Thursday, June 28, 2012

The lexicon of love: ABC and Trevor Horn

New Pop involved a renaissance of glam's interest in artifice and androginy, all the delicious games you could play with pop idolatry. Perhaps the climax of all these tendencies was the bizarre critical apotheosis of Dollar, a schlocky male-female duo who had broken away from the middle-of-the-road vocal troupe Guys and Dolls. Dollar had already garnered a smidgen of campy admiration from hipsters for their sheer plasticness, but when they teamed up with superproducer Trevor Horn, the duo's fabricated fakeness took on an almost conceptual extremity, as if they were a work of Pop Art.
The first two singles Horn co-wrote and produced for Dollar, "Hand Held in Black and White" and "Mirror Mirror" dazzled the ears with their futuristic hypergloss.

Dollar - Hand Held in Black and White 1981

Dollar - Mirror Mirror 1981

ABC's October 1981 debut single "Tears Are Not Enough" sounded almost like a New Pop manifesto (no time for wallowing or whining, strive and take pride) disguised as a song about heartbreak. However, it sounded like a scrawny demo for the spectacular sound they wanted. On Top of the Pops, singer Martin Fry wore a gold lamé suit, but it didn't sit right on his hulking frame; his dancing was awkward; his presence lacked authority. From sound to visuals, ABC were not yet walking it like they talked it. So they turned to Horn.

ABC - Tears Are Not Enough 1981 (Top of the Pops)

A lavish tempest of melodramatic grand piano chords, thunderous drums, and synth parts simulating string-sweeps and horn fanfares, "Poison Arrow" sounded like a million bucks had been spent on it, and, yes, it sounded superhuman. Yet at its core lay the DIY principle - not so much 'anyone can do it' but 'anyone can be a star'.

ABC - Poison Arrow 1982

The next single, the even more magnificently appointed "The Look of Love" - featuring real strings, angelic backing vocals, timpani and trumpets - peaked at number 4 in June 1982.
'Lexicon is all about Martin getting dumped by this specific girl', says Horn. 'All of the songs are about that anger and outrage he felt. And on "The Look of Love", when Martin sings, "When the girl has left you out on the table" and then there's a girl going, "Goodbye!", well, that's the girl. It was my suggestion - "Why don't we get the actual girl that you've wrote these songs for in to do the vocal?" It was very funny!'

ABC - The Look of Love 1982

Modelled on the theatre rather than cinema, the debut album The Lexicon of Love's front cover depicted Martin Fry as the dashing hero of a crime melodrama, brandishing a revolver, a fainting damsel clasped in his other arm. 

Flip to the back of the record, and the mise en scène is revealed as literally staged. We see the backroom people behind the theatrical spectacle, as played by the other members of ABC: the prompter reading from a script, a fatigued stagehand with a greasy quiff and cigarette tucked behind the ear, a flunky with a bouquet ready for the leading lady. It was all decidedly Brechtian.

"Date Stamp", at once the wittiest and most poignant song on Lexicon, recalled the imagery of Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" - broken-hearted Fry is 'looking for a girl that meets supply with demand'. In a world where 'love has no guarantee', he's a discarded commodity whose sell-by date has expired. 'It was also a bit of a meta thing', he says, 'about transience and ephemerality in pop'.

ABC - Date Stamp 1982

"All of My Heart", ABC's third Top 10 single in a row, sounded chocolate-box but its sentiments rivalled Gang of Four's "Love Like Anthrax" for bracing unsentimentality. As Fry told The Face: "'All of My Heart' for me was saying skip the hearts and flowers and wash your hands of the whole sentimental glop, you know?"

ABC - All of My Heart 1982

No comments:

Post a Comment