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

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

Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
News
The Speaker of the House will takes his turn as guest editor of the Today programme
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jude Law in Black Sea

film

In Black Seahe is as audiences have never seen him before

Arts and Entertainment
Johnny Depp no longer cares if people criticise his movie flops

film

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game