Moving down the alphabet but not moving out of pop. I was playing a video from this album last night, and my grownkid said of ’80s music generally that maybe you had to be there. Maybe you did. Most of it I found grating then and unbearable now, and I was never a fan of synths replacing actual instruments. I don’t love music just because it existed at important times of my life. But sometimes, it worked, and to my old ears that came of age when video killed the radio star, ABC’s “The Lexicon of Love” (1982) is still a striking, exciting, excellent album.
Our last two years of college were lived in only moderate squalor, and somehow we had a TV. Our couches were horrible spindled colonial style cast-offs with terrible cushions, our “living room” table was a big utility cable spool (not unusual), and our TV was an inherited black and white console. Cable TV was pretty new and pretty cheap, and oddly enough we agreed to split the bill and splurge on cable for our apartment. That mostly meant a clear view of “Late Night with David Letterman,” and an obsession with “The Twilight Zone” and “Leave It to Beaver.” And, most importantly, it meant MTV, which our cable system carried fairly early on. At a time when local radio was completely out of touch and the college station had been transformed from a wide open format to just jazz, MTV was suddenly the gateway to what was happening. Yes, there was a time when MTV not only played music videos, it played happening music videos.
Something called “New Wave” was still happening. It’s no longer even clear exactly what New Wave was. It wasn’t classic or hard rock, it wasn’t punk, and while it could be dancy, it wasn’t disco. It did love its synthesizers, but plenty of bands without any synth at all were labeled as New Wave. One thing most new Wave bands did have in common was a willingness and even a talent for videos.
That’s all a long way of saying I first became aware of ABC through MTV. I’m not sure which was the first video I saw, though I would guess it was “Poison Arrow.” I can’t imagine I waited five minutes after hearing it to run to a record store and buying “The Lexicon of Love,” because omigod is this an incredible album. It is deeply romantic, with fantastic instrumentation, flourishes that serve the music. The lyrics are clever and cutting, and there is real power and vulnerability in Martin Fry’s vocals. Yes, there are keyboards and synths, but there are also saxophones. The sound is lush and layered.
More than 20 years later, BBC reviewer Rob Webb wrote: “It underpins just what a sharp band ABC were: witty, lyrical and very, very funky (…) Each track is a love affair in miniature: some are touching (“All of My Heart”, “Show Me”), others a bitter invective at misplaced passion (“Many Happy Returns”). There is more going on in “2 Gether 4 Ever” than many bands squeeze into an entire album (…) Dance music had rarely been so literate.”
Exactly. These songs are dense. There is a lot going on. While it’s not considered a concept album, boy is it variations on a theme, and that theme is love gone wrong. It is alternately pleading, sad, angry, and wistful. It couldn’t have fit the emotional roller coaster of a 22-year-old more perfectly.
The album opens super solid with “Show Me,” and then moves right into “Poison Arrow,” a big single and great video. I don’t think clipping the lyrics does it justice — just check out the video:
Singer Martin Fry certainly had the look of the day, sometimes seeming like a blonde Bryan Ferry, and he carried off the touch of bitterness these songs required. All the videos for this album were put together into a short film called “Mantrap,” which is unfortunately apparently only available in super-shaky format on YouTube. There was also a “Mantrap Theme,” pressed as the flip of a remix of “Poison Arrow.”
Then it’s just a ride for the rest of the relatively short album. “Many Happy Returns,” “Tears Are Not Enough,” “Valentine’s Day,” “The Look of Love (part 1),” “Date Stamp,” “All of My Heart,” “4 Ever 2 Gether,” and “The Look of Love (part 4).”
Cleverness that works:
“4 ever 2 gether / 4 years to come / 4 love 2 strong / 4 us 2 part”
“I stuck a marriage proposal
In the waste disposal
If that’s the trash aesthetic,
I’d suggest that we forget it
Your 12 disciples might kiss and tell, but
You can tell me much more than they can,
We danced to the songs from this album wherever they played, at parties or clubs or our living room, always excited and filled with desperate, romantic feelings. On the morning I was to be married, while my lovely bride-to-be was off somewhere with her parents, I was furiously cleaning our apartment while playing “The Lexicon of Love” and singing along at the top of my lungs. (Ditto for Soft Cell’s song “Soul Inside,” but that’s a story for another day.) Given that these were songs about love that has come apart, perhaps not entirely appropriate, but they gave me feelings and energy and that was all I needed.
I’m a little mystified about where I bought this, and I’m surprised I bought it used – did Desertshore Records use those little price stickers? I’m thinking it must have been from his limited stock of almost-new records. I hate price stickers on my records, but I also rarely took them off because it so often ruined them, no matter how careful I was (come back for a screed when we get to my copy of The Clash’s “London Calling”).
You can get the whole history of ABC here. They were, of course, a band of their time, and while they produce an absolute gem of 1982 pop perfection in “The Lexicon of Love,” nothing else they did would come close. (Which isn’t to say I didn’t go on buying their records, as you shall see.)