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Hello, My Name Is Martin Fry of ABC

| July 7, 2022

Martin Fry of ABC

Martin Fry still recalls the exact moment he finally understood the magnitude of what he’d achieved with The Lexicon of Love, his picture-perfect soul-pop 1982 debut with ABC. Produced by ex-Buggle (and future Yes anchor) Trevor Horn, the horn-punctuated concept album had already begun spinning out chart-topping singles like “Tears Are Not Enough” and “Poison Arrow” before hitting a #1 UK position itself. But the success hadn’t really registered with him yet, not until the Brit heard the disc’s definitive smash “The Look of Love” first played in a French supermarket while he was shopping, and then later in his hometown of Sheffield around Christmas. “I was walking down this lonely street, and it was snowing,” he notes. “And I looked up, and I could see this window open — they were having a party, and they were playing ABC’s “The Look of Love” in the party, and they were all dancing around to it.” He actually doubled back and stood watching the festivities, a feeling of well-deserved accomplishment washing over him. “And then I thought, ‘You’ve made a record, and there it is! And people are having a good time and dancing to it!’ It was a really great feeling.”

It isn’t easy to downplay the importance of Lexicon, easily one of the best rock albums ever made and every bit as exemplary of the early ’80s New Wave era as Big Country’s The Crossing, Ultravox’sVienna, and Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche 85. But Fry had his own unique vision, revolving around lounge-campy vocals, dress suits, Memphis-sultry saxophone and horns, and elaborate orchestral hooks that don’t sound synth-cheesy (and thereby forever date-stamped) like many of their peers did. This, of course, makes it the perfect classic to re-introduce on tour in 2022, on its hallowed 40th anniversary. And given that Fry, at 64, still looks and sounds great on stage in his traditional two-piece formal togs, he felt it was important to celebrate the landmark achievement, as well, even though he is the sole remaining founding member of ABC. “So I am so fortunate because I’ve been playing ever since those early days,” says the now-London-based artist, who penned countless new compositions during lockdown for a post-pandemic comeback. “And when I play a big show now, and I sing a song from a few decades earlier, and the crowd sings it back at me?” He sighs contentedly, “That, too, is a pretty good feeling. And it’s really nice to still hear that…that appreciation….” Fry checked in from his English home office on the eve of  ABC’s summer Stateside jaunt.

IE: Like me, you started with your own fanzine, right?

MARTIN FRY: Yeah. Mine was called “Modern Drugs.” I’d write about anything that was stimulating, mainly local bands that I liked. And it was in Sheffield, so there was so much going on, like Def Leppard and The Human League back then, just loads of bands. And I didn’t discover any, as such, myself — I was just documenting what was going on.

IE: Looking back, what were some influential things happening then, music or arts-wise?

MF: In Sheffield, back in the day? Well, here’s what I think. Sheffield is an industrial city in the North of England, a steel city. But in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, a lot of the steel factories were getting closed down, and there was a lot of unemployment. So you kind of realize, as a young man living in that city, that you’ll have to do something o get up and out of there. And if you weren’t gonna be a professional footballer, you’d drift into music, I suppose. And it was a great escape. But the thing that was really influential on the music was, there was this steel hammer that you would hear all night long, just kind of going, ‘Da-Konch! Da-Konch!’ The factories just kept running, a bit like Blade Runner or a David Lynch movie. I remember seeing Eraserhead and thinking it was very much like my apartment, like my bedsit in Sheffield. And movies were a great inspiration back then, a way of challenging — or escaping from — your everyday life.

Read Jeff Elbel’s live review (and photo gallery) of ABC at The Des Plaines Theatre on Saturday, July 9.

IE: The Lexicon cover shot is pretty cinematic.

MF: Yeah. And that’s me — I’m on there with a lady in a red dress! And looking back, I think with a lot of things we were doing, we’d kind of do cinematic pictures or try to tell a story in a picture. So that’s where that record sleeve came from — it was a bit like a B-movie, or a bit like a Coen Brothers film.

IE: But you actually made your own companion film-noir-ish Lexicon movie back then, too, right? Called Mantrap?

