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 new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in the first-look Fifty Shades of Grey movie still

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

    The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

    What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
    Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

    Finding the names for America’s shame

    The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
    Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

    Inside a church for Born Again Christians

    As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
    Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

    Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
    Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

    Incredible survival story of David Tovey

    Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride