Q Magazine

Martin Fry of ABC on 'Beauty Stab' Turning 40 and Surviving Critical Slings, Arrows, and Accusations of a Sophomore Slump

"To say that it was a career disaster... That can't have been true, because here I am, standing on a stage in front of 20,000 people, singing those songs!"

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Source: Mega

Although in mid-concert, Martin Fry did not hesitate to identify the person who broke his heart. ("They did! They did!")

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There's a hoary old cliché - one based very much in truth - which says that a musical artist has their entire life to write their first album and then only a few months to write their second album. In many instances, the end result is a hurried affair that, because it was put together predominantly with an eye more toward completion than creative satisfaction, proves to be a disappointment for all parties concerned. In the case of ABC, however, a pointed decision was made from the get-go: they returned from a tremendously successful tour behind their debut album, The Lexicon of Love, and actively set about writing recording a set of songs that would take them in a different musical direction than the album that had just taken them to the top of the UK Albums chart and spawned three top-10 hits: "Poison Arrow" (#6), "The Look of Love" (#4), and "All of My Heart" (#5).

The end result was Beauty Stab, and it was...not the second coming of The Lexicon of Love, commercially speaking, let's just say that.

Why did they do this? What made them think it was a good idea? And how did they react when they realized that - to borrow a line from Gob Bluth - they'd made a huge mistake from a commercial standpoint? Frontman Martin Fry had no hesitation about tackling all of these questions for Q, perhaps at least partially because with this year being the album's 40th anniversary, Beauty Stab has been reappraised and found to be a much better album that the general public had been led to believe.

But we'll get to that soon enough...

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Source: Universal

The members of ABC as captured in a photo on the inner sleeve of 1983's 'Beauty Stab.'

So let's set the stage: The Lexicon of Love is released in '82, ABC tours behind it until early '83... Did you do any writing for Beauty Stab while you were on the road, or did you wait until you were back from the tour?

Whistle stop tour of the world. Ended in Tokyo, started in...Coventry, I think? A lot of shows. 90 shows. I think... Yeah, we came back to Sheffield and started writing some new songs. It was that classic moment of, you've finished a globetrotting tour, and then you're back to reality.

Did you find the writing easy, or did it take a bit of time to get back into it?

It is what it is, writing songs. Catching hummingbirds. You've got to catch them while they're there. But, yeah, it was pretty good. I'll be honest, though: a technical question to be answered here is that I write all the time, really. Taking notes and stuff like that. So the travels definitely had a big impact on the songs.

As far as the music goes, did you go in with a plan to change direction?

Absolutely. It was time to rip it up and start again. There was a blueprint to see how far we could take the audience with us. We had massive success in Europe and obviously Britain, and then we had some good success in America, too, with "The Look of Love" and "Poison Arrow," and in the UK with "All of My Heart" and "Tears Are Not Enough" as well. We were the pop kings.

And yet your desire was to throw all of that away and start fresh.

Yeah, it was. It was. We weren't quite as careerist as people are today. [Laughs.] I like it when artists experiment, but you see less and less of it now.

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Even though you were ripping things up and starting again, did you still plan to involve Trevor Horn originally?

Yeah! The Trevor Horn relationship was great. But he was working with Yes, and he was finishing up "Owner of a Lonely Heart," and that album... What is it, 90125? You know the digits. But we didn't really have time to go and wait. We got straight back to it. We got back to Sheffield probably March '83, and Beauty Stab started to evolve. We wanted to make a record that was much grittier than The Lexicon of Love. More rocky. More black and white, compared to that day-glo. And I think, had we worked with Trevor Horn, it would've been along those lines, definitely. It would've been a different record, but it would've definitely been along those lines. It was interesting when Trevor made Liverpool, the follow-up to Welcome to the Pleasuredome with Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That was a sort of similar device. But, yeah, we were Orson Welles: we'd done Citizen Kane, and it was now time to do The Magnificent Ambersons. [Laughs.] Both of which are great films!

With Trevor unavailable, was Gary Langan your next choice, or did Trevor suggest him?

Yeah, well, Gary Langan had worked on The Lexicon of Love. He was Trevor's right-hand man. He was the recording engineer. So it was a question of just moving forward, and there was consistency there.

Was he immediately on board with what you were trying to do with the new album?

Yeah, he was. Gary's an incredible engineer, very much so. At Sound West and Sound East Studios, you'd listen to a lot of other people's music in there. It was quite a hub. And the early '80s was quite an experimental period, so somebody would show up with a new piece of equipment, and everybody wanted to hear how it sounded on a record. The engineers, the assistants, the tape ops, the bands...

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You had the same trio of you, Mark White, and Stephen Singleton for Beauty Stab.

