A Downloader's Diary's Guide to ABC

by Michael Tatum

Before I began the Hall of Records column, I had the insane notion to do a Downloader's Diary column for every artist I thought worthy, or at the very least interesting enough so that I could get off a few zippy zingers about them -- you know, maybe compile them in a book someday. That didn't quite pan out, because even with minor artists such as this one, it takes a lot of goddamn work. Nevertheless, this is one leftover from that project, when my attitude was "Well, I'm starting at the beginning of the alphabet" (ABBA fans note). Who knows if I'll some day pick up where I left off with a piece on, I don't know, Aerosmith or King Sunny Ade. But like butchers and executive chefs, I hate to waste anything. Here's some oxtails.

ABC: The Lexicon of Love (1982, Mercury) Roxy Music bombed stateside partly because Americans weren't quite ready to appreciate irony in 1972. Of course, they weren't quite ready in 1982 either, something that suavely subversive ABC front man Martin Fry would learn the hard way eighteen months later when he turned the screws on his audience for this record's sequel. However, for a few whirlwind months, he razzle-dazzled audiences on both sides of the pond with sassy wordplay, striking visuals, and his own matinee idol good looks. And oh yes, Trevor Horn's outrageous production, both sharper and denser than Fry's more simpleminded New Romantic counterparts in Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, and for sure a hell of a lot noisier -- the perfect setting for catty lyrics that might have been directed at Margaret Thatcher as much as the chic supermodels that populated his videos: "Like the world on its axis/I know Democracy, but I know what's Fascist." And if you think the sneaky pun that insinuates the "Axis Powers" make the world go round stings, there's more where that came from: once he needed her love, but that was just one more thing on his mind; then when he needed to feel she knew him, she said, "Don't have the time." Sound like your standard boy-meets-girl setup? Hardly, especially given this "concept" record about modern romance sardonically pledging "many happy returns" climaxes with a marriage proposal dumped in the waste disposal. Admittedly, Horn's kitchen-sink aesthetic (which I'm certain evolved from a college bet involving stuffing orchestra players into phone booths) overplays the melodrama toward the end, and the coda is a question mark, not a curtain call. But Fry's bitter bon bons do lead to one moment of surprising sincerity at the denouement of the eternal "The Look of Love" that catches me every time: "Sisters and brothers/Should help each other." Not moved, you say? You've got to hear him sing it. A MINUS

ABC: Beauty Stab (1983, Mercury) ABC's post-Lexicon output fascinates in that you can easily discern Martin Fry's overriding sales strategy between the grooves. Unfortunately, that strategy often radiates more interest than the music, though that's not the case here. Significantly noting that "love is a dangerous language," Fry takes off the kid gloves and stops couching the political undertones in deft metaphor, electing to "bite the hand" that feeds by declining to make the past a "sacred cow," though he would be rethinking his tropes once realizing he could lead his audience to cogent ideas but he wouldn't necessarily be able to make them think. With "That Was Then, This Is Now" his credo, you can almost hear him ticking each of his critics' complaints off one by one. We're not a producer's band (Trevor Horn jettisoned for their former engineer). We love the Clash as much as we do Chic (more guitar, less synthesizers). We're not all about the dance floor (warning on a twelve inch single: "This record is exactly the same as the 7" version. The choice is yours."). And perhaps most saliently, we have nothing to do with those New Romantic Neo-Fascists (sardonic mock-anthem closer, in case the previous forty minutes went over your head). Meanwhile, the surprisingly articulate guitar noise, perverse dub reggae settings, and the cranky waltz that asymmetrically interrupts their most straightforward song make the listener work much harder than mainstream dance-pop standards considers polite -- a friend of mine (Midwestern, gay, and around my age) described this as almost "heavy metal," which should give you an idea how much this record still challenges listeners almost twenty years later. But after multiple listens, I find this rewards nearly as much as the debut. A little too "difficult" maybe, and I do miss Lexicon's muggy panache. Then again, pretending to wear your heart on your sleeve is one thing. But your testicles? That's something else entirely. A MINUS

