Sheffield seemed to be a hotbed of activity in the early eighties. Is there still a scene there now? Do you follow it?
Sheffield's a funny old town. Because nothing much happens there it's spawned a great many bands over the years. Basically you pretty much have to create your own entertainment. Currently there are as many bands actively chasing record deals and gigging as there were in the early eighties. When ABC began in '81 you could see a different local band every night of the week. These included Def Leppard , Cabaret Voltaire, Human League, Comsat Angels, Clock DVA, Artery, They Must Be Russians, to name but a few. The last band to emerge from Sheffield were The Longpigs. I'm sure there will be more.
I remember reading an interview with Phil Oakey in which he slagged ABC off because they left Sheffield...yet now you're collaborating with Glenn Gregory, whose band Heaven 17 is out of Sheffield. Did you "go home again," or is everybody London based?
I currently reside in Northwest London, have done for years, and love it. Glenn Gregory and the rest of Heaven 17 live nearby. We've been friends for years. What did Oakey expect? I was born in Salford near Manchester anyway. I've always moved around. It keeps your attitude fresh.
What's your favorite movie?
Loads. Glengarry Glen Ross . Withnail and I. Trainspotting. Goodfellas. Clockwork Orange. Raining Stones. Too many to mention.
Clearly there was a process between The Lexicon of Love and Beauty Stab. Was it a reaction against the glam of Lexicon or simply a desire to try something new?
A desire to try something new, to develop, to experiment. I've always seen my job as doing that. Making the same sounding record over and over is suffocating. Beauty Stab was a reaction to fame and all the attention you get. It was a reaction to touring the world and then returning to Sheffield and seeing how small minded and tiny everything looked.
What does the title Beauty Stab mean?
A new kind of glamour. Smash it up and start again. Destroy in order to create.
It seems like you were trying to present a serious image with Beauty Stab, yet with the next album you went the opposite way and were literally cartoon. Was this a reaction against the relative commercial failure of Beauty Stab?
No. A lot of changes had taken place between those records. It felt right to reflect that visually. Apart from The Archies no one had tried that before. At the time Mark and I felt that music in England was too humorless, too tense. We just wanted to fast track in a totally different direction to our contemporaries, to the competition.
Do you still keep in touch with Mark White? Can you briefly explain what happened?
I don't see a lot of Mark these days. In '91 he felt he had nothing more to say within ABC. I didn't agree with him at the time but I respected his opinion. He fancied doing something outside of music, away from the pressures of the music business. I didn't.
The new album has a rockier feel to it. Was this organic, or did you make a conscious effort to move away from the dance side of ABC's past?
Skyscraping just happened to turn out that way. It felt natural when we were putting it together.
ABC has always had a strong Graphic design element. How much of a hand did you have in that? Or was this something the record companies did?
Record companies have always been supportive and pretty much left us to it where both the music and the design were concerned. It's 100% the band. I think that's what being in a band's all about doing it your own way and finding an individual style.
What was the deal with Neutron Records? It was a label before ABC but now it's gone?
Who controls the Vice Versa stuff? Any chance we'll see that on C.D. one day?
It's unlikely that you'll see that released, even though there were some great tunes. Songs like "Stylyagi" and "Democratic Dancebeat" must be over 20 years old . My favorite was always "Modern as in Mary Quant." Times change. Steve Singleton, Mark White, and I own the rights, I suppose.
Do you still keep in touch with David and Eden? Where did you meet them? How did they become a part of the band?
Last I heard David Yarritu was taking photographs in New York and Eden was suing Clive James over a book he wrote. Mark and I were determined not to be a duo, so, we pulled them on board in '84 for a brief and very anarchic time. Eden we knew from Sheffield, David came to a gig in Austin, Texas.
ABC has always had big success in the States and yet the new album is not out here yet. Obviously if you had your way it would be out, but are you also concentrating on Europe and the U.K. at present?
No. I'm currently looking for a record deal in the U.S.
Up is one of the band's finer albums. Certainly it's the most stylistically consistent effort since The Lexicon of Love, yet it seems to have got lost. Was that label politics?
By the time the record came out we'd signed to a different label. Phonogram wasn't too happy about that. Some you win. Some you lose. I don't think anyone wanted to sabotage the record but I don't think it was their number one priority. Never mind. We had a lot of fun making it. We wanted to reflect the music we were hearing in Ô88 and Ô89 at clubs like Shoom and the Hacienda, the first days of the Rave, Ecstasy scene in the UK.
Originally we were going to record each track in a different city with different remixers but never got round to it. I think Up came out in a black cover in the States. Very Spinal Tap.
You and Keith Lowndes and Glenn Gregory seemed to have done very well producing the new album. If you could work with any producer right now who would it be?
Trevor Horn, John Leckie. Ian Broudie.
What's your favorite Spandau Ballet song?
What did you do with yourself between Abracadabra and Skyscraping?
