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The code of gentlemen

“Best behaviour at all times!” says Martin Fry of ABC, the most refreshing band in the land.

Lucky owners of a copy of ABCs “Poison Arrow”, on glancing at the back cover, will discover a message from its author.

Heres an extract: “Many of you out there may think standing in the spotlight brings many rewards. But let me tell you, the fruits of fame can be sour and I too have many private moments… A love affair without a broken heart?” he reflects, soberly. “Like making an omelette without breaking an egg… Be young,” he signs off. “Be foolish. Be alphabetical. Yours sincerely, Martin Fry.”

This, I soon found out, is fairly typical of the man in question. “Sincere” he certainly is, but its an honesty refreshingly wrapped in a mixture of glorious melodrama and tongue-in-cheek exaggeration. I mean, “spotlight“? “Fruits of fame”? Hes referring to one previous single that clambered as far as Number Nineteen!

Somehow the Fry sense of humour fits his equally expanded frame. The first thing you notice — before even his gangling height, broad shoulders and vast paw-like hands — is that hes surprisingly shy. And yet here he is on the point of changing into an extremely loud gold lamé suit and posing for the Smash Hits cover. Unusual, to say the least.

Whats happened to that stream of slogans he was spouting back in December? “Get out of the galleries and burn up some calories”. That sort of thing.

“We stopped all those because people just tend to pin you down if you stick to a catch-phrase. Weve decided to form this Splinter Group of the Democratic Dance party instead,” he adds, mysteriously. “Its called ‘The Code Of Gentlemen. The idea is to uphold standards of decency and moral conduct while everything else crumbles around you. Best behaviour,” he advises, “at all times!”

And hes not alone in this.

Steve Singleton, ABCs affable saxman, is behind him all the way. Recently, Steve claims, he was so appalled by the rowdy and reckless conduct of a crowd down the local nightclub that he was later to be found wandering around wearing a sandwich-board forged from a couple of ABC posters, freshly scrawled with the message: “Human dogs, all of you! Animals and scavengers!”

I trust youre all getting the picture. As you can imagine, Messrs. Fry and Singleton tend towards bouts of fantasy with an enthusiasm that makes even Julian Cope seem level-headed.

But — as with everything else about the band — beneath all this lunacy lies more than a grain of truth. They really do think the quality of music is on the downward slope. As Martin makes abundantly clear: “I just dont like it when people seem to get away with mediocre things. Theres quite enough second division ideas knocking about as it is. Even good ideas go off. They dont stay fresh forever.”

In many ways the band seem like natural successors to Adam And The Ants. Not so much visually — and certainly not musically — but simply in theory, in principle. The Adam of 81 was forever endorsing the virtues of “showbusiness”; ABC use the same word, only in their case it means absurd cabaret suits. Adam was always insisting you should “maintain your standards”; so do ABC, except for them its more of a shared belief than a mass crusade. And, of course, Adam was frequently flag-waving for “optimism”; much like ABC, only they laugh a lot more while theyre about it.

But what sets the band apart from most is Martins marvellous flair for lyrics. His songs — particularly “Poison Arrow”, his “proudest achievement so far” — share the bitter-sweet aftertaste of the work of heroes Smokey Robinson and Elvis Costello.

Steve sees this more as a courageous assault against the vacuous slush that usually supplies the backbone to even the most eloquent of modern funk. As he puts it: “I heard this record in Birmingham and I couldnt believe such a thing existed! The words were something like: ‘Let me step in side your mind, bay-baay! Ooh get down foxy lady, yall. Horrible lyrics! We try and take things one stage further and be… well, not intellectual but simply trying to say something more.”

Martin sees things from a more personal standpoint. “I like the idea of having a twist in the lyrics. All the best lyrics, like ‘Tears Of A Clown, have a twist in them. Things dont always have to be in black and white. Its not like putting things under a microscope or in a computer as those just arent the things that interest us. Most of pop music is about seeing how much you can get away with in three minutes, how much you can feature. You cant write your life story in three minutes but you can explain little bits of it, and that — for me — is where the excitement come in.”

This seems to me to be going against the current tide. If anything, pop groups are now aiming to be as simple as possible: the clearest of sounds, the simplest of images. Like The Human League.

Martin disagrees. “I dont think our words are too complex. I just like songs that leave unanswered questions. Look at The Human Leagues ‘Dont You Want Me. What about Joanne? I mean, does she go back to Phil? I want to find out what happens? You know, shes sort of found her independence and shot off, gone off walking into the horizon, and I want to find out where shes gone and what happens when she gets there. And I should think Phil wants to find that out too. And Im going to have to wait until the next Human League record!”

