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Alphabetically Yours Jay Lewis delves into the box set of a pop masterpiece

Alphabetically Yours

Jay Lewis delves into the box set of a pop masterpiece

by Jay Lewis, Reviews Editor
first published: August, 2023

approximate reading time: minutes

It is an album of universally recognizable emotions, of dancing away the heartache, of being dramatic, even melodramatic, and of cinematically bold production.

ABC
The Lexicon of Love - 40th Anniversary Edition
(Mercury)
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Part A - Before: From Vice Versa to ABC

18 July 1981:  On the front cover of that week's NME an unknown five-piece band are lying, somewhat uncomfortably, next to one another on a gymnasium floor. The name of the band is ABC and this is their big debut.

ABC NME 81

It feels like a strange choice as there are no actual ABC products to promote, no radio sessions or tour dates to talk up. There's no mention of any forthcoming singles. Never mind that, there is the sense that something big, something huge, may happen soon…

The one thing that we learn about the genesis of ABC is that guitarist Mark White and saxophonist Steve Singleton had previously had a band called Vice Versa. and that, after interviewing them for his fanzine, future ABC vocalist Martin Fry was asked to join. However, if you listen to any of their experimental and minimal electronica there are no clues as to what would follow. An earlier release of theirs had been NME Single of the Week, but Mark White's vocals (Fry was not yet the singer) on ‘Riot Squad’ are stark, like Daniel Miller on The Normal's 'Warm Leatherette.' whilst their live set (captured at Leeds Futurama 1980) has Singleton and Fry 'playing' their synths with punkish disdain whilst mustachioed White anxiously yelps and moves frantically.

Although ABC were being unveiled as a new pop act, the core members had been performing for quite some time:

'... people always used to say, Yeah, ABC just came from nowhere, they're totally manufactured. They didn't understand that we'd worked on it and spent a lot of time on it. We'd served an apprenticeship of sorts and played every single dive in the North of England. We'd done them all.'

Steve Singleton - 'Made in Sheffield' (2000),


Vice Versa were a fascinating act, but in Sheffield, alongside Cabaret Voltaire, Clock DVA, and the early incarnation of The Human League, they were just another avant-garde synth band. And apparently, all it took was the epiphany of seeing Chic play live at Sheffield City Hall for their shift in thinking, and their radical transformation to begin.

Meanwhile, back on that gymnasium floor. Fry is excitedly squeezing in prepared quotes of amusingly mixed metaphors into his interview. It's ambitious, but in a charmingly naive way, it's unintentionally amusing. But really, pay attention, grab a pen and paper, and take note. This was a band that we were going to have to listen out for...

Part B - The 'Fairlight Frank Sinatra' & The 'Disco Bob Dylan'

In less than a year from that excited NME piece, ABC, have achieved three top twenty singles and had the first debut album in chart history to go straight in at number one.

lexicon full sleeve
Alongside 'Sulk' by The Associates, 'The Lexicon of Love' is the only other album that truly summed up the audacious spirit of pop music in 1982. Both bands had, in the words of Simon Reynolds,  '...fulfilled the New Pop dream of chart-busting music that combined pop's flash with post-punk perplexity...' * they could both be featured and get rave reviews in the inkies (the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds) and the glossies (Smash Hits and virtually every pop magazine that followed)

'The Lexicon of Love' plundered the past to help create the bands engaging present. The album's sleeve looked as if it could easily have been based on a Powell and Pressburger film poster, the orchestral flourish that opened the record could have been a Rogers and Hammerstein overture. Singer and lyricist Martin Fry described the musical concept of 'Lexicon' as being like a 'Fairlight Sinatra' - it was as if the history of big band ballads could be the source for a new, danceable, and unashamedly dramatic sound, all poured into a huge Fairlight CMI sampler by a new producer that they'd found by the name of Trevor Horn (it's undeniable that 'Lexicon' was the record that established Horn's reputation).



You can also find traces of Bacharach and David in the hurt reminiscences and orchestral strains of 'All of My Heart.' Fry's words and wordplay were getting comparisons to Elvis Costello's luscious 'Imperial Bedroom', also released in 1982.(Imagine Costello reworking the dark wit of 'Date Stamp', or Fry 'interpreting 'Beyond Belief'). Also, like Costello, Fry could pay homage to an earlier generation of songwriters in lyrics (note the nods to Smokey Robinson and The Zombies). And as for their 'Disco Bob Dylan' reference, listen to the 'And your gravity fails and negativity won't pull you through' line of 'Just Like Tom Thumb Blues' before you next  play 'The Look of Love.'

