360°Sound recently had the distinct pleasure of speaking with singer, songwriter, and producer Martin Fry, ABC’s affable and debonair frontman. ABC, along with Duran Duran and others, were part of the New Romantic movement in ’80s British new wave. The band are currently on tour in the United States, celebrating the 40th anniversary of their debut album and pop masterpiece, 1982’s The Lexicon of Love. Fry, 64 and the lone original band member, is joined by a crack six-piece band stateside. For the UK shows in June, he performed the album in its entirety backed by an orchestra conducted by Anne Dudley [Art of Noise], who did the string arrangements on Lexicon. In this 360°Sound exclusive, Fry discusses the tour, his memories recording Lexicon with producer Trevor Horn, the album’s sharp songwriting, and Simon LeBon’s suits.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
360°Sound: How was it playing the full album in the UK? The hits “The Look of Love” and “Poison Arrow” are always in your setlist, but did you enjoy singing some album tracks like “Valentine’s Day” and “Date Stamp”?
Martin Fry: In the U.K., Germany, and some places in Europe, they like to hear The Lexicon of Love in its entirety. [1985’s] How to Be a Zillionaire was a big album for us here in North America. When I sing something like “Valentine’s Day,” I think, ‘Man, there’s so many lyrics in that song and falsetto bits.’ I never thought I’d be standing on a stage 40 years later recreating that as a singer. It’s funny.
It’s been nice because everything sounded pretty fresh. It’s music from a different era, but at the same time, it’s got a sort of resonance today. With the audiences, you don’t really want to play some laidback, nostalgic set. It kind of has to mean something now in 2022. It feels good to play those songs.
What are your memories of recording Lexicon 40 years ago?
We kind of hit with “Tears Are Not Enough.” We recorded that in Marble Arch. It had got in the Top 20. Making that record was really fraught. The drummer [David Robinson] locked himself in a room and started smashing chairs. He was out. He was Pete Best, and we got Ringo, David Palmer.
We’d heard a couple of records Trevor Horn had produced for this band called Dollar on the radio, and they sounded incredible. We approached him and got together. We went in and did “Poison Arrow” at Sarm East, which was a studio in a basement, tiny little place. One Asteroids machine to keep you occupied.
Outside the streets are really rough and dangerous so it kind of meant that there were no distractions. The only thing that we would ever do would be to go to Itchycoo Park on the east end of London at night and cool down because it was really hot when were recording. The recordings went well. I think Queen had done “Bohemian Rhapsody” in the same studio. It’s kind of an underground studio but a beautiful studio.
The sessions were great. They were very thick and fast. And when we couldn’t get into Sarm, we went to Tony Visconti’s studio, which was on Dean Street. It’s there that David Bowie came down to the sessions and hung out while we were doing to recording. This was like 1981 and the first stuff we’d ever done. We were Bowie fans from way back, so it was an exciting period of time. We recorded some strings. We did some pizzicato strings on “The Look of Love” and strings and orchestra on “All of My Heart” at Abbey Road as well.
In his new book Major Labels: A History of Popular Music in Seven Genres, author Kelefah Sanneh wrote about ABC in the chapter on pop music. He quoted the sleeve notes from “Tears Are Not Enough” single, which read that ABC had “ambitions to carve out a considerable niche in the international pop world.”
It was larger than life and flamboyant back then. We were coming out of the punk rock days. The bands like Dexys Midnight Runners, Human League, Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, they all had a very defined feel to them, and we were the same. We really leaned into Hollywood movies and the 1930s movies and stuff. Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter, and stuff, because we wanted to wind up as many people as possible [chuckles].
It was the dawning of the MTV age, and it was time to say goodbye to rock-n-roll and totally reinvent it for the ‘80s. It was this feeling that 1984 was ahead of us, and what would it involve? Every band was manic. In the clothes and the way they carried themselves onstage, the places they played. I think pretty much every band was looking for an original way to do things. That kind of manifests itself in all those crazy videos you see on MTV. It was manic.
We were definitely kind of punk-y supper club kind of approach. We were from a rough industrial city in Sheffield, a lot of unemployment, steel town. A lot of it was aspirational. I’d never been to Las Vegas. I’d never been to Detroit, but I’d sit at home and listen to Motown. The guys in Birmingham, Duran Duran, weren’t international jet set playboys but they would daydream. In rock ‘n roll, I think there’s a lot of wish fulfillment. You kind of project yourself and you become it. It’s an interesting process to go through. It’s exactly what happens now, what Lady Gaga or The Weeknd or countless other bands have done today.
There’s a new book out on Duran Duran’s Rio. The author Annie Zaleski wrote about how ambitious the band was and they really strived to be pop stars, which seemed to be the case for your band as well. That was kind of against the grain of punk rock and not wanting to be commercially successful.
