When ABC morphed from the DIY-embossed Vice Versa (after the release of a couple of indie-styled 45s), “geezers” Stephen Singleton and Mark White were happy to exchange synths for proper instruments (saxophone and guitar, respectively), to promote singer Martin Fry (former editor of Modern Drugs fanzine) as suave and sophisticated frontman. The ABC line-up was boosted by bassist Mark Lickley and drummer David Robinson.
Resurrecting their initial imprint, Neutron (responsible for VV’s inaugural EP, `Music 4’, in 1979), via endorsement from Phonogram Ltd., ABC’s debut platter, `Tears Are Not Enough’, shot into the Top 20, making them leading contenders in the new romantic melee to join the ranks of DURAN DURAN and SPANDAU BALLET. Unashamedly fans of both punk and purist pop, Fry and ABC touted glossy-pop to yuppie new wave-ites who’d become tired of tuneless grimacing from all their heroes and Shakespearoes (to quote The STRANGLERS).
As Robinson was swapped for sticksman David Palmer, and former BUGGLES/YES man Trevor Horn was drafted in as producer, the “new orthophonic high fidelity” seemed to match Fry’s detached debonair flair on the Top 10, `Poison Arrow’. A third single, `The Look Of Love’, gate-crashed the Top 5, and remains to this day the defining ABC moment, a lavish gold-lame-suit of a record; even the Americans rapidly developed a taste for all things new romantic when it cracked their Top 30. Note too that another personnel casualty had resulted in Lickley being surplus to requirements before its release.
Collating all of the above and a few B-sides, THE LEXICON OF LOVE (1982) {*9}, unsurprisingly clinched a UK No.1 spot, and of course, Top 30 in America, where `Poison Arrow’ was about to achieve a similar outcome. Despite the usual backlash from the more discerning rock critic, it hung around the British charts for nearly a year, becoming not only a lexicon of love, but a kaleidoscope of kitsch and a dictionary of contemporary crooner cool. The record also spawned yet another fine single in the Top 5, `All Of My Heart’, while it introduced a young orchestrator, Anne Dudley (soon-to-be ART OF NOISE), who accompanied Horn’s genius.
When Palmer chose to bail while on the Japanese leg of their 1983 tour, pursuing an ambition to join the YELLOW MAGIC ORCHESTRA, Fry, White and Singleton were left holding the proverbial baby when they entered the studio to record the difficult second album, BEAUTY STAB (1983) {*5}. A more guitar-rock-centric affair, the album met with frowning reviews, although it did reach the business end of the Top 20 (only Top 75 across the Atlantic), buoyed by a couple of so-so singles, `That Was Then This Is Now’ and `S.O.S.’.
Another unsettled period was enhanced by the departure of Singleton, and when it was revealed that complementary “visual” alumni Eden (aka Fiona Russell-Powell) and David Yarritu allegedly couldn’t play or sing a note, ABC was fast becoming a thing of ridicule. When the single, `How To Be A Millionaire’, alienated everyone but the Tory faithful and reached only a measly No.49 in the charts, some lost ground was needed to be made up by the team of two (or four – whatever!). The UK Top 30 and subsequent US Top 10, `Be Near Me’, plus loss-leader `Vanity Kills’, previewed yet another damp squib in the gruesomely-titled HOW TO BE A… ZILLIONAIRE! (1985) {*6}, an album, on reflection, that incorporated a backbeat of hip-hop rhythms and catchy hooks.
Although Fry was duly diagnosed with Hodgkins Disease (a form of cancer), the duo bounced back in ’87 with the transatlantic smash, `When Smokey Sings’, in homage to a certain MIRACLES man. Spawned from the rather simplistic and slick Top 10 set, ALPHABET CITY (1987) {*5}, and maintaining chart status by way of singles `The Night You Murdered Love’ and `King Without A Crown’, it seemed ABC were searching for that elusive lost chord.
Contractually obliged to give Neutron/Mercury another taste of their mirror-ball synth-pop, the 80s ended for ABC on a very low note, as fifth album UP (1989) {*3} went down to bargain-basement-land soon after its failure to reach the Top 50; the sentiment-inducing `One Better World’ was its only saviour, having been released six months earlier.
When Parlophone Records gave the unimaginative and un-magical ABRACADABRA (1991) {*3} a spin, Fry’s take-on the Philly soul sound was as smoochy as a slap from a wet fish. Denting the Top 50 and luring only the firmest of fans to part with cash for minor hits, `Love Conquers All’ and `Say It’, this was probably the best time for Messrs Fry and White to don their flat caps and get back on the factory floor.
ABC were fairly inactive for most of the 90s, until Fry, without White, announced a comeback album, SKYSCRAPING (1997) {*5}. Co-penned and produced by Glenn Gregory (of Sheffield’s HEAVEN 17) and Keith Lowndes, it failed to register any chart success when released on the Deconstruction offshoot, Blatant. Fast-forward, or in fact press to rewind, LEXICON OF LIVE (1999) {*5} was a concert for the fans that shouldn’t have been left sitting atop the remix desk, but at least it was a way of getting across how good their hits had been, if not these performances.
If God loves a trier, then he loved Fry’s ABC even more, as the edgier “comeback” set, TRAFFIC (2008) {*6} proved. Approaching the big 6-0, and looking not a day over the 4-0, the evergreen Martin Fry took listeners down a dusty lane of memories of halcyon days as a post-punk new romantic; for example the name-checks for Woodstock and HENDRIX to the BUZZCOCKS and “Sid” for `Way Back When’. Assisted by the unknown Chuck Kentis on the songwriting front, the elegance and quality eroded any prejudices on the professional-sounding `The Very First Time’, `One Way Traffic’ and `Life Shapes You’.
Armed with the inevitable concept of unveiling a belated “old romantic” sequel to the classic set of ‘82, nostalgia-addled Martin Fry wound back the clocks for THE LEXICON OF LOVE II (2016) {*7}. An ambitious undertaking. Surprisingly well-received by the fickle press, the suave and sophistication of the man’s melancholy mood swings sat well within the nu-disco scene; `Viva Love’ the track chosen to fulfil the day’s download-single necessity. With “Lexicon I” orchestral string arranger Anne Dudley on board (ex-ART OF NOISE, of course) and producer Gary Stevenson tweaking out any oily “slicks”, the Top 5 album might’ve been the flat Pomagne to the original’s fizzy champagne had it not been for stylish, romance ‘n’ moondance pieces, `The Flames Of Desire’, `Ten Below Zero’, `Confessions Of A Fool’ and `The Ship Of The Seasick Sailor’.
© MC Strong 1994-2004/GRD / rev-up MCS Nov2013-Jun2016

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