Though active throughout the '80s as a musical entity, Britain's ABC presented most of its lasting work on its wonderful 1982 debut, The Lexicon of Love. A brilliant combination of elegant synth pop, R&B and funk allowed the band to distinguish itself from more morose contemporaries, and the precise songwriting and arrangements of leader Martin Fry were responsible for some memorable '80s music moments. Here's a chronological look at the group's finest offerings, appearing largely during the first half of the decade even if the inferior 1987 single "When Smokey Sings" ultimately stands as ABC's biggest American hit.
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What is it that feels so different about ABC when compared with the other synth pop and new wave groups playing keyboard-driven pop during the early '80s? There are a lot of totally viable answers to this question, but the best place to start is unquestionably frontman and clear leader Martin Fry. Aside from his slick trademark gold suit that probably no one else could pull off, Fry transmits a tremendous amount of sophistication and flamboyance in his vocal performance here, somewhow avoiding descriptors such as vampy or campy. But the vital, supporting role played by the musical arrangement makes this Top 30 pop hit special, as weaving lines of saxophone, keyboards and snappy bass guitar combine to deliver near pop perfection.
If I had been of dancing age or inclination back in 1983, I find it hard to imagine that I wouldn't have felt the urge to try some Caucasian grooving to the strains of ABC's debut, The Lexicon of Love
. Fry & Co. pack much action and texture into their arrangements, transforming melodically busy sonic confections into something much more substantial than is apparent upon first listen. I think another major reason for the British group's success is in blending qualities of traditionally white and black music in nearly seamless ways. Sound for sound, ABC produced perhaps as many intriguing funky bass lines as any of its contemporaries, and Fry's voice carefully treads a unique boundary between arm's length elegance and soulful earthiness.
I clearly remember encountering this exuberant track on Casey Kasem's America's Top 40
and becoming quite enamored with Fry's pleading vocals but possibly even more with the whispery asides and call-and-response backing vocals that appear throughout. Fry's lyrics also hit a high point here, forging a nimble path that meshes perfectly with the funky, melodic appeal of the composition as a whole. "When your girl has left you out on the pavement" leads off an effective second verse that receives a boost from the interjection of a female voice ("Goodbye") as well as a backup shout of "Who's got the look?". These clever combinations help the song develop and climb numerous melodic peaks that would be nearly unreachable for many other bands.
ABC may be the only band capable of presenting such a clarified thread of music perfectly suited for a grand romance and yet still restrained, even dignified. This strong album track, one of several from its exquisite debut, may be lush and breezy but somehow avoids coming off saccharine or cheesy. Fry and his collaborators continue to display a solid grasp of compositional skill, providing dense musical backdrops for delicate melodies. The effect tends to be that ABC's music often increases its appeal as listener familiarity grows. Intricacy aside, ABC commands attention with a straightforward, unified attack: "Well, I hope and I pray that maybe someday you'll walk in the room with my heart." Great marriage of lyric and melody.
Album Cover Image Courtesy of Island Def Jam
Following 1984's disappointing Beauty Stab, on which the group attempted, with nondescript results, to transform into a guitar band, ABC returned triumphantly in 1985 with the keyboard-based, hook-ridden How to Be a... Zillionaire. Recalling the clean production and intersecting synth-based melodies of its lauded debut, the band's third album seemed to re-establish ABC as a major '80s act. This lovely track became the group's first Top 10 pop hit in the States, helping to land an impressive second Top 30 hit on the Billboard album charts. Fry seems to bring out his most passionate and engaging performances for his best compositions, and this one, cowritten with lone original member Mark White, may just be ABC's crowning achievement.