ABC’s Martin Fry is a surprise. On record, he is the archetypal smoothie, louche and debonair. His hits, such as ‘The Look Of Love’ and ‘Shoot That Poison Arrow’, hark back to the golden age of Motown by way of Roxy Music and Chic.
In person he speaks in the broad tones of his native Stockport and is no nonsense in that distinctive North of England way. It is a leap of the imagination to picture him posing in a gold lamé suit as he did when ABC released their iconic 1982 album The Lexicon Of Love.
“We fought a running battle against the record company,” the 55-year-old recalls. “They were very confused by the gold suit. They didn’t know why I insisted on wearing it. It perplexed them no end.”
This was more than a sartorial difference of opinion; ABC were waging a generational war.
“It was a battle between all the old guys from the ’70s who had leather jeans and beards and long hair and this whole new batch of peacocks, which included ABC. There was also Duran Duran, Human League, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode. We may as well have come from another planet. They didn’t get what we were trying to achieve.”
What ABC were trying to achieve was introduce Hollywood glamour into the fusty world of Thatcher-era British rock. This they achieved effortlessly on Lexicon of Love, today regarded as one of the most influential UK LPs of the past four decades.
“It has become an enduring album,” reflects Fry. “It still sells. People say it is ‘iconic’. We hear this all the time.”
Strangely, Fry always thought the album had its flaws and is surprised by its reputation. “In my opinion it was too short,” he laughs. “We didn’t put enough tracks on. We had a few extra songs and we left them off for some reason.”
His relatively low opinion changed as he started to grasp how much it meant to people. “That’s what brought me back out on the road,” he says. “I began to discover that those songs were important to a lot of listeners. As a singer you don’t always have a sense of the impact your music has had. You need to tour to truly grasp a sense of that.”
The group came together in unlikely circumstances. ABC started without Fry and were synth-pop contemporaries of a then experimental Human League (whom they supported around Sheffield). In 1978, Fry interviewed the group for his fanzine Modern Drugs. He was invited to join as keyboard player. Within a few months he was chief songwriter and lead singer. He also stamped his artistic signature on the enterprise.
“We always did elaborate sleeves for the singles, which didn’t go down well. I remember there was a big fuss over ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ [which depicted Fry trudging moodily down a flight of stairs, a woman running behind]. The record label was going, ‘why are you doing this?’”
ABC had further hits, most notably the album Alphabet City, which yielded the smash singles ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘When Smokey Sings’. However, their band was very nearly derailed when, two years after Lexicon Of Love, Fry was diagnosed with a rare cancer.
“I had Hodgkin’s disease and literally went from doing Top of the Pops to being in a cancer ward,” he recalls. “It was surreal. I had a record in the top five of the American charts and here I was surrounded by doctors. I felt cursed. I couldn’t go on the road, couldn’t do any of the things I wanted to. I know it’s a ridiculous thing to say about cancer, but it came at the worst possible time.”
The treatment of Hodgkin’s disease was in its infancy and the odds were against Fry. “You have to knuckle down,” he says. “I was a street fighter. They were surprised how tenacious I was. One of the doctors said to me that a lot of people pretend it isn’t there, refuse to go to appointments and so on. I was angry and I didn’t want to back down. It was only years later I realised how lucky I was.”
With Lexicon of Love proving a critical and commercial smash, ABC’s record company was suddenly, emphatically behind the band. They wanted Fry to write Lexicon of Love Part II. He demurred and, in 1983, ABC released the aggressive, bizarre Beauty Stab. Apart from Fry, nobody knew quite what to make of it.
“We were eager to go in a totally different direction. We didn’t want to do a sequel. In retrospect, perhaps that is exactly what we should have done. You go to a movie now and it’s set up for a sequel. I liked the Matrix. But I liked the Matrix 2 and 3 also. That’s how it is done today.”
Fry continues to write new material (ABC’s most recent album was 2008’s Traffic). Nevertheless, he understands it’s the ’80s songs that fans want to hear. He is happy to bring his music to the masses.
“It has been interesting going on the road with my ’80s contemporaries,” he says. “I love touring with the Human League, Howard Jones, Belinda Carlisle. I like playing those arena concerts and performing my songs for people who want to hear them.”
*ABC play the main stage of the Westport Festival on Saturday.