ABC: How to Be a . . . Zillionaire! (1985, Mercury) "By default/by design?" Martin Fry asked last time around, the joke being very little he does isn't calculated way in advance. Reduced to a duo, Fry and multi-instrumentalist Mark White set out to negotiate another fifteen minutes of fame by transforming themselves into cartoonish caricatures and pandering to the latest Brit Pop fashion: an anonymous, goofily mechanical electrodisco redolent of so many John Hughes soundtracks, inspiring such progeny as the Information Society, and, well, few else. They even signed on two additional members: midriff-baring journalist-cutie Fiona "Eden" Russell-Powell (a sop to their demographic's heterosexual minority I suppose, so, um, thanks) and diminutive Asian-American photographer David Yarritu (the latter a cross between Elton John and Moby). Not for musical reasons, though -- neither could play a note -- but rather because they completed the image Fry wanted to convey in the album's well-plugged videos. Isolated from their original context, the singles are decent enough. But on album, the glossy "Be Near Me" tries too hard to ingratiate itself, like an oily used car salesman hyperactively chatting up the lemon he's about to unload on you. Perhaps Fry is right when he sings "it's not between freedom and democracy" or "the hammer and the sickle," but particularly after getting publicly knifed for the worthy pretensions of Beauty Stab, preaching "no fear of the world" signifies a philosophical move toward depressingly willful ignorance. He directs his toughest statement toward a dedicated follower of fashion -- an angle that well-known progressive Ray Davies did so much better in 1965. You remember Davies, don't you? Insularity did him a world of good, too. B MINUS

ABC: Alphabet City (1987, Mercury) Producer Bernard Edwards -- who, alas, does not assign himself bass duties -- might seem like a natural pairing for Fry/White's now-this-time-we're-serious second comeback attempt, until you note that Edwards' previous assignment was overseeing Air Supply's 1986 flop Hearts in Motion. But Edwards doesn't really deserve the blame here -- once again, the hapless pair dabble in a subgenre that has nothing to do with them. Like "Be Near Me," "When Smokey Sings" is prime radio fluff, but in context makes no sense thematically -- sure, Fry quoted Robinson on The Lexicon of Love's opening track, but neither Motown nor the U.K.'s then-ascendant wave of "Northern Soul" had anything to do with what made this now-a-duo-always-a-duo momentarily great. Call the resulting gambit elevator music from a band stuck between floors, too entrenched in the biz to press the button and get out. C PLUS

ABC: Up (1989, Mercury) They started out with a commitment to content that they resented their audience for completely ignoring. Then, taking Duran Duran's lead, figuring that the road to riches lay in keeping it as banal as possible, they spent the late '80s bleaching out the depth from their music -- How to Be a . . . Zillionaire!'s personality may have been borrowed, but at least it had one. This dull foray into the UK house scene is about as formulaically programmatic as you'd expect, and about as verbal as an episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians. "I've never felt love/Never more than now." "It's the real thing/Nothing but the real thing." Unremittingly drill that false optimism chorus after meaningless chorus and it might start to sound like truth. Or not. C

ABC: Abracadabra (1991, MCA) Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it on the debut album for their new label -- Fry/White should have treated this shot at redemption as a fortuitous gift, but instead released an indifferent batch of tunes almost interchangeable with Up, which got them kicked off Polygram. The best song swipes its intro from "Love's Theme" and waxes nostalgic for Friday nights at the Hašienda, a nightclub that in 1991 was still standing, but whose patrons had long moved on from ABC. Sad. C

ABC: The Best of ABC: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection (1991, Mercury) Most Americans don't realize there was more to the story after "When Smokey Sings" -- and by more to the story I'm referring strictly to biography rather than music of consequence -- which is why that's where this quickie cheapie leaves them, even though Martin Fry actually gave the brand name two more half-hearted reunion shots: once, with 1997's Skyscraping, and again with 2008's Traffic, the latter with returned drummer David Palmer. In hindsight, it's amazing Fry was able to give the people what they wanted even once -- while in 1982 he could miraculously play both sides of the coin and get away with it, he could never again strike the right balance between art and commerce to be able to simultaneously take it to the bank and feel good about himself the next morning. Despite mostly nabbing keepers from their first four records, this reconnaissance mission only confuses the matter -- the first six songs were so much smarter embedded in their original contexts, where they at least served a narrative trajectory rather than merely rounding out a product. Meanwhile, the remaining four, while fetching enough, only make you wonder why Fry sacrificed irony along with his lofty ambitions. Then you compare the hilariously decadent silver lamÚ suits the band sports in the cover's 1982 pic to the garish getups the revamped lineup wears in the 1986 pic on the back and the answer becomes clear: money. B

June 19, 2014, Odyshape