Revisiting my ABCs in my middle age

2/24/2017

And mostly all I have to say about these songs is that I love them, and want to sing along to them, and force other people to listen to them, and get cross when these other people don’t like them as much as I do.

Nick Hornby

Most of these blog posts cover photographed travels and dayhikes t0 draw in a core group of armchair travellers. But there are also posts on technology, music, home repair, and various other interests. It is interesting to note that the relatively few home repair posts have the longest legs, reliably drawing in a trickle of daily readers searching for help with challenges such as a broken bathroom heater, a dishwasher installation, and upgrading an old car to connect to a modern device. The technology posts by their nature quickly become dated and have less broad appeal, but posts on music draw the least engagement. Yet here’s another one post on music, as it has always been an essential part of my life.

16 years old and ready to learn

16 years old and ready to learn

The relative lack of reader interest is understandable, as musical tastes vary so widely and musical styles fall out of fashion, often leaving their adherents stranded in nostalgia for the music of their youth. I enjoy a wide range of musical styles, only repelled by a few such as opera, rap/hip-hop, and metal. Yet I am certainly biased to prefer the pop music I enjoyed in my teenage and college years. My favorite album, by a long shot, arrived when I was 16 years old, primed to learn The Lexicon of Love.

abc lexicon of love

The theatrical video for Poison Arrow

The theatrical video for Poison Arrow

I was in my first romantic relationship when ABC released The Lexicon of Love in 1982. Those who lived in the 1980s won’t be surprised that I was introduced to the album through videos on MTV. The three hits featured on that cable channel drew me in with the theatricality of both the visuals and the music. Their blend of orchestral strings and dance music was certainly not the usual fare, and I decided to buy the album. On vinyl…I did not have a CD player yet.

The Lexicon of Love was a New Wave album unlike anything else I had heard…or seen, for that matter. The album cover was literally theatrical, with its Technicolor red stage curtain and mood lighting as Martin Fry points a gun at something unseen and holds up a fainting woman. The front also made a point of printing lyrical excerpts:

a-z affectionately, 1 to 10 alphabetically, from here to eternity without in betweens. still asking for a custom fit in an off the rack world? sales talk from sales assistants when all i want to do is lower your resistance. no rhythm in cymbals no tempo in drums. love’s on arrival, she comes when she comes. right on the target but wide of the…

This proclaimed itself to be literate dance music. Sure enough, the vocals were not drowned out in the mix. I don’t often pay particular attention to verses in pop music, focusing more on the music, rhythm, and chorus. But clearly this album wanted me to pay attention. It asked to be in that select group for which I would play a record in a dimmed room with a lamp illuminating the album insert, intensely reading and meditating on the lyrics as I listened.

Background

Vice Versa: Martin Fry, Stephen Singleton, & Mark White

Vice Versa: Martin Fry, Stephen Singleton, and Mark White

A couple of years earlier, in the struggling industrial city of Sheffield, England, young music writer Martin Fry had been recruited by guitarist and keyboardist Mark White and saxophonist Stephen Singleton to join their little band Vice Versa, first as a keyboardist and then as a vocalist.

Their group evolved into ABC, and they recruited Trevor Horn of The Buggles to produce their debut album. Horn described ABC’s songs as, “like disco, but in a Bob Dylan way.”

Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan

Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan would go on to found The Art of Noise

Thankfully, for this literate dance music, Horn brought in Anne Dudley to play keyboards, and she would go on to provide lush string arrangements to envelop several of their songs of failed romance, which pulsed with elements of funk, punk, and disco. Gary Langan engineered the album, and J. J. Jeczalik programmed a Fairlight CMI synthesizer for it. A year later, Horn, Dudley, Jeczalik, and Langan would form the group The Art of Noise.

Throughout the album, singer Martin Fry wasn’t afraid to use falsetto to evoke the elation and despair of a man’s heartaches as he tried and failed to establish a meaningful relationship. This is a mighty album about love, but it is failed, rejected, and lost love.

Marcello Carlin has structured his blog Then Play Long, about every number one album in the United Kingdom, around this album. He remarks about Fry’s achievement:

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.

