ABC - Biography
Though they are often lumped in with the New Romantic movement that swept Great Britain in the early 1980's, ABC were really a pop entity unto themselves. Though they did share the New Romantics' taste for flashy clothes and synthesizers, ABC were more about combining influences from Iggy Pop and David Bowie to Motown and Northern Soul, and coming up with their own brand of polished post-punk pop.
ABC came together in 1980 in the Northern English industrial city of Sheffield. Martin Fry was a local scenester and part-time musical journalist who published his own fanzine called Modern Drugs. After he interviewed the local post-punk band Vice Versa, the members asked him to join the band as their lead vocalist. Vice Versa, which included guitarist/keyboardist Mark White, saxophonist Stephen Singleton, drummer David Robinson and bassist Mark Lickley, was a left-field post-punk band that leaned heavily on synthesizers, much in the same way as local synthesizer-based bands like Cabaret Voltaire and the Human League. Once Fry was in the band, he retooled the sound of the band to go in a more pure pop direction heavily influenced by the Northern Soul sounds popular in the north of England in the 1970's, and renamed the group ABC. Taking style cues from such British artists as David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, Fry dressed the band as one part upper-class British dandies from the 1920's, and one part soul singers from the 1960's. Their songs leaned heavily on rhyming couplets and tales of heartbreak to a decidedly Motown-influenced backbeat and sound.
By late 1981, the group signed a recording contract with Mercury Records. The band's first release, the single “Tears Are Not Enough,” was released in November of 1981, and climbed into the top 20 of the British charts. Drummer David Robinson left after the first single was released, and was replaced by David Palmer. Bassist Mark Lickley also left the band during this period of time. ABC released two more singles in early 1982, “Poison Arrow” and “The Look Of Love,” which both became top ten UK hits. By the time the band's debut album, The Lexicon Of Love (1982 Mercury) was released, they were such a sensation that the album entered the charts at #1. Recorded with producer and former Yes and Buggles member, Trevor Horn, and featuring string arrangements from future film composer/Art Of Noise member Anne Dudley, Lexicon Of Love was a wide-screen pop production that combined dense layers of lushly produced strings, synthesizers, horns and fat beats, all with Fry's affected white soul-boy falsetto and croon.
ABC replicated their UK success in the US, with the help of two very visually effective videos for “The Look Of Love” and “Poison Arrow.” Both songs reached the American top 25 in early 1983. The group started work on their second album in the summer of 1983, but as recording commenced, their drummer David Palmer decided to leave the band. Regardless, the three remaining members of ABC finished what would become Beauty Stab (Mercury), released at the end of 1983. Rather than relying on keyboards, strings and horns, their new album featured a more guitar-driven sound. Other than scoring a top 20 UK slot with the single, “That Was Then, But This Is Now,” the album failed to perform well on either sides of the Atlantic. Soon after the release of the album, saxophonist Singleton left the band, leaving just White and Fry.
Needing a change of scenery and sound, Fry and White moved to New York and embraced the use of new sampling technology, in specific, the Fairlight CMI sampling keyboard. They also added two new members, Fiona Russell-Powell, also known as Eden, and David Yarritu. How To Be A....Zillionaire! (Mercury) was released in January of 1985, and was a modest hit in the US, spawning the top 10 hit “Be Near Me,” but was received less enthusiastically in Britain. After ...Zillionaire!, Fry and White took a break from the band. The break was longer than they expected when Fry was diagnosed, and then treated for, Hodgkin's disease. The band, now back to just Fry and White, collaborated with producer and former Chic member Bernard Edwards for their next album, Alphabet City (1987 Mercury), a return to their more polished soul sound. Though the album contained the minor hit, (and homage to Smokey Robinson), “When Smokey Sings,” it failed to chart and was not considered a success.
By the time their next album, Up (Mercury) was released in 1989, house music had exploded on both sides of the Atlantic, so Fry and White incorporated elements of the house sound into their songs. The album sold moderately well in the UK, but didn't do much in the US. Then at the end of their contract with Mercury, the label issued a greatest hits package titled Absolutely in 1990, including all of their singles off of their albums and a new dance mix of their early hit “The Look Of Love.”
ABC then signed to MCA, (EMI in the UK), and recorded their next album Abracadabra (1991), with noted producer David Bascombe. The album, also heavily dance-influenced, ended up being better received on the dancefloor than on the charts. A year after the album was released, White left the band to pursue his interest in Reiki therapy. ABC was, for the time being, finished as a band, and Martin Fry started to work on a solo album for release in the UK, but EMI dropped him before anything could be completed. After a five year absence, Fry decided to resurrect the ABC name and collaborated with guitarist Keith Lowndes and Heaven 17 singer Glenn Gregory for the album Skyscraping (1997 Deconstruction), an homage to some of Fry's musical heroes, including David Bowie, Roxy Music and The Sex Pistols. The album was not much of a commercial success, but it did receive some good reviews, which encouraged Fry to continue as ABC.
ABC had only toured once early in their career, but Fry decided to hit the road again with a collection of session musicians to promote Skyscraping and ABC's back catalog in 1997. A live recording from the tour was released as the album Lexicon Of Live (Blatant) in 1999. The album cover featured Fry singing live on stage in his trademark gold lame suit from the Lexicon Of Love era. Another greatest hits package titled Look Of Love- The Very Best Of ABC (Mercury) was released in 2001. Fry and ABC were inactive for the next few years, until the VH1 show Bands Reunited tried to get the Lexicon Of Love line-up of ABC, (Fry, Palmer, Singleton and White), back together to play some shows in 2004. Both Singleton and White declined to participate, but Palmer got back together with Fry, and the two have played 80's-themed package tours together as ABC since that time. Fry and Palmer, along with keyboardist Chuck Kentis, recorded an ABC album of all new material titled Traffic (Borough Music) that was released in April of 2008, which has received many positive reviews since it's release.