With its radio-friendly melodies, the band’s debut album was an instant success on its release 40 years ago. They were set to conquer the 1980s... until the difficult second album arrived
They met through a fanzine called Modern Drugs. Manchester-born Martin Fry was at university in Sheffield and devoting all his energies to editing the fanzine. He decided to interview a local synthpop outfit called Vice Versa and he got on so well with Stephen Singleton and Mark White that he was invited to join the band.
By 1980, he was the lead singer and the band had a new name: ABC. Fry was an erudite student of pop’s history and he was about to shape the group’s embryonic songs into one of the greatest debut albums of the decade.
The Lexicon of Love is one of those rare debut albums that is supremely accomplished while also chiming with the times and pushing the boundaries. It was a Technicolor thrill-ride, a fantastical sonic escape in a Britain starting to divide under Margaret Thatcher’s leadership. With a grim war being fought on the faraway Falklands islands, pop provided much needed succour and ABC were among a group of Sheffield-based bands to do just that.
For a brief period, the south Yorkshire metropolis was the pop capital of the world, thanks to the exploits of the Human League and Heaven 17, but it was ABC who delivered Steel City’s greatest album of the era. And it was a huge commercial success — a UK number one for several weeks.
Fry was seemingly born to be a frontman, a debonair clothes-horse who believed pop stars should be larger-than-life figures. And he had the songs too. But it’s almost certainly true that The Lexicon of Love wouldn’t have been the sensation it was without the production smarts of Trevor Horn.
Horn had cut his teeth as a member of the Buggles, scoring a UK number one in 1979 with the self-produced Video Killed the Radio Star and he had produced a series of saccharine pop hits for Dollar in the early 80s. He may have been an out-and-out pop maven, but there was a prog-rocker trying to get out too and he spent 18 months touring with Yes.
On paper, his talents and those of Fry shouldn’t have gelled so effectively, but they did. Horn took brilliant compositions like Show Me and Valentine’s Day and added a maximalist production without sacrificing the artfulness of early demos.
“He gave us the keys to the candy store,” Fry recalled. “Trevor would say to us: ‘If you want pizza, I’ll get you pizza; if you want a string section, I’ll get you a string section.’ Most producers look in terms of limitations. Trevor Horn looked in terms of possibilities.”
Together, Horn and Fry programmed the arrangements for each song using a Mini Moog synthesiser, a primitive sequencer and a drum machine. Then, the band meticulously re-recorded every part, erasing the synth demos as they went along. “It was like tracing,” Horn later said, “which meant that we got it really spot on and snappy and in your face.”
Bob Stanley, a member of the English pop group Saint Etienne, and an esteemed writer of pop history, once memorably noted that Horn “was so talented he could probably have turned a malfunctioning alarm clock into an international sex symbol”.
Describing The Lexicon of Love as Horn’s “masterpiece”, Stanley assessed the album as “hot, hi-tech soul with knowing references and radio-friendly melodies.
“Though he was now using full orchestration, Horn was always big on technology and JG Ballard, and The Lexicon of Love was a romantic but cold soundscape.”
“We had this idea,” Horn said, looking back, “that at some future point there’d be a record label that didn’t really have any artists — just a computer in the basement and some mad Vincent Price-like figure making the records.”
The public loved the album — and its singles All My Heart, Poison Arrow and The Look of Love all went top 10 in Britain in 1982. The latter is not just emblematic of ABC at their best but remains a classic of 1980s pop.
With the charts not considered nearly as important now as they were then — without Googling, could you name the current Irish and UK number one single and the one before that? — it’s easy to be nostalgic about the impact early ‘80s pop had at the time. Not only were bands like Culture Club and Soft Cell delivering glorious singles, but curios like the Associates were making oddball pop to last the test of time. Their album Sulk, buoyed by the strange but glorious single Party Fears Two deserves to be every bit as revered as ABC’s debut.
The Lexicon of Love should have laid the groundwork for ABC to be one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 1980s, but the opposite happened.
Their follow-up album, Beauty Stab, was slated by the critics and failed to wow the record-buying public. The critic Simon Reynolds, author of a defining book on post-punk British music, Rip It Up And Start Again, described it as among “the great career-sabotage LPs in pop history”.
Despite Fry telling Smash Hits that he wanted ABC records to be the sound that future generations would associate with the 1980s, the follow-up album took a very different tangent — much of it built around guitars — and didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be.
The album’s opening song That Was Then But This Is Now regularly appears in those worst-lyrics polls. It’s hard to believe that the man responsible for the beautifully crafted words on The Lexicon of Love could have, with a straight face, sung the following couplet: “Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble, help yourself to another piece of apple crumble.” Aztec Camera’s Roddy Frame called it the worst lyric he had ever heard and later suggested that Beauty Stab represented all that was wrong about 1980s.
Subsequent albums fared better, but none came close to matching the high watermark of their illustrious debut.
In 2009, ABC performed The Lexicon of Love in its entirety at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Accompaniment was provided by the BBC Concert Orchestra under the baton of Anne Dudley. The reception was glowing and it fuelled Fry’s desire to create a follow-up album.
He amassed something like 40 new tracks before whittling them down to a single album, The Lexicon of Love II, which was released in 2016. It was even more symphonic than the first album, with Dudley once again overseeing string arrangements. Reviews were largely favourable: The Guardian said that it was “the sound of an old master falling not far short of a standard that his youthful self set very high indeed”. It was the band’s highest charting album in 26 years, reaching number five in the UK.
Right now, ABC have been on the road, playing The Lexicon of Love in its entirety to mark its 40th anniversary. The Anne Dudley connection continues: she is conducing the Southbank Sinfonia at each gig. Disappointingly for Irish lovers of the album, no concerts have been scheduled for here.