A chat with Martin Fry of ABC
ABC were one of the most popular new wave bands to emerge from England during the ‘80s, with a debut album – The Lexicon of Love – that remains a classic of the decade by most anyone’s standards. Unfortunately, it also occasionally feels like an albatross around the neck of the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Martin Fry, even despite the numerous hit singles and albums that followed. Fry spoke to Bullz-Eye from somewhere in New York, where he kindly indulged a slightly-fawning interviewer – no point in lying about it; it’s a fair cop – who had questions about every single album he’s ever released. Join as Fry speaks of the production work of Trevor Horn, the stint of gigs ABC did opening for Robbie Williams, and what’s up with that long-rumored next album.
Martin Fry: Hello…?
Bullz-Eye: Hello, may I speak to Martin?
MF: Yeah, Martin speaking!
BE: Hey, this is Will from Bullz-Eye.com. How are you?
MF: Very well, indeed!
BE: Excellent! Well, it’s an extreme honor to talk to you. Like so many others, I’ve been a fan since I first saw the video for “Poison Arrow.”
MF: Ah, thanks very much!
BE: Back when the M in MTV still stood for music.
MF: Well, there’s still a bit of music on there now…but, yeah, Julien Temple directed that one for us.
BE: So you’re on the midst of a US tour at present?
MF: Yeah, we’re in New Hampshire today, I think. I hope the sun’s shining there!
BE: Are you playing with the English Beat? I know you were playing with them on some of the dates.
MF: No, we played a couple of dates with them, but they’re off doing something. We’ve played a couple of dates; we kind of get thrown together sometimes.
BE: Did that “Bands Reunited” episode (on VH-1) up your profile considerably in the States, at least in the sense that America realized that, “Hey, they’re still together”?
MF: Yeah, people in America realized that there’s still a pulse, that there’s still something going on. So it did, definitely, yeah. I walked across Times Square and people go, “Yeah, you’re the guy from ABC,” so that must mean something…and a lot of that came from “Bands Reunited,” yeah.
BE: I know you’ve been doing some songwriting with (original ABC drummer) David Palmer. (Palmer was one of the original members of the band willing to reunite with Fry for the VH-1 show.)
BE: Is he still a member of the band, officially?
MF: Yeah. Well, it’s always been pretty fluid, but, yeah, Dave’s on this tour and we’ve been writing songs, yeah.
BE: In that case, my biggest question is, when’s the new album coming out? I’ve preached the gospel of (1997’s) Skyscraping long enough; I’m afraid I really have to have a new album.
MF: Ah, thanks. Well, the new album, we’ve been unraveling it, really; it’s like a big piece of string. It’s been about…we’ve written about eleven songs, so there’s two more songs I just want to finish, and then put some strings on, probably in London. We’ll finish off over there. It’s been a long journey to this album. There are a couple of songs that we play live in the set, like “The Very First Time,” “Sixteen Seconds to Choose,” and “Traffic,” and, uh, “See Through You.” It’s nice to road-test the songs on an audience.
BE: Is this the first time you’ve written with David Palmer since (1982’s) The Lexicon of Love?
BE: Wow. How weird was that?
MF: It kind of feels natural. But, yeah, it was interesting at first. Very different.
BE: All right, well, I thought I’d kind of run through the career of the band, since I’ve been a fan from the beginning.
BE: First off, how did ABC originally come together?
MF: Um, there was a band, Vice Versa, in Sheffield, England, and we went to Holland and played some dates, and I started singing. After show, we did some jamming and I started singing, and from that day on, I got the job as singer. Mark White was the singer, and he became the guitarist, I guess, from there, in Rotterdam. And then…this is kind of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, we played live, and we were all obsessed with the idea of taking some of the excitement from disco, from Chic and Sister Sledge and Earth, Wind, and Fire, and mixing it up with something we really liked about Joy Division.
BE: The Lexicon of Love is one of my all-time favorite albums, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my editor, David Medsker, considers it a significant entry on the soundtrack of his life.
MF: Oh, thank you very much!
BE: In all honesty, I don’t think I’m overselling it to say that it’s a pop symphony of the ‘80s.
MF: Um, it’s been a tough one to sort of live with sometimes, but it’s served us well because the songs have worked. But it is curious that people are buying that record as much as they are today.
BE: The songs themselves are brilliant, but how much credit would you say goes to Anne Dudley and Trevor Horn for the overall feel of the album?
