“A bizarro trio who show occasional flashes of promise, but whose pretentiousness becomes quite tiresome”, is how the New Musical Express described Vice Versa in early 1978. It was an interesting point, and one which perhaps caused Mark White, Stephen Singleton and David Sydenham to change their ways. A chance meeting with Martin Fry, editor of Modern Drugs fanzine, was the catalyst for the band to rename themselves ABC. Sydenham left, and Mark Lickley and David Palmer were added for the recording of their debut single Tears Are Not Enough. Released on the Neutron label, it defined the Sheffield band’s unique brand of scratchy white soul. The band’s pretentiousness was now tinged with humour, thanks to Fry’s melodramatic lyrics and theatrical style.
ABC became the darling of NME, with writer Paul Morley singing their praises unendingly. Morley was also a huge fan of Trevor Horn, who was looking for a new vehicle after his Buggles project. The band met up and decided they wanted him as producer, and work began. It was one of those ‘stars are aligned’ moments; Horn loved the band’s raw talent and attitude, plus its pop sensibility, whilst Fry was understandably in awe of Horn’s technical skill and vision for the album as a complete work. Ann Dudley was drafted in to add strings, and Fairlight CMI programming was supplied by JJ Jeczalik. As a gauge of how well everyone worked together, Horn, Dudley and Jeczalik would later form Art of Noise, alongside Lexicon of Love‘s engineer, Gary Langan. Indeed, the unit effectively became the basis for ZTT Records, which launched a year later and went on to do great things with Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda and Seal.
The album has a wonderful, all-of-a-piece feel. From the dramatic and rather camp front cover to the expansive, powerful, almost cinematic production, it feels meticulously well put together. Musically, it’s a satisfying blend of funk and subtle electronica (Horn knew when not to overdo things), with infectious pop melodies and wry – often funny – lyrics which give an unusual and sometimes cynical take on traditional romantic themes of love and loss. Four fine hit singles were delivered, Tears and Not Enough, Poison Arrow, All of My Heart and The Look of Love (Part One) – although more could have been released, such was the album’s all-round appeal. Lexicon charted at Number One in the UK, and became RIAA Gold-certified. NME listed it as the third best album of 1982, and the fifteenth best of the nineteen eighties.
The band struggled to repeat the success of Lexicon; the follow-up long player Beauty Stab lacked its predecessor’s confidence and clarity of vision, and Trevor Horn not producing it was a major setback. In 1986, Martin Fry tragically developed Hodgkins Disease, an illness that put paid to ABC just when the band could have been in its prime. Once again, the NME had it right: “From gold lame suits and new pop with an entryist smile (Lexicon of Love in ’82) right up to optimistic house (Up in ’89), ABC have attempted to purvey stylish dance music that knows where it’s coming from. Most of the press interest, however, has revolved around their failure to consolidate on the success of Lexicon of Love. The perennial runners up of British pop.”