Repeat after me: ABC

With their perfect pop and synth haircuts, ABC were the Eighties incarnate. Or so they seemed. Glyn Brown talks to older, wiser lead-singer Martin Fry about gold lame suits, poverty and comebacks
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The Independent Culture
There are people who don't remember ABC, or say they don't. Perhaps these folks have colanders for brains. Maybe it's possible, momentarily, to draw a blank where there should be a shiny image of the lushest, wittiest synth-pop band of the 1980s. But play such people a bar, a phrase, and that's all you'll need to make your point and see them swoon. What you'd feared, in retrospect, might sound like so much tongue-in-cheek bravado, so much cod-romantic blather ("My friends say Martin, one day you'll find true love ... [long, disillusioned sighing] say, maybe..." - "The Look of Love") turns out to be as ridiculously, danceably poignant as it ever was. Part of a creative maelstrom - The Human League, Cabaret Voltaire, Heaven 17 - that bloomed around 1980 from the slurry of Sheffield, ABC married tight disco-funk to articulate lyrics to deliver truly heart-piercing melodies. Sumptuous, smart, and shamelessly kitsch, the debut, Trevor Horn-produced album, Lexicon of Love, sold in spectacular quantities. Critics were divided, half of them in love, the other half deriding what they saw to be ironic pose.

If there was irony then, however, it's all gone now. Martin Fry, ABC's prime mover and the still centre around which the line-up has frequently changed, is back after a lengthy hiatus, with a new single, "Stranger Things", and a startlingly good album, Skyscraping. To test the water, Fry and his new band played a few minor dates and then London's Shepherd's Bush Empire, where the reception last Friday was fulsome.

Meeting him an hour before the last smallish gig, at Brighton's Zap club, I encountered a man wired almost beyond control and fired with near-evangelistic zeal. Of course, it's never wise to attempt an interview just before a show. Arriving during the soundcheck, I find Mr Fry still chiselled, not to say gaunt, modelling a Milky Bar-kid quiff, spivvy drape jacket and blush-pink Hush Puppies. He's moving like a man with St Vitus' Dance and giving the guy on the T-shirt franchise a few sporting words of advice. "Two T-shirts you sold last night in Portsmouth. I dunno. Listen, have you seen Glengarry, Glen Ross? Great movie. And what are the watchwords there?" Fry demonstrates by pointing to the letters embroidered where Lacoste should be. "Always Be Closing. Close the deal. A-B-C. Or, as me uncle Sid says, Always Be Contemporary." Our man behind the stall rolls his eyes, folds his arms and lies down on a pile of coats and Martin gives a sly wink and bounces off, leaving me to cope with the fact that he doesn't sound like James Bond, as I'd always expected, but like the bluff Yorkshireman he is.

It takes some time to get him sat down to talk. Is he tense about these gigs? "Scared. Very scared when I saw the Manic Street Preachers play the Shepherds Bush Empire just before Christmas, because I'd agreed to do some dates and it's been 14 years since I got on a stage. But I've got to see what the audience looks like, if they even show up and if I can do it - the first gig, at Bath Moles, was like running a marathon. I didn't want to be a cabaret artist, or one of those sad old fools making a comeback who play three dates and put `sold out' across the posters - just chuck that butt on the floor, be rock 'n' roll. It's all over for me, all that. I'm a lot less tense than I used to be."

Fry grew up in Manchester, where his dad worked at the Carborundum Grinding Wheel Company near Old Trafford. The acutely debonair Fry jnr seethed while washing pots in hotel kitchens and later, hitched to a conveyor belt, hydrated beans for Batchelors. "Which sustained me, I think. A few years ago, I thought, I've got to get a proper job. Then I thought, I'm buggered if I'm goin' back to that bean factory."

Not, in truth, a consideration: Fry could easily retire on royalties. Or stop and change course - ABC cohort Mark White, with whom he went on to produce albums like Beauty Stab, How to be a Zillionaire and Alphabet City is now, according to rumour, a therapist in New York. But Fry, still firing on all cylinders, is unable and unwilling to break away. "I can't speak for Mark. All I know is I spent years staring at a wall, thinking there's a legacy of music I want to continue. It took me a while to rekindle the motivation, but I have done now. Thank God." Momentary pause. "Occasionally I do think, why am I still... rolling along, doing this? But it's my life, I love it. Guy on a radio station said to me [assumes patronising froideur] `So, who are the ABC for the 90s?' I could look him in the eye and say, ABC."

Fry is used to detractors: a flurry of poison-lipped arrows greeted second album, Beauty Stab. The lyrics were political, but ABC still wore the cornea-paralysing haute couture with which they made their name. Not surprisingly, Fry has something to say about this. "Beauty Stab was about going back to Sheffield and seeing it, after you'd been to New York and San Francisco. Desolation. Look, we made Lexicon for a reason. And it wasn't some glamorous, vacuous trip. It's the same feeling I get when, say, we play Liverpool now and the kids there go wild. It's working-class culture, giving it loads in different ways. You might do an E, you might get pissed, you might tranny it up, you might go to a football match - it's all just escaping for a couple of milliseconds from the boredom." He grimaces. "That radio guy said to me, `Well, it isn't about clobber these days, it's just about the music.' Yeah, and he's right, so if some cat wants to wear a gold lame suit and another wants to wear an Adidas top and they both make music, great."

You used to iron your shoelaces.

Patient rictus. "That was an exaggeration."

Bit anal, wasn't it?

Fry sits forward. "People were in those days, it was a very uptight period. Listen, the Eighties for me wasn't about sitting round drinking cocktails with umbrellas stuck in 'em. And what resulted from it is not some camp museum piece to pull out of a bag. Think about it, think what it was really like. I was never a bloody yuppie."

Let's get back to the lame suit. "That old one, eh?" Apparently it got flushed down a toilet somewhere. But you can't flush a suit down a toilet.

"You can in the Tokyo Ikea Plaza, yeah. Well, you can throw it in and try and stuff it down. Because it'd been like being in Take That, at the time it was madness. I seemed to live five years in a two-year period. But just let me say, on the lame thing, it takes balls to wear a suit like that. Though I guess it was a suit of armour, too. "

If there's a certain humility here, it may partly result from Fry's having survived the destabilising trauma of Hodgkin's Disease, a leucaemia-like lymphatic cancer. The two- to three-year treatment involved chemotherapy during which Fry lost all his hair, radiotherapy and several operations. "I carried on working, though, that's the stupid thing."

You must have been exhausted. "Yeah, but that was then, and this is now." Neat utilisation of an ABC lyric. "Truthfully I ran out of steam. I wasn't excited anymore. I used to think - no, I used to say writing music was easy. It's not. But it's worth it."

Fry was asked recently who might play him in a bio-pic. He said David Thewlis, the frantic anti-hero of Mike Leigh's movie Naked. That's still how you see yourself?

"Sometimes, yeah. Manic kind of bloke." He stomps out his Silk Cut and goes to charm Brighton with his unchanged vocal chords n

`Skyscraping' is released 24 March on Destruction