Entertainment & Arts

ABC's Martin Fry 'beyond risk' on the sequel to Lexicon Of Love

Martin Fry Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Martin Fry in 1982. He later flushed the gold lame suit down a toilet in Tokyo.

"A lot has happened to me since I was wearing the gold lame suit and performing Look Of Love on Top of the Pops. A lot of adventures, a lot of tough moments and a lot of brilliant moments."

It is 34 years since Martin Fry met Trevor Horn and wrote the rulebook for 1980s pop.

The singer's literate, heartbroken lyrics and the producer's grand vision for pop combined to create ABC's Lexicon Of Love, a stylish, funky album that was a deliberate reaction to the dour, grey musical landscape of the early 80s.

"A lot of music at the time was about electricity pylons," Fry once said, "and we wanted to take our audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride."

Decked out in tailored suits and gold lame, they did just that, topping the charts for four weeks and launching a thousand imitators.

But thanks in large part to Anne Dudley's sumptuous string section, Lexicon Of Love hasn't dated as badly as the records it inspired.

Yet ABC never managed to follow it up.

Their second album, Beauty Stab, ditched synths for guitars and stalled at number 12.

The hip-hop rhythms of 1985's How to Be A... Zillionaire! were ahead of their time, but they failed to arrest the band's commercial decline.

Then, aged just 27, Fry was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Disease and went "straight from Top of the Pops to the cancer ward".

Incredibly, he worked throughout the two-year treatment, during which he lost all his hair and endured several operations, re-emerging in 1987 with the top-10 single When Smokey Sings - a eulogy to Motown legend Smokey Robinson.

Image copyright Virgin EMI
Image caption ABC's top-10 hits included Poison Arrow, The Look of Love and All of My Heart

By 2000, ABC was essentially a solo vehicle for Fry, who was touring the nostalgia circuit with the likes of Bananarama, The Human League and Belinda Carlisle.

"You think, well, should you do those shows?" he says. "But you show up and do five songs, and there are thousands of people there.

"It's nice to be welcomed back, because in the mid-90s it was like, 'What? You're still here?'"

A turning point came in 2009, when he played Lexicon Of Love in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by the BBC Concert Orchestra, and conducted by Anne Dudley.

"I got to thinking, wouldn't it be nice to do something that follows it up and brings the story to the present day? What's happened to all those characters?"

The result is a belated sequel - Lexicon Of Love II - which, surprisingly, does nothing to besmirch the reputation of the original.

Fry is still as debonair as his lyrics are wry - "In the battle of the sexes, victory is denied," he sings on the first single, Viva Love.

Was it daunting to follow up such a cherished record?

"As an elder statesman of pop, I've walked a tightrope for my whole career.

"Calling it Lexicon Of Love II was the most provocative thing about it," he says.

"People have a great affection for the first record, [but] I'm beyond risk now."

Sessions began in October last year, with a distinct manifesto: "it was going to be big, bold, orchestral, come hell or high water" - even though the budget was much less than in 1982.

The songs were written in the order they appear on the record, with the exception of Viva Love, "a song that had been knocking round from way back that had never really been released".

Image copyright Virgin EMI
Image caption The artwork mimics the original, with Fry watching a murderous young couple in the wings of a theatre

It's noticeable the album presents a more optimistic view of love than its predecessor.

In his 20s, Fry was the lover spurned - every time he says: "I love you" on Lexicon Of Love, the girl turns on her heels and walks away.

The hit single Poison Arrow is a spittle-flecked invective against her decision: "Who broke my heart? You did, you did, You think you're smart, Stupid, stupid."

The second volume, however, was written from the perspective of a man who recently celebrated his 30th wedding anniversary.

"When you're with someone that length of time, they see the good, the bad and the ugly," Fry says.

"Despite all the twists and turns and trials and tribulations, love can survive. That's the most magical thing of all."

His philosophy is at its most explicit on the flamenco-flecked I Believe In Love: "There's grit in the oyster that's making the pearl, Take the good and the bad in this or any other world."

"I think I've always been a romantic," he laughs. "I was a young romantic, now I'm an old romantic. That's how I best describe it."

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Fry will continue to play Lexicon of Love in its entirety on tour this year, with songs from Volume II sprinkled into the second half of the set

Not every story on Lexicon Of Love II is a romance, though. Singer Not The Song is a semi-tragic "guidebook for any aspiring singer".

"In the rehearsal room, the drummer's got a drum kit, the bass player's got a big bit of wood with four strings - but what does the singer actually do?" says Fry.

"It's only when you do a show that the singer comes alive.

"It's an integral part of any concert to have someone in the spotlight - the humble entertainer, the immodest troubadour.

"So the song is saying, 'OK, I do spend most of my time talking crap with a Sharpie [pen],' but as soon as the crowd hits, the singer provokes a catalytic reaction.

"That's something that interests me, as a 57-year-old man. What draws you back into the spotlight? Something pretty strong."

He might not realise it himself, but it becomes clear during our hour-long conversation that Fry is driven by a love of pop music.

He name checks Calvin Harris, Lukas Graham and Kendrick Lamar, and talks about working with Rob Fusari - songwriter of choice for Lady Gaga and Beyonce.

He talks animatedly about watching Prince on tour in the 80s, and praises his vivid lyrics.

"You listen to Raspberry Beret, and you want to go to 'old man Johnson's farm'," he says - although he remains unconvinced that Prince ever worked "in a five-and-dime".

"Imagine him holding a broom, covered in purple lace in a pair of 6in heels," he laughs. "You can see why Mr McGee wasn't too comfortable with that. Bad for his business."

It's no surprise, then, that the musician has literally become a pop academic - being made an honorary doctor of music by Sheffield University in 2012 (coincidentally, his daughter Nancy picked up her degree in sociology a day later).

So, should we be addressing him as Dr Fry from now on?

"Well, you could do," he says, "but I keep thinking I'll be on a plane sometime and someone will go, 'There's a guy having a heart attack. Is there a doctor on board?'

"And I'll refrain from putting my hand up, because knowing who the drummer in Eater was isn't going to be too beneficial to a man in cardiac arrest."

Lexicon Of Love II is out now on Virgin EMI.

Related Topics

Around the BBC