(#267: 3 July 1982, 4 weeks)
Track listing: Show Me/Poison Arrow/Many Happy Returns/Tears Are Not Enough/Valentine’s Day/The Look Of Love (Part One)/Date Stamp/All Of My Heart/4 Ever 2 Gether/The Look Of Love (Part Four)
“I am beginning to feel that music, when perfect, lifts the heart exactly as when you delight in the presence of your beloved. This means that music gives what must be the most profound happiness available on this earth.”
“To try to write love is to confront the muck of language: that region of hysteria where language is both too much and too little, excessive (by the limitless expansion of the ego, by emotion submersion) and impoverished (by the codes on which love diminishes and levels it).”
“…indeed ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ would repay a detailed, academic study of its packaging and contents.”
(Jon Savage, The FACE, issue 27; July 1982)
“…I think I’m probably more interested in what you’ve got to say than what I’ve got to say.”
(Martin Fry, to the author)
They walked into the centre of the labyrinth.
They were in the middle of a park in late summer. There were flowers and people. Beds of flowers, so huge and oppressive that they would be lucky to be able to venture out of the park. Piles and piles of them. People bringing them over, more and more, many of them weeping and praying. They were less than startled.
Or they were inside a late Victorian sitting room, and there was Number One, sitting, alone and dead to the world, listening to the ghost of a woman on a wind-up gramophone, and suddenly, gently, the woman reappeared in the background. She seemed as much of a ghost as anything else; whether or not they will end up together was, perhaps purposely, left hanging in the air. For Number One was someone who had withdrawn into himself for what might have been justifiable reasons, although these were never explicitly expressed or explained. Let down by the world, he retaliated by constructing an immaculate and perfect world of his own.
Then the orchestra fell away; the singer was left alone with closing time piano and knew he had to make a decision, and a life or death one at that; “Sheeeeee’s cold,” he shivered, like negotiating a frozen hump bridge in plus fours). “She might laugh, but I love it,” he pondered, “although the laugh’s on me,” but then the orchestra returned in descending whole tones, and the turnaround happened; somehow, somewhere – was it via magic? – the rest of the orchestra rose from behind the strings, and a new lover rose with the sun, patiently but in fierce belief. “I’ll sing to her,” he declared, “Bring spring to her!” knowing that it was his last chance as the timpani roll, before making the astonishing ascent to “and long for the day that I’ll CLING to HER!,” going higher and higher, clinging to that extended CLIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING as he had never clung onto anything or anyone before in his life, to meet and bear the winds of the song’s thunderous crescendo.
It was Frank Sinatra, singing his version of “Bewitched,” from the film of Pal Joey, the soundtrack to which was the number one album the day Martin Fry was born.
But the park was not exactly Kensington Gardens. It seemed wider, steeper, more blowy. It was evidently still London, or in sight of London, since all of London and most of Kent could be seen from its peak, but this was by no means a familiar part of town, and certainly not a reassuring one. You could, they felt, go for a picnic in this place and get lost, or disappear.
He strode angrily into the front office and threw down his resignation letter upon the FIFTEEN TONS OF LETTERS ON MY DESK.
So one way of telling this story could be to start and finish it in 1982, with songs involving tape or turntable scratching, and the interest of Trevor Horn. Not that Horn produced “Hilly Fields (1892)” – note the subtle anagram in the title – but he was intrigued enough by it to approach Nick Nicely, born in Greenland during a flight stopover, with a view to working together. Something, perhaps, in the manner of Yes. But Nicely hummed and hawed uneasily and Horn realised he really wanted to produce himself.
“Hilly Fields” was his moment, really, and seems about much more than a windy public park somewhere between Brockley and Lewisham, the birthplace of Marty Wilde and David Sylvian. No, the song’s protagonist – a “Mr C G Fields” – gets sacked from his job and decides to vanish. Where did he go, other than inside his head? Who knows? Everything is left in the airiest of airs; there was a minor psychedelic revival being touted in late 1981/early 1982 Britain, but “Hilly Fields” cuts past pastiche and connects directly with unresolved wistful business from 1967 (the subject of Bill Fay’s “Some Good Advice,” for instance. Fay – for many years regarded as an imagined, nearly invisible phantom in British music, although all he did in reality was go back to his day job and do music when he had the time, before returning with Life Is People, last year’s best record by a British artist). Victoria or Thatcher? Mr Fields doesn’t seem to be able to deal with either – and why should he? – and so disappears as firmly and resolutely as Major Tom. The mourning? “Pimply little postboy,” from a woman credited on the sleeve of this EMI single as “Kate” (although the voice actually belonged to a sometime Nicely collaborator, one Kate Jackson). Nonetheless, I do feel that Horn was touched more than somewhat by the record, and perhaps carried some of that fatal wistfulness into what he did with ABC.
What was anybody to do with ABC, truly? Once they were Vice Versa, Mark White and Stephen Singleton, in Sheffield, ploughing that gloomy Cabaret Voltaire/The Future furrow, and at around the time of punk rock they were interviewed by a teenage student called Martin Fry who ran a fanzine called Modern Drugs. They got on, and then when their regular synth player David Sydenham went AWOL, the two musicians sent for Fry again. He wasn’t initially considered as a singer; the first choice was a teenage wannabe model from Sheffield called Fiona Russell-Powell, but that idea fell through for various reasons, and so Fry ended up as Vice Versa’s de facto lead singer.
Years passed, and things didn’t get any better, and then Ian Curtis, and so Vice Versa thought that it was time to change. The influences were still Joy Division and Gang of Four, but now artists like Michael Jackson and Chic were admitted into their viewpoint and the focus shifted to dance and funk. As with so many of their contemporaries, they elected to take their manifesto – such as it was in the summer of 1980 – into the centre of the marketplace. And so, in the Christmas issue of the NME – a place still deeply haunted by Curtis’’ ghost, and the more recent one of Lennon - Paul Morley, like Fry a child of the fifties from Stockport (just under a year his senior), spoke to various exciting-looking new people, including Fry, and there was raised the modest proposal for this thing to be called “new pop” (then still strictly lowercase); pop with the ethos and energy of punk but louder, brighter and more danceable than anything with which the feeble, ageing pop mainstream could summon up.
The group’s name had changed to ABC, in honour of the Jackson 5 – that group who likewise found the brightest of escape routes from the mausoleum of the sixties – and for the first year or so of their existence as ABC they gamely set about pulling all of their aesthetic strands together. They knew it was no good slugging it out with Bauhaus and Theatre of Hate in the indie charts, and that to be able to signify anything, they had to compete with Diana Ross and Abba in the gruelling Top 40 trenches. And all the while around them was Sheffield, a declining and steely grey city; so the idea of sophisticated observations about the nature and reality of love projected on a backdrop of industrial dereliction was instantly arresting. One of the many impressive things about Lexicon is how the listener is never really allowed to forget that behind the façade of these songs lie shut factories and mass unemployment; always you feel that this is a punk band eager to make you think they are urbane, international easy listening entertainers, but desperate not to let you forget that in essence they are a punk band. The surface and the depth never quite gel with each other – and this was Fry’s intention.
One striking thing about listening to the 2004 deluxe 2CD edition of Lexicon is how raw and rough the music becomes once outside the original album’s familiar context. Listen, for instance, to the demos of “Tears Are Not Enough,” “Show Me” and the otherwise unrecorded “Surrender” which they recorded in the summer of 1981 for Phonogram (with an accompanying video!) – not to mention at least one BBC radio session from the same period – and you hear a rather top-heavy post-punk group essentially settling (for the 1981 summer “now”) in the then fashionable punk-funk trend (as opposed to the period’s actual Britfunk such as Beggar and Co., Light of the World, Central Line and Linx – and it is noteworthy that two stalwart Britfunk-connected horn players, trumpeter Claude Deppa and saxophonist Ray Carless, both later to become important participants in that decade’s “British Jazz Revival,” accompanied the group on their 1982 autumn tour). Fry mostly shrieks and rumbles his way through these grooves – they are not yet quite songs – and this “Show Me” in particular is radically different from the more familiar album version, with Fry repeatedly sobbing “I NEED someone!,” frowning that “skipping side issues sends me to sleep,” and demanding “not RHINESTONES, not RIBBONS – but PEARLS!!” The “where are the diamonds?” section is central to this version’s dynamic, as opposed to the coda it became a year later. “Surrender” barely clings on to its structure, as Fry invokes both Guy Fawkes (“Remember! The fifth of Novem-BER”) and Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) in a piercing attempt to get it across to his would-be lover how right it would be for her to come to him.
The single of “Tears Are Not Enough” sloped out in October of 1981 and bore enough critical buzz about it to scratch the surface of the Top 20. It was adored and loathed by roughly the same number of music writers on either side; the NME thought enough of it to place it seventh in their singles of the year list. A declaration of principles, for certain, but an oddly inconclusive one, as though the group were perhaps already admitting to themselves that the single, as it stood, with Steve Brown’s efficient-but-not-much-more production, was not quite enough, that its flatness undersold the Ken Dodd (lyrical) and Kevin Rowland (moral/metaphysical) citations. The sleevenote’s concluding admission that “Fry was already planning the next move” seems to confirm this (the whole sleevenote-as-manifesto schtick must have come from Dexy’s, who in the summer of 1981 had a Top 20 hit on Phonogram with a very different song entitled “Show Me”).
