ABC: Many Happy Returns To 'The Lexicon of Love'

Wednesday, 21 June 2017 Written by Graeme Marsh

Last year finally saw the release of one of the most long-awaited sequels in musical history: ABC’s ‘The Lexicon of Love II’. The album landed almost 35 years on from the pop outfit’s landmark debut, echoing and rivalling the original.

Described as “a kind of Godfather Part II” by singer Martin Fry in an interview with the Guardian, the follow-up – which was actually the band’s ninth studio release – was surprisingly impressive, not least thanks to some lavish string arrangements by Anne Dudley, a returning collaborator. This time production duties were handled by Fry along with Gary Stevenson, a regular cohort of Go West. On their debut, though, the band worked with one of the biggest of all 1980s producers: Trevor Horn.

Dubbed, somewhat extravagantly, “the man who invented the 80s”, Horn had by 1982 already cemented a place in folklore when his band, the Buggles, opened the MTV era the previous year with their video for Video Killed The Radio Star. A former member of Yes, his life as a producer only took hold once he’d shelved dreams of becoming a session player, inspired by jazz musician Stanley Clarke.

ABC, meanwhile, formed as Vice-Versa in Sheffield in 1979. They were initially led by saxophonist Stephen Singleton and guitarist Mark White, with Fry invited to join the band after interviewing the duo for his fanzine, Modern Drugs. In October 1981 they put out their debut single, Tears Are Not Enough, and broke the top 20 in the UK. It would be the only release by their original line up, with the exit of Mark Lickley (bass) and David Robinson (drums) soon following.

The band’s gold lamé suits reflected the importance of the lavish, glitzy glamour the record buying public were becoming obsessed with, but Fry wanted a bigger sound that would sonically match the visuals. “Image-wise, the gold lamé suits and dinner jackets were us turning away from punk,” Fry told the Guardian in 2013. “There was an element of James Bond to it all, very aspirational and cosmopolitan.” He also explained the sound they sought: “I loved the strings on Chic records, and the whole soundscape of Earth, Wind and Fire. Fusing that with the likes of the Cure and Joy Division was what we were after.”

White, Fry said, was keen for the band’s music to have the feel of a film soundtrack and, despite the success of Tears Are Not Enough, the production of another 1981 single soon caught their attention. Hand Held In Black and White, a top 20 hit for Dollar, had Horn’s fingerprints all over it. “He got what we were trying to do immediately,” Fry continued. “We were full of ideas and thought we could change rock ‘n’ roll. Very ambitious for guys who’d just been signing on the dole in Sheffield.”

Horn initially saw ABC as “disco a generation on” after being introduced to their work by his wife and manager Jill Sinclair. “When ABC approached me I was very surprised and a bit sceptical,” he said as part of an interview series for the ABC website. “I think they'd met a lot of other producers before they turned to me. I said: ‘What do you want a producer for? Tears... is a really rough record but it's good.’ And they said: ‘Yes, but it wasn't meant to sound rough, we wanted it to be more polished, more professional.’

"They were very different to what I'd expected, I wasn't expecting them to be so clever. I thought Martin would be a complete arsehole and he turned out to be the complete opposite. ABC have good manners and they're very polite to people which is something I appreciate. I like the way they seem to take into consideration the people that they make records for.”

For the recording of ‘The Lexicon of Love’ Horn assembled a crack creative team based around musicians who would, along with NME journalist Paul Morley, go on to become the Art of Noise: engineer Gary Langan, Fairlight CMI synthesizer programmer JJ Jeczalik and Dudley on keys, prior to her assuming control of the LP’s orchestration.

The first track Horn’s team worked on was Poison Arrow, which would become the band’s second single and a major chart breakthrough in both the UK and the US, reaching six and 25 respectively. In the studio, it became a template for the band’s relationship with Horn, wherein they would deconstruct and reassemble the songs in order to wring the best out of them. And Dudley would soon be called into action to engineer an important element in ABC’s sound.

“At some stage during the recording of ‘The Lexicon of Love’, [Horn] decided it needed a real string and brass section,” she told the Guardian. “With the confidence of youth, I volunteered to do the arrangement, even though my experience was minimal. When we recorded the 30-piece string section at Abbey Road, I was often the youngest person in the room.”

Continuing, she added: “I remember hearing the mix of ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and being amazed at how loud Trevor had made the strings. It was really nailing the ABC colours to the mast: this was to be an unapologetically lush and epic album. From then on, it was a given that we would add strings to many tracks, developing the unique sound of the album – a combination of cutting-edge technology, electronic sounds and real instruments.”

The orchestral arrangements, jazzy saxophone sheen and funky bass took over the record. Unsurprisingly, after its third single, The Look of Love, broke the top five in the UK and the top 20 in the US, ‘The Lexicon of Love’ went straight in at number one on the UK album chart when it was released in June 1982, dethroning Roxy Music’s ‘Avalon’ in the process.

Horn would go on to produce Malcolm McLaren’s ‘Duck Rock’ in 1983 before enjoying chart domination behind the desk for Frankie Goes To Hollywood, who released records on his part-owned ZTT label. Their huge singles Relax, Two Tribes and the accompanying album ‘Welcome To The Pleasuredome’ bore the same bass tones depicted on ‘The Lexicon of Love’ tracks such as Date Stamp.

But in a glittering career, Horn’s biggest achievement is perhaps the transformation he brought to ABC’s music. Often heralded as the ultimate heartbreak album (Fry still gets asked if he’s found love yet), ‘The Lexicon of Love’ is a glamorous, sparkling piece of treasure from an exciting era and its legacy is well deserved. Many happy returns.

ABC Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Thu November 02 2017 - MANCHESTER Bridgewater Hall
Fri November 03 2017 - LIVERPOOL Philharmonic Hall
Sat November 04 2017 - LONDON London Palladium
Mon November 06 2017 - BIRMINGHAM Symphony Hall
Tue November 07 2017 - BRISTOL Colston Hall
Thu November 09 2017 - YORK York Barbican Centre
Fri November 10 2017 - SHEFFIELD Sheffield City Hall
Sat November 11 2017 - GATESHEAD Sage Gateshead
Sun November 12 2017 - NOTTINGHAM Royal Concert Hall

Click here to compare & buy ABC Tickets at Stereoboard.com.





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