There was a lot of interesting British music happening in the early ‘80s. And a fair bit of that interesting music was happening in Sheffield. As electronic rhythms and synths overtook the scuzzed guitars and flying snot of punk, the South Yorkshire City - long the heart of the UK’s steel industry (its cutlery was mentioned as early as the 14th century in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) - seemed a perfect home for this futuristic machine music.
“Sheffield was right in the middle of a musical explosion,” explains ABC’s Martin Fry, who was then a student living in the city’s notorious Hyde Park. “I suppose all cities have a sound - the Liverpool sound or the Manchester sound - but Sheffield at that particular point in time seemed to be physically dragging music into the new decade. You would be walking down somewhere like West Street and all of the knackered old industrial units were spilling over with noise.”
Out of those industrial units came bands like Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire, Chakk, Thompson Twins, Vice Versa and, of course, Human League.
“I remember going to see Human League - we’re talking way before all the hits happened - and being left absolutely speechless. The entire audience was standing there, jaws hitting the floor. We had never heard anything like it from a British band: sinister, oddly shaped, electronic pop music. And we’d certainly never seen anything like it: you couldn’t take your eyes off their frontman, Phil Oakey. [Even now, over 40 years later, Human League’s early performances still feel frighteningly radical; check YouTube for a 1978 Granada TV version of Being Boiled and The Path of Least Resistance from the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1979.]
“That was the exact moment when my life fell into place,” adds Fry. “I saw my own future. I wasn’t going to work in an office or get a job in a factory… I was going to join a band.”
Fry, barely into his 20s, was actually asked to join as keyboard player for one of those bands that were helping to shape Sheffield’s sound, Vice Versa. But when the rest of the band heard his voice, the music began to take a few strange twists and turns. While their new songs were still electronic-ish, they also felt surprisingly funky and soulful. Vice Versa were about to turn into ABC.
“I’m still not sure how that change happened,” says Fry. “One minute, we were on the dole, signing on in Sheffield, and the next, we’re in London and we’ve had a Top 20 single with Tears Are Not Enough [released in 1981]. Things were happening so fast that it felt like we were having to do double takes all the time. Hang on a minute, we’re in Tony Visconti’s studio, being produced by Trevor Horn. And David Bowie’s popped in to say hello.”
Is it true Bowie collared you in the toilets?
“No, it was Mark [White, ABC’s guitarist]. He went to the toilet and standing next to him in the urinals is Bowie.”
Fry is speaking over Zoom from his holiday in Barbados, but the sun-kissed face on my computer screen is still struggling to comprehend the craziness of ABC’s meteoric rise. He’s laughing, raising his eyebrows, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head all at the same time.
“Sometimes, life can be fucking weird!”
We all know what happened next. Tears Are Not Enough was followed by another single, Poison Arrow (Top 10 in the UK, Top 20 in Europe and Top 30 in the US), followed by The Look of Love (Top 5 in the UK and a US Dance number one), followed by a debut album, The Lexicon of Love (a UK number one and worldwide sales of a million-plus). Martin Fry, the ex-student who used to live on baked beans and out-of-date bread in that iffy Hyde Park flat, became one of the era’s most recognisable stars.
In the ensuing decades, there were more successful albums and hit singles. The band lost some members and gained some, and Fry took a break for a few years and worked with artists as varied as Tackhead and M People. Along with Spandau Ballet, Human League, Rick Astley, Heaven 17 et al, Fry and ABC were also caught up in the ‘00s retro-festival explosion that gave these ‘80s acts a well-deserved second wind.
ABC have toured solidly since then and it was one of those shows that turned into the band’s most recent release, The Lexicon of Love Live. Recorded last summer at Sheffield City Hall - where else! - it features Fry and a full orchestra, roaring through the album, start to finish. Plus a few extras like When Smokey Sings and (How to Be a) Millionaire.
“Because the original album ended up sounding very stylish and sophisticated [thanks no doubt to Trevor Horn’s precise production and Anne Dudley’s arrangements], it’s easy to forget that ABC and The Lexicon of Love were made in the grey Thatcherite gloom of Sheffield in the late-’70s and early-’80s,” says Fry. “Yes, I was wearing a gold lame suit on Top of the Pops, but whenever I think about that period, I automatically drift back to that flat, 99 Roland Row, and the incredible panoramic views across the city. Like all precocious youngsters, we thought of ourselves as outsiders and being so high above the streets only added to that feeling of ‘otherness’. Ha ha! I was David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Fry laughs.
“Hyde Park was full of working class families going about their business and, to be honest, they probably hated having to share the neighbourhood with arty student wankers like me,” he continues. “Well, I know they hated us because we used to get bricks thrown at our windows and at us. I remember one night, we were walking over to the pub for our usual pint of whatever was the cheapest beer they’d got, and somebody chucked a telly at us. Well, I don’t know if they chucked it at us, but we always went a different way to the pub after that.
“Eventually, it did all get a bit too much when I heard about a murder that had happened on the estate and realised that it was in the flat next door!
“But here’s the thing… I absolutely loved living in that flat and I loved being in Sheffield. ABC was formed there and the sound we made in those very early days came directly as a result of my life in the city. For me - that younger version of me - the late-’70s was the most amazing time. And Sheffield was the most amazing place. I was independent, away from home, getting a bit of money thanks to the student grant, staring out across this magical city, listening to Bowie and Roxy Music, the Ramones, Smokey Robinson, all set against the continual clattering rhythm of the steel mills.
“Put that lot together and, somehow, you end up with ABC and The Lexicon of Love!”
ABC’s The Lexicon of Love Live is out now via Live Here Now Recordings. The band will be playing shows in the US, Europe and various UK festivals throughout the summer.