ABC are an English pop band that formed in Sheffield in 1980. Their classic line-up consisted of lead singer Martin Fry, guitarist and keyboardist Mark White, saxophonist Stephen Singleton and drummer David Palmer.
Developed from an earlier band, Vice Versa, ABC achieved ten UK and five US Top 40 hit singles between 1981 and 1990, and their 1982 debut album, The Lexicon of Love, was a UK number-one. Their early 1980s success in the US saw them associated with the Second British Invasion. Now essentially a solo project for Fry, ABC continues to tour and released a ninth studio album, The Lexicon of Love II, in 2016.
ABC has its roots in the band Vice Versa, a Sheffield band formed in 1977 by synthesizer-players Stephen Singleton and Mark White. Their debut gig was as the support to Wire at the Outlook club in Sheffield. They founded their own label, Neutron Records, releasing the EP Music 4. Martin Fry, who wrote the fanzine Modern Drugs, interviewed Vice Versa and shortly afterwards they asked him to join as synthesizer player. Fry accepted and by late 1980 the band had evolved into ABC, with Fry becoming lead singer. The last performance as Vice Versa was at the Futurama 2 Festival in Leeds in September 1980, from there on it was as ABC; with Singleton playing saxophone and White playing guitars and keyboards. In the new year they were joined by Mark Lickley on bass and David Robinson on drums.
The band’s first single, “Tears Are Not Enough”, made the UK Top 20 in 1981. Soon afterwards, Robinson left the band and was replaced by David Palmer; Lickley departed shortly thereafter and was not replaced. In 1982, the band released their debut studio album The Lexicon of Love, which reached number-one on the UK Albums Chart. Produced by Trevor Horn, it often featured in UK critics’ lists of favourite albums: it ranked 42nd in The Observer Music Monthly’s “Top 100 British Albums” (June 2004) and 40th in Q magazine’s “100 Greatest British Albums” (June 2000). The band had three Top 10 hits during 1982: the singles “Poison Arrow”, “The Look of Love” (both of which were recorded whilst Mark Lickley was still a member of the band), and “All of My Heart”. Several high-concept music videos were made, including the long-form spy pastiche “Mantrap”.
Following the culmination of the Lexicon of Love tour, Palmer joined the Yellow Magic Orchestra for a series of tour dates; shortly thereafter Fry, White and Singleton decided to reconvene in order to commence work on their next album, leading Palmer to depart ABC in order to honour his commitments to Yellow Magic Orchestra’s tour. The remaining members found it difficult to follow-up on the success of their debut. Their second album, Beauty Stab, was released in November 1983, produced by Gary Langan who was the engineer on The Lexicon of Love. It performed poorly in comparison to its predecessor, peaking at No. 12. The first single from the album, “That Was Then but This Is Now”, briefly appeared in the UK Top 20, followed by a Top 40 showing for “SOS”. The band eschewed remixes for the project and so the 12″ single for “That Was Then but This Is Now” featured the disclaimer “This record is exactly the same as the 7″ version. The choice is yours.”
Singleton left the band shortly after the release of Beauty Stab as a result of Fry and White’s reluctance to spend much time touring the band’s material. Fry and White then enlisted the services of Fiona Russell Powell (known as Eden) and David Yarritu in the band’s new line-up. This line-up recorded the album How to Be a … Zillionaire!, released in 1985. The band’s chart success dwindled further in the UK with this album, but they did score their first US Top 10 hit with “Be Near Me”, which also made the UK Top 30. The album also featured the singles “(How to Be a) Millionaire”, “Vanity Kills” and “Ocean Blue”. Inspiration for the album’s cartoons of the band members was taken from a photo shoot by David Levine whose work featured on many of the sleeves for singles released from this album. Keith LeBlanc from Tackhead programmed much of the beatbox work for the album.
After a hiatus, during which Fry was being treated for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he and White reconvened ABC as a duo, releasing the album Alphabet City in 1987. The album returned them to the UK Top 10 for the first time in five years, peaking at No. 7. It featured “When Smokey Sings”, a tribute to Smokey Robinson, which narrowly missed the UK Top 10. The song did give the group their biggest hit in the US, where it peaked at number 5 in September. The album also spawned “The Night You Murdered Love” (UK No. 31) and “King Without a Crown” (UK No. 44) as singles.
In 1989, the duo issued Up, their fifth and final PolyGram studio album. This time experimenting with house music, ABC scored a minor UK hit with the single “One Better World”. A second single, “The Real Thing”, and the album itself were less successful. During this period, the duo worked on a couple of outside productions aimed at the house music scene. One was Paul Rutherford’s (Frankie Goes to Hollywood) solo album and first single release; the other was for Lizzie Tear on the duo’s own Neutron label.
In 1990, the band released a greatest hits compilation album, Absolutely. This covered all of ABC’s albums up until 1990 and featured most of their singles. The compilation made the UK Top 10. A video package featuring promos was also released. One new song, “The Look of Love ’90”, was released to promote the package.
The duo moved to the EMI label (and MCA in North America), where they recorded the 1991 album Abracadabra. Two singles, “Love Conquers All” and “Say It”, narrowly missed the UK Top 40, though a remix of the latter by the Italian production team Black Box appeared on the US dance charts.
Martin Fry also collaborated with M People in 1991 on their first album, Northern Soul, recording vocals for the song “Life”. However, when the album was re-released in 1992, and again in 1995, this track was omitted.
|Current touring musicians
80s Studio albums
- The Lexicon of Love (1982)
- Beauty Stab (1983)
- How to Be a … Zillionaire! (1985)
- Alphabet City (1987)
- Up (1989)
Pop culture influence
- In 2009, the song “The Look of Love” was performed by the cast in a song and dance number on the US CW TV serial drama series Valentine, as part of the plot in which the goddess Aphrodite makes a love match at a karaoke bar.
- The track “So Hip It Hurts” from How to Be a … Zillionaire! featured in the 1986 film Tough Guys.
- ABC had three number-one hits on the US Dance Club Songs: “The Look of Love” (18 December 1982), “Be Near Me” (28 September – 5 October 1984) and “When Smokey Sings” / “Chicago” (29 August – 5 September 1987).
- Fiona Russell Powell, who joined the band for ABC’s 1985 album How to Be a … Zillionaire!, was part of the original line-up of the pre-ABC band, Vice Versa. According to an article that was published on 7 March 1997, she ‘chickened out’ of Vice Versa’s first live gig, and the job as frontman went to Fry.
- “Poison Arrow” featured on a radio station in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
- ABC was profiled in a 2004 documentary about bands hailing from Sheffield in the late 1970s-to-early 1980s. Original ABC saxophonist, Stephen Singleton, was interviewed for Made in Sheffield, along with members of The Human League and Heaven 17.
- “A Christmas We Deserve” was featured as the theme song for Episode 3 of “Weekly Fail Theater”.
- “(How to Be A) Millionaire” featured on a radio station in the video game Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories