Martin Fry: Back on stage? It’s easy as ABC
He was one of the 80s biggest stars as frontman of ABC. Martin Fry talks about returning to the stage – and the battle he had to get there. . .
It’s been a remarkable 12 months. In an era of streaming and talent show contests, in an age of disposable pop stars, of chew-them-up-and-spit-them-out exploitation, sophisti-pop stars ABC are enjoying their most successful phase since the 1980s.
They returned last year with a well-received album. It hit the top five of the UK chart and was described with unerring accuracy by one critic as ‘the sound of an old master falling not far short of a standard that his youthful self set very high indeed’. In a career spanning 37 years, Martin Fry’s band have only once been higher in the chart.
And while some of their contemporaries resort to the heritage circuit – and, let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong in that – ABC continue to push the boundaries. In November they play a series of big shows, including a headline at the 2,200-capacity Symphony Hall, in Birmingham, on November 6.
They’ll be joined by fellow 1980s survivors Kid Creole and The Coconuts for that tour and the gig will be one of the highlights of a predictably busy year.
Martin is looking forward to the shows with eager anticipation.
“I wanted to go out on the road with Kid Creole and the Coconuts, so invited them along. They are great. Kid always wears a sharp suit, so I’ll have to go to my tailor before the shows to get suited and booted.
“I met Kid a few times on the circuit, but from back in the day, back in the 70s, he’s always been making elegant disco records. I’ve always liked that blend. We’re a different sort of band so they’re a great complement to what we do. We’re glad to be getting back out there. It caps the end of a great 12 months.”
Indeed it does. Though ABC are now essentially Martin, operating as a solo artist with a backing band, they’ve been rolling back the years. Last year’s Lexicon of Love II was the affectionate follow-up to their signature album, which was released in 1982 and featured the singles Tears Are Not Enough, Poison Arrow, The Look of Love and All of My Heart. NME listed it at number 15 on its list of 50 Albums of the 1980s while it also found a place on similar lists from Uncut, Mojo, The Village Voice, Q and The Observer Music Monthly.
A record that was the belle of 1982’s ball, The Lexicon of Love was spry and sophisticated. It marked a turning point in British pop as Martin and co brought tailored elegance to the dance floor with their definitive statement of funky and urbane pop.
Martin took what-seemed-like-an-age – actually, it was an age, 34 years to be precise – to record the follow-up. Having spent much of the 1990s on the sidelines, demoralised and unloved as Britpop stormed pop’s gold lamé gates, he felt washed up and out-of-step. But after a series of successful heritage shows, a sharp intake of breath and much soul-searching, Martin decided it was time to fly.
“It took me a long time to get the courage together to start the Lexicon reboot. I wanted to work with Ann Dudley, who is amazing. We worked together in 1982, when I was just starting out. When we were standing around, she told Trevor Horn she’d have a go at arranging the strings. She’s won an Oscar since then.
“I realised I’m at the point in my life where you get a bit Teflon and bulletproof to criticism, and you realise if you don’t do something you’ll never get round to it – like parachuting out of a plane. We played a show with the orchestra at the Albert Hall with Anne Dudley and the band six years ago now.
“I’ve played a lot of shows and 80s festivals, I stand on the stage and sing Look of Love and Poison Arrow and the other hits, but I got to think what would it be like to make a sequel – set in the present day, not to go back and try to recreate an 80s-type sound, but to do something like a sequel with the same characters in the songs and what they’re up to now.
“I wanted to know what happens next in Breaking Bad, and what happens to Rick in The Walking Dead, so what happens to Martin after The Look of Love? As soon as you do something it’s public property, and with The Lexicon of Love there’s a sense of ownership and real affection for the original.
“I didn’t want to do it lightly, and I started writing some songs and pulled some songs down from the shelf. A couple of the earliest ones were Viva Love and Ten Below Zero. I carried on writing with Anne Dudley while we were recording, and I wanted to make a big, unapologetically ABC record with orchestration.
“I had to up my game because the bar was set very high, impossibly high, with the original record, Trevor Horn’s production and everything that happened there. It was essential to have Anne involved. She knows her way around the orchestra like nobody else, and she’s a great musician. She was there originally on The Lexicon of Love as arranger, it was one of her first gigs I think. She’s ever youthful, and very passionate about music which I like.”
