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ABC were a Sheffield based band who broke through into the mainstream in 1981 with a club oriented single called "Tears are Not Enough". The song was produced by Steve Brown and whilst it succeeded in getting people up to dance in clubs, wasn't a huge commercial hit, only just scraping into the UK top 20.
ABC at the time consisted of Martin Fry, Mark White, Steve Singleton and David Palmer. Fry was the frontman - a tall, gangly man who didn't have the best voice in pop but was able to emote heartbreak perfectly. He was also a former journalist.
Part of the "Sheffield Scene" which broke though in 1981 along with the Human League and Heaven 17, a common theme between these bands was the importance they placed on songwriting, something quite evident here - particularly in Fry's lyrics.
I remember when this album was released in 1982 it was hailed as "perfect pop" but it is so much more than that. The personnel involved in this went on to form ZTT - Trevor Horn produces here and the lush orchestrations are the work of Anne Dudley - the sound of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda and the Art of Noise that was to come a few years down the line started here.
I am going to review the original 1982 release, which I still own on cassette. I recall purchasing this tape in London - I had just returned from a holiday in Belgium and wanted to listen to this on my ancient old Walkman on the long train journey back to Glasgow. The album is readily available on CD and has been reissued several times with bonus tracks but being a bit of a purist, I'm going to stick with the 10 songs that were originally released on vinyl and cassette back in the summer of 1982.
1 "Show Me"
Starts off with a beautiful string section before the horns, guitars and rhythm section kick in. Fry asks his love to "show me" that she returns his feelings but there is an undercurrent showing the thin line between love and hate here.
2 "Poison Arrow"
Still gets played today, and rightly so. A classic pop song about lost love which has poetic lyrics - "the sweetest melody is an unheard refrain".
The bridge is spoken and could have been cheesy but for me anyway, it adds to the drama of the song and the imagery of the lyrics.
At the time many spoke of "perfect pop" and this song is surely an embodiment of that.
3 "Many Happy Returns"
A lament to lost love - I can only marvel at the way Fry uses the line "I know democracy and I know what's fascist" in a love song, but here it works perfectly. The song starts with Fry calmly singing about this love but works up to a crescendo revealing he isn't as calm about the break up as he would have you believe. Uptempo with incredible production.
4 "Tears Are Not Enough"
This isn't the original mix of this 1981 single - this is Trevor Horn's version with more pronounced keyboards than the original. This is a typical club track from the early 1980s with a strong horn section and a track I would still want to dance to today, which probably marks me out as something of a dinosaur as I am fully aware of how dated this sounds.
5 "Valentine's Day"
This is a triumph for Horn and Dudley - great production and beautiful strings as Fry sings of the disappointments of life and how his relationship has gone down the tubes with this great lyric:-
"If you gave me a pound for the moments I missed, and I got dancing lessons for all the lips I shoulda kissed -
I'd be a millionaire - I'd be a Fred Astaire"
It's great to hear Fry emote the way he does as he goes from calm collectiveness to saying what he really means.
6 "The Look of Love (Part One)"
Probably ABC's most recognisable track - this was played to death which for me anyway, negated the beauty of the song.
This is uptempo, Fry's voice is happy but the lyrics once again feature the joy and pain of love and what it can do to you. The story goes that Horn got Fry's ex-girlfriend to speak the word "goodbye" in the song and whether true or not, whenever I hear that part I can almost see a sneer on her face as she says it and walks out of the door.
The production is a joy on this song and Dudley's strings are quite simply beautiful.
7 "Date Stamp"
I love this song - I love how Fry links the "use by" dates on food on sale in supermarkets with the length of time romance lasts and retail returns to emotional ties.
The song is uptempo and is co-sung with Tessa Niles whose voice works really well with Fry's.
8 "All of My Heart"
This is my favourite song on "The Lexicon of Love" - it's a real heartbreaker of a love song and the production is outstanding.
