It’s quite possible that most American had never heard R&B music like One Way‘s “Cutie Pie”. That was likely what radio and record executives wanted. Radio was still a very racially segregated enterprise in with a glass ceiling that few acts managed to crack.
Meanwhile in England, punk was all but dead and many of it’s former practitioners remade themselves as slick R&B pop influenced crooners. For many of these former punks, it was an attempt to distance themselves from the past and embrace a profitable chart friendly future. The second British Invasion had started and once again it sounded vaguely like American R&B.
It was happening everywhere, but famously in English towns like Sheffield. A new kind of money making, slick pop was just around the corner.England was always giving America small doses of it’s own R&B be it in the guise of David Bowie, Culture Club and now the comic-like antics of ABC.
ABC was once a punk band called Vice Versa. After being interviewed by part time music journalist Martin Fry, the band and their interviewer agreed that post punk sucked. When not reviewing and writing about music and the pop scene in England, Fry paid his bills by working in a Sheffield bean factory at night. That’s the kind of gloomy environment that birthed bands like The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire. The bleak steel factories of Sheffield were the perfect backdrop for punk years before and then oddly the emerging electro pop shortly thereafter.
After the interview, the members of Vice Versa and Fry agreed to form a new band, one that would pay the bills. So like The Clash becoming Big Audio Dynamite or The Jam becoming The Style Council, Fry joined the band, changed their name to ABC and the rest was history.
The band created a pop masterpiece on its first time out. The Lexicon of Love was a lushly produced recording that gave the debut all the swagger of an accomplished artist on a big money label. Fortunately, Fry’s connections as a journalist helped to recruit Trevor Horn as producer. Horn was the force behind so many of England’s bombastic post punk pop/disco mashups. He was responsible for the symphonic flair and string sections that gave The Lexicon of Love it’s elegance and bigger than life scope.
Martin Fry brought drama and a cartoonish approach to style. After seeing and hearing the first two singles on MTV, “The Look of Love ” and “Poison Arrow”, I got the impression that the band practiced their looks as much as any instrument. Even the PAL conversion of the videos gave the songs a special stylized cinematic quality. As image had become very important in the era of MTV, ABC offered another important factor that set them apart early in the game: disco.
Fry’s croon, a kind of hybrid of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry was stylish, yet humorous to the point of caricatures. Had it not been for Fry’s witty verbal wordplay and catchy melodies, ABC might have been labeled a novelty act. All the typical American R&B influences were there: references to Smokey Robinson and such and a surprising longing for the rhythms and swagger of disco.
In 1982 disco was like AIDS, many people tried to distance themselves from it. Despite the bad connotations, there was no denying the hip shaking appeal of a good groove. Most peopled claimed to hate disco (publicly), yet they danced to it’s offshoots in the clubs. ABC and many other English post new wave acts were able to draw on it for swagger and chart domination. A bold move in retrospect. Scritti Politti did the same punk to R&B pop trick. Both bands were rewarded with mainstream chart success and some level of black radio/club street cred.
The disco connection would play nicely into the band’s need to make a complete reversal of what it had been doing when it was called Vice Versa. There was even Chic-like rhythm guitar in songs like “Tears Are Not Enough”. Such subdued funk was not lost of American R&B fans who saw much of The Lexicon of Love for what it was: a neo disco album wrapped in British new wave.
The rest of America loved it too of course. The new pop of ABC appealed to even those with Broadway sensibilities with a lushly produced string sections in “All of My Heart”. Still the record offered jams like “The Look of Love” that kept clubs and the dance chart buzzing for much of 1983.
ABC would move closer to the mainstream of pop, bringing their sensibilities for disco and American R&B along for the ride. They would peak towards the end of the decade with songs like “When Smokey Sings” that actually did make the R&B charts.