Listening to The Lexicon of Love

The album was released in an era when two-sided vinyl still held sway. The five songs on the first side build on each other, with superb transitions. Show Me starts things off with somber low-volume strings and brass, which slowly build until the band suddenly blasts in with a thudding bass line and piano chords. The first lines?

Once I needed your love
But that was just one thing left on my mind
Then I needed to feel you near me
You said, “Don’t have the time.”

This is not going to be a happy-go-lucky record. The next song was a hit. Poison Arrow portrayed Fry’s anger and despair:

poison-arrowWho broke my heart?
You did you did
Bow to the target
Blame cupid, cupid
You think you’re smart
Stupid, stupid
Right from the start
When you knew we would part
Shoot that poison arrow to my heart

In the song, “the music resonates and rages all around him like an irate cathedral” according to Marcello Carlin in an epic blog post. He points out the way Fry stops singing to say, “I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care” only to have the woman reply, “I care enough to know, I can never love you.” And then “drums explode downwards like Zeus kicking a fridge down the side of Mount Olympus.” Power pop, indeed.

Many Happy Returns starts out calm, but then revs things back up. Fry lets loose toward the end, his emotions veering him into punk, only to be followed by Dudley’s meandering electric piano to remind us that there are real musicians at work here.

Many Happy Returns ends on a sustained note and then jump cuts into the frenetic dance number Tears Are Not Enough. This was the group’s first single and is forceful and angry in a dance music way. The album version has a harpischord section courtesy of Trevor Horn.

The first side concludes with Valentine’s Day. Its initial lyrics are more interlude than lead, but it then builds up toward the end, concluding with a fun tirade:

When I’m shaking a hand, I’m clenching a fist
If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed
And I got dancing lessons for all the lips I shoulda kissed
I’d be a millionaire, I’d be a Fred Astaire

Side Two launches with another hit, The Look of Love, which is an extended wry admission of failure and want:

look-of-loveWhen your girl has left you out on the pavement (Goodbye)
Then your dreams fall apart at the seams
Your reason for living’s your reason for leaving
Don’t ask me what it means.
Who got the look? I don’t know the answer to that question
Where’s the look? If I knew I would tell you
What’s the look? Look for your information
Yes there’s one thing, the one thing, that still holds true
What’s that?
That’s the look, that’s the look, the look of love

That song features string arrangements over a heavy moog basslineAnne Dudley recalled, “I remember hearing the mix of The Look of Love and being amazed at how loud Trevor had made the strings. It was really nailing the ABC colours to the mast: this was to be an unapologetically lush and epic album.”

There are at least four variations on The Look of Love, which the group called “Parts”. Only Parts One and Four were on the initial album:

Plus, since this is dance music, there was a wonderfully weird 12″ single version. I am always amused by the part where the bassline from the moog synthesizer takes over completely. Disco made 12″ singles popular as they allowed more dynamic range than the typical 7″ vinyl singles with their wider groove spacing, while preserving the better sound quality 45 rpm provided over long-playing albums played at 33 1/3.

Date Stamp brings us love as commerce, with its jangling cash registers and lyrics like:

So redevelop product, redesign this package
Still refuse to reach in your pocket
Everything is temporary written on that sand
Looking for the girl that meets supply with demand

Love has no guarantee (Yes, I’m date stamped)
Promise me eternity (Guess I’ll fade away)
Even with a pedigree (Yes, I’m date stamped)
Love has no guarantee

I get sales talk from sales assistants
When all I want to do girl is lower your resistance
Everything is temporary, written on that sand
Looking for the girl that meets supply with demand

We need an antidote to that cynicism. And we get it in spades, with the heartbreaking ballad All of My Heart.

allofmyheartWhat’s it like to have loved and to lose her touch?
What’s it like to have loved and to lose that much?
Well, I hope and I pray that maybe someday
You’ll walk in the room with my heart.
Add and subtract but as a matter of fact
Now that you’re gone I still want you back.
Remembering, surrendering,
Remembering that part – all of my heart.

It is an orchestral pop masterpiece. The last two lines of the chorus change each time, but always have that dash, that pause when all of the music stops, and Fry sings all of my heart a cappella, followed first by a tympanic crash, later by a string and rhythm section, and finally by a tickling of an electric piano.