Yet, although stuck in the watery broth of late ’81 Brit-punk-funk, complete with a bassline that is trying very hard not to be “Good Times,” “Tears” was evidently a strong song, as proud and unforgiving a statement of intent as Dexy’s “Dance Stance” (another debut single not helped by a listless production); there’s Fry (and his fine vocal did not need to be changed an atom for Lexicon) searching for the “real McCoy,” trying to get past memes of human contact – all those blueprints and pictures he has to negotiate – all the better to explain to his lover why he is leaving her, or sending her away. This is a defiant Fry we don’t really see in the rest of Lexicon, except in brief, fierce glimpses. Don’t cry, he’s saying, these tears are just a product of your own emotional kneejerk discourse – via, of all things, a twisted whisper of a Whitesnake reference (they had a hit earlier in 1981 entitled “Would I Lie To You?”) –and since “you’ve said things worth believing,” you are therefore BETTER than this. Or so the singer hopes. The “used” of his final “all used” (as in “all used up,” although that last “up” is never sung) drains away like the residue from an epistaxis. Staccato brass (trumpet and trombone; Kim Wear and Andy Gray respectively) hover in the background like impatient bouncers.
But I think “Tears” transcends all the tainted love stuff to become a wider manifesto, perhaps even a New Pop (now capitalised) calling card; you’ve had your mourning and greyness, the song appears to suggest, but it won’t suffice where we’re heading – you are capable of more. With the glittering Lexicon version in mind, I asked Martin Fry if the song was “not so much raging against a dying light, but trying to relight and resuscitate it,” to which he gave me a very direct response: “’Tears Are Not Enough’ is simply about climbing up off the canvas, changing and standing up for yourself; empowerment, I think they call it. Finding your dignity and something to believe in. If people compared it to Dexy’s, well I’d be very proud of that.”
The B-side was “Alphabet Soup,” not a song which would have remotely fitted in with the rest of Lexicon, but nonetheless one of ABC’s most important songs which they would continue to use as a set closer in 1982. Here, following Fry’s Norman Wisdom-as-James Brown protests with David Robinson’s drums (“Hit me!,” “Hit me two times!”), we are firmly in post-Pop Group 1981, with Mark White’s post-Nile Rodgers chattering guitar, Mark Lickley’s thumb-but-don’t-slap bass and Stephen Singleton’s early Andy Mackay-meets-James Chance skronking alto – and, above it all, Fry’s high-pitched announcements and statements of intent (at one point he cries “I’m swimming against the TIDE!”).
It is fair to assume that if ABC had had nothing more to offer than “Alphabet Soup” they would have been forgotten as swiftly as Stimulin or Funkapolitan. But perhaps more startling is their edited performance of the same song, in much the same style, on the BBC’s Multi-Coloured Swap Shop Saturday morning kids’ TV show, recorded at the end of November 1981 (by which time David Palmer had replaced Robinson on drums). Amid the placid world of such as Noel Edmonds, Keith Chegwin and John Craven, here was Fry screaming: “Sax – equals SEX – equals SAX – which means Stephen’s porno-GRAPHIC!” (and Singleton scarcely toned down his skronk style for the programme). A gatecrashing Pistols could not have done better.
However, it was clear that to realise their vision more thoroughly and definitively, ABC needed to get away from their cult-funk pigeonhole and make a real advance. Their first instinct was to find a bigger producer; the initial front-runner was the late Alex Sadkin, but that fell through after a thunderous row between producer and band at a Funkapolitan gig – Sadkin felt that the best way forward was to take Fry alone and use session musicians, but Fry and the rest of ABC were violently against this.
At which point, the group heard a pop record on the radio, wondered at its unexpected glory, and wondered even more about who had produced it.
In the autumn of 1981, Trevor Horn and Dollar needed each other. In Britain, Horn was only really known as half of Buggles, and then as part of Yes, when both he and fellow Buggle Geoff Downes were drafted in to replace the departed Anderson and Wakeman (the story? Yes and Buggles had the same manager, and one day in early 1980 they were working in adjacent studios. Horn and Downes dropped in to say hello; Chris Squire happened to be a Buggles fan and after sitting in the duo were asked to join. The resultant album, Drama, largely had metaphorical critical tomatoes thrown at it, although it really is not bad at all; in Britain, I only just missed writing about the record (it spent a fortnight at number two behind Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood) and in terms of getting to grips with a new decade it was an ambitious effort; “White Car” and “Into The Lens” are Buggles songs in all but name, while “Run Through The Light” featured the first appearance of engineer Hugh Padgham’s patented “gated drum sound.” But a subsequent tour was less than successful and Yes broke up shortly afterwards (Downes followed Steve Howe into early eighties stadium rock behemoths Asia, while Horn found his true metier as the producer of a reformed Yes’ highly successful 1983 album 90125).
If this glum processional of facts hasn’t already sent you to sleep, then consider the position of Dollar, who in the summer of 1981 hadn’t had a hit for some eighteen months. But Therese Bazar had crossed paths with Trevor Horn back in her seventies days with Guys ‘N’ Dolls, and she and David van Day loved “Video Killed The Radio Star” and wanted some of that modest adventure for themselves. Horn, meanwhile, freshly out of Yes, regarded Dollar as an interesting challenge. Here is what Horn, interviewed in the July 1982 issue of The FACE – by Fiona Russell-Powell – had to say about the matter:
“What I wanted to do was to make some really good MoR records but that weren’t MoR in the old sense of the word where they had real drums and real violins on them, but to use synthesisers and robot drummers….(“Mirror Mirror”) I tried to make…almost like a computer had written it and produced it.”
In other words, the “Vince Hill does Kraftwerk” theory, and over a beautifully paced set of four singles, Horn and Dollar managed to pull it off. Basically the Dollar tetralogy was concerned about people’s relationship with other people and with technology, and how the latter ends up swallowing the former. Explaining “Hand Held In Black And White” in The FACE, Horn said that the song “was about a frame of mind, you know when you take a very quick snapshot…well, I saw a photo of Dollar that was taken with a handheld camera in black and white and I thought it was a nice attitude.”
The record achieves rather more than that; with its swipes at Thatcherism (“in graffiti, WINNER TAKES IT ALL”) and its Gothic arches of drums (however they were achieved), it put Dollar in 3D, raised them high above what their supper club peers were doing (“HIGH ABOVE THE GROUND!”) and made them both hip and (again) popular; although it climbed no higher in the chart than #19, it sold consistently enough to be ranked 1981’s 49th best-selling single.
And it was heard, and seized upon, by ABC as their way out of the fashion trap. The next Dollar single struck out even further: “Mirror Mirror (Mon Amour)” is so buoyant and weightless a piece of modernist pop that it’s easy to overlook that the song is (Horn’s words again) “supposed to be about someone looking in a mirror telling themselves how much they loved themselves.” However, David and Therese looked lovingly into each other’s eyes when singing it on TV, and thus transcended the conceit, although the record does not end so much as fizzle out into the next galaxy, all echoes, echoes, and voices and keyboards striking out for heaven knows where.
“Videotheque” was actually the single which was recorded next, but the duo were insistent on a ballad for a follow-up. Slightly irked by this, Horn set out to find them “the sloppiest ballad I can find” and so alighted on “Give Me Back My Heart,” written by one Simon Darlow. Horn wrote and appended a coda to the song, and then proceeded to turn what could have been one of the soppiest of all pop records into one of the best. Starting with “I’m Not In Love” as a template, Horn patiently builds up the call and response between the two singers who are now losing each other, bringing in new ingredients into each succeeding verse and chorus, with incidences of the visionary (van Day’s stereo-panned “Miss you so, miss you so” passing over Bazar’s second verse like a fleeing albatross, his later, deadpan “I. Love. You”). Anne Dudley got involved at this stage, and her very characteristic piano break sets the scene for several Lexicon songs, “All Of My Heart” in particular. Then, everything recedes to a simple, drum-pattern heartbeat before Horn breaks the picture open again.
And then, instead of ending or fading the song where it would normally be expected to end or fade, Horn ups the ante dramatically; their voices now become stentorian, monolithic; Bazar’s (computer voice print generated?) harmonies multiplying to necropolis level, synthesised trumpet fanfares bringing down he planet…and out of nowhere comes…Jon Anderson, singing a lyric straight out of Time And A Word? In fact the voice is Horn himself, and then a closing cascade of bells and Bazar’s angels which would not have disgraced Brian Wilson. Now the music fades, and so does van Day, leaving just a few Bazar voices left to harmonise: “Always together, always the same/NOW YOU’RE GONE.” He has managed to turn an MoR ballad into a Yes album closer by way of Pet Sounds; the lessons from those seventies John Howard sessions had been fully absorbed and reinvented.
“Videotheque” may well have been the best of the four; here, the Fairlight dominates as the duo can now only see each other on either side of a video screen. The slowed-down (again Beach Boy-esque) vocal harmonies in the instrumental break set us up directly for Art of Noise. And Bazar’s closing, icy descent of “Only ghosts are lovers on the screen” is one of the most chilling moments in all of pop. The job had been done; the story told.