MF: Yeah, I mean, it’s quite a team. Trevor Horn…he’s kind of over-credited. Trevor Horn became the glitzy super-producer after working on that album. During the album. But Anne Dudley’s an incredible string arranger and player. Gary Langan, the engineer, was superb. There was a lot of good people on the record. If it was a movie, it’d be, yeah, the credits are good. But Trevor Horn, let’s face it, Trevor’s reputation is built on that record. (Smirks) That’s why he’s working with the Pet Shop Boys today.
BE: Actually, I just got that album (Fundamental) recently. I like that as well.
MF: Yeah, it works well. That style he adopted works well with the Pet Shop Boys. No, Trevor Horn’s production was great, but ask Trevor: it was a combination of everybody. It all came good.
BE: Now, (1983’s) Beauty Stab seems to be one of those albums that manages to end up simultaneously on lists for Most Underrated Albums of All Time and Greatest Sophomore Slumps.
MF: (Noncommittally) Yeah…
BE: Personally, I think that when you take it on its own and you’re not mentally sizing it up against Lexicon it’s an extremely strong record… but what was your reaction when the fans weren’t buying it up in the same droves they did Lexicon?
MF: Yeah, I mean, shocked, really, because we were on a rollercoaster ride, y’know. We never thought it was a bad record; we just really felt we had to do the flip side of the coin, and where Lexicon had been glamorous and glitzy, we wanted to make Beauty Stab raw and kind of abrasive…for it to be like protest songs. It was a very ambitious step…and, actually, on Beauty Stab, some of the songs work and some are a bit undercooked. And some are a bit over-elaborate. But, yeah, it was a funny one. There’s some good stuff on there, but it always felt like we were zig-zagging into the wind, really. It did get slammed, because I think a lot of people were disappointed we hadn’t done The Lexicon of Love, Part 2. It was never really meant to be that. That’s why even the artwork…it’s kind of a painting we did, of a bullfighter. I mean, I don’t know where we were going with that.
BE: As far as (1985’s) How to Be a Zillionaire, the singles certainly hold up, but given that it kind of played to the dance trends of the time, how do you think it holds up as an album now?
MF: Well, Zillionaire, when I meet guys in hip-hop, a lot of guys use that as a reference point. Zillionaire is probably our most successful album…successful commercially. We wanted to…it was to be, like, machine-made. And, at the time, we spent a long time doing things that you could do on a laptop today. But I do meet a lot of musicians who like that record. It was…it’s an odd record, because it’s more a technical record, really.
BE: Do you think it still holds up well today, as a whole?
MF: I…I dunno. If it was somebody else, it would, yeah. If it was the Pet Shop Boys, yeah. But not ABC, no. Because we have to follow up The Lexicon of Love. But that’s the only…like, “Fear of the World” kind of worked, but…it’s an odd one. It was a template for a lot of things, y’know.
BE: (1987’s) Alphabet City, a lot of people perceived that as kind of a return to the feel of the debut. Was that intentional, or had you just been exploring the R&B section of a record store and been reminded of some old favorites?
MF: It was kind of intentional, yeah, ‘cause I thought it was going to be the last record that we were going to make. And I figured we had confused the public, ourselves, our audience…and you have to do that sometimes. Making music is an experiment and a real adventure, and even though I’ve had a very good career, it’s never been all that…career-ish. Y’know? I mean, all of these records were made with all the expectations a big record company has. It’s a lot easier to experiment when nobody’s listening. D’you know what I mean?
BE: Yeah, I do.
MF: So it was tough sometimes. But with Alphabet City, it was kind of a return to basics in a way of trying to pull it all together…the styles, a lot of the different styles pulled together. But in a way, it’s our most urban-sounding record, I suppose. I don’t really know.
BE: Certainly, I think it’s got a lot of the swirling strings from the R&B of the ‘60s and early ‘70s.
MF: Yeah, I mean, I grew up listening to music from Philly and Motown, obviously, and stuff.
BE: But, then, with 1989’s Up and 1991’s Abracadabra, it was kind of back to the dance beats again.
MF: Well, Up was our “we’ve left the record label, here’s our album” album. (Laughs) So much so that, in America, I think it came out in a black sleeve…which was very Spinal Tap! One of the photographs went missing from the front!
BE: (Quoting “This Is Spinal Tap”) It was none more black!
MF: It was our response to the club scene at the time. It wasn’t an attempt to make The Lexicon of Love or anything. It was just a quick snapshot of what was going on.
BE: And I guess Abracadabra was approximately the same thing for the year it came out…?