Fry clearly has a fondness for great lyricists, claiming (in an interview in 1992), that '...I've always liked pop music, but I like it when it's literate, not in a pretentious way, but in a way that makes it memorable, something really touches people in the way that it touches me. And still does if you hear something that really hits you musically, but it also might hit you lyrically'. Those lyrics are, I believe, one of the reasons that the allure of the 'Lexicon' has lasted so long.

if you wanted to be really picky, you could argue that the album is not a 'Lexicon of Love', it's more a ' Lexicon of Romantic Rejection' (but that's not such as catchy title is it?).   '...it's a very intense record, it's not a very relaxed record, it's quite a neurotic record' Fry said in 1992. You can feel that neurosis from our first-ever view of the band on the single 'Tears Are Not Enough' where Fry is possibly at his most anguished. The jilted bitterness is also felt with their breakthrough 'Poison Arrow' ('...you think you're smart...stupid, stupid' Ouch!), best of all though was the angsty 'Valentines' Day', by far the most OTT production on the record, a track that builds and builds as the singer runs through his lists of woes (spot the film and literature references too!). And there's a xylophone solo too.

'The Lexicon of Love' is an album of universally recognizable emotions, of dancing away the heartache, of being dramatic, even melodramatic, and of cinematically bold production. The fact that it opens with the orchestration of  ‘Show Me’  and closes with the brief burst of strings on ‘The Look of Love Part 4’, may suggest that this is a concept, a record with a beginning, middle, and end.  It all sounds very un-1982, but in many ways, that's what ABC were.


Part C - ...but this is now

The arrival of any re-released, re-evaluated, deluxe and definitive version of any loved album can be both a cause for celebration and consternation.

Ideally, you want there to be long-lost gems to be unearthed and revealing new mixes, but you don't want an abundance of barely distinguishable radio edits and a host of remixes that pay little regard for the original. The great news with this anniversary edition of ‘Lexicon’ is that it leans more towards the former than the latter. Some may question some of the omissions on the vinyl selection, but lesser demos that made it to the last Deluxe CD edition are more curios and have been eschewed). It is great to hear demos of 'Surrender' and 'Show Me' which reveal their initial desire to marry funk and soul with the sensibility of their post-punk peers. On the original extended version of their debut single 'Tears Are Not Enough', the band's love of Chic and Sister Sledge can be heard in Mark White's tense and rhythmic guitar playing.

Beyond the archival material, the actual jaw-drop moments come with Steven Wilson's new mixes. Like Giles Martin with The Beatles, these mixes are more like restorations than mere remixes, stripping apart and reassembling a piece, enabling the listener to enter the music like never before. It's difficult to place into words what a revelation this is but believe me, there's a moment on the Dolby Atmos Mix of 'The Look of Love Part 4' that made me leap from my set. The joy of hearing something new in a record I've played consistently since its release.

Some may have bemoaned Wilson's new Stereo Mix of the album, but it’s akin to when you move a piece of furniture and your housemate or partner grizzles because they don't like change. The first thing that hits you with the mixes is the clarity of vocals (see 'Poison Arrow' as a case in point) they are gently lifted up in the mix, it feels so much clearer - so much more real. Whether or not you're comfortable or not with some of Wilson's other tweaks (note the echoey saxophone at the end of 'All of My Heart'), it's a matter of individual taste. The one thing that all listeners must surely agree on is that the full album of instrumentals reveals what great synergy ABC had as musicians, by the time of the still surreal '4 Ever, 2 Gether'  you can marvel at what an experimental and ingenious group they could be.

Finally, the restored version of the film 'Mantrap' is included in the package. Directed by Julian Temple, it mixed some joyous live material from the band’s world tour (yes, I was there) into a dramatic spy caper with an endearingly daft plot and some questionable acting (Fry described his own performance as 'mahogany'). It’s foolish but fun.

Following the 'Lexicon' ABC would regenerate, and there would be both musical and visual acts of metamorphosis, of change and change again. But these are different stories for another time perhaps. In the meantime, delve into this splendid collection and celebrate the glory of a timeless and peerless record.  From A to Z, Alphabetically Yours...ABC.


Essential information: 

*'Rip It Up And Start Again' - Simon Reynolds

Jay Lewis
Reviews Editor

Jay Lewis is a Birmingham based poet. He's also a music, movie and arts obsessive. Jay's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.


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