Horn wanted to have lush orchestrations on this song from the off to add drama to the tale. ABC were somewhat reluctant but Horn persevered and I have to say this to me shows the genius of the man - without the strings this would have been good, but with them it is special.
A beautiful ode to lost love and the hope that love will somehow return; the perfect combination of amazing lyrics, genius production and beautiful melody.
9 "4 Ever 2 Gether"
This is the weakest song on the album for me. The whole song sounds really dated and its one saving grace is Fry's lyrics - I love how he says "I put a marriage proposal in the waste disposal" - but overall not good.
10 "The Look of Love (Part Four)"
A short coda to the album features an instrumental reprise of "The Look of Love (Part One)" - which is actually a nice ending as it really emphasizes the beauty of Dudley's work on the album.
ABC were never able to top this album but they continued to record with Fry as the one constant, achieving modest hits throughout the 80s and critical successes in the 90s.
The importance of this release on the UK music scene however is hard to ignore. It launched Horn as a bonafide producer rather than a curiosity and he went on to bigger and better things in the decade, including his work with Yes. Without the success of this, one wonders if something as beautiful as "Moments in Love" by the Art of Noise would ever have seen the light of day.
It also paved the way for other acts who wanted to do "pop" but in an intelligent and witty manner - such as the Pet Shop Boys or Erasure.
At the end of the day however the talent of the band shines through with lyrics that speak to the listener, strong melodies and good vocals and I highly recommend you give it a listen.
Available on Amazon in several different versions, including reissues with live tracks and rarer releases.
The album opens with the instrumental intro to "Show Me". Anne Dudley's strings arrangement shimmers into a crescendo which transforms into the kind of bass line that defines ABC as a band. Martin Fry's voice shines as he sultrily sings "Since we're skimming the surface, darling, now's time to get in deep", which has got to be the best moment of the song for me. "Poison Arrow" is one of the tracks that most people will know, with the chorus showing off Fry's falsetto, which appears on many tracks. Danceable, intelligent and catchy, this single is definitely a highlight on the album.
Next up is "Many Happy Returns" which starts off slowly but bursts into yet another up tempo hit. Favourite line has to be "When she's gone, all I've got to learn/Is the law of diminishing returns". A neat segue into "Tears Are Not Enough", which is a jaunty little track, and I think it's near on impossible not to smile when you hear this song. "Valentine's Day" wakes you up with a repeated drum riff and a smooth groove which makes way for Fry's slightly bitter lyrics. Didn't like it at first, but it's definitely grown into one of my favourites, if only for the way the millionaire/Fred Astaire couplet is sung.
Now for THE hit of the album: "The Look Of Love (Part 1)" made the band, introducing us to their debonair style. Everything is perfect about this song, from the ex-girlfriend saying "Goodbye." to the "And all my friend just might ask me..." section, and the production is over the top and fantastic. Even better is that it's followed up by my favourite track, "Date Stamp", which I love because it's got an amazingly melancholy bridge section, and Fry manages to make what could potentially be the most cringe-worthy of lines incredible ("I get sales talk from sales assistants/When all I wanna do, girl, is lower your resistance").
In my opinion, the next two songs are a slight drop in quality, but by no means bad. "All Of My Heart" is a sweet ballad, which is contrasted with the slightly sinister feel of "4 Ever 2 Gether" with it's odd backing vocals.
The album draws to a close with "The Look Of Love (Part 4)" an instrumental version of the track, and paired with the intro to the first track, it's the perfect bookend to a perfect album.
What I really love about this album is that every single song has at least one moment that I love, even on the tracks I don't like so much. Another thing that amazes me is the production - for an album that is almost 30 years old, it hasn't aged too badly at all. A must buy!
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 Show Me
2 Poison Arrow
3 Many Happy Returns
4 Tears Are Not Enough
5 Valentine's Day
6 Look of love (part one)
7 Date Stamp
8 All Of My Heart
9 4 Ever 2 Gether
10 The look of love (part four)
11 Theme from "Mantrap"