Review: ABC – The Lexicon Of Love Live

Artwork for ABC's 2023 album The Lexicon Of Love Live

Martin Fry and Sheffield celebrate an ABC classic.

1977. South Yorkshire. Unemployment. Social issues. Lack of youth opportunity. So, definitely punk rock then? Well actually, no.

Speaking years later, none other than Phil Oakey recalled that it wasn’t just the case that there were only a few groups there who took up the gauntlet the movement threw down, but locally, ‘there were no punk bands – at all’.

So what were they doing in the steel city? The answer was creating the future. From the Avant Garde performance art of Cabaret Voltaire through to the experimental synth pop of Oakey’s Human League, Sheffield’s auteurs used the mechanical noise of nearby industry as a template, shunning guitars and in turn punk’s constricting boundaries.

Vice Versa were one of those patch cabled acts, but when aspiring journalist Martin Fry was sent to interview them he was offered a job instead.

Changing their name to ABC, they adopted a new strategy informed by Paul Morley’s conceptual framework for what he labelled ‘New Pop’, hiring Trevor Horn to work with them on their debut album The Lexicon Of Love.

Horn was one of the forerunners of the studio-as-instrument approach and his ideas suited their ambition like a glove; almost heretically, the songs they’d written shared plenty of DNA with Motown and the crooning of Sinatra, consciously ignoring what was by then both post-punk and the electronic disko made by their neighbours.

Released in June 1982, the glossy finished product was a critical success, but most importantly a commercial one, shifting over a million copies worldwide.

Fry and cohorts had gambled and been vindicated, but after the radical sonic departure of 1983’s Beauty Stab line-up instability and against a background of seismic changes in public taste which marked the decade, ABC gradually slipped over the horizon.

Now its sole member, Fry returned in 2016 with a conceptual follow-up to their debut with the uncharacteristically functional title The Lexicon Of Love II, but as the fortieth anniversary of the original’s release beckoned, there was only one thing for it: a full live performance with an orchestra, held in Sheffield’s City Hall.

Occasionally, the progressive restaging of legacy albums (especially ones from the eighties, a decade from which the technology now dates itself badly) feels either overblown or gimmicky, but most of all the era’s records, The Lexicon Of Love’s glamorous high concept justified such an ostentatious approach.

By definition however, running through a thirty-five-minute album doesn’t really merit dusting off the gold lame suit, so the headline bit is preceded by a greatest songs hors d’oeuvre which spans the arc of Radio 2 friendliness – When Smokey Sings, How To Be A Millionaire – through to stuff for the dedicated such as Viva Love.

Clearly though the ABC audience were those levels of hardcore and the main event is captured with their noisy, joyous participation underlined in red.

Written originally as the consequence of a breakup, on stage the sharp tang of bitterness runs alongside the song’s loquacious wordplay, reviving the pop genius of tracks like Poison Arrow, Valentine’s Day and Date Stamp.

The avuncular Fry never misses a beat, makes no secret of his love for ABC’s birthplace and even offers to buy the entire audience a drink, but it’s a singalong version of the Look Of Love – in fact two, as it’s encored – that form the heart of a tastefully overstated performance.

Even four decades on, it’s a night of sophisticated reverie which proves that in Sheffield punk’s not dead – because as Martin and everybody else knows, you can’t kill something that never lived.

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