The Zillion Dollar Men
Will the new-look ABC find success as easy as 1-2-3? Or will their latest Lexicon of Love lose something in the translation? Philip Bashe finds out.
ABC's Martin Fry and Mark White have traded lamé for lucre on their latest album, How To Be A Zillionaire. Philip Bashe opens their account...
Picture this: Martin Fry wafts into the room, decked out in tight-fitting black lamé, and escorted by a dozen or so courtesans in white satin gowns. Dry-ice smoke billows as Bob Fosse shouts directions in the background. One siren flicks lint off Martin's lapels, another slavishly brushes his long blond hair, and yet another begins a manicure. "Alright," says Martin in a silken voice, "let's start the interview."
It didn't happen that way, but it should have, given ABC's fascination with trashy glamour. Instead, Fry, dressed plainly in blue jeans and rumpled white shirt, is sprawled in a conference-room chair, looking tired and gaunt from three days straight of interviews. And Mark White, ABC's guitarist/bassist/keyboardist and sometime Fairlight CMI programmer, is mesmerised by a flashing Scorpions promotional watch given him by a record company publicist.
Since ABC's gold-selling Lexicon of Love album things have changed; for one, the band. Fry and White are the lone original members and haven't toured since their 1982-83 trip around the world. What's also changed is the group's reliance on producers and auxiliary musicians. On their maiden tour, the five-man ABC were backed by a 16-piece orchestra dressed in tuxedos; more an event than a musical landmark. It was as campy, shticky and entertaining as Fry's attempt at affecting Bryan Ferry's love-weary lounge lizard was unconvincing. The singer remembers their New York Palladium date well.
"The stage was slanted downward," he says laughingly, "and it was polished, so it was like skiing down a slope."
"Plus, the lamé we wore," puts in Mark White, wrinkling his nose. "You felt like a turkey wrapped in foil."
After having jet-setted around the world earning quite a sum of money from sales of Lexicon, ABC returned home to Sheffield. It was like getting splashed in the face with ice water, and suddenly composers Fry and White were more interested in depicting reality, as dreary as it was, than perpetuating their romantic fantasy set to glossy production and kinetic dance rhythms.
The result was 1983's Beauty Stab, which the group, by then a trio, produced itself instead of hiring Trevor Horn, who'd created the slick-enough-to-iceskate-on back-drop for Lexicon. With Andy Newmark and Alan Spenner comprising the rhythm section, Beauty Stab was recorded mostly live and sounded not unlike Roxy Music (not surprising, since drummer Newmark and bassist Spenner had just completed touring with that band). Lyrically it was biting, with cynical titles such as King Money and Bite the Hand.
Ironic that, in light of intolerance of well-fed Rock stars, here were ABC leaving behind the glitz and the glamour, peeling off the lamé, and getting slagged. Then ignored.
Fry and White merely shrugged, lost another member, and went to work in the studio. Obviously ABC are not a band with which to get comfortable for too long.
"Maybe people are more at ease with the idea of, 'They're the boys, they make the records, and they're going to still be making records like that in 15 years' time,'" remarks Fry. "But we realised a long time ago that we weren't John, Paul, George and Ringo."
ABC are now just Martin, 27, and Mark, 24, who met in 1978 when the latter was part of an electronic group called Vice Versa, and the former was a Rock fanzine publisher enamoured enough of Vice Versa's music to interview them. Fry came for a story and wound up as the lead singer and lyricist.
"The first thing that struck me about Martin..." says White, as Fry urges him on — "Yes? Yes? Go on. I've always wanted to know —" "...was his... height."
Toward the end of recording their newest album, How to Be a Zillionaire, the tall one and the short one deputised two equally disparate friends, former Rock journalist Eden on drums, and keyboardist David Yarritu, a bald-headed midget. "Not a midget," corrects White, looking up from attacking a plate of food, "a tiny person." The bio on Yarritu, relates Fry, "is stranger than fiction. He was a go-go dancer for a while, dancing at the New York club Area, locked in a cage with Grace Jones. We saw him and said, 'Let us take you away from all of this.'"
Yarritu and Eden, both musical novices, ensure the latest ABC lineup of having no congruity whatsoever — and certainly little of the old bon vivant style — but their presence makes a statement, claims Fry, who jokingly calls the new group "the awesome foursome."
"There's room for all sorts in ABC: tall, short, thin, fat. The world isn't so homogenous; that's what we're trying to say."
And the deliberately cartoonish look — with each member wearing a ragtag assemblage of ill-matching synthetics — well complements the music on the new record, on which many of the sounds are approximations rather than the real thing. Fry and White relied heavily on Australian Fairlight programmer Gary Moberly and Keith LeBlanc, an expert at working with the Oberheim DMX drum machine, which was the foundation for most of the tracks.
When formulating the songs, recording them with a Fostex 250 four-track cassette machine, White would initiate a rhythm with either the DMX or a Roland TR-808. Not only can drum machines help guide a song-writer rhythmically, contend White and Fry, they can also point to certain melodic ideas, forcing a composer to work within a prescribed pattern of beats.
"With a beat box," says White, "even just a straight 4/4 time can inspire you to do great things melodically, even though you've been listening to 4/4 time for the last 20 years." White, who also owns a LinnDrum, says he prefers the DMX because "it's more versatile, whereas the LinnDrum has 'LinnDrum' stamped all over it. We used the DMX on four tracks, and it sounds like a different drum kit each time."
One of the problems of modern recording — what with drum machines and samplers — is how to personalise such instruments. ABC are fortunate in that Fry's strong, emotive voice (recorded with a Neumann U-87 mike and a Fairchild 660 limiter) provides them with a readily identifiable signature. Fry, however, agrees that tailoring the chip or sampled sounds to fit the personality of the band "can be tricky. It can lead to a slightly sterile sound.
"It was like they were the seasoned musicians and we were the upstart adolescents."
"But what we've done on Zillionaire is to mix the two technologies, new and old," such as having original ABC drummer David Palmer return to overdub hi hats on three tracks, "to create a balance of the two."
There's also the balance between Fry's and White's backgrounds and their desire to produce a record that gives license to their fondness for American Rap and R&B, although Fry stresses, "We couldn't make a Hip-Hop record if we tried. Zillionaire is a marriage of something that's abrasive rhythmically — like the Run-DMC and Melle Mel records we admire — and melody. A physical record."
Physicality is definitely one of Zillionaire's virtues — the sound-barrier-breaking drum machine program that kicks off A to Z will rattle the dishes. But the record is also a bouillabaisse of colourful synthesiser and sampled sounds. "We love weird noises," Fry grins. And what you think a sound's source may be is rarely the case.
For example, the throbbing, percussive bass on 15 Storey Halo is actually a bass pop sampled into the Fairlight and brought down in pitch, so that each note sounds as if someone had pulled back on the string like a bow and arrow.
Then there's ABC's trademark crystalline, chiming keyboard timbre, the origin of which goes back to Lexicon of Love and songs such as The Look of Love and Tears Are Not Enough. That sound is not just a synthesiser setting but involves an elaborate recipe says White, who adds, "Every time we use it, I have to take out the instructions of how we did it. It's a combination of grand piano, chimes, bells, clavinet; basically every bell-like instrument in the world sampled into the Fairlight."
But when asked to dissect the tortured Robert Fripp-inspired zig-zag of a guitar solo on So Hip It Hurts, he's laughingly advised by Fry to "play your cards close to your chest." White, who strums Aria RS and Fender Stratocaster guitars through Peavey and Marshall amps, does just that, declining to divulge its source.
No wonder. Recording engineer Martyn Webster lets slip that both it and a similar solo on Fear of the World were performed by Gary Moberly, not White, on the Fairlight; "a bunch of guitar samples that he'd assembled" and manipulated in the studio.
Webster favours the Fairlight over the Synclavier, claiming that the former has "a harder, edgier sound, though the Synclavier's might be a bit truer and cleaner."
Mark White has his own preferences: E-mu Emulator II sampling keyboard ("so easy to use"), Oberheim OBX-a synth ("so many parameters, you can do just about anything on it"), nine-foot Bosendorfer grand piano, Yamaha DX7 and Moog MiniMoog synths, and a relic of a string machine called a Solina, all of which were put to use on the new album. On Lexicon of Love, the band convinced Trevor Horn to hire an actual string orchestra, recalls Fry, which was gratifying artistically but often tried their patience.
"For one thing, it's very hard to get a full orchestra to play in time, much less to play Funky," he laughs, "to a syncopated rhythm. I used to have to hit 'em with a stick! I'd say to the leader, 'Look, I know you're with the London Symphony Orchestra, but let's get Funky here!'"
"And they all stick together," puts in White, warming to the subject. "Even if there's one of them that cannot play to save his life, even if he's out of time and out of tune, they pretend they don't hear it."
"It was like they were the seasoned musicians," sighs Fry, "and we were the upstart adolescents."
When Trevor Horn was too preoccupied with producing Yes's 90125 to work with ABC on their second album, Fry and White grew up quickly in terms of their knowledge of the recording studio. Or, for How to be a Zillionaire, studios, as they and engineer Webster wandered from one to the next. Basics were put down at Jacob Studios in Surrey, using a 3M digital recorder, while additional work was done at Abbey Road Studios (also on the 3M), the Townhouse (two Studer A800 24 tracks slaved together), Eel Pie Studios (two Studer A800s) and Sarm West Studios, where all but two songs were mixed by Julian Mendelssohn. The console, in all cases, was an SSL4000.
Sounds expensive, which has been a way of life for ABC, who, frankly, are the last two persons you'd ask for advice on how to be a zillionaire. Most other artists would be putting their money into mutual funds, not 16 piece orchestras and extravagant amounts of studio time.
"You're right," agrees Fry, stretching his six-foot-plus frame. "We spent it all in the studio. What we do is far from vant-garde — it's very commercial music — but even so, we're still hungry to make records of the highest quality, and we don't believe in taking short-cuts.
"We look at this as an on-going venture, so we want to be innovative and not just Xerox some formula."
"Oh, I don't know," quips White.
"Maybe we'll find a few formulas and keep Xeroxing them."
Interview by Philip Bashe
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!