But that’s not all, far from it, although the idiotic Vevo video shown above cuts it off at that point. Here’s the wonderful denouement I want you to hear:

As Marcello Carlin describes it, after Fry sobs that final all of my heart, “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.” Another writer commented, “As he turns to weep, to sob, to mourn for a lost reality, the orchestra cushions him, cradles him in its bosom in what is one of the most compassionate and breathtaking moments in all of pop.” (Who doesn’t like an orchestral bosom? Or bosoms in general, for that matter.)

And then the orchestra very slowly dies away, leaving only Stephen Singleton’s lonely saxophone to conclude one of the longest fade-outs in pop music.

The album could end there, but it has more to say with 4 ever 2 gether, a dark and brooding track. Horn often distorts evil in the “Speak…no…evil” vocals so much you can’t really make it out. And the lyrics can be just as turgid:

I stuck a marriage proposal
In the waste disposal
If that’s the trash aesthetic,
I`d suggest that we forget it
Your 12 disciples might kiss and tell, but
You can tell me much more than they can,
Right now

A mathematical equation
Won`t describe my liaison
The stars in the sky might try persuading
But you can tell me, I won`t hear you
You can`t tell me, I gave up the listening
Years ago

4 ever together, 4 years 2 come
4 love 2 strong, 4 us 2 part

Wisely they choose to close out the album with the orchestral reprise of The Look of Love, Part Four, with strings, brass, xylophones, and harp.

Back in the early 1980s it was the greatest album I’d ever heard…not a clinker in the bunch. In the years to come I’d eagerly await the next ABC album, hoping for more.

More to come?

The second album lived up to its name - they stabbed beauty to death

The second album lived up to its name – they stabbed beauty to death

The sophomore slump hit ABC particularly hard. They followed up the lush Lexicon with the aptly named Beauty Stab, in which the only strings were on the guitars. It was harsh and thin, with them clearly trying to avoid a repeat of Lexicon, which makes it a loss all around. Their third album, How to be a Zillionaire!, was a hard turn back to dance, but of a cartoonishly bizarre bubble gum kind, with a flavor that quickly faded. And they added two non-performing band members. Uh, what?

Thankfully the later albums were more even-keeled, with 1997’s Skyscraping and 2008’s Traffic my favorite of their post-Lexicon releases. Here is Martin Fry’s own synopsis of each album:

Lexicon of Love (1982, Mercury): An orchestrated, polished neurotic affair of hysteria behind a red curtain. It’s the Yin & Yang of ABC.

Beauty Stab (1983, Mercury): An abrasive protest wrapped in anger and shrilled emotions.

How to be a Zillionaire! (1985, Mercury): A highly entertaining, irreverent coaster ride into outer space controlled by surreal cartoon characters on a quest to make guerilla pop. We built a machine!

Alphabet City (1987, Mercury): It wears the cuff-lengths of our career. It’s quite suave, like a midnight, seductive beam of moonlight.

Up (1989, Mercury): A weekend party rave to close the ‘80s. This was our swan dance to end the great decade.

Abracadabra (1991, MCA): A hybrid of different genres, it’s idealistic really. You can hear the civil war internally as our lucrative opportunity to make the album of our career slithered through our hands. We perfected the music and atmosphere that became the record, yet the process was indirectly intense.

Skyscraping (1997, Blatant, import-only): The jigsaw puzzle that challenged me to re-enter the ring after a long period of absence.

Traffic (2008, Borough Music): The joints are lubed and the muscles are flexed. There are nostalgic elements of déjà vu all over it, similar to Forrest Gump’s stories from the park bench. It stands firm and proud, despite the odds.

Lexicon lives on

The Lexicon of Love was performed live at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009

The Lexicon of Love was performed live at the Royal Albert Hall in 2009

I was thrilled in 2009 when Martin Fry, drummer David Palmer, and Anne Dudley reunited to perform the entire The Lexicon of Love album live at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra. I managed to capture the audio from the online show, and it was such a treat! But then I heard nothing more for years.

Until this month, when I happened across a mention of the album The Lexicon of Love II. What?!? How could I have missed that? But a search in my Amazon Music Unlimited service yielded nothing. Nothing for sale in the iTunes store. Time to go to the source: abcmartinfry.com showed that yes, lo and behold, there was such an album. Martin Fry was inspired by the 2009 concert to create a sequel album, but it was only released in Britain in May 2016, followed by a British tour. No U.S. release.

