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The curse of the "difficult second album" struck Sheffield new romantic's ABC with the overblown Beauty Stab, searching doggedly for the kind of melodies that were the driving force behind the classic The Lexicon Of Love, but ultimately failing to recapture the consistency and splendour of their debut. The band was a sinking ship; reduced to just Martin Fry (vocals) and Mark White (keyboards), and when they drafted in Eden (journalist Fiona Russell-Powell) and the diminutive David Yarritu, neither of whom were musicians and whose participation on the album was somewhere between minimal and non-existent, the writing appeared to be on the wall for album number three.
And yet, music can have a funny way of surprising you. A project can be written off in a thousand different ways but if ever there was proof an album can be judged simply on how well its songs turn out, then How To Be A... Zillionaire! is surely it. Aside from line-up changes, Fry was laid low for a time after the release of the album with Hodgkin's disease, whilst Eden's and Yarritu's presence, something Fry admitted was in significant part to stop ABC becoming a dreaded "duo", would prove a predictably short-term means of papering over the cracks, with both departing soon afterwards. Unusually then, the renaissance can be attributed to its surviving members. Indeed, the album's single attempt at acknowledging the new recruits is also its one serious bum note. A cringe-worthy exercise in MC'ing called "A to Z", it's seemingly a gig-opener unceremoniously plonked in the middle of the record, giving the four a slightly ridiculous line in tacky aggrandising.
Released in 1985, How To Be A... Zillionaire! is very much an album of its time. Pockets of its thick, contemporary eighties production (most notably the ugly, pixelated drum opening to the otherwise-excellent "Fear Of The World" and the aforementioned "A to Z") sound dated. But it also served as a perfect reminder post-The Lexicon Of Love of not only the fantastic melody-making of White and the suave, easy-going precision of Fry's vocals, but also of ABC's acerbic, twinkle-in-the-eye lyrics that had been suffocated under the high-falutin' aesthetics of Beauty Stab.
The production is very slick, the instrumentation very precise. It's sonically a very pretty album, populated by a host of unflinching, feel-good pop songs defined largely by attractive, soft yet distinctive keyboard and piano refrains. "Be Near Me" is a prime example of this, somewhat fittingly opening with the line "the message is perfectly simple/the meaning is clear", the song is nothing more and nothing less than it should be; dreamy, crisp keyboards make for a beautiful accompaniment to Fry's musings that appear to point to a celebration of, as well as a fear of losing, love: "all my dreams came true last night, all my hopes and fears/all my dreams came true last night, in tears".
Whilst "Ocean Blue" retraces the slow, pleasant vibe of the aforementioned track, if not quite the effectiveness of its hook or lyrics, ABC soon increases the tempo for a host of crackers with sparkling lyrics. "Vanity Kills" is an unashamedly catchy romp that acts as an eminently amusing, withering exposé of narcissistic types: "you glance in the mirror, gazing deeply at love's patron saint/but my friend, survey the scenery, or are you just inspecting the paint?"). A wry and likable message, it's massive melody is utterly guaranteed to get stuck in your head, and is just about the most infectious thing on Zillionaire!.
And this quality formula is hit upon time and again. "15 Storey Halo" is as unconventional as its name suggests; Martin Fry opts for a distinctly looser vocal style whilst the instrumentation is an oddball mix of blasting trumpets and guttural electronics, yet it's just as moreish as the other cuts. "(How To Be A) Millionaire" should by-right have been destined for the upper echelons of the charts as it has all the right ingredients; taking a critical view on a culture of excess ("I've seen the future, I can't afford it/tell me the truth sir, someone just bought it") to a booming tune with a slight oriental flavour and full-blooded soul backing, it's real stadium pop. Even the blatant thievery of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" guitar bridge doesn't diminish what is a sublime song.
ABC showcase their new romantic sheen on the tremendous "Tower Of London", one of the albums most complete songs. It's a glitzy celebration of the "fashion catwalk" capital in the eighties tradition, but it's the composition that stays with the listener. It builds layer by layer with imaginative word-play trading off a wickedly effective, looping refrain that begins with bursts of trumpet and finishes with a flourish of keyboards. Add to the mix soulful, periodic "ah-ah"s from the backing singers and by the mid-point, you've got a song that is drawing from all kinds of sources to form its fascinating, up-tempo sound.
"Between You And Me" brings things to a close and isn't bad, though it's lament over continued Cold War tensions seems fairly drippy next to what had gone before. Well-judged keyboards remain a facet right to the end, but the song is ultimately neither as grandiose nor as eloquently scribed as past ABC slow ones (namely "All Of My Heart").
How To Be A... Zillionaire! is a reminder that whilst making a great pop album is simple in theory, it requires a great deal of skill to execute. The record is quirky though not wildly unconventional, yet allows the strengths of Fry's vocals and lyrics, as well as White's ceaselessly effective instrumentation and compositions, to take precedence. The result is a superbly accomplished album that is less elaborate but more immediate than The Lexicon Of Love, and at points rivals their opus. You can appreciate the cutting, cynical wit behind many of the songs or the consistency with which ABC work their craft, but should you choose not to place too much substance in the experience, it's an awful lot of fun to sing and dance to regardless.
(How To Be A) Millionaire; Be Near Me; Vanity Kills; Tower Of London
"I'm glad you've found someone who loves you, but sad to say that someone is you/
And now perhaps you'll both be happy, guess that makes two: just you and you"
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Fear Of The World
2 Be Near Me
3 Ocean Blue
4 15 Storey Halo
5 A To Z
6 How To Be A Millionaire
7 Tower Of London
8 So Hip It Hurts
9 Between You And Me
10 How To Be A Trillionaire (Harajuku Mix) (Fry-White) (Bonus Track)
11 What's Your Destination? (Bonus Track)
12 Vanity Kills (US Remix) (Bonus Track)
13 Vanity Kills (Abigail's Party mix) (Bonus Track)
14 Ocean Blue (Single Mix) (Bonus Track)
15 Judy's Jewels (Bonus Track)
16 Fear Of The World (In Cinemascope) (Bonus Track)
17 Tower Of London (Instrumental) (Bonus Track)