Yeah, it was. I once meant Simon LeBon in Hyde Park. They had just put out Rio. He was really friendly. We walked back to the apartment the guys were renting with all the stage clothes from the show the night before. They had a limousine they’d knock around in London in. It was fantastic. That was just the kind of regular Tuesday afternoon in 1982.
Do you think ABC benefited from the Lexicon music videos being on MTV?
Yeah, I remember meeting the people from MTV in New York and it was five people. That was the sum total of everybody who worked there. We were made for [MTV]. We made a full-length feature film [Mantrap] with Julien Temple directing. We were very comfortable with that. So much so that when we went to New York we met Andy Warhol. He said to come down to [his studio] The Factory and have a cup of tea. He was a really down-to-earth guy, and he was really interested in the videos. He was really clued up and interested in MTV and the early days of it.
I understand there’s a new Atmos mix of Lexicon set for release next year.
Steven Wilson did an Atmos mix. We went to his house, and he kindly played it. It’s like walking into a crystal kingdom. It’s like walking into the record. It’s kind of an eerie and exciting experience. A lot of memories came back actually. It felt like I was back in the studio again. There’s a lot of detail. I play the songs and I’m familiar with the songs obviously. But there’s a lot of detail in the guitar work, like on “Tears Are Not Enough,” that I had not listened to for ages.
How was it working with producer Trevor Horn?
Trevor Horn was great. It was the first album he produced for somebody outside of his own work [with the Buggles]. He has a great sense of humor. I saw him a couple of weeks ago. He’s still the same all these years on. He always believed that records last forever. That’s what he said to me. It’s no use doing anything half-hearted. If you go into a studio, you’ve got to put your heart and soul into it, which I fully understood.
He said, ‘If you want a clarinet on there, you don’t have to go and learn clarinet, get a guy in to play it.’ That level of ambition was there from Day 1. That’s why there’s the orchestration at the beginning of the album, that’s not us playing the violins, violas, and cellos. It was a statement of intent that you wouldn’t have got on a Clash or Sex Pistols record. It was a new era in music. That’s what we were trying to say.
Anne Dudley’s string arrangements gave the record such a lush sound. Were you reluctant to add strings at first?
No, we loved the Philly soul. There’s a lot of strings on Motown. It’s something no one in Sheffield was doing. Our peers were kind of in local bands. It was a revolutionary thing to do for us back then. It felt good.
Do you think Lexicon is ABC’s best record?
It’s one of nine albums. But it’s definitely some of our best work. I think you write good songs, they come in cycles, but they were flowing. “Poison Arrow” and “The Look of Love” are still great songs. They have a life of their own.
You’ve said that ABC fused the post-punk of the time, like Joy Division and The Cure, with funk and soul, like James Brown and Chic. When did you realize those forms of music could go together?
When I heard two records. The first one was Bowie’s “Stay” on Station to Station. He’s got an incredible rhythm section, and he’s kind of Bowie angst on top. It’s kind of like Bo Diddley and William Wordsworth. It’s kind of like a combination.
The other band I really liked was The Pop Group. They were revolutionary. They did a song called “She Is Beyond Good and Evil.” It was like a dub plate. I don’t know how popular they were in America, but it was just such a revolutionary record. It was funky. It was angry. I liked that.
There was a post-punk sort of scene where people were making records that you could play in a dancehall as well. Plus, I’ve always grown up on dance music, going to clubs as a kid and seeing everybody united on the dancefloor. That’s a really strong impression for me.
Lexicon is packed with couplets and clever turns of phrase. What inspired your songwriting?
A few broken hearts, a few people who just walked out. Also, life in Sheffield as a bohemian living in my little apartment. I was wanting to be in a band for years before. I was one of those guys who went around criticizing everybody else’s band. You’ve not got to that point where you’ve got the courage to write your own stuff. I was like that.
I had books and books of stuff, so it was compressing it down. I wanted to go back to lyrics that rhymed. There was a lot of abstract, vague, pseudo poetry at the time in ’80, ’81. I wanted to go back to classic songs. When Sinatra sings a song, he rhymes. Joy Division rhymed. Bowie rhymed.
Anything you’d like to add for the fans?
Life’s good. I cannot believe 40 years has gone by. When you climb on a stage, you have to give it everything. People talk about nostalgia. But it doesn’t really exist; all that matters is now. When you’re with the band it’s just about what happens with that moment. That has served me well. Whilst it’s a joy to sing “The Look of Love” and “When Smokey Sings” and “(How to Be a) Millionaire,” I’ll be doing it, love it.
For tour dates and tickets, visit ABC’s official website.