All hail an album that epitomizes what was great about the ‘80s and its style. Today is the 40th anniversary of ABC’s The Lexicon of Love. The album has been rated by a number of publications as the best album of the decade and deservedly so. The album mixed music, style and an indelible image that perfectly postmarks the era. And like albums from other decades like Hotel California and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, stands the test of time with songs, style and bravado stands the test of time and is a timeless classic.
Before I decided sit down and ride this I saw a news article about the short movie Mantrap, directed by Julien Temple, known for his work in the era of music videos. Mantrap is basically a long form video showcasing the music of ABC and their landmark album. Being a fan from day one of ABC and Martin Fry I found the video online and watched it.
Like I stated, Mantrap is basically an excuse to showcase the songs of The Lexicon of Love using a spy theme to weave between live performances of the songs.
I can still remember to this day the first time I saw the video for “Look of Love” on MTV back in 1982. I was immediately drawn to the band’s style, look and the voice of Fry, who sounds like a hybrid of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry. When Fry sand he had this sneer on his face that exuded both confidence and a bit of vulnerability. The video for the song fit the stereotype for early MTV. A little surreal at points, plenty of humor complete with sight gags and slapstick, not to mention a set reminiscent of a music from the ‘40s or ‘50s and you have a timeless classic. Rewatching the video for the millionth time I also noticed how the entire band was featured equally in the video. Sure, in all the videos for the band they are feature, but in this one in particular they are featured as equally as possible. Fry, being the lead singer, obviously gets more focus, however the video is a group effort. Watching the video, you already know Fry was going to be the breakthrough star of the band, which is usually the case. Videos that followed like “Poison Arrow” saw the story of the video (back when there was a story structure in music videos) focus more on the charming, charismatic lead singer. Even in Mantrap the band takes a backseat to Fry as his character in the short film takes center stage.
I still remember driving to the Record Bar at Eastgate Mall to find the album. I bought the cassette actually, so I could play it in my car. I listened to it all night and day for weeks on end. I wanted to be Martin Fry. I wanted his good looks, charismatic personality and fashion sense. Unfortunately, I was chubby, not that attractive, but I did have a good fashion sense, something I have been complimented on most of my life – although I could nor would I ever be able to pull off the gold lame suit he wore in a number of videos.
It’s been said over and over again, but it merits repeating. Kids today don’t know the joy of buying an album and reading the liner notes and any attached reading. I remember reading all the finite detail of the album, the song titles, who produced it – anything I could find out about the band. We didn’t have social media or the internet. Hell, back then we didn’t have mobile phones or other outdated forms of communication like a fax machine. If you wanted to know more of a band you had to go to some place like Record Bar, where they sometimes had music periodicals, the bookstore or even Red Food Store that had a magazine rack and look through Rolling Stone, Hit Parader and a few others to see if there was anything written abut the band. Then of course you could always talk to that one record store employee that was a know-it-all of all kinds of music and sometimes could get their hands on bootlegs of certain artists. They were the original music snobs but they had clout. You might occasionally find an obscure poster at Spencer’s, but other than that you were screwed if you didn’t live in a big city.
I remember reading in either People, US or Rolling Stone about what a big affair the tour for Lexicon of Love. The article talked about the set and wardrobe changes involved with putting on the live show. I was enamored. I was also a broke college kid. I think they may have come to Atlanta once during that era, but I didn’t have a ride or the money for a ticket.
The Lexicon of Love is a fascinating album – almost melodramatic. The cover for the album adds to the charm of the album. It mixes modernism, while paying tribute to a bygone era of the beauty of theatre and theatrics. If you listen to the album from start to finish you get this feeling you are actually taking part in musical theater, if the the soundtrack. The songs mix soul, dance, new wave to form the perfect storm. “The Look of Love” may be the most perfectly crafted song to showcase and introduce the band to the world as it has a great beat, remain up tempo and features Fry’s soaring vocals that is part rock and roll and part theatrical. And while three or four singles made it on the radio, there are so many gems here that get overlooked and deserves to been listen to again over and over.
The band for some reason modified their sound on the following album on 1983’s Beauty Stab. The band went with a more stripped down, raw sound. There was maybe one song off the album that got any radio play. After a massive lineup change that saw only Fry and drummer David Palmer remain they came back strong with 1985’s How to Be a … Zillionaire!. The album was closer to Lexicon except there were more of a dance beat to it. The ballad “Be Near Me” replicates best the sound of Lexicon.
That was followed by Alphabet City that included one of their more popular singles in the States, “When Smokey Sings”. The album had a definite R&B/soul feel to it.
Their next two albums, Up (1989) and Abracadabra (1991) did not do much and many music critics complained about the ever changing sound of the band. After the latter the band officially disbanded before Fry restarted the band with 1997’s Skyscraping. For me, it took a couple of listenings to appreciate Skyscraping but I fell in love with it like I have all of their albums. And yes, I actually have their catalog including 2016’s The Lexicon of Love II, which brought ABC full circle back to their roots.
For whatever reason ABC and Fry tried to reinvent their sound through almost every album, taking from the Bowie playbook. Bowie did it over a course of decades. I can’t blame ABC as musically the ‘80s were a turbulent time for music. The decade saw corporate rock kicked to the curb to be taken over by punk, new wave and alternative. It was a free for all for the listener; definitely one of the more eclectic decades in music. And while the ‘90s saw a lot of the same, as the decade got along it saw radio become corporate and destroy the product it was actually trying to promote.
The Lexicon of Love deserves all the praise it gets and deserves more as it celebrates 40 years. Martin Fry has been a great ambassador for the band, the era of the New Romantics, as they were called. I even got a chance to interview Martin Fry in person while he was on the Regeneration Toru in 2008. My meeting was everything I had hoped for and even more, adding to my fascination and love of the band and its music.
I remembered being escorted back stage before the event started. His manager all of a sudden lost track of Martin and asked me to hold tight while he found him. As I looked around the backstage area I saw A Flock of Seagulls practicing in one corner and Naked Eyes in another. It was like being dropped into MTV Land – which could be a thing if they stuck to music and not the reality show crap. All of sudden standing in front of me was Martin Fry, looking like he had stepped out of a n ABC video in a nice suit. He profusely apologized for being late. I was star struck, something I rarely get. Martin Fry admittedly is my one man-crush. He was kind of like James Bond to me. Al the girls wanted him and all the guys wanted to either be him or like him. I told him I had waited 25 years to see him and a couple of extra minutes was no issue. “I guess it’s been that long since we’ve been in these parts,” he said as he invited me into his trailer to conduct the interview.
Speaking with Fry was one of the best experiences of being in this business and as a music fan. He was everything I had hoped he would be and thought he might from all the videos and articles I viewed and read. We talked about the fanzine he wrote for leading up to his joining ABC, The Lexicon of Love and his latter career and he turned me on to his then recently released new ABC album Traffic. That night saw him debut one of the songs off of the album.
The Lexicon of Love is one of those once-in-a-lifetime albums for a band. It’s iconic, timely and timeless at the same time, while setting a tone for music few albums ever have. Cheers to ABC and an album that deserves every accolade available and more. And here’s hoping to get to see them again (and again).
– Dave Weinthal