The result was Martin’s biggest hit in 34 years. It reawakened public interest in his band and, just like the number-one-hit-making-Rick Astley, it provided new impetus for his career. Not that the Sheffield singer ever imagined he would still be around. When he co-founded his band all those years ago, he was more interested in David Bowie, Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols than in forging a career.
His band were categorised with other new wavers, like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and the Human League, all of whom, curiously, have also enjoyed enduring success.
And yet Martin’s struggle has been harder than most. Following the band’s Zillionaire album, ABC fell from prominence as Martin was treated for the uncommon cancer Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It changed his way of thinking.
“It made me a lot more hedonistic actually. It was frustrating because it was about 1986 and I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease, a form of cancer. Back then we were on the charts, the records were there, and it felt like I was robbed of a bit of time, in my rather stupid view. One minute you’re on Soul Train and the next you’re in the Royal Marsden. It was a very hard time, not to joke about it.
“It was scary and terrifying, but I did recover, with chemotherapy and radiotherapy and an operation, so I should have been really thankful and pleased that I’d got a great result, and, of course, you don’t look at it like that. You’re kind of a bit p-ed off, which is childish isn’t it? So there have been a few hedonistic years but I was always a pretty positive person I think, you’ve got to be, and now I value everything.
“Brilliant things came from it too. The last 10 years I’ve loved playing live, and in a way I think that’s to counterbalance times when I couldn’t do that through ill health. I got married, my wife Julie stuck by me through some tough times, and I realised that somebody who loves you even when you’re kind of crawling on the floor, that’s of great value, that’s one of the greatest things you can have in life.
“I was 27 at the time I think, and it definitely affected me, in a good way I hope. Back in the 80s we were like obsessive, like ‘why has the record got to number three, who’s number two?’ That’s not healthy. These days I do count my blessings. It’s great to have made a record and for people to hear it.”
A survivor and a trooper, a relevant creative who’s still testing boundaries as he approaches his 60th birthday next spring, Martin is grateful for the career he’s led. At an age where others are falling off the radar, he’s still finding room in the charts, selling out the Royal Albert Hall and developing new ideas. He’s humble about it – success isn’t something he takes for granted.
He enjoys playing the 1980s circuit, lining up at festivals to play to big crowds. But being able to headline his own tours and play new songs provides a different kind of satisfaction.
“It’s a tough one. You can play to 50,000 people, which is amazing. But it’s kind of nice to have the success of Lexicon 2. That’s brought things full circle.
“You know, we’re a vintage act, we play the hits. We’ve played many shows over the last 10 years. And the heritage thing is popular because you represent your time. It’s the same for Bruce Springsteen, The Specials and Blondie. Those acts are great but there are others who aren’t a patch on the way that they were in their day. You’re only as good as you are in that moment, so it’s not that nostalgic. You have to keep moving forward.”
Not that he thought he’d still be around – particularly following his illness. Back in the 1980s, it was all about who could write the best song or achieve the highest chart placing, who could earn the most, look the best or get onto TV more than anyone else.
“I didn’t think I’d be at this point now. Absolutely not, no. Fifteen milliseconds of fame is all you get these days, but 10 or 15 years ago I started playing live again and I realised there was an audience for my contemporaries and the 80s again. We went playing live all around the world, but I have to say I am amazed and a little fazed, as the song says, at the way it’s grown and grown. I never thought I’d make another album really, because you reach a certain age and people are like . . . I dunno, they lose their fire a little bit. I mean Neil Young hasn’t, David Bowie hadn’t, Prince hadn’t. You see great artists develop through the years, they change. But back in the 80s, no. But I’m really grateful because it’s been a really interesting year for me and I’ve been working on a lot of different things.”
ABC’s new tour will be called ABC to XYZ and will be an unashamed plundering of Fry’s back catalogue. So, in addition to the era-defining hits from 1982, there’ll also be time for That Was Then But This Is Now, When Smokey Sings, Be Near Me, The Night You Murdered Love and more.
Martin will be giving it his all – playing the show as though it were his last. “The side-effect of making all those hit records back in the 1980s is that there’s no hiding place on stage. Audiences are really perceptive. They can see where you’re coming from. If you’re coming from a good place, if you mean it, the gigs are always fine.”
“The shows are an opportunity to open up the ABC songbook and journey through all the hits. Lexicon to Lexicon. ABC to XYZ.”
l Tickets are available at www.thsh.co.uk. VIP packages are also available.