ABC coalesced in 1980 in Sheffield, England, and immediately made a splash in its home country with the post-punk-kissed single "Tears Are Not Enough," which became a Top 20 hit. The song later appeared on what many consider the band's masterpiece: 1982's The Lexicon of Love
, a lavish, smoking jacket-clad nod to Roxy Music-style glam-pop, lounge-jazz crooning and plush synth-pop that spawned the global hits "Poison Arrow" and "The Look of Love." As the '80s progressed, ABC's fortunes ebbed and flowed, although the band continued to enjoy U.S. success: 1985's "Be Near Me" reached No. 9 on the singles charts, only to be eclipsed two years later by an even bigger hit, the No. 5 "When Smokey Sings."
Although many new wave records sound dated, ABC's debonair futurism ensures that the band's '80s LPs have aged like fine wine. Ask singer-songwriter Martin Fry about this phenomenon, and he's gratified, if mystified.
"I listen to a lot of contemporary music, anything from the Arctic Monkeys to Post Malone," he says, calling from Chicago on a recent afternoon. ABC performs at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Hard Rock Live
as part of Retro Futura tour that features a slew of '80s acts. "But I have to say, the productions that we put together, from The Lexicon of Love
through How to Be A…Zillionaire!
And [the song] 'When Smokey Sings,' do sound contemporary. I don't know why that's happened; that was a total fluke.
"I've spent 30 years obsessing about fusing dance music to great songs, you know, mixing a bit of Cole Porter up with Chic, Sister Sledge, [and] Earth, Wind and Fire. I think that kind of worked out well. The formula works."
Yet ABC's career has hardly been marked by stagnation. Within any sonic parameters, Fry has always explored contemporary production techniques and instrumentation. Take "How to Be a Millionaire": The song's subject matter, which touches on the louche nature of obscene wealth, is relevant today, although its funky foundation and pulsating grooves were cutting-edge for 1984.
In more recent times, ABC contributed a song to the Eddie the Eagle
soundtrack, "Living Inside My Heart," which boasted the cool-rush sheen of current electro. And then, there's ABC's most recent album to date, 2016's The Lexicon of Love II
. Billed as a sequel to the band's hit 1982 LP, the album is a thoroughly modern-sounding take on the group's orchestral-pop grandeur.
"Nostalgia's a funny thing, really," Fry says. "It's not about the past; it's about the present. When you're on stage in 2018, you've got to have a great show. The audience wants to come in with their memories of life before they had a mortgage or kids, all those years ago. They want to feel young again."
Fry reportedly wrote 40 songs for The Lexicon of Love II
. "Ask any songwriter: You've got to strike while the iron's hot, so if you're inspired, you've got to write songs," he says. "You have to hit it when the lightning strikes." When asked about particular inspirations, Fry points specifically to a show ABC played at the Royal Albert Hall in London that provided him insights into a songwriting direction.
"I've been playing a lot of shows and realizing that it's about how good you are in that moment," he explains. "The past is the past, but it's not about trying to go back to the past, it's how it applies to today. I looked out into the audience [at Royal Albert Hall] and realized everybody's been through the same thing. Everybody's had their heart broken or had a big loan to buy a house or [have had] kids grow up. Everybody's lives are full of adventure.
"So I thought it'd be great to write songs that reflected that and caught the mood of the audience as we move forward. It's not about trying to be 17 years old again; it's about looking at the world and seeing if it's still a romantic place. There's always something new happening. Somebody's falling in love somewhere in the world tonight. You have to remember that."
The Lexicon of Love II
wasn't released in America, and when this fact is mentioned to Fry in context of a question about whether the album will be officially issued here, he utters a combination sigh-groan. However, he has another new ABC record percolating, with music he describes as "unapologetically big, and bold and brash," as well as "romantic." Judging by two new songs that have already surfaced, "The Life and Times of a Troubadour" and "Look Good Tonight," he's on the right track.
"The world's a really tough place today, so it's good to look around and find the good stuff," Fry says. "[I want to take] the magical moments and put them into a song."
As part of the annual Retro Futura tour, ABC is doing one of its most extensive U.S. jaunts in years. (Belinda Carlisle, Modern English, Limahl from Kajagoogoo, Tony Lewis from the Outfield and Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin are also on the bill.) In the U.K. and Europe, ABC remains a major draw and has played at retro-leaning events such as the Rewind Festival, a summer staple in England and Scotland that brings together all manners of vintage acts.
Playing these festivals has given Fry a unique perspective on the decade in which ABC originated—and how the '80s are remembered today.
"The 1980s itself as a musical genre lasted about six or seven years, from about 1981 to 1988," he says. "But the nostalgia is bigger and longer than the decade itself. You know what I mean? It's been reinvented. People wear the Madonna outfit, and then they wear the fluorescent stuff too, and they sometimes have the Wham! T-shirt on. [With their outfits] they condense 1982 into 1988.
"I love it when each decade gets reinvented. I mean, let's face it: Everybody said they went to Woodstock, didn't they? And in the '70s, everybody saw the Sex Pistols and the Clash. So in the 1980s—why not? Why not reinvent it?
"There was a big sense of optimism, wasn't there?" Fry adds. "It was all big shoulder pads and big hair and big choruses. Everything was big. But I think that sense of wild innocence and hope for the future is something that people get from the music when they listen to anything from Duran Duran to Bruce Springsteen to Michael Jackson in that period. Madonna. Any act from that period."
In the U.S., ABC's current setlist does reflect some geographical realities—for example, Fry says they "never, ever" play "Be Near Me" in Europe—and Retro Futura's compact sets. Not that this is a bad thing, of course. "We've got our magical 45 minutes to explode in," he says. "We hit the ground running. We start fast, and take it up from there, from 'When Smokey Sings' through to the end to 'Be Near Me.' It's an intense 45 minutes.
"I've realized when you stand on stage and sing 'Poison Arrow and 'The Look of Love' and 'Be Near Me'— the audience, they don't want to come to a show and go, 'Hey, that guy was great back in 1987.' They want to come to a show and feel brilliant, there and then, in 2018. And that's what the Retro Futura show's all about."
After the tour wraps, Fry is eyeing work on the new ABC album, and pondering other ways the band might continue to push forward.
"We've been playing a lot of orchestral shows in the U.K.," he says. "It'd be nice to get together with a full-on orchestra at some point in the U.S.A. That's something we've never done here in America, but the reaction is pretty good wherever we go. You know, after all these years, it's a great privilege to hear an audience sing your lyrics back to you in 2018."