Again, typical of Martin Fry. He takes things very literally, and this — coupled with a fiercely inquisitive nature — ensures that hes continually threatening to over-reach himself (which ensures ABC keep on the forward path).

The bands history is littered with examples. Even in ‘78, in their former guise as the bleak electronic outfit, Vice Versa, they were attempting to play “exciting dance music” on a grand total of two cheap synthesisers and a rhythm generator with a permanently flat battery.

Later, after ABC had formed and their first single “Tears Are Not Enough” had charted, Martin was still feverishly hunting for the exact funk sound.

Hed always admired Dollar, especially the immaculate “Hand Held In Black And White” and so tracked down the songs producer Trevor Horn, “the one with the glasses in Buggles”, to perform the same feat on “Poison Arrow”. And having found Horn, hes now hell-bent on locating the man who arranged the string section on his favourite Adam Faith classics. And having got hold of him, he then intends to try and reopen the very studios Adam Faith used to record them in a determined attempt to try and reproduce the same authentic sound.

Likewise the suits. So possessed was Martin with the idea of a gold lamé suit that hes actually gone out and found Marc Bolans original tailor, “somewhere in Soho”, to make sure he wasnt getting landed with inferior threads.

In short, when he sets out to do something, he usually does it. And does it right.

Steves no different. “We search around the markets and buy these horrible lengths of lurex and stuff, and they say: ‘what do you want thirty yards of this tasteless material for?” He chuckles at the thought. “We get all these outfits made up from it and theyre really repulsive and ridiculous Showbusiness taken to an extreme of logic and reason! Totally over the top!”

Fortunately the bands enthusiasm has been matched by the receptions theyve been getting on a current promotional tour of the nations nightclubs. Its hard to gauge which has been going the crazier — the crowd or the deejay.

Steves been keeping a watchful eye on both. He was heartened to see the locals in the 2000-capacity Sheffield Top Rank when someone slapped on a copy of ABCs “Alphabet Soup”. “One moment,” he recalled, “they were all hangin round in the shadows doin these really casual little dances. The next — bang! — everybody runs onto the dance floor and theyre like leapin around, jumpin about and actin really uncool!”

But then lets not forget the deejay at “Faces” Club in Birmingham, the night Martin Fry made a “personal appearance”.

“You get two types of deejays,” Steve reports. “Some are like, well: ‘weve got a band here tonight, theyre called ABC and heres their record. But others are just dedicated to the craft and theyre just liars and cheats! Theyre brilliant! They go: ‘Alright, everybody! Were going to take off this Kraftwerk record now — ‘cos you can hear that any time of day — and tonight, ladies and gentlemen, you are going to get something that you are probably never going to get ever again in your life! (Starts shrieking) Martin Fry, ladies and gentlemen, of ABC is going to be here on stage, live, to present a catering award and give a prize to Miiiiiiisss Nightclub!! ABC, ladies and gennelmen (getting hysterical), had a Number One smash with their first record “Tears Are Not Enough”, and their new ones going to go EVEN HIGHER! And if it doesnt… Ill… Ill… EAT THIS RECORD!!

“Well over the top,” Steve adds. “Crazy!”

Naturally, this kind of fever pitch seems to be infiltrating the world of the ABC video.

The twosome are openly scathing about the rut in which most video directors seem currently to be stuck. All knights in armour and castles, peppered with the odd chariot and loads of statues; terribly “classical” and totally meaningless.

“Weve got a great idea for ‘Poison Arrow,” Martin reveals in full flight of fancy. “It stretches from war-torn London to a stylised Art gallery involving white stallions, some hamsters and a few iguanas with diamond chains and studded collars. Trouble is,” he reckons, “we want the iguanas to be a little more ‘street level. Theyll probably come on wearing cloth caps and carrying pints of bitter!”

ABC seem ideally poised to Do Very Well in ‘82. They have all

the right credentials — a rare blend of fun, flair and imagination locked into a reasonably cool business sense.

And, as theyre acutely aware, the timing couldnt be better.

Martin puts it in a nutshell. “The radios have only just woken up to the fact that you dont have to be 27 to make a record. You can hear things like Pigbag on the DLT show, on prime time radio. And people have started going to nightclubs as well. Theyve realised that it isnt all just a hot-bed of ‘get-on-up disco. Theres some good records coming out of it, with some sort of thought and quality.

“People like Dollar, Alton Edwards.

Us, maybe…”