Yeah, Dave Palmer stayed in Tokyo and joined Yellow Magic Orchestra, so we were a drummer down. He'd show up later, but he was still in Tokyo...with Bill Nelson, I think. So we drafted in Andy Newmark. He'd obviously played with our favorites, Roxy Music, but also Sly and the Family Stone. And [bassist] Alan Spenner had worked with Joe Cocker. I think Andy recommended him. So there you have it. That was the core of the album, really. With Luis Jardim coming down to do some percussion. Strings this time around, we worked with David Bedford. And we went to the Townhouse studios in Shepherd's Bush and started work.

As far as the strings go, they aren't nearly as all over the place as they had been with Lexicon of Love.

Well, you know what? On Lexicon of Love, there aren't as many strings as people first think. [Laughs.] We were using Solinas, which is a string machine, some Fairlight One samples... We'd have a bit of strings and then pad it out with some synthesizers, y'know? We didn't really a full-blown... [Starts to chuckle.] Well, funnily enough, now - or next February or March - I'm playing a sellout orchestral tour of the UK with the Southbank Simfonia, a 36-piece orchestra and band, with Anne Dudley conducting! So it's been interesting the last 10 years, really understanding how an orchestra works and how strings - violins, violas, cellos - how it all fits together. But back then? Nah. On "All of My Heart," there's a lot of strings. But on "The Look of Love," there's a little bit of pizzicato, so it sounds like there's an orchestra there in the shadows!

There's the song called "Bite the Hand That Feeds" on Beauty Stab, and...I'm trying to think what else! Oh, yes, there's some violas - an homage to John Cale, I suppose - on "That Was Then, This Is Now." But the texture of it, the blueprint of it, was definitely more abrasive, a harder sound. Not a shiny pop surface to it, but a grittier black-and-white sort of feel to that album. Because of some of those songs are protest songs, y'know? They were manifestos on how to move forward. Looking back now, I realize it was all about dealing with fame and dealing with people's expectations. I didn't want to be hemmed in by anyone's expectations. Because when we first started, nobody really cared what we did. They had no idea. We had to battle for our place in the spotlight, because we were a brand new band with our first album. So the vibe was very different when we came to do our second album.

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When I've talked to you in the past, you've utilized the phrase "protest songs" both times to describe Beauty Stab.

Well, I think it's always good to kick against something. When you're writing a love song, you're competing with pretty much 80% of what Frank Sinatra sang. The heavyweights of songwriting through the decades have always written love songs. So if you're gonna take that on, there's always stuff to kick against. I think it's a good catalyst to get into the good stuff. I genuinely felt then - as I do now - that if you're just kind of trying to duplicate what you do, you eventually dilute yourself to the point where it gets predictable. So I think there was a lot of that thinking going on when we made Beauty Stab. It's in the title of the album, it's in the title of the first single... It was about trying to find the future, really, in the present, rather than looking in the past.

Was that in particular why you chose "That Was Then, This Is Now" as the first single?

Well, yeah. It's like a manifesto, really, when you think about it. But I'll be honest with you, I never really unraveled the meaning of the songs. It's great performing the songs 40 years later, and you get a kind of a feel for how the audience feels about certain songs. But there's still a lot of mystery in them. You never really know why you write them. I think that's... [Hesitates.] I reckon if you asked Bob Dylan that, he'd say the same. You can't explain every cubic inch of your songs! They kind of exist in the ether, songs. They're kind of not really factual or fiction. They're just out there.

One of my favorite songs on that album has always been "Unzip."

Oh, right, thank you! [Quoting.] "Love's just a gimmick / A mime or a mimic / That makes sex seem respectable."

I remember at one point you had said that you could actually see putting that song back into the set. Have you ever actually done that?

Well, I'm just working it out [the set list], because we're doing the orchestral tour. With the full orchestra, it's great to play "S.O.S." With the band... We just played some shows in Mexico and played "That Was Then, This Is Now." It's great with a six- or seven-piece band. With Beauty Stab, we never got the sequencing right, because we just put it out in the order it was recorded. [Laughs.] Which isn't always the right thing to do! But you've got me thinking... There's a couple of songs in there, yeah, which would be great to come back at. In an acoustic setting, "United Kingdom" would be great to play, but with an orchestra... What was I thinking about? "If I Ever Thought You Were Lonely."

I could definitely see "By Default, By Design."

Oh, yeah, "By Default, By Design," which has a lot of strings on it. Yeah, I was thinking in terms of how that would work in the context of an orchestral tour. That's how I think about the songs, really: how they sit. It depends where you're playing, really, and what size the stage is and who you're playing to.

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When the album came out originally, were you surprised by the public reaction to it?

Well, yeah. We'd already had so much success... In retrospect, I think because we'd had that success, people wanted to kind of bring us down a peg or two. Everything we did turned to gold, so when it didn't, there were a lot of people out there ready to remind us, put it that way. But surprised? Yeah, I guess so at the time. Honest answer: yeah, of course. They weren't #1 records, they were, like, top-20. #18 or something like that. So it changed. We realized less people were interested.

And in turn, you obviously shifted in yet another direction for How to Be a Zillionaire.

