ABC revolves around the talented but often misguided Martin Fry, a onetime fanzine editor whose detailed notions of style include, on the Sheffield band’s first album, setting his own Ferry/Bowiesque vocals in lustrous pop production (by Trevor Horn) laden with keyboards and strings, mostly to a supple techno-soul disco pulse. He succeeds admirably with “Poison Arrow” and “The Look of Love,” but an entire album on the same subject — Fry is stuck in the lexicon’s lack-of/loss-of love section — can be a strain. Taken in toto, the melodies seem like retreads, and his attempts at urbane metaphoric wit seem forced.
Fry unexpectedly converted ABC into a rock band for Beauty Stab, making guitar the main instrument on most tracks. Fielding the same core lineup as latter-day Roxy Music (vocals, guitar, sax) and, coincidentally (?), joined by the session bassist and drummer (Alan Spenner and Andy Newmark) used on Flesh + Blood, ABC offers a remarkable impression (discounting Fry’s usual howler lyrics) of that band on “That Was Then but This Is Now.” ABC makes additional overtures towards Roxyish guitar rock but with little aptitude in direction, identity or grace. Quotes from Bo Diddley, the Move and other rock icons abound, but ABC has no idea how to use them.
By then reduced to a duo of Fry and guitarist/keyboardist Mark White, ABC took a long hiatus as Fry overcame a serious illness. In ’85, the group re- emerged with Zillionaire!, a mixed bag of sarcasm (“So Hip It Hurts,” “Vanity Kills,” “How to Be a Millionaire”) and sweetness (“Be Near Me”) on which the prime new influence is American hip-hop. (Sugar Hill techno- rhythm vet Keith LeBlanc figures prominently on the record.)
ABC returned to its (adopted) roots on Alphabet City, a confident modern soul record which draws from various contemporary genres but basks from start to finish in a soothing wash of strings, horns and heavenly background vocals. Fry and White have clearly matured, dropping the arch lyrical humor and selfconscious stylistic adventures to concentrate on painstaking pop craft. The clear highlight is “When Smokey Sings,” a touching and slyly tributary ode to William Robinson, but the remainder of the record is as easily enjoyable.
If Alphabet City put the band back on track, Up sent ABC down the home stretch, completing the stylistic oval interrupted by the second album. Returning to glibly clever techno-soul with a prominent and persistent beat, Fry and White use the peppy dance rhythms and irritating lyrics of their youth, lending the economical-sounding LP a similarity to Bowie’s Philadelphia period. Fry’s singing is deeper and more sincerely emotional than ever before; if the idealistically romantic songwriting wasn’t so overdone, the likable Up would have been a dandy.
Absolutely samples the band’s five albums for such ABC essentials as “Poison Arrow,” “The Look of Love,” “That Was Then but This Is Now,” “Be Near Me” and “When Smokey Sings.” The cutely titled Lexicon of Live, which covers all the band’s hits, was recorded onstage at a 1997 London gig.