“The heart is what I imagine I give. Each time this gift is returned to me, then it is little enough to say, with Werther, that the heart is what remains of me, once all the wit attributed to me and undesired by me is taken away: the heart is what remains to me, and this heart that lies heavy on my heart is heavy with the ebb which has filled it with itself (only the lover and the child have a heavy heart).”
I asked Martin Fry what attracted him to the Dollar/Horn work. “There’s the epic sonic frame for sure,” I said, “but also a progressively more fragile grip on emotions and love; I wonder whether the emotion of the Dollar records attracted you as much as their sonic adventure.”
“’Hand Held In Black And White’ was the one,” Fry says. “It sounded widescreen and glossy and intelligent and nonsensical all at the same time. Brilliant. Greater than the sum of its parts. Pop magic. Not attracted by the emotion – it was more the sonic scale of it all and the sheer over-the-top cheek of the production.”
When ABC and Horn met, in a Queensway pizzeria, they found, perhaps to each other’s surprise, that they got on extremely well. Horn, who had no great expectations of the meeting and was slightly puzzled about why ABC wanted him, was delighted by their urbanity, intelligence and instinctive good manners, as well as their ability to know exactly what kind of sound they wanted to achieve in their music, and which audience(s) the music should be aimed at. The “Dylan but with a disco beat rather than an acoustic guitar” strategy has been much commented on and echoed through the intervening three decades, but it struck me that Horn had as much to prove as ABC did, that he perhaps also saw ABC as his own big break. I wondered whether Horn’s involvement was at the Eno level, less of a producer as such and more of a collaborator.
“Not entirely,” Fry told me. “Trevor could definitely see that we were onto something. There was some stuff on Lexicon that Trevor didn’t seem to like. Some of the lyrics on ‘4 Ever 2 Gether ’; the middle-eight on ‘Tears Are Not Enough.’ A few things but not too much. As you can imagine he was very, very professional and inspiring to be around. We were all striving hard to create something special. We all wanted to make a record that sounded polished and brand new. Trevor really liked Yes and would sometimes gently encourage us to make the album more like a concept album (author’s note: in fact, at the end of the recording sessions for Lexicon, Horn presented Fry with a copy of Yes’ Close To The Edge; he was proud to have produced a record which he felt was of equal calibre). That seemed a bit old fashioned to me at the time. It was never going to be a concept album. Too seventies. We were raw and very opinionated but also very focused. To be honest we all grew in stature once Lexicon was released - Trevor as a producer and us as a band.”
The first released fruit of band and producer collaboration was the second single, “Poison Arrow,” a pop record which more or less sent everybody else back to the drawing board, so determined and vast a step from “Tears” that it entered the Top 40 at a higher position than “Tears” had peaked. Just as soon as Dare had been felt to be pushing the pop envelope as far as it wished to be pushed, “Poison Arrow” elevated the bar again (“Raise your aim!”). A record so brilliantly and logically constructed that Noel Edmonds was moved on his Sunday morning Radio 1 show to offer a lengthy peroration on the tactics and strategies which made it such a great record. Horn moved ABC away from the funk – and away from the tastemakers at places like The FACE, who never entirely forgave ABC for not being The Haines Gang – and towards the old Chic device of deploying disco memes as emotional minefields.
The scenario of “Tears” is reversed; here Fry is the one being dumped, and the music resonates and rages all around him like an irate cathedral (Singleton’s saxophone, now determinedly late Roxy era Mackay, swarms around the singer’s head like an admonitory bumblebee). Nobody else was daring to rhyme “Cupid “with “stupid,” nor with such force – the song in itself could have been a hit for Barry Ryan or Love Affair (or indeed Cupid’s Inspiration) in 1968, but Horn succeeds in bringing it up to the 1982 now.
In a theme which will recur elsewhere on Lexicon, Fry does OK until he makes the dumb mistake – his perspective – of saying “I love you,” whereupon everything goes pancake flat, although he himself is cynical of this (“Right from the start when you knew we would part!” he loudly protests near the end).
Perhaps the song’s high moment is the point where Fry’s spoken lament is answered by the coldly rational voice of the woman who has deserted or rejected him (though uncredited, this was the voice of one Karen Clayton, who provides a similar cameo on Art of Noise’s “Close (To The Edit)”) whereupon drums explode downwards like Zeus kicking a fridge down the side of Mount Olympus – in 1982 this gesture was unprecedented in pop, and quickly became one of the most badly imitated gestures in pop. More hurt than Humperdinck, more tortured than Tom, “Poison Arrow” was a great pop record about other pop records, while at the same time wondering why other pop records bothered. Was the intention, I asked Fry, to subvert the disco norm or just expand it (i.e. "I Will Survive" x "Watching The Detectives")?
“There’s no denying that. We were trying to fuse our love of Chic and Earth Wind and Fire and Change with our love of Joy Division and Bowie and Roxy and Costello….and countless others. Two worlds colliding. We tried to make ‘Poison Arrow’ like a mini-opera with an emotional charge that took you through the highs and lows of unrequited love. We milked the drama . We didn’t want any of our songs to have fades. Just a big explosive ending. ‘Everlasting Love’ and ‘Eloise’ do that too I guess (author’s note: although technically speaking both records fade, they both have huge important pauses – the drums on ‘Everlasting Love,’ while ‘Eloise’ turns on the whim of a raised-eyebrow upward bass run). We wanted everything to be amplified and exaggerated . That's why the drums are as big as we could make them in the middle section. Crashing down .”
It certainly does sound on “Poison Arrow,” and especially at that key moment, that love and humanity are crashing down in ruins around the singer; the bottom has fallen out of his world. On the single B-side, “Theme From Mantrap,” we hear “Poison Arrow” as a slow jazz croon, but with icy synthesiser replacing strings and a few extra lyrics (“Sticks and stones may/Break my bones but/Words, they almost KILLED me,” and he offers her the hopeful option of returning). ABC were striking out where a lot of other pop (but not all of it) was too timid to follow.
I emphasise that “but not all of it” because by early 1982 it was palpably evident that a great deal of pop was striking out. Records like “Party Fears Two” and “Ghosts” were redefining what could be achieved with pop music on a near-weekly basis. The charts, hitherto on the verge of moribund, became exciting again. All due respect to Hendrix and Zeppelin but I can attest first-hand that in the first half of 1982 – the second half was a different matter, but we’ll get to that soon enough - there was no time to listen to the old stuff when so much colourful and innovative new music was demanding my attention.
“The Look Of Love,” the scarlet-coloured third single, which I first heard on a balmy, sunny May college afternoon, was, unbelievably, miraculously, even better than “Poison Arrow.” One could feel, never mind hear, Fry and the group pulling New Pop up by its bootstraps towards the heavens. The saxophones were now a hallowed choir, the horn section of “Tears” and synthesised horns of “Arrow” had been succeeded by actual strings, brass and far-off operatic soprano – the latter, I think, a nod to Joe Meek – and there, oh the glorious cheek of it, a Dylan paraphrase: “And gravity won’t pull you through” (on “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” it was “negativity” that wouldn’t pull you through).
All in the meantime, Fry wanders around, scratching his head, wondering just what this “love” is, how it manifests itself and where to find it. He doesn’t actually find a solution, as such, within the song, but there is a talking section, out of a restrained heartbeat-driven break, where he third-persons himself, just as Oakey had done on “Love Action” – and both were inspired by the same piece of music; “Jesus, this is Iggy…”
While “The Look Of Love” was being recorded, at London’s Good Earth studios, David Bowie and Tony Visconti dropped in to say hello. Hugely impressed by ABC’s work, and by “The Look Of Love” in particular, Bowie made various suggestions to Fry about what could be done with the song, including possibly the talkover section (“They say, hey Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love…”) and an idea for a montage of telephone answering machine messages which wasn’t taken up but is used on another important album later in 1982. ABC must have felt blessed.
And the song just won’t stop building; the “Arrow” drum rolls are back but now exultant and celebratory, until strings scrape the sky, Fry rejuvenates some old Stax memes (“Sisters and bro-THERS!”) and by the time he is screaming a Frankie Laine cowboy paraphrase, there was the warm knowledge that pop music could get no greater than this; the Miracles silver-suit tribute (though not unprecedented; see the video for Godley and Crème’s “Wedding Bells,” a top ten hit a few months previously) made wrinkled old record collectors’ noses turn up but made everybody else happy. And still he is not seeing “love” beyond what Barthes calls the “image-repertoire” (“Paul Morley once lent me a copy of A Lover’s Discourse after he heard ‘The Look of Love,’ Fry wryly admitted to the author, “but I confess I never read it and I never returned it.”).
Fry’s sleevenote on the single of “The Look Of Love” was also his best, and I think he meant it rather than sending up the pre-Beatles concept. “My ambition is to make a record you can cherish and be ‘Number One’ in your personal chart,” he wrote. “maybe ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ will be such a record.”
We were about to find out.
* * * * * *
“I do not dare say what I feel on this subject; I will appear insane to Northern people.”