Well, y'know, commercial success is great. It's wonderful to have a hit record. I've had a couple of big hits through the years, and if I get in a taxi, a taxi driver will sing the verse and chorus to "The Look of Love" to me. Songs become public property when they become massive tunes. But our core audience knows other songs. I dunno, I didn't cry about it. I just felt like it was time for the world to catch up. That's what you think. That's what every artist thinks, don't they? If their record's not a massive success. But after Beauty Stab, it was, like, "Okay, let's turn 180 degrees and go in another direction!" In a way, Beauty Stab had made us bulletproof, because we could go in any direction. That's how it was. Even today, as an elder statesman of pop.. [Chuckles.] ...playing these festivals all over the world, '80s festivals, there are other artists there, and... I don't know what to say, I can't speak for anyone else, but we decided... It's like the Frank Sinatra song: I was gonna do it my way. And I've not regrets. No regrets at all. No, like, "Oh, if only we'd changed this or changed that..." No.

Trevor Horn? Brilliant producer. Lexicon of Love was the first album he produced outside of his own stuff, y'know? But by not working with him on Beauty Stab, Mark White and myself had to learn some other tricks of the trade, definitely, about making records. And we applied them very much so when came to do How to Be a Zillionaire. So I don't know what to say to you, Will. [Laughs.] At the time, though, a lot of people critiqued the albums and the band. They didn't really want us to change...and rightly so! They liked the sort of stuff we were doing.

But one of the reasons we changed was, we could see a lot of bands were influenced by The Lexicon of Love, and I can point to, like, eight or nine bands that came out and changed their style and definitely tried to do what we did on The Lexicon of Love afterwards. And some of them had a lot of success with it, so good luck to them. But for us, it was important to kind of push ourselves, push the boundaries out, and to try and experience and see how far we could push it...and we kind of got the picture, really! [Laughs.] But the record did sell way more than people think. It wasn't a commercial disaster. It just wasn't as big as the multi-platinum-selling Lexicon of Love. And the label said, "Yep, we'll pick up the option," and off we go.

We wanted to become like the Archies for the next record and become, like, cartoon characters, to make a new reality out of that. And that's what we did. Everything had to be larger than life but kind of synthetic, machine-made. I mean, who doesn't love Kraftwerk? [Laughs.] So it was like that, the next record. But having said that, the old maverick spirit... I'm 65 now, I don't care. The artists I admire have got the same perspective. Maybe it's a way of protecting yourself in the snakepit that is the music industry. Or maybe not. But when I look at the people I really like, from Lou Reed to Harry Styles, you're looking at originals. At the end of the day, that's what it's about.

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When you mentioned you and Mark White working on How to Be a Zillionaire, it reminded me to ask: were you surprised when Stephen Singleton decided to leave after Beauty Stab?

No, I wasn't, really. A lot had changed since when we first started.

During the course of recording the album, did he seem to be as jazzed as you and Mark about the new direction?

Hard to say. But the band that was walking down West Street, Sheffield in 1981, plotting and thinking about recording a song called "Tears Are Not Enough," was very different from the band that was left reeling because "S.O.S." wasn't #1 in the charts. In pop music, 15 milliseconds is a lifetime. [Laughs.] Still is! But we had to change to move forward. It all had to change. And we always had a manifesto: change is a stability, change is a strength. And it was time to change.

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Despite how it was received at the time, I'm sure at the very least it's nice to find that people have reevaluated Beauty Stab in the intervening years and decided that it was a secret success, if you will.

Well, yeah! I read the review in Louder Than War and in The Quietus, and I was amazed. And pleased! It was nice to see anything get reevaluating 40 years on. But that's kind of how it is now, isn't it, in a way? I've got my copy of Who's Next and Ziggy Stardust and For Your Pleasure by Roxy Music, and I revere those records. In a way, some music's got a longer shelf life now, hasn't it? It's a kind of phenomenon. What do we call it? The Platinum Box Set Phenomenon? [Laughs.] Or The Record Companies Haven't Any New Acts for So Long Phenomenon!

One last thing I wanted to ask about was the cover art for Beauty Stab. One of those times when I talked to you, you said, "I don't know where we were going with that."

Well, I, uh, shouldn't have done that. [Laughs.] Because Keith Breeden painted it. It's a painting, and Keith Breeden is now a revered portraitist, a fine artist. He was involved in record sleeve design back then. He did some brilliant sleeves, like Scritti Politti and countless other people.

But, yeah, whatever I might've said then, I feel better about Beauty Stab now. I feel vindicated. 'Cause I always used to shrug and say, "Move on." But we put a lot of heart and soul into the record, all of us, we did. And it was tough. But everybody took a position, and to say that it was a career disaster... That can't have been true, because here I am, standing on a stage in front of 20,000 people, singing those songs. Y'know, most of music is about revenge. [Laughs.]

I'd say you've gotten yours.

Yeah! But don't get me wrong: I'm not an embittered guy. I'm at one with the world!


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