The relentlessly industrial city of Sheffield gained worldwide recognition in the 19th century for its production of steel, but far more relevant to me was its early 80s production line of innovative electronic bands, such as The Human League, Heaven 17 and ABC.
As the rough and tumble of post-punk gave way to a more sophisticated sound, ABC gave us the definitive soundtrack of the time with their debut album, The Lexicon of Love. The album’s glamorous, synthesizer sound sat comfortably with the New Romantic school of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, but it was clearly the belle of the 1982 ball. Lexicon is rightly recognised as a high-water mark of 80s music, a timeless pop classic that sounds as good today as then, allowing you to relive those days where everything seemed possible.
This masterpiece of orchestral song-craft and audacious lyrical insights is the sound of a band (nay, a generation) falling in love with the new stylistic and technological promise of 80s pop music. With just the right mix of high drama and blue-eyed soul, Lexicon is soaringly ambitious from the start: big on glam, big on glitz, big on sound, the album screams out quality with every gold lamé flourish.
"The Look of Love ?"
Famously produced by Trevor Horn, who emerged unscathed from his comical experiments with The Buggles and Yes to create a lush landscape of sensuous synthesizers, majestic string arrangements, shiny horns and pounding drums. All of this was orchestrated by the future Art of Noise member, Anne Dudley. The cracking bass lines came courtesy of Mark White (“that’s right”). Horn experimented with many creative production tricks, but never lost sight of Martin Fry’s commanding voice, allowing free rein to his witty, literate lyrics.
Martin Fry was the brains trust behind ABC. The singer was a romantic, a smooth operator influenced by Bowie and Ferry. He didn’t seem to sing so much as ache – for affection, glamour and the good life. Believing that the pen is mightier than the sword (“you’re going to hear my vocal chord”), his lyrical dexterity perfectly complemented the sharp music of ABC – a democratic dance party asking you to vote with your feet.
"If you judge a book by the cover ..."
Fry himself has described The Lexicon of Love as, “all about the same thing, me ranting on about lost love”. Each track is indeed a love affair in miniature, but there are a million ways to say “I love you” and Fry manages to cram most of them onto this dazzling debut album. He gives you the full range of emotions in a grand love story, or at the very least an elaborate seduction. In fact, the record could be re-christened “The Diary of Heartbreak”, as it showcases the innocence of hopeful love and the bitterness of a man scorned, but, let’s be honest, The Lexicon of Love is a great title that cannot be improved.
And you cannot ignore the sheer uplifting quality of the music. Yes, the band may have one foot on the stage, but the other foot is moving on the dance floor. Dance music has rarely been so literate with the synthetic drum beats and Chic-like bass lines giving disco a whole new vocabulary, like on “Valentine’s Day”: “If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed/And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I shoulda kissed/I'd be a millionaire/I'd be a Fred Astaire”.
Some critics could not see beyond the gold jackets and the somewhat cheesy videos, but the band’s ambition and attitude demand to be taken seriously. Yes, the songs are smart and funny, but there’s so much commitment in Fry’s voice that you completely believe in him. And just listen to the passion and energy of the band as they pull together in the closing lines of “The Look Of Love”: “Sisters and brothers/Should help each other”.
"You saxy thing"
Ultimately, it’s all about the songs:
We spend a lot of time writing and crafting the songs – they must be danceable, memorable, intelligent, functional, passionate. These things shouldn’t be excluded from pop music – they should be exploited and exaggerated.
A demanding manifesto, but these lofty aims were gloriously achieved with Fry’s skilful wordplay launching brilliant couplets from every direction. “Poison Arrow” boasts a simple, classic chorus (“Who broke my heart?/You did, you did”) before a synthesized drum roll explodes in Fry’s face, as his girl brutally cuts him down: “I thought you loved me but it seems you don't care/I care enough to know I can never love you”.
The theme of unrequited love is explored again in the funky “Tears Are Not Enough”: “Searching for certainty/When it's such an unstable world/Searching for something good/And I'm looking for the real McCoy”, while the end of a relationship is dissected in the string-drenched ballad “All Of My Heart”: “Add and subtract/But as a matter of fact/I still want you back”.
Martin Fry later sang on “Alphabet Soup”, “I hold in my hand three letters: vitamin A, vitamin B, vitamin C”, but no supplements are required here. This album replenishes mind, body and soul.
Love never sounded so grand. Easy as ABC.