* * * * * *
They stood, amazed.
“He seemed quite happy,” he remarked, “out on his boat in the middle of an ocean, in the middle of nowhere – isolated but not lost, and not particularly unhappy about his lot. You could even say he was, in a way only he could understand, contented.”
Number 2 looked at him.
“Well, I don’t know what you saw,” she said, “but I saw a downtrodden troupe of blackface minstrels on a stage at the end of a pier, playing to a sparse audience of pensioners.”
“I suppose each one of us sees in this thing what we want, or prefer, to see.”
“And so it is time to listen to the record itself?”
“Not quite. One more relevant diversion.”
“Relevant to whom?”
“Relevant to whom?”
“We’ll find that out soon enough.”
* * * * * *
An Epiphanic Interlude
It was the exact moment when what is still conveniently known as “improvised music” finally broke free of American models. Even AMM acknowledged the importance of Cage and Wolff (so much so that the latter became a floating member). It occurred at the ICA on the final day of the 1982 Company week, on Saturday 3 July, the week that The Lexicon Of Love went to number one. The occasion was recorded and can be found on the Epiphany/Epiphanies set. In the inner sleeve you may observe a photograph of an earnest , bespectacled young man looking at what, or where, George Lewis was aiming his trombone. Indeed I was in the audience for all of the three days of the event. The personnel which Company director Derek Bailey – a man born and raised in Sheffield - assembled for that year was a predominantly contemplative assemblage of musicians – thoughtful and inward-looking types including the aforementioned Lewis, pianists Keith Tippett and Ursula Oppens (the latter making her improv debut, although she contributed “orchestral piano” to Carla Bley’s 1975 recording of 3/4 For Piano And Orchestra, Bley herself taking the rôle of solo pianist in lieu of an on-tour Keith Jarrett), Julie Tippetts on vocals and occasional guitar and flute, violinist Phil Wachsmann and harpist Anne LeBaron. The predicted question mark was the inclusion of the considerably noisier guitarist Fred Frith, then making atonal waves with the more extreme manifestations of Bill Laswell’s Material; but the unpredicted question mark came in the form of the two Japanese musicians participating; bassist Moto Yoshizawa and the unclassifiable instrument-maker Akio Suzuki. And although the music was certainly the best heard from any Company line-up since that of the original Company Week in 1977, it was visually and aurally evident that the real disturbances and transitions were being effected by Suzuki and Yoshizawa. The quintet featuring those two, along with Bailey, Frith and Lewis, was a gigantic but still loosely conventional roar. Jazz roots could still be glimpsed, however dimly under the surface franticity.
But, in the final evening’s final improvisation, a trio of Bailey, Suzuki and Yoshizawa, which fittingly concludes the second record of the double album, I witnessed a new form of music being born, first cautiously, and then with flattening confidence. Lasting just over 18 minutes, the improvisation began with the usual cautious introductory pluckings and scrapings, though obviously more Eastern in texture and approach than standard. I’ve never quite worked out whether the “analapos” or the “kikkokikiriki” was the row of drums (slightly smaller and rounder than the average tom-tom) or the higher tower of seemingly differently tuned, and occasionally remote-controlled, spinning plate lookalikes. Early in the performance, however, it was down to Bailey to initiate some rhythm (on the CD edition, this occurs at 4:47 and again at 6:02), although behind him there was a high, ululating drone, Yoshizawa having moved closer to the bridge of his bass. From 8:00-8:56 the music comes as near as could be imagined to the Standard Jazz Trio (Suzuki skittling lightly on his pots), although visually it seemed as though this were the one thing the trio were keen to avoid. Nonetheless, soon afterwards (9:44), Bailey (playing acoustic) rolled out some Eddie Lang chords, as though to wave farewell to The Old Life. His solo masterpiece, Aida, recorded not long before this performance, indicates just how much brutal power he could put into even acoustic guitaristics (and there’s certainly more than a hint of Bailey’s lateral and at times anti-tonal aggression in some of David Rawlings’ more extreme work behind/with Gillian Welch). These chunky chords seemed to be the signal for the trio to raise the ante, and at 11:23 they prepared for the big push. The music visibly rose in intensity and temperature, Suzuki now alternatively scrabbling at his percussion and blowing through his enormous “glass harmonica,” Yoshizawa’s high-register abruptly bowed bass now sounding like Evan Parker at his squalliest; yet the music continued to ascend to near-demonic heights of noise and passion. As the performance climaxed, there was suddenly a terrible certainty about what the musicians were producing; unearthly howls and screams threatened to demolish the polite ICA theatre space entirely. But this was not the ecstasy of Ayler, nor the gleeful thuggery of Brötzmann; rather a new and as yet undefined means of expression.
And at the absolute apex of the performance (14:20) Suzuki started screaming vocally through his glass harmonica. The cries of the newborn child. It was like watching music being invented, its atoms being snatched from the exploding universe and reordered. Something was born on that evening; and it may be that people still coming to terms with its existence and growth.
The music then receded naturally, with the vaguest of suggestions of Lang and Venuti from Bailey and Yoshizawa; the quietude belied the complete satisfaction of the musicians, the spirit sated, the new life making its way towards the incubator, and ultimately the nursery. And maybe even towards the charts, which subliminally and not so subliminally was what some of us were hoping for from New Pop.
* * * * * *
What do you think?
I think you’re trying to impress your readers with a show-off display of your fine musical knowledge.
Not a bit of it. I’m trying to get to the core of this tale, noting how one newborn scream can sound surprisingly like another, and how newness has different methods of making itself known and insinuating itself into the language. Don’t forget Clock DVA, or some of what Singleton was doing in those early “Alphabet Soup”s.
It really is time that we listened to the album. Making your readers wait like this is akin to cruelty to animals.
I want to impart how long waits sometimes have to last before a miracle comes. But you are correct; it is time to address the thing itself.
“if the voice is lost, it is the entire image which vanishes...”
Look at the cover, first of all. Such darkness. Such blue.
As though rescued from the bottom of the ocean.
And yet, such violent red to the left, like drying blood.
The presentation, the typography, is such an advance from the singles. Classically romantic rather than utilitarian modernist.
It is like an old theatre programme. Or the cover of that 101 Strings record which really was more important than anyone suspected.
Words, words, taken randomly from songs and drifting off the cover into shipwrecked detritus.
Note the three monitors on stage, as though this were only the prelude to a rock concert.
The gun – is it the assassination of rock?
Melodrama has its place but doesn’t dictate the pace. Now, what’s he doing with that gun?
Threatening to shoot it. The girl fainting in his left arm…
Perhaps she has already been shot. Her eyes are open but dead and she is clutching her left lower chest wall.
What has he done?
It’s hard to say, but note the orange colour of the woman’s dress, like sunset. Where are we, exactly?
Hampstead? There’s a sign which says “OAD NW3,” the rest obscured by the bloody red curtain.
Haven’t we seen that typography before?
On the back of Abbey Road!
He’s firing or pointing a gun, possibly in the direction of Abbey Road…in the summer of 1982, this was still a sensitive issue.
You really have to be careful not to read too much into things.
But look at the two figures, one dark, the other light; one standing defiantly, one swooning in defeat, and how they play against that row of dustbins behind them?
It is as if they have been superimposed on the scene.
Note also that the apartment block which forms the nocturnal backdrop to this scene is suspiciously modern. In the third window along from the left at the top, we can clearly see the blue light of a television radiating out. Others are not in; at least one apartment has its windows shuttered.
But it must have been a thrilling thing to see in the record racks.
It’s difficult to convey just how thrilling it was. It looked so different, even from Avalon.
And yet it is so clearly a stage set. Where else in real life could you see such a vivid red?
According to Fry, the inspiration for those colours came from Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film The Red Shoes.
An undeniably powerful spectacle, but none too faithful to Andersen. In the original story, the girl can’t stop dancing and dies when the red shoes, with her bloodied feet ensconced in them, are severed from the rest of her. Still dancing.
Is he saying it is now time to stop dancing?
Or dance differently. There, on the back – behind the scenes! The attentive prompter, the bored and possibly falling asleep stagehand, the dapper bouquet of flowers. A rack of costumes and the rest of that turquoise brick wall. It’s deconstruction time!
Lots of people spoke about it, but so few actually went ahead and did it.
And on the inner sleeve; words, words, words which keep sending variants on the same message, and credits, and it’s all very formal – but oh! The couple are taking a bow and the backstage hands are applauding and cheering them!
It’s all a show.
So much of this record seems to be about showing.
“’Show me whom to desire’…The loved being is desired because another or others have shown the subject that such a being is desirable: however particular, amorous desire is discovered by induction.”
“I am making all possible efforts to be dry. I want to impose silence on my heart, which thinks it has much to say. I constantly fear having written nothing but a sigh, when I believe I have set down a truth.”
And that label…Neutron. Subatomic.
But every neutron needs its proton.
Quite. What about that title?
Taken, I believe, from the headline from an NME review of ABC, written by Ian Penman.
