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Martin Fry of ABC talks Lexicon of Live, Ken Patton and Sheffield’s booming music scene

Martin Fry, beyond being a pleasure to speak to and a vast well of musical knowledge and know-how, is back with an ABC live recording that is set to showcase forty years of The Lexicon of Love. The ABC frontman sits down with Ewan Gleadow to chat Iggy Pop, Trevor Horn and the need for artists to feel “beyond risk”.

Ewan Gleadow: I’ve got the luxury of working at home, a big pile of books here to work through too. Really struggling with Lester Bangs at the moment.

Martin Fry: Yeah. Everybody loves Lester Bangs and they said he was the best journalist ever, didn’t they? But I never saw that. I like some good rock journalism when I’m in the mood. 

Ewan: Yeah I agree, I just finished his essay on The Stooges.

Martin: Do you like The Stooges?

Ewan: I do, I prefer Iggy’s (Pop) solo work, but I do like The Stooges. 

Martin: They were an outrageous band. It was before my time but I loved it. More power, and a fun time. Each album’s different. Kill City, that’s an album. He’s a curiosity Iggy, isn’t he? He’s still going strong?

Ewan: He did an album this year, didn’t he?

Martin: I didn’t check it out, I feel a bit guilty. Is it any good?

Ewan: Not bad, I mean the expectation there is that he’s going to do punk noise and, well, yeah, it’s an alright listen. 

Martin: I’m doing a gig in Pasadena and Iggy’s going to be there. 

Ewan: Yes, the Cruel World Festival?

Martin: Yeah, it’s gonna be quite gothic. I mean, I’ll have my tuxedo on and doing Poison Arrows with my glove on, but yeah. Billy Idol’s on too. There’s gonna be a lot of Harley Davidson’s parked up in California. It’s a lifestyle. I think we’ll be there, The Human League too, in a postmodern tent. Speaking of Iggy, I used to go and watch him play when (David) Bowie was with him. It was incredible, Bowie played keys. What a fun time, The Idiot and Lust for Life, of course, are great albums.

Ewan: I remember first listening to The Idiot fresh out of Uni, you always feel a bit directionless after that bit and I would listen to Nightclubbing over and over. 

Martin: Did it strike a chord with you when you heard it?

Ewan: It did yeah. The three for me were The Idiot, Different Class from Pulp and A Secret Life from Marianne Faithfull. Really helpful albums.

Martin: The Idiot is brilliant. I’ve never heard a drum sound like that before and that was before Low. Bowie recorded them together in France and he put Iggy’s album out. A blueprint to his own record. The lyrics are just incredible. Stunning. I went to see the Manchester tour and you didn’t know Bowie was going to be there. It was fantastic. You were watching and thought “Hold on. Who’s that guy in the green shirt over there?”

Ewan: Speaking of live music, Lexicon of Live is on its way, Tell me a bit about that. I listened to it last night and it was wonderful. You manage to capture that live show atmosphere so well. 

Martin: We wanted to capture that, yeah. Somebody said it’s forty years since we put out Lexicon of Love on ABC all those years ago. Successful album for us, and we were playing an orchestral tour. We’ve got Manchester, Bridgewater Hall, and London’s Albert Hall, but we’re playing Sheffield on the very day. I said it’d be great to record it, to capture that show. Not twelve shows edited together. Not autotuned. Just capture the authentic moment. Of course, whenever we play Sheffield it’s always magical because a lot of the songs were conceived in Sheffield. In a way the bands like The Human League and Pulp a little later, our success is through people that are proud of us in that city. Even now, all these years on it’s a hometown of good music.

I’d been playing with the Southbank Symphonia and orchestral shows with Anne Dudley conducting and we’d refine parts, because I hate orchestral shows where you can only hear the band or only hear the singer. Or if the arrangements and violins are too fussy. We’d spent a long time trying to make it all work on stage. The album is a catalogue of songs, but we play Lexicon of Love in its entirety. 

It kind of felt to make a document of that show, to have a record of what we’ve been doing now. It’s a great privilege to stand on the stage in 2022, 2023, to stand in the spotlight and have an audience appreciate what you’re doing. You know, I’ve been around for years and it’s been a long time since you formed.

Ewan: It was when you released Lexicon of Love II you gave a quote at the time which said you were “beyond risk”. Do you think that is a mentality more artists should have at this stage?

Martin: I think I was being facetious, or cocky, but. I’ve reached the point in my life where – that’s why I was asking you about Suede (before the interview) – and in a way, Iggy. It’s a similar thing. You reach a point where you know, I am who I am. You stand there in the spotlight, you learn showmanship, but you realise you’re getting older and there’s still something the audience wants from you. Iggy’s not getting up there pretending he’s seventeen years old, hiding from the audience. You stand there and you look them in the eye and you sing your songs. It’s a great feeling to have.