MF: Yes. Somebody approached us from the BBC and said, “Look — we want to do a documentary about you, and it’s going to be about working-class guys made good from Sheffield.” And we kind of thought, “Well, that’s a bit cliched to kind of go in like that — we’d rather do a kind of fantasy film.” So this guy Julien Temple, who’d done The Great Rock and Roll Swindle” and a few other things, we approached him, and we made Mantrap, which was our sort of espionage thriller. It was a very ambitious thing to try and pull off — it was a ‘long-form video,’ that’s the way they would describe it back then. There were all these video clips, but kind of taken to the next level, to kind of push forward and make a longer film. So that’s what **Mantrap is, and it features Lisa Vanderpump, who now has had a huge career on

IE: You set the bar fairly high for yourself in those days because few bands were using horns and reeds, and nobody outside of Bryan Ferry was rocking a Saville Row suit onstage.

MF: Well, Roxy Music — a massive influence on us, no doubt. It’s a Mod thing, really, although we came through much later. But the horns, though? Yeah — I grew up listening to a diet of Motown and Atlantic, and Stax and Chess music, or Northern Soul. And funnily enough, that’s what you’d hear at every party you went to — Edwin Starr and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson — so that was definitely ingrained. And we like funky electronic music — we were there in the early days of synthesizers and electronica, but at the same time, we loved the horns. And even now — I’m just about to do a tour with full orchestra, and we always have a sax player who’s got a tenor and an alto sax. And I don’t know why that is, but I think that’s always been a part of what we’ve been about.

IE: When you set your sartorial standards so high, how do you tour and keep the suits clean? And how many suits do you bring with you?

MF: Well, I’m pretty pragmatic now. I’ve got a couple of nice suitcases with wheels on them, so I roll them around. And I’ve seen bands bring three wardrobe trucks for all their costume changes, but I don’t do that. I’m usually wearing a suit, too, so that never really was my bag. So, the secret for anybody out there who’s thinking about this kind of thing is to wear a black shirt. You can usually get three gigs out of that and then swap it around, so you need two shirts with you so you can flip it and hit the launderette in different towns.

IE: Looking back, you’re one of the first bands to portray yourselves as cartoons, as you did on 1985’s How to be a Zillionaire.

MF: We wanted to reinvent the band completely — it was myself and Mark White thinking, “Let’s become cartoon characters.” It was a way of sidestepping the last record we’d made, “Beauty Stab,” which wasn’t that successful. And it was a way of kind of reigniting the band, so yeah, we did sort of build these instruments that we used on TV shows that were like cartoons, Hanna-Barbera things, like in The Archie Show. And they were one of the first cartoon bands, of course. But yeah, we really got into that, and songs like “Be Near Me” from that period were really popular in America. People kind of liked that larger-than-life aspect of it, I suppose. I mean, we were never going to be cartoons. But it was kind of nice trying.

IE: How have you maintained your voice over the years?

MF: A couple of lozenges, a cup of tea. Ha! Actually, I ride my bike, or I sometimes spend time by the sea, and I swim in the sea. And I find that really helps the voice for some reason. But it’s like an old car engine — you’ve just got to keep it tuned and keep it running. You’ve got to drive ‘round the block now and again and just keep the engine warm. So I never take that for granted because to get onstage and sometimes sing for two hours is physically a lot of work. But I really enjoy that, and whilst I can hit the notes, most of those songs are in the same key they were in originally. I think I tweaked one song — “Tears Are Not Enough” is in D now. So whilst I can sing, I still enjoy playing live. But I think once your voice goes? Forget it. There are a lot of singers out there that do try to paper over the cracks.

IE: Where are some of the weirdest places you’ve discovered an ardent fan base? Or a fan, singular, who flew you in for a private show?

MF: You hear stories of these various artists like Amy Winehouse or Lady Gaga going in and playing these massive private shows. So one of the weirdest shows we ever did was in Russian 12 years ago in Moscow. This Russian oligarch guy asked if we would play at his wedding, so we were flown in to play the show. And we went through the airport, got in the car, and were whisked into a part of Moscow where there were these massive…I wouldn’t even say they were mansions — they were more like hotels. But people lived in them, and there was a guy guarding the gate with a gun who would let you inside the compound. So we did a show for the guy’s wedding, and then the guys who worked for him said, “Right, thank you, ABC! Now you can go over there — we’ve got some rooms lined up for you in that building.” And we walked in, and it was like The Shining — there were five of us, and we walked into this virtual hotel, where we had a bedroom on each floor. It really was incredibly odd, so that was one of the strangest gigs we ever did. But they were really appreciative and really into the music. And then we went straight back to the airport. But I remember the oligarch had a guy who was employed just to roll his cigars — that was the kind of man he was. So unless you’ve got a professional cigar roller on your right-hand side? Hey — you have not really arrived yet!

ABC appear at the Des Plaines Theatre on Saturday, July 9

–  Tom Lanham

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