But he didn’t write the headline. That was Andy Gill, who now reviews albums for The Independent (never to be confused with the guitarist from Leeds proto-New Pop quartet The Gang Of Four). Still, I’m sure Barthes was in Gill’s mind; what he says in A Lover’s Discourse about the necessity “to choose an absolutely insignificant order…to let it be understood that there was no question here of a love story…”
It’s the story of this record, isn’t it? He’s hardly ever happy on it.
It may be that the protagonist spends far too much time searching through dictionaries and far too little time attending to the matters of his own heart. As though what Stendhal calls the “crystallisation” of love is preferable to the messier reality.
Let’s put the record on and listen to it.
Such a slow fade-in. With inbuilt long-playing record crackles which are in keeping with the overall tempo.
Those sombre strings; it seems so…majestic. So unlike anything else around at its time.
It certainly wasn’t unprecedented, but you have to remember how purposely out of keeping this beginning was with everything else happening around ABC in the middle of 1982. It was a way of saying; this is something different. Something special.
And yet also something very, very old.
Which goes back to Nat “King” Cole and his lush musings on love and even to Rodgers and Hammerstein, string overtures and everything.
The strings seem to appear out of nowhere, emerging from a grim, bleak fog.
Like a sunken ship full of rich cargo, as the music will later soundtrack. The strings’ appearance and setting match the lyrical concerns with which they will eventually be coupled.
So grand – didn’t Phil McNeill in the NME at the time compare it to Scott Walker?
Yes, and he must have been thinking of the “Prologue” which begins ‘Til The Band Comes In before merging, electrifyingly, into “Little Things To Keep Us Together,” where the orchestra appears to shoot straight at you through the speakers.
I really do hope you’re not going to indulge in the usual lazy critical appraisal of that record?
It is the usual, isn’t it – great suite of songs, then peters out with cover versions. Goes to show who has actually listened to the thing. The first half-hour or so is an interlinked set of songs wherein Walker sings about everybody except himself – whereas Martin Fry only really sings about himself – and it has its own inbuilt architectural logic and I can’t see how it could be improved upon. And the cover versions are better than you think.
I don’t think that Scott has ever sung a word that he didn’t believe.
Was there not an actual “Overture”?
There was, artfully arranged for strings by Anne Dudley, and it appeared on the B-side of the single of “All Of My Heart.” It may possibly have been composed after the event, but it was performed at the beginning of every ABC concert in their 1982 tour.
The “All Of My Heart” single being the point where a lot of people thought they had lost themselves.
The concertmaster/tweed hunting get-up didn’t really work; it looked as though the band were becoming what they had beheld. And there were no sleevenotes, friendly or otherwise. But I was always rather sad that “Overture” never began the album itself; skilfully segueing all of the album’s tunes, it is a dark and somewhat wistful picture that is being painted, and among the strings are echoed samples of Fry’s speaking voice from the record, sounding like a mind at the end of its tether, sounding uncannily like…
Not so fast; we’ll get there eventually. But back to the beginning of the record itself; the strings build up and up, are joined by fulsome brass fanfares, and just as it is about to boil over, the band jump into the record, with Dudley’s deadpan piano chords…and that bass!
That’s what I was going to ask you about. It’s not Mark Lickley?
Lickley appears on the singles and co-wrote fully half the songs on the album but left before the album itself was recorded. There were stories of Horn, himself a bassist by trade, being unhappy with Lickley’s funky style, and of bass and drum notes being punched into the computer mix one note at a time (for those of a technical bent, the lines were fed through a Minimoog and then filtered through a CV/Gate device). The rest of the bass work on the album was provided by one Brad Lang, a session musician.
Who does open up the songs somewhat; the sliding Mick Karn style is more in keeping with the slippery, elusive nature of the songs’ emotional objects.
And also making the bass something of a lead instrument (like Peter Hook), as it is generally more prominent in the mix than White’s guitar, which is left to roam fairly freely in the style of early Phil Manzanera.
Such a glamorous soundscape; in what luxury was it created?
Principally Sarm East Studios, crammed into the basement of a clothes warehouse called Trendfever, somewhere in or near the Brick Lane of 1982, decades prior to its regeneration. The premises were cramped and the toilet was prone to flooding. You concentrated on the work.
And yet, look how elegantly, and “on time,” Fry’s voice enters the record.
Striding down the not yet existent red-carpeted staircase, strolling confidently to the mikestand, taking the microphone with one hand and launching effortlessly, straight into business: “Once I needed your love, but that was just one thing left on my mind.”
This is Technicolor compared with the demo version. Now there is a song, electric piano comments slightly sarcastically, White’s guitar pings like The Edge. And that deep. lush background hush on the bridge!
Underlining the talk of pirate stations and buried treasure, all building up to a chorus far more exultant and defiant than it was originally. He sings the “free” of “and you can be free” as though he is in considerable emotional pain.
And then he gets to the key line of the record: “Some things are hidden, some things you’ll see.” So he is still not going to show us everything; a lot of it we will have to work out for ourselves. Over drums which stamp as mercilessly as Paul Cook on “Holidays In The Sun.” “Nine out of ten, in every case,” he doesn’t quite contradict himself, “She might look pretty but there’s make up on her face.” What is there when the façade has eroded? And so a fanfare for three different types of keyboard with a thrilling twin-pronged harmonic modulation back into the chorus; the Fairlight, its tones falling like meteors (and with an unconscious echo of the end of Escalator), actually sounds like teardrops running down and through the cosmetics.
Finally, Fry roars in real anger: “Where are the diamonds? Where are the pearls? Where are the things that you took from this world?” I said to Fry that the outrage that he expresses at the end of this song was worthy of Lydon. He replied: “Love is truly blind and mesmerising so some things you see , some things you don’t.’ Show Me’’s all about the inner turmoil that comes with love. Fear of losing love. Nostalgia for the first magnificent moments of love. What’s real and what’s fake. Fear of falling faster and deeper into love than the person you love. It’s a pretty fucked-up song.” When I pressed him about whether there was an anti-Thatcher subtext to the song (her distorted ideas of “freedom”) he pointedly and rightly upbraided me: “Forget Thatcher. She didn’t have a monopoly on the eighties.”
And straight into “Poison Arrow” without missing a beat! It’s such an exciting record!
Side one did always give me the impression of being sequenced; its five songs are not segued into one long whole, and the side doesn’t always follow the same bpm pattern but every element seems in its natural place. Was this a nod to pioneering disco albums like Gloria Gaynor’s Never Can Say Goodbye or Donna Summer’s Once Upon A Time? Fry is more sanguine: “Not really. At least not intentionally. I guess the bpm was around the 120/124 area. The human heartbeat dictates the pace.”
That piano interlude in “Poison Arrow,” so reminiscent of “I’m Not In Love.”
Then “Many Happy Returns.” “When I accepted this job, I was resigned to my fate…”
I remember being in a Virgin Megastore a couple of weeks after the record had come out, one lunchtime, and there was a young woman, browsing, doubtless also on her lunch break, and Lexicon was playing and she just sang along to this song that wasn’t even a single. The passion for the record was universal, at least in Britain. For about a month and a half, no other record seemed to matter; everybody owned it, and played it, and kept playing it, such that a plaintive Charles Shaar Murray in the NME was moved to extol a record by pleading to his readers to “give Martin Fry the night off” (the record in question was Juju Music by King Sunny Adé and his African Beats, so actually he was right to plead).
And “Many Happy Returns” – yes, I know that was the title of an episode, and I acknowledge the “resigned” part of the lyric, but we need to press on – is a great song; “Like a Phoenix coming back from the ashes – uh-HUH,” breathes Fry over a patented Chic arrangement pattern, he rhymes “Axis” with “fascist” and hates himself, since every time she leaves, he takes her back and the Sisyphean struggle begins anew; out of boredom or misplaced pride, or fear of death?
“A turnabout occurs: I seek to disannul it, I force myself to suffer once again.”
Things reach an unearthly climax in the final verse when the punk in Fry finally punches his way through: “Now she’s gone, she’s GONE A-WOOOOY! Now she’s gone, FOR! GET! HAR! Coming back NO OTHER DOOOOY! So why resur-RECT HER?” He sings these lines as though the sinews of his life are being torn asunder while he sings then, as saxophone moans, guitar arches and drums cascade, before the string synthesiser reaches a high C and Tessa Webb’s Bazar-like backing vocal chorale pours candlewax over Fry’s grief. He is wholly defeated. Then the song recedes to allow Dudley’s wandering electric piano solo before one final dramatic downward four-chord keyboard flourish, held on a disturbingly long drone before heading straight into the rejuvenated “Tears Are Not Enough.”
“Tears are an extreme form of smiles.”
I asked Martin Fry about the motives behind “Many Happy Returns.” “Punk; a slight return - it is as if you're forever doomed to rebound on and relive the same affair or scenario over and over, Moebius strip-style,” I suggested to him, “but those vocals in the final verse constitute a pure howl of 1977 anger, as though the Pistols were trying to irrupt through a Sinatra session. Love; can't live with it, nor without it?”
“’Like the world spinning round on its axis , I know democracy but I know what’s fascist.’ Yep, there was a lot of fury in there,” Fry admits. “Some anger. Alongside a song title that could have come out of a Hallmark birthday card. I always think the nineties started in 1988 and Acid House. So it could also be true to say the eighties probably started in 1977.”