Well, that just would NOT do. So I went to smile.amazon.com (which contributes a small fraction of my purchase cost to a charity of my choice; in my case, the high school’s parent support group) and ordered an imported CDYes, a CD! First one in a long time…after all, I sold off my collection of over 360 compact discs back in 2010.

abc-lexiconoflove2ukcda

The CD arrived in the mail a couple of days later (thank you, Amazon Prime). I popped it into my system’s optical drive (yes, my heavily upgraded 2009-vintage desktop still has one) and iTunes took forever to slowly convert it into 256 kbps MP3s and upload them into iCloud. That would let me play it on my desktop computer, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad. But I want my music available everywhere, so I then uploaded the files to my online Amazon music collection. That would let me play them on the Amazon Echos in the bedroom and the kitchen, on the television via its Amazon Fire Stick, as well on on my Chromebook. Plus I could then also play it on my desktop computer, iPhone, and iPad with Amazon Music apps.

Musical sequels

So…was the new album a worthy sequel to The Lexicon of Love? While successful musicians release multiple albums, few market later albums as full-fledged sequels. I do own a couple of album trilogies, with their entries spread out over decades. Meat Loaf released Bat Out of Hell in 1977, the superb Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell in 1993, and the far lesser Bat Out of Hell III: The Monster Is Loose in 2006. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, joined by various country and bluegrass superstars, released Will the Circle Be Unbroken in 1972. Mother Maybelle Carter, a key part of making the original album work, had passed before they released Will the Circle Be Unbroken Volume Two in 1989, and Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III in 2002 was a further diminishment.

The Lexicon of Love II is a fine album. But this sequel lacks the sweep and undiminished appeal, song after song, of the original. It also lacks a standout like All of My Heart. But, as Tim Sendra points out, it has “Dudley’s epic string arrangements embellished with grand pianos, some fluid fretless bass playing, impassioned backing vocals, and the occasional moment that, if you close your eyes, almost sounds like 1982 – not only because of the musical backing, but also because Fry’s voice is relatively untouched by age.”

The Flames of Desire is the closest to the spirit of the original album in its music and lyrics.

My favorite track musically is Kiss Me Goodbye, although it reminds me more of something from a later album than the group’s debut.

But my favorite lyrics are from the last vocal track, Brighter Than the Sun, which has a nice sentiment from a man who was looking in vain for love so long ago:

I am amazed and a little fazed
By what passes for wit these days
I’m not crazy about the trash they praise
Or the flags they wave these days

I’m amazed and a little fazed
By the drugs they crave these days
That’s just the way it plays
It’s a masquerade these days

I’m a man out of time
Until the stars realign
With taste so refined
I don’t know which way we’re heading

I’m a man out of time
With a mountain to climb
Just looking for a sign
Do you know which way we go?

I’ll ask the boy that I once was
About the man that I’ve become
About the days and days and days gone by
And the night still yet to come

That boy would turn to me and say
You’re not the only one
When all’s said and done
Our future’s looking brighter than the sun

I’m amazed and little fazed
By the way love stays today
By the facts that they portray
In a lover’s gaze today

I’m amazed and a little fazed
By the things you say to me
By the faith you place in me
And all that we can truly be

I’m a man out of time
Until the stars realign
With taste so refined
I don’t know which way we’re heading

I’m a man out of time
Trapped in rewind
Just looking for a sign
Do you know which way we go?

I’ll ask the boy that I once was
About the man that I’ve become
About the days and days and days gone by
And the night still yet to come

That boy would turn to me and say
You’re not the only one
When all’s said and done
Our future’s looking brighter than the sun

Martin Fry has been married for 30 years, survived Hodgkin’s Disease, and he and his wife have two grown children. He said, “When you’re with someone that length of time, they see the good, the bad and the ugly. Despite all the twists and turns and trials and tribulations, love can survive. That’s the most magical thing of all.”

I’m glad he found his love long ago. That’s the true sequel to his story. And like any good fairy tale, it has a happy ending.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife, Wendy, and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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