Beauty Stab

By the end of 1982, ABC had become one of the most influential and popular bands in Britain. The charts in the early 80's had seen a huge influx of bright new pop bands collectively termed as new romantics by the London press. The Lexicon of Love had been released in July, 1982 on the back of 3 top 20 singles with ´The Look of Love' peaking at number 4 in June. Whilst other albums of the time such as Duran Duran's ´Rio', released only 2 months earlier were helping to create a whole new pop culture in the UK, it became clear that