Even in 1982 I was puzzled by the seemingly uniform condemnation of Lexicon by writers who really ought to have been listening more attentively. Twee? Bland? Conservative? Were they even listening to the same record, or deafened by then-fashionable ideology? Lexicon continues to strike me as a particularly angry piece of work, and its music is deeply imbued with the sounds of punk – guitars crash, drums hammer, perhaps hammering home the songs’ point, denying the possibility of hiding within its words. I asked Fry about the punk element of ABC’s work.
“I loved Punk. I hitch-hiked to Coventry once to see the Jam. Saw the Pistols and the Clash and the Buzzcocks and the Heartbreakers and the Subway Sect and the Banshees. I also loved James Chance and the Contortions. Television and Patti Smith. We were never going to sound like a carbon copy punk band. It was more Punk to try and reinvent show business and write love songs and sparkle. That went against the grain of any of our contemporaries in Sheffield at the time. We wanted an international shiny sound. That antagonised as many people as it entertained at the time. For us rock was dead.”
Or, perhaps, just resting.
The album “Tears” is much more forceful and enraged than the single original, just as “Dance Stance” re-emerged as the furiously uncompromising “Burn It Down” – and yet all Horn did was to brush up the original track, as if that were all he did. Fry again: “Trevor remixed it and added the harpsichord in the middle eight. And tweaked it beautifully as only he knew how.”
Side one finishes – or, more properly, climaxes – with “Valentine’s Day,” the great majority of which is instrumental, with only a few vocal flourishes riding ominous waves of a Prokofiev-like keyboard figure. But what flourishes these are; now all the suppressed emotional rage is unleashed in full, and mostly at the singer himself, but also at the phoney society which dangled all of these attractive carrots before his nose all of his life, only to withdraw them when he is old enough to reach them and tell him that he can’t afford them (you do as you are told – “Baked your cake in little slices” – think you’re grown up – “Kept your eye on rising prices” – but the game is already fixed - Wound up winning booby prizes.” You want to be Bill Gates, you’d settle for being Richard Hawley, and you end up being the guy sitting in the seat across the way from you on the bus). Santa Claus, Harpers and Queens, School for Scandal (“Language, old boy, language!”), the Great Barrier Reef – none of it can help you now; buried beneath the final assault on its listeners’ consciousness is the line, “When you don’t tell the truth, that’s the price you pay.” And then the hysterical coup de theatre about dancing lessons and Fred Astaire, following which band and song, like so many others on this record, suddenly snap shut on him, like a coffin lid. Or the song runs into a psychological brick wall.
I saw Fry performing “Valentine’s Day” at the Glasgow Apollo in early November 1982 – about three weeks before the Hammersmith Odeon concerts out of which the live segment of the 2CD Lexicon edition is comprised – and I was reminded, unavoidably, of Ian Curtis, as he writhed helplessly amidst streams of multi-coloured strobe lights and acres of velvet string players (the song has a similar, unstoppable momentum to “She’s Lost Control”). On side one of the original album, it works up to a barely controllable dervish. Building up and building up, and climbing up to and reaching the top…only to find you’re at rock bottom.
And then turning the record over, wondering how it could possibly get better than what you’ve just heard – and there’s “The Look Of Love”! It’s close to an overload!
There are people who feel that they still can’t keep up with the sugar rush of the first six songs of Lexicon, each outdoing its predecessor – only a very few albums had tried this before, including one which was a direct influence on Lexicon – and who sensed that such an unsustainable high could only be followed by a crashing low. In fact, “The Look Of Love” wraps up fairly neatly the common song structure at work throughout most of the record; the pregnant, funk-derived three-chord roundabout, one dominant and two auxiliary. Like Satie’s Gymnopédies, these songs appear to be reflecting off each other. Fry says: “The songs do reflect back and forth obsessively on the same subject , like a prism. Not all the songs but some of them. Moodswings. Elation , euphoria , paranoia, the whole spectrum. Love is a many splintered thing.” And the unspoken question within “The Look Of Love” is: “why are you looking so hard for something that’s staring you in the face?”
The one thing, the One thing, we can’t find – the same thing that, eighteen years before, money couldn’t buy.
“Date Stamp” – a key song on the record. That thumping bass and rhythm sounds familiar.
It was Horn already trying out the blueprint for Frankie; if it sounds like a prototype for “Relax,” it was probably meant to be so (even if Horn had heard neither band nor song at this point). It is our old post-punk friend, love as commodity of trade, something to be exchanged for a profit…
And yet there he goes again. “A ship in the harbour with wind in its sails.” We’re going to have to think very hard about all this sea imagery.
Perhaps he’s putting a message in a bottle; barely eighteen months later, he will have released a metaphorical song called “S.O.S.”
Or maybe he’s asking the listener if they’ve bought into this thing yet. “Still refuse to reach in your pocket.”
It’s a great moment, isn’t it? He is asking the listener “am I convincing you? Do you even believe all of this?” before warning that it’s all as temporary as the love letters “written on that sand.”
It’s also very moving, those choruses. The Bazar-style choir singing “Love has no guarantee” and “Promise ‘til eternity” answered by Fry dolefully murmuring “Guess I’ll fade away.” It’s not just about “love,” is it?
It is as if ABC are already signing their own death warrant. Pop music, credit cards, capitalism, love – none of it will last, all will decay. Five years from now ZTT will release a song entitled “Snobbery And Decay.”
And that female voice. Is it…?
No it is not Tina Charles, the former partner of Trevor Horn, who once played bass in her touring band; it is session singer Tessa Webb, later Tessa Niles, and her solo verse is the only time on the record that the “other” voice gets to be heard, not including the rhetorical spoken death blow on “Poison Arrow” or the “Goodbye!” on “The Look Of Love” which Horn maintains was the actual girl who dumped Fry (and hence helped inspire this record), although I’m not clear whether this was indeed the case and not an Emulator-ed group of Frys.
Fry sounds really upset towards the end of this one.
Can you blame him? He’s realising he may have been sold a bill of goods and, worse, that the expression of love in a pop song may always have been a hopeless chimera (“No chance of subtlety/No promise of e-TER-nity!”). The observation is terminated by the cash register which has been ringing all through the song…
Which reminds me of “Money” by Pink Floyd.
I wonder if this tale is ever going to escape the lunatic on the grass.
So we reach this record’s equivalent of “Us And Them”?
“All Of My Heart,” the jewel in the Then Play Long crown. An opening piano (with guitar) chord with which a different version of this tale could have been opened. Then David Palmer’s unforgiving snare and fuse-dousing hi-hat flurries. Then Lang’s sensual but worried bass, as though the singer’s lover is still standing at the door, waiting for him to change his mind.
This is followed by a marvellous inversion of the album’s general three-chord trick, such that the dominant chord settles on a major rather than a minor, with peaceful strings – real strings this time (those who routinely write up Lexicon as an “orchestral pop record” forget that an orchestra only appears on four of its ten songs, including the prologue and epilogue).
Then Fry sings:
“Once upon a time when we were friends, I gave you my heart. The story ends.” Fouling the situation again, and he’s too old and experienced to believe in fairy tales any more (including wishing on a star, which he knows didn’t help Rose Royce).
The others return. “What’s it like to have loved and to lose that much?” To which Fry retorts with a chorus straight out of 1968-9 Humperdinck, the jilted diner squatting at the far end of the restaurant trying to make himself invisible, but still wanting her back – not in the sense of avoiding boredom, but in the Jackson 5 “I Want You Back” desperate sense.
Dudley’s strings are turned slightly down in the mix to allow Fry’s “Remembering, surrendering” to become more pronounced in the mix – and then, for the first of three occasions on this album (and all occur within the same song) he finds himself alone, and sings, very quietly, “All of my heart,” only to be woken up by thunderous Spector tympani, although any aggression is quickly dispelled into a firework display of co-existing and mingling sounds from Dudley’s keyboards and Jonathan Jeczalik’s Fairlight (four or five in total) which never sound overbearing or unnatural and do not remotely recall Rick Wakeman (for better or worse). Then everything calms down for the second chorus, in which Fry now expresses fresh doubts about love; he is at war with himself.
In fact, he is at his most furious (although his fury remains controlled, like Billy Fury) in this second verse, which sees him systematically destroying all accepted notions and signifiers of “love,” telling his would-be lover that, really, it’s not worth it; witness how his “You’ll be disappointed and I’ll lose a friend” moves from condemnation via despair and self-pity to compassion in the space of only a few seconds; this is great pop acting, as great as the four or five changes in facial expression Eric Morecambe could pull off in as many seconds.
“No, I won’t be told there’s a crock of gold at the end of the rainbow,” sings a newly-outraged Fry, over a gorgeous rainbow arch of a string line (so gorgeous that Michael Jackson used it five years later behind the chorus of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You”); the reference here may be to Richard Thompson’s unremittingly bleak “End Of The Rainbow” from nearly a decade earlier, a song which issues many of the same warnings that this album has done, although when Fry gets to the pleasure and pain and sunshine and rain, he sounds marginally fuller of hope.