I became a dad to two beautiful children , Nancy and Louis, my twins, I split from Mark White, I split from Parlophone EMI, I wrote 50 songs, I took a long cold hard look at myself, I bought a computer, joined The
Magic Skulls, moved house, lost myself -found myself, built a brand new bullet proof ABC, and recorded "Skyscraping" amongst other things.
What about "Modern Drugs?" How long did it last? Was it difficult to keep going?
"Modern Drugs" was my college fanzine. I'd write about stuff that stimulated me, local bands that weren't getting coverage in the national media. It ran to three editions. I'd sell it at gigs. It enabled me to get in free when I was really skint.
Tell us about meeting Vice Versa for the first time. Was it just White and Singleton?
I went to interview them for the fanzine. From that meeting they invited me to Middlesborough for a gig supporting Cowboy's International and let me on stage playing an early synth. We got bottled off stage but we did get paid for the show. Mark and Steve regarded this as an upswing in their luck so they asked me to join full time.
What made you decide to join?
I liked them both. They were outsiders.
How was the change to ABC decided upon? Was it just the name or did you decide then and there to change the band's whole approach?
We recruited a drummer and a bass player and I became the singer, so the name change from Vice Versa to ABC felt applicable . We were starting from scratch.
How did you manage to hook up with Trevor Horn? I know that Steve Brown produced the first single, "Tears Are Not Enough."
Steve Brown did indeed produce the first single. We must have made his life hell. It was our big break, so we were determined to get the record right . During the session the drummer at the time freaked and locked himself in a side room and listened to a Crusaders record for about 12 hours. Looking back it was very intense. Steve went on to produce Wham, amongst others. We'd heard Dollar's record, "Hand Held In Black and White," on the radio, and it sounded bigger and better than everything else, so we phoned Trevor Horn and met up with him. Hit it off immediately. He understood what we wanted and we understood him.
Did you know beforehand that you could write lyrics, or did you just fall into it?
I don't know. I've always liked words.
In a couple of sentences each can you describe how it was to make each album?
The Lexicon of Love
Exhilarating, exciting. Three months of pleasure in Sarm East, a tiny cramped studio in the East End. We worked days and nights.
Two weeks with Andy Newmark and Alan Spenner at the Townhouse in Shepherds Bush. Really decisive and a great laugh.
How to Be a Millionaire
Recorded out in the countryside at Farnham on a Mitsubishi digital machine. Nothing worked right for any length of time. Continuous technical delays. Finished it back in London at Abbey Road and in Fulham at Maison
Rogue. It seemed to last forever.
A strange time. Waiting for Bernard Edwards to show up in London. Living on Westbourne Grove about 30 seconds distance from the studio. We seemed to climb through every adversity to make this record. It was worth it.
Fastest thing we ever put together. Zoomed through it.
Went round in circles making this. Started in the U.S. in Detroit Chicago and New York. Scrapped a lot of music to get to the finished record. Finished it at the Townhouse Shepherd's Bush . A low.
Is it true you flushed your gold lame suit down the toilet in Japan?
Yes. I had three, but one definitely got flushed at the Keio Plaza in Tokyo.
Time to move on.
Several new bands, Mansun, and more to the point, My Life Story, have been compared to ABC. Does that flatter you?
Yes and no. It feels good to have left something, to be remembered.
If you were doing a K.C. and the Sunshine Band tribute album which song would you like to cover?
I wouldn't do it.
ABC have never really done any covers. I know you did a version of "Thunderball," but why haven't you done more , even as a B side?
Originally the reason we wrote songs was because we couldn't play any one else's. We covered a Frank Sinatra tune on the first tour, " I Wish I Were In Love Again," because we only had 10 songs. I want to record The Temptations tune "Just My Imagination" someday. Thunderball came about when David Arnold invited me on board his Bond theme record. I liked his stuff and we just went ahead and did it .
Do you still keep in touch with Paul Rutherford?
About a month ago I went to see U2 at Wembley Stadium and ran into Paul Rutherford. Paul's a real gentleman. Working with him in '89 was a real buzz. Years had passed since we last met but he seemed just the same. Just as wild and mad for it.
Do you find that you are a public figure in the UK, or can you go to the grocery store without dark glasses?
Don't wear shades much. Funnily enough I am recognized on a regular basis most places I go. I can never figure that out. I don't consider myself as famous. Never have.
You once said that you would never do a duet with anyone. Have you changed your mind? If so, who would you want to sing or collaborate with?
Let's see......I'll sing or collaborate with anyone if it feels right.
What bands or performers do you follow these days?
U2, Black Grape, Al Green, The Charlatans, Roxy Music, Stevie Wonder, Radiohead, Chemical Brothers, loads of mid period Bowie, Earl Brutus, Prodigy, Four Tops, Massive, Neil Young, Bob Dylan. Tons of stuff.
You play a lot of football. Have you ever considered playing U.S. style football?
U.S. football looks pretty brutal. Any sport where you wear a suit of armor has to be. I was raised on soccer. It's in my blood.
-Thanks to Martin for taking time out to talk to Lexicon!