To be able to do that successfully, it’s something really special and it’s because of the audience. I think by “beyond risk”, it’s like I don’t care. I’ve written these songs, I’m not an “I’ve suffered for my art now it’s your turn” sort of guy. Somebody asked me if I did all the demos on acoustic guitars, I said no, that’s not our style. Beyond risk may have been something to beef up the record company, I knew it was a good record so somebody would buy it. That’s all.

Ewan: It’s a good way to sell it. 

Martin: I don’t really know what the phrase means, but it sounds good, doesn’t it? It reached a point where – writing new songs is a great honour – there aren’t that many guys in their mid-sixties doing it. Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen’s later life and Bruce Springsteen, but you have reached a point where it is a real privilege to stand here and do this. The other guys have gone, you know? All the Mavericks, all the guys that were in Sheffield. Whenever I see Phil Ope from the Human League, there’s a massive respect. We’re survivors. 

Ewan: It always strikes me as well, I think it may be happenstance, that my favourite artists are from Sheffied. Pulp, Richard Hawley, Arctic Monkeys, ABC of course and The Human League. I’m from nearby Newcastle and we don’t have much. Sting. We can hang our hats on Sting. Sam Fender is coming through recently too of course. It’s mad that I’m seeing Pulp later this year. 

Martin: It’ll be emotional won’t it?

Ewan: I never thought I’d see them. But that’s it, are they at that level people expect them to be at? It’s quite a risk.

Martin: I mean, for years people would say to me, “why didn’t you do Lexicon of Love again?” You try different, experimental records. We went in different directions. We had similar material, and we’ve had hits since, but then it was fantasy. Audiences realise what the music meant to them, say, ten years ago. That gave me the confidence, and the desire, to make a new record. It was the label that said it’s got to be called Lexicon Two. If they said that at the beginning, I would’ve run away, and I would never have finished it. I spent thirty years trying to start it. But beyond risk, yeah, at the end of the day, you have to stand there. I’ve learned this from standing on stage. You stand there. You’re naked. You’re authentic. It’s the same for Iggy Pop. It’s exciting because you wonder what the next show is going to be. You never want to do a show where people go ‘Oh, he’s just dialling it in.’ 

I did some performances like that in the late nineties. I stopped drinking shortly after. I remember once we did a matinee and I said to the guy, ‘I don’t feel very well, it’s something I ate the night before,’ which was… I had a bucket at the side of the stage. I remember going to the side of the stage and it must have been a dreadful, lacklustre performance. When I looked up I could see some people from the side and I thought, ‘these guys paid money to see this’. That changed. 1997, that all changed. 

Ewan: If we’re talking about the past too, what does Ken Patton mean to you?

Martin: He had these sliding doors, and I went to his studio on Sunday and Mark White and Steve Singleton had been there to record Vice Versa music, so I came down and joined later. I hadn’t been in the house, I was a student. Ken’s place was a little house, with doilies and a really nice home. It was so nice to go into somebody’s nice home. We did the Sunday afternoon and I always remember Ken’s wife calling him for his tea, and that would be the end of the session We’re done. But Ken was incredible. I don’t want to make it sound quainter than it was. It was genius. We did Genetic Warfare there. All those acts that came through there, their recording was fantastic.

The other thing you’ve got to remember is if you went to Radio Hallam and said “Oh, we’re ABC, we wanted to do a session,” they wouldn’t give a-. I mean guys now they go, “I used to work at Hallam, I love your stuff”. Well, you would try and get a session at the recording studio but, Ken Patton. He’s there. Recorded by Ken Patton should be a t-shirt. 

Ewan: What was it that attracted Trevor Horn of The Buggles, too? Their debut is one of the first records I got, a really beat-up copy of Video Killed the Radio Star

Martin: It’s a great song.

Ewan: Absolutely, and how did he come about for ABC?

Martin: Once we were working with Trevor, he said he was finishing off The Buggles and was starting up producing with Island Records. He said, oh I’ve got to go back to Holland and promote this Dollar album. He said would we come? Soo me, Stephen and Mark went to Holland. We approached him and said, you know, would you come? Can we work with you? That was good. Trevor became a sort of Quincy Jones of the UK.

Ewan: It certainly settled into a different sound of the time, too. 

Martin: We’re not punk rock. We’ve seen the future, that’s how it was for us. But I think that’s how it is for any artist that comes through. 

Ewan: Definitely, The Waeve did their first album this year, Graham Coxon and Rose Elinor-Dougal.

Martin: What a musician he is.

Ewan: Stunning, just wonderful. There are bits on there where you can hear something on that saxophone, as if he didn’t mean to do it, but it feels natural and sudden from the studio. It flows through wonderfully.

Martin: Stuff like that has more value now because it’s all very professional.

The Lexicon of Live releases May 19 and can be purchased from this link.

Ewan Gleadow
Ewan Gleadow
Editor in Chief at Cult Following | News and culture journalist at Clapper, Daily Star, NewcastleWorld, Daily Mirror | Podcast host of (Don't) Listen to This | Disaster magnet

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