MF: Well, actually, Abracadabra…we got a massive deal with EMI, but, by then, the group had really burned out, but we were making Abracadabra. Some of the record worked. “Love Conquers All,” and “Spellbound,” with Phil Manzanera (from Roxy Music), worked. There’s some moments on it. What can I say? I’m very critical, very critical.
BE: And it was after that that you and Mark White stopped working together?
MF: Yeah. (Silence)
BE: Was that why the break between Abracadabra and Skyscraping? Did you consider just scrapping the name ABC altogether and just going with, y’know, the Martin Fry Experience or whatever?
MF: Yeah, partly. I’d spent ten years, full-on, making those records. Actually, I don’t really regard it as The Lexicon of Love, and then downhill all the way…
BE: No, of course not!
MF: I really feel that…some of the records, we’ve paved the way for some people sometimes. We just had to make the records the way we had to make them. That’s how it happened. But by the early ‘90s, I figured, yeah, there was a whole new generation coming through…and I’d go see the Verve and the Prodigy live, and I’d think…I’d enjoy it, but I realized that was a whole new way of making music. It felt good to stop for awhile. I’d had twins, Nancy and Lily…my wife, Julie, and I had twins…and it was a good opportunity to step off for awhile, really. It was a pretty intense ten-year ride, up until ’92 or ’93.
BE: Was there any one real impetus that led you to make Skyscraping?
MF: Well, actually, I went ‘round to see Trevor one time, and I said, “Should I continue as ABC?” And he said, “Y’know, you should, because there’s always…” I dunno, he’d worked a lot with Yes…the franchise that is Yes…and he had a lot of experience with how bands evolve through time. So that’s how I continued as ABC, really.
BE: Personally, I think Skyscraping is almost like the culmination of your career up to that point; I think it blends the soulful sounds of The Lexicon of Love and Alphabet City with the dance beats of the other albums.
MF: Yeah, I mean, with Skyscraping, I was working with Glenn Gregory, who’s in Heaven 17, and a guy called Keith Lowndes. We were just working in my house, and I was playing records I liked…Roxy Music, Bowie, Motown stuff…and I realized what a privilege it is, really, to be able to make music, to make a record. So I went back to a lot of stuff that really excited me when I was growing up, and I used that as an inspiration to make stuff like “Skyscraping” and “Only the Best Will Do” and stuff like that. And in the end, Deconstruction Records just said, “Oh, we’ll put it out.” The guys at the record label, I knew them, so it was a labor of love, yeah. But it opened a lot of doors for me, and it made me form a band and go out and play live again. It was really interesting going back on stage, ‘cause it was a whole different atmosphere in the late ‘90s from when I’d first started.
BE: Well, of course, being in America, it was a struggle for me to even be able to find a copy of the album, but it was certainly worth my while.
MF: Yeah, it was a European release. It was out on BMG in the UK.
BE: How did you hook up with Glen Gregory? Had you been friends for some time?
MF: Yeah, friends, we’d just hung out a lot, gone mountain biking. We’d just been mates in London, really, so it came from that. It came from a lot of pub conversations, really.
BE: How cool was it to be able to play before Robbie Williams’ crowds (as his opening act in the UK a year or two ago)?
MF: Well, I realized in the late ‘90s that there was an audience, a young audience, who were interested in the flamboyance and craziness of the ‘80s. Alongside that, Robbie just phoned up and he said, “D’you fancy coming out on the road?” And, unlike America, he’s really popular in Europe. Massive. So it was great standing on a stage in front of 80,000 people, singing “The Look of Love” or “Skyscraping.” It was a very good feeling. It made me realize there is an audience out there. It was great winning over a brand new audience as well.
BE: And, finally, what made you upgrade your suit from gold lame to platinum? (Laughs)
MF: Well, I dunno. The value had accrued over 20 years. It was my right as a pop elder statesman. Life is good. I think gold’s now worth more than platinum on the money market, anyway.
BE: It may well be! Well, it’s been great talking with you. As I said, we’re obviously big fans over at Bullz-Eye.
MF: Oh, thanks! I like your site a lot, so I’ll check it out every…I really like it, so I’ll revisit it.
BE: As soon as the link goes live…and, realistically, it’ll be a couple of weeks at least…
MF: That’ll be fine!
BE: …I’ll send it over to your manager, so he can get it to you.
MF: Oh, that’ll be great! Thanks very much!
BE: Absolutely. I appreciate it.
MF: Bye, now!