Then he ends the second chorus differently - “The kindest cut’s the cruellest part” (three years before Propaganda’s “Duel”) - sings the title alone again and this time is answered, not by thundering tympani, but an elegant little string and rhythm section passage succeeded by a harder-edged, snare drum-driven howl which might have fallen off the end of In Through The Out Door (indeed, Fry was in later years approached by Robert Plant, who said approvingly that “All Of My Heart” was his and his wife’s song).
Fry then returns for the third and final chorus, and now he has jettisoned the notion of love as superficial plaything, realising that he had the real thing in his grasp all the time and didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t recognise it, even giving up his intricate rhyming schemes: “And I shrug and I say/That maybe today/You’ll come home soon.”
There is a third reprise of the song’s title for solo voice.
A longer pause, and then a downward stroke of electric piano.
The rest of ABC come back in softly, closer than the ear can hear, as Dudley’s electric piano tries to soothe and caress – and Fry collapses, his last “all of my heart” degenerating into a pitiful sob.
And then, in the most sublime passage in all of British pop music, Dudley’s string orchestra rises to embrace him, to accommodate the sobbing singer in its bosom.
The camera pans back – there is no need for further words, because, as Barthes said (and Morley later quoted on the sleeve of a ZTT release), “one tear will say more than any of them” (tears are not enough?) – and the film, the story, has indeed ended, the strings rising and filling the spaces over a broken, grey England like Vaughan Williams’ resurgent lark, drifting slowly over these two-hundred-and-sixty-seven records which as far as I can see mostly say that love is to be accepted, and kept, and loved in return, with grave consequences if you do not. It passes over the ghosts of Billy Bigelow, Jud, Tony and Laurence, and one of the record’s meanings becomes clear – in an environment of number one albums where timidity and safety-first have been the norm (as they are with most humanity), Lexicon asks whether you are prepared to take that dive into the wild, the unexpected, the dream you have been hoping to avoid ever coming true your whole life – and what you risk losing, including most of your meaningful life, if you turn your back on or misinterpret this chance.
In this sense it is actually a good thing that Fry is not the world’s greatest singer – he can sing very well but is apt to strain for the high notes and has to work hard at spacing and timing – since melismatics and high Cs (or, for that matter, grunting sweat) would, I think, get in the way of the emotions he is trying to express. We know that Fry knows that he is not really Frank Sinatra but a skinny, acneiform punk kid having a go at being Frank Sinatra – and it is the resultant humanity with which we, as listeners, can empathise. He has as much “soul” in him as Nick Drake or Ian Curtis had.
The music of “All Of My Heart” continues to fade out very slowly, as one by one the lights are switched off to reveal White’s twitching, not quite tonal guitar strikes, and Singleton’s phased/lyriconed saxophone, which continues to play towards quietude as the rest of the music disappears, like Bowie at the end of Low.
But this is not the end of the record.
It’s a very extreme record, isn’t it?
In the sense he sings about going “from here to eternity without in-betweens” on one song, and going “from one extreme to the other” on another. There’s no halfway house with Fry; it has to be total, all-enveloping, or limbo nothingness. I suppose you could say that the record takes pop music to its extremes – but then what else is pop music for?
Like Henry Higgins, the protagonist likes to pretend that all of this “love” stuff is beneath him, whereas it is what is keeping him alive.
Oh, the shock!
And, suddenly, such a familiar picture; that mourning synthesiser, the air of finality. Before going any further, it is worth citing two albums without which I don’t think Lexicon would have found or identified its cause (and I leave Searching For The Young Soul Rebels out of this – for now).
There is Off The Wall, the record I suspect Lexicon most wanted to be; its structure is almost identical, with a dance-orientated first side which just gets more and more demonic as it progresses until finally (“Get On The Floor”) the franticity is near-ahuman. And then, after a bright beginning (the title track), side two slows down and becomes more reflective. Like Fry on “All Of My Heart,” Jackson loses it on “She’s Out Of My Life,” but does come back somewhat thereafter, with lovely ballads like Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It”; the real Jackson often became most palpable in his quieter moments (“Human Nature,” “Stranger In Moscow”).
But with Fry, there is no way back, and hence the second relevant album, Joy Division’s Closer, the record I think it fair to say that without which New Pop would never have happened, or existed as we now know it; there is initial, ghastly turbulence (“Atrocity Exhibition”) and the general air of urgency about the record’s first side is brought to a mechanical halt at its end (“A Means To An End” indeed), as though the gramophone has wound down. “I put my trust in you!” Curtis repeatedly cries at one point. Side two likewise slows down, but beyond “Twenty-Four Hours” (the record’s “Date Stamp”), the speed becomes funereal, so “The Eternal” is as slow and compassionately dogged as “All Of My Heart”…
…and “4 Ever 2 Gether,” despite its sometime schaffel nature, is Lexicon’s “Decades,” the hell-borne scenario of Curtis’ words echoed in the repeated references to religious imagery which Fry makes (“how to find belief,” “your twelve disciples,” “move the mountain,” “speak no evil”). But he is no longer looking for love per se, but some kind of faith. The question now is: how to find and recognise it. Those stars in the sky make a reappearance but he’s more interested in what she’s got to say, like Werther fruitlessly trying to persuade Charlotte to make a go of things (A Lover’s Discourse is essentially a prototype blog about a man writing a prototype blog about The Sorrows Of Young Werther, which really is mainly there as a hook on which to hang the rest of the writer’s theories and proposals).
But a few seconds later, Fry changes his mind and now attests: “You CAN’T tell me…I gave up listening years ago.” Then, an atonal piano-led breakdown with slowed-down Frys speaking no evil from every corner of each speaker, balanced against a mocking Fry playground chant. But the final “EVIL” is Earth core deep, the musical picture (especially White’s guitar) thickens and Palmer’s drums crash through the gated drum gate (inspired as this passage was by “In The Air Tonight”). As the choruses return, however, it becomes evident that collapse is inevitable, and so Fry gives one final cry, buries his borrowed demons (“Three coins inside the fountain”) and the “Decades” lament returns, wandering slowly towards the oblivion (or Propaganda)-driven horizon. The last words we hear from Martin Fry on this record are “Speak no evil,” the “EEEEEEEEEVIL” stretched out on a falsetto rack, as though he could anticipate the pop hell to come; is “evil” the third party making two a crowd?
Is the singer’s own worst enemy himself?
There is nothing left, save a quick reprise of “The Look Of Love” theme by Dudley’s string section and choir, all Trevi fountains and splendoured things, like the end credits to a film, a theme song, like “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at the end of Carousel (for those wondering, the 12-inch single of “The Look Of Love” came in four parts; Parts Two and Three were the full instrumental version and the band-only mix respectively; a white label remix – “Part Five” – briefly did the rounds in early 1983).
* * * * * *
And that’s it?
Things are rarely, if ever, wrapped up as smoothly as that. Consider that lost man, walking alone, perhaps lost to the world, at the end of “All Of My Heart” – that could be the over-proud plantation owner quietly singing to himself “This Nearly Was Mine.” Or the dying newspaper magnate left with nothing but a snow globe and damaged memories. The one who wanted to be loved but had no love of his own to give, except for himself, because whatever love he had in himself was taken from him when he was eight.
I think you want to place Lexicon as the Citizen Kane of pop records.
Not really, apart from noting what Kael said about Kane being “a shallow masterpiece,” and if pop is shallow, then Lexicon is its high tidemark. The two works were conceived in very different circumstances, and to extremely different ends. Welles had something to prove; Fry wanted to prove something.
Do you think he managed it?
I think he managed it as well as anybody in pop could have managed it, and a good deal better than that. He made a pop record which continues to tower over all other ones, and not just number one albums either, in terms of ambition, cheek, purpose (not the same thing as ambition) and adventure. It is as if the rest of this tale has been leading up to Lexicon; then again, that is how I structured it. The album seems so much more complete than other ones. The point of it all – in terms of the high point, the apex.
And yet it remains such a mistrusted record. Never appears in those all-time top ten album lists people are prone to compiling.
It isn’t guitar-dominant, nor particularly rock-dominant either, except in subtle ways. But a lot of people prefer the easy, the obvious. Hence the Bowie record which routinely gets ranked highest in such lists is Ziggy, the most easily palatable of his records to rock ears, and yet it is one of the Bowie albums to which I return the least. An Observer critics’ poll done a few years ago had Lexicon at #42; top was The Stone Roses, which just goes to show how often individual writers’ ballots are more interesting than the compromised final result.
But Lexicon doesn’t really comfort the listener. It is not a reassuring record. And history, as we all know, gets written by the victors, and so it is people like Duran Duran who are now regarded as avatars of the era, whereas nearly all of the originators of New Pop are never mentioned, or confined to the oldies package tour trail, as though New Pop and New Romantic were interchangeable, rather than two parallel developments. People generally prefer to be told things they already know.
Which is what you’ve been battling against.
I want people to act differently, and not just in terms of how they respond to music. This tale has endeavoured never to go down the easy route, but equally has tried not to make things difficult for difficulty’s sake. Its aims are higher than that.
And these are?
