The story of Sheffield’s ABC encompasses some of the most dizzying highs and lows in British music. When Martin Fry and his colleagues in post-punk synth experimenters Vice Versa reinvented themselves as a slick funk band with designs on the charts, they couldn’t initially have expected quite how successful their debut ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, played in full at the Dome with the Southbank Sinfonia tonight, would be.
Released in 1982, it remains a classic, a platinum selling number one, consistently hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time, with many – including us after the right number of drinks – arguing its case as the greatest debut album ever made. Trevor Horn’s magisterial production and Anne Dudley’s celestial arrangements raised the bar for orchestral pop and helped guarantee the record’s backroom team would never be out of work to this day, while ABC brought huge ambition, intelligence and, at heart, a realistic, lyrically rich view of doomed love to the feast.
ABC never quite recaptured that first rush of success, each new album bringing another change of direction but also the loss of another member. Their wide-ranging catalogue deserves full reappraisal (and contains at least one truly lost classic in 1989’s piano house fifth album ‘Up’) but it’s this year’s belated conceptual sequel ‘The Lexicon Of Love II’ that has returned ABC to the charts for the first time since the eighties blazed to a close.
The red curtains of the first ‘Lexicon Of Love’ sleeve are spotlighted by the ABC logo as Dudley conducts the Sinfonia through the original 1982 ‘Overture’ of album tracks, before Fry strides on, suited in smart grey rather than the infamous gold lamé of old, and orchestra, band and singers break into the much-loved Motown tribute ‘When Smokey Sings’. ABC’s biggest post-‘Lexicon Of Love’ hit, it brings the seated Dome audience to their feet, seats to which they return for the bulk of the show’s first half of new album songs.
While Fry’s yearning vocals and the immaculate strings and brass of ‘Viva Love’ and ‘Flames Of Desire’ are wondrous in their own right, they don’t have 34 years of audience memories to elicit much more than polite applause this evening. Support act Rob Fusari has earlier told us how he and former partner Lady Gaga borrowed lyrics from ABC’s ‘The Look Of Love’ for Gaga’s own ‘Paparazzi’ and he returns to the stage, glittering keytar in hand, for two of his co-writes on the new record, ‘Confessions Of A Fool’ and the arch ‘Singer Not The Song’ (“Somewhere in the chorus, somewhere in the verse / Some days the band refuse to rehearse”). It’s all fun but, as the show’s second minor classic ‘The Night You Murdered Love’ heralds the interval, we’re all really waiting for that immortal debut.
With a change of suit for Dudley, from charcoal grey to gorgeous scarlet, the orchestra open proceedings once more with the rising swell of ‘Show Me’, Fry’s golden shoes dazzling under the lights as he delivers couplet after memorable couplet, a rhyming dictionary’s worth of evocative images (“A pirate station on the late night show / A sunken ship with a rich cargo”) burned into our collective pop brains.
Track by track album concerts mean we all know what’s coming next, almost to the second. Fry is still in great voice, enjoying himself, stepping aside when the musicians showcase their talents for a solo on sax or drums. Of course he’s feeling nostalgic too, the singer in the spotlight, reminiscing about his visits to Brighton’s Zap Club some 20 years ago. The only messing with the album blueprint is a late in the running order switch so that the emotional punch of ‘All Of My Heart’ (our favourite tear-jerking song in the whole ABC catalogue) closes the show, rather than actual album finale ‘4 Ever 2 Gether’ (always the lumpen weak spot in the original record’s otherwise impeccable songbook).
Everyone returns for an encore of ‘The Look Of Love’ (again) but it’s not necessary. We’ve already tossed our imaginary bouquets.
Brighton Dome, Wednesday 26th October 2016
Words by Stuart Huggett
Photo by Roger Sargent