‘We were making dance music for the future’: ABC’s Martin Fry on 40 years of The Lexicon of Love

Martin Fry, frontman of iconic ‘80s outfit ABC, sits down with Headliner to talk the release of new live album The Lexicon Of Love Live, which marks 40 years since the release of the band’s beloved debut record, as well as his love of the punk and post punk scenes that surrounded them, and what keeps him motivated to make new music…

A beaming Martin Fry appears before us via Zoom, as we connect with him for a chat about the 40th anniversary of his band’s legendary debut record Lexicon Of Love. He’s currently residing in the Caribbean, which at least in part may explain his sunny disposition. “I’m in Barbados,” he smiles, “so I’ll be going for a swim after this,” he breezily informs when we inquire as to his whereabouts and what he’s been up to. Evidently, we are fortunate to have stolen away such a chunk of his time.

Of course, there is more to the ABC frontman’s contentment than just his sun-kissed surroundings. At the time of our conversation, he is about to release The Lexicon Of Love Live, a new live recording of the band performing their debut album in full at their hometown venue Sheffield City Hall. The night, he tells us, was an unmitigated triumph, fuelled with further poignancy on account of the show taking place 40 years to the day since the album’s release.

“Live albums are not very in vogue now, but I grew up on them,” says Fry . “That’s how I got to know the Rolling Stones and The Who and David Bowie, it was always a great way of getting all the songs in one place. About 10 years ago we started playing orchestral versions of some of our songs and it worked out really well, so we were perfecting that show over a few years and thought it would be good to document it. Then someone said, ‘you’re playing Sheffield 40 years to the day since Lexicon Of Love came out’. So, it was our destiny to play it that night. It’s always a very emotional thing to go back to the city where it all started and it’s always a great feeling playing Sheffield. I didn’t really want to record 12 shows and edit it all together and auto tune every last handclap. It’s just the show in all its glory.

“There was magic in the air that night,” he continues, “for a lot of different reasons. I saw The Ramones and Blondie at Sheffield City Hall. When I was a student, I used to drink in a bar opposite and a guy would bring in any extra tickets. I saw Hall and Oates there one night on a free ticket. I was an impoverished bohemian student with no money. When you form a band and you first start out you have to go around every pub in town telling everybody - mostly other musicians - that you are the best thing ever. It’s a wish fulfilling prophecy and a lot of that went on in Sheffield, and songs like The Look Of Love and Poison Arrow were conceived sitting at the top of the bus on the way home after a night out clubbing. So, to bring it back home all those years later felt great.”

While many of the artists that Fry cites as influences in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s were concerned with reflecting the darker, grittier aspects of working-class Britain, be it the Sex Pistols, The Jam, or Joy Division, ABC were determined to create a more glamourous aesthetic. Bedecked in sparking tuxedos and boasting a Trevor Horn-produced sound that infused brassy blasts with twinkling pianos and shimmering synths, ABC and The Lexicon Of Love certainly made their mark.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It makes people cautious. We just wanted to take on the world. Martin Fry, ABC

“We wanted to plant our flag: welcome to the world of ABC,” Fry asserts. “You either liked it or loathed it. And the way we presented it was like… I was wearing a sparkling tuxedo, so again, people loved it or hated it [laughs]! Everything we did was like that, from the gigs to the sleeves. You know, ‘is it too schmaltzy to put strings on a record’? No. We wanted that because we were ABC. We were making dance music for the future. It’s a very pompous, arrogant way of looking at it, but it served us well. We all had something to prove. 

“We used to rehearse on this derelict street in a derelict house where there were no neighbours, so we could rehearse every day. So, we set about writing stuff and then we’d play shows at Leeds Warehouse and Sheffield Art College and record companies got interested in us, and we had a hit with a song called Tears Not Enough. Then we heard a song on the radio called Hand Held In Black and White by Dollar, which was produced by Trevor Horn and it sounded like Simon and Garfunkel meets Kraftwerk. It was an incredibly ambitious record, and we were an incredibly ambitious band, so we contacted Trevor and started recording the bulk of The Lexicon Of Love at Sarm East Studios in London underneath a salubrious wig shop on Brick Lane. We pushed Trevor and he pushed us. It was the first album Trevor had produced apart from his own stuff, so it was an exciting time. We were fearless because you don’t really know you are going to make a mistake. When you make your first album you just go with the flow. And a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, in a way. It makes people cautious. We just wanted to take on the world.”

And take on the world they did. Before long, ABC were not just topping the charts but toppling their idols.

“I remember Avalon by Roxy Music was No.1 one week and our record went to No.1 the following week, so it arrived with a band,” smiles Fry. “That felt good. But your life doesn’t change though. I wasn’t on the dole anymore, but I was only on about £50 a week, trying to work that out and be famous! But the music took off pretty quickly.”

Today, Fry is still possessed of a drive to keep writing and performing. It is, however, something that he concedes has ebbed and flowed over the past four decades.

“What is really inspiring is playing shows,” he says. “You play festivals and there might be 40,000 people singing back at you. That definitely inspires you. About 10 years ago I was thinking about how much longer I could go on performing, then we did a show at the Royal Albert Hall with the orchestra, and I could see in the crowd how much the music meant to people. And the inspires you to make new stuff.”

As for what the future holds, Fry is making no fixed plans. He’s certainly not ready to hang up that sparkling tux anytime soon, but as for when it’ll be given its next airing, is a conversation for another day.

“It’d be nice to make a new record and maybe go off on a different tangent,” he says thoughtfully, glancing off to the distance, perhaps towards the Caribbean Ocean awaiting him. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

You can listen to an extended version of this interview below.