I have said on many occasions that Then Play Long is not so much a blog about number one albums, but a blog about somebody writing a blog about number one albums, using these records as a signpost to try to understand more about himself and what he has done with his own life. At least that’s how it is from my perspective, although I am aware that two minds and voices are always at work; it was Lena’s idea that I should start the blog in the first place, and from entry #18 onwards she has collaborated directly with me, and I with her, on all entries.
It was never the intention of this blog to be a history, definitive or otherwise, of postwar pop music or postwar British culture and trends; such things are for other writers to attempt. No, my quest has been a very different one; not just why these records were at some stage more popular than any others, but what they might still mean or signify to me and therefore, by extension, to my readers. And the other aims, which I will talk about in another 1982 post.
All I will say here is that, with ABC, a music writer took it upon himself to become involved in a pop group, and changed pop music as a result.
What do you think you’ve learned?
I knew that when I heard the mournful strings of “The Look Of Love (Part Four)” that I had found the object of my quest. And I know that there are still well over seven hundred number one albums to take into account, and that if I don’t get a move on writing about them I may never live to “finish” the tale. I may have to write about the remaining ones differently, because I do believe that this tale can be firmly divided into records that happened before Lexicon and records that happened after it. And it is also my belief that after Lexicon, that great acid test of public tolerance of avant-garde ideas, the public and pop took a fatal wrong turn, at least as far as number one albums are concerned. This despite the placing of my “self” in the text as a narrator with constantly shifting opinions who is sometimes prone to make mistakes or come to too hasty a decision. Even Stendhal needed his Salviati.
But it also may well be that pop couldn’t get better, or do better, than Lexicon. If it’s a shallow medium then ABC did well to sail their ship on its unreliable surface.
Above all, I am extremely grateful and thankful to Martin Fry for granting me an interview, just prior to his departure on a trip to Ghana; the limited time available meant that I couldn’t ask him all the questions I wanted to ask, so I had to come to my own conclusions about side two of Lexicon in particular; my apologies to Dr Fry (he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Sheffield last year) if my projections did not concur with his intentions.
The Stendhal quotes dotted throughout this piece are from his On Love, written in 1821 and translated by Sophie Lewis and published by Hesperus Press in 2009. The Barthes quotes come from Richard Howard’s definitive translation of A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Inc., in 1978.
Researching the piece also meant thumbing through approximately three years’ worth of back issues apiece of Smash Hits and The FACE; then as now, I have no doubt which side of the fence my sympathies lie, although the enjoyably bad-tempered Jon Savage who wrote for the latter journal in 1982 remains extremely entertaining (“In principle, I approve of Boy George provided he doesn’t give too many interviews”). I also searched through back issues of the NME dating from December 1980-June 1982. I must also acknowledge Rip It Up And Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984 by Simon Reynolds (Faber and Faber, 2005); although I profoundly disagree with the book’s central premise and conclusion, it does have value as a source of information in terms of the extensive interviews with key figures, and these have been helpful to me, although I have not directly quoted from the book.
The Derek Bailey/Company interlude is a remix of a piece I wrote for The Church Of Me in 2003. I hope it still has legs, and I do think it highly relevant here.
The Derek Bailey/Company interlude is a remix of a piece I wrote for The Church Of Me in 2003. I hope it still has legs, and I do think it highly relevant here.
The edition of The Lexicon Of Love used for this piece was the 2004 Universal 2CD Deluxe reissue; I would like to express my gratitude to Daryl Easlea, who will no doubt be glad that I have at long last accomplished what I told him I’d do nine years ago, for his very detailed and informative essay and the insights contained within.
Acknowledgements too to Gary Langan, who ingeniously engineered the album, and to harpist Gaynor Sadler and percussionist Luis Jardim who are not mentioned elsewhere in this piece but who also served (particularly Jardim on “All Of My Heart” and for his Spector castanets on “Show Me”).
Thanks, as always, to Lena for everything and beyond.
And there are a hundred or so other records lying behind the ones I did manage to mention in my piece, not least the one ABC went on to make after Lexicon.
I was wondering when you were going to get to that.
Think about it – you go on a world tour with the gold suits I have so far successfully managed to avoid mentioning, visit the most exotic places on the planet that there are to visit, meet people you probably had on your bedroom wall aged 14, and you come back, and there’s still Sheffield, still deprivation and unemployment, and the charts reverted back to their worst behaviour. Wouldn’t you so want NOT to be part of this?
So kill the king. Beauty Stab.
In real terms it was as if Roxy Music had reversed from Avalon to Stranded, and pound for pound, lyric for lyric, it is easy to see why some commentators have ranked it above Lexicon; a sober paperback of the observation of social decline (by the time Fry reaches the closing “United Kingdom,” one is ready to shut down the world) against the bright and eager Comic Cuts (no criticism, just a different way of doing things) of Bragg’s contemporaneous Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy. Songs like “By Default, By Design” and “Unzip” seem to extract the Lexicon pain from its shipwrecked island and restored it to a more brutal world.
Which was the world they were going to anyway.
“What is a hero? The one who has the last word.”
I will bring this particular curtain down with two elements from the Deluxe edition of Lexicon. One is a studio fragment, from May 1982, entitled “Into The Valley Of The Heathen Go,” which is not much more than two minutes of the band goofing around, except they are in loud heavy rock metal mode, White thrashing out power chords and Fry squealing every rock cliché that he can drag in (“Make the b*tch scream!” “Let’s ROCK!” “Guitar SO-LO!” “AAAAAAAAARGH!” “The Vikings…INVENTED ROCK AND ROLL!”). As usual, the least typical piece of music here represents the direction in which they would, for the time being, be going.
The other is from the compendium of Hammersmith Odeon performances from the end of November 1982 pulled together to make a live album, of sorts (disappointingly, the voice/piano reading of the Gershwins’ “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” a concert highlight, is absent). Here, to end the performance, is…”Alphabet Soup.” It’s introduce the band time, and apart from the core of Fry, White, Singleton and Palmer, they are all hired hands; one Robert Clarke handles the bass, keyboard duties (and very inventive ones) are shared between David Clayton and Jeff Hammer (the latter then a recent member of the Teardrop Explodes), and the aforementioned brass section of Deppa and Carless are noticeably freer and looser than Singleton, who is by now in sensuous 1980 Andy Mackay mode.
I told Martin Fry that I was at the time delighted to see that they were still playing "Alphabet Soup"; though not on the album, its joyfulness and high humour gave out the necessary positivity and attack to counteract the "melancholy mirage" of the Lexicon songs. Did he think that people still tend to miss out on the fun and funk of ABC's early work? How much did "Alphabet Soup" stand as a manifesto for the group?
“’Alphabet Soup’ was always pretty spontaneous live. I guess it contained a big chunk of our ‘through with matt and into gloss’ manifesto. It was our flag. It separated us from the pack. You couldn’t imagine Wire or the Cure or Visage or anyone coming out of Sheffield at the time , name checking the band in quite the same neo-show business way. There’s a sly wit and humour in some of the songs on Lexicon but I know what you mean. We had a couple of other early songs we outgrew. One was “Boomerang” which was closer to the B52’s in spirit. One was called “Funky Becket” .Some of the songs on the Lexicon are gloriously preposterous and comical and pushed the limits of what you could and couldn’t get away with. That was part of the appeal.”
Unfortunately, by the time Beauty Stab crept out, the British public had decided that they really only wanted the bright colours, the wacky costumes and the catchy songs, and had no truck with whatever else New Pop musicians might have been wanting to tell them. Hence ABC, Marc Almond, Altered Images and the Associates, or their components (and these are just the “A”s) were not asked to participate in Band Aid, had by then disappeared below the radar (except for ABC, whose excellent electro-tinged third album How To Be A Zillionaire – Deee-Lite half a decade ahead of schedule, the Archies do Shannon, Keith Le Blanc on drum programming, Fiona Russell-Powell now a member, “I’ve seen the future/I can’t afford it-UH!”) - did considerably better in the States than here). And I think that is “our” mistake. So we have to look upon Lexicon as a somewhat forlorn peak in a ruined jungle, a reminder not just of where this tale has been, but where we might have gone.
Oh, and the record at the other end of 1982 involving Trevor Horn and turntable scratching? “Buffalo Gals.” One has to do something – including saving New Pop.
* * * * * *
Number 2 looked at him.
“You are free to go,” she said.
“Free to go,” he considered.
“Is it all downhill from here?”
“Not all downhill. There is a second peak, unanticipated when I began this tale more than five years ago. I owe it to myself to get there, if I can manage it.”
“You and your ambitions.”
“One has to do something.”
“You and your ambitions.”
“One has to do something.”
* * * * * *
“Indeed, half – the most beautiful half – of life is hidden from him who has not loved passionately.”
“Isn’t it rather, all things considered, that I remain suspended on this question, whose answer I tirelessly seek in the other’s face: What am I worth?”
“…I had a dream about Ian Curtis last week. Nothing much happened in the dream but I came away thinking how much I missed him.
Pop Music is life.”
(Martin Fry, to the author)
* * * * * *
… of how to fashion what is inside them to present themselves to a world which might love them and ensure that further humanity is possible - or simply in sheer terms of the ceaseless transformative capabilities of the voice in relation to popular song…