(Universal Music Operations)
For a period of pop culture misremembered as being solely defined by young opportunists making expensive promo videos, the early/mid-1980s also saw a clutch of brave, maybe foolhardy, artists that followed their chart successes with career-crashing curveballs, records that were often the art bit of pop-art, music that was unexpected and frequently uncommercial.
You may have thought that after Punk, Glam, Prog, and whatever Bowie was morphing into that particular week, pop music audiences would be more sophisticated and the 'don't fuck with the formula' worries of acts primarily concerned with their own longevity was a bad memory. Pop was now grown up and we could cope with all of the creative curiosities shown to us. If OMD wanted to set the Cold War to music ('Dazzle Ships', 1983) or Dexys wanted to follow a global hit with a perplexing new image and album that didn't have any singles on it...well that was fine ('Don't Stand Me Down' 1985). Pop fans aren't fickle, those records were bound to sell in droves...weren't they?
This leads us to 'Beauty Stab' - ABC's second long player. Released in November 1983, it shows the band ditching the perfect pop template of its famous predecessor ('The Lexicon of Love', 1982), for a rawer ( wiry and Wire-y) guitar-orientated sound with Mark White's stripped-down arrangements defining the new direction. Martin Fry cited the influence of Gang of Four, but the poptastic pop music press only heard the loud and shrill guitars and denounced it as their 'heavy metal' album - a description far from the truth and rather offputting.
In 'Rip It Up And Start Again' - author Simon Reynolds notes that 'Beauty Stab' emerged after the band returned from a world tour to their hometown of Sheffield to find it 'decimated by unemployment and heroin...suddenly the aspirational imagery they'd been using seemed in questionable taste'. Their new music was a work of protest. It's lead single 'That Was Then But This Is Now' was "...a rallying call against complacency," whilst songs like 'Hey Citizen' and 'King Money' were, according to a recent interview with Fry, 'reality checks' and 'anti yuppy,' in their outlook. Familiar Fry topics of romance and rejection are now placed in a social context - 'By Default By Design' is a string-driven drama, whilst 'Unzip' is scalding about modern romance (yes, there's a punning in-joke there), and is one of Mark White's boldest arrangements. It also has the album's finest (and deliberate) comic line.
As ABC had reduced down to a three-piece (Fry, White, and saxophonist Steve Singleton) after the 'Lexicon' tour, the band hired a new rhythm section of bassist Alan Spenner and drummer Andy Newmark - on loan from Roxy Music, for 'Beauty Stab'. I always felt that whatever direction ABC headed in, the influence of Roxy was not far away, Mark White had cited Phil Manzanera as one of his favourite guitarists, and there was always something Ferry-esque to Fry's literary and lovelorn outlook.
In the recent short film about the fortieth anniversary of the album, writer Scott T Stertling (SPIN, Vibe, and LA Times), argues that 'making a sequel to The Lexicon of Love would have been just like treading water...' It's true, it's more courageous to move onto something new and challenging, I'm more forgiving of an overly stuffed but sincere lyric, such as album closer 'United Kingdom' than any lazy regurgitation of a 'formula.' 'Beauty Stab' may have seemed to have sunk the band at the time but it freed the band from the shadow of its predecessor and allowed them to venture into the cartoon mayhem of 'How To Be a Zillionaire', the joyous pop of 'Alphabet City' and the house and Philly soul-tinged 'Up' and 'Abracadabra' albums.
Appreciation for 'Beauty Stab' may be arriving much, much later than anticipated, but it is coming (there's even a #justiceforbeautystab hashtag emerging on social media). As with the best art, it exists both in the moment that it was made and for all time. It may have bemused many in 1983 but we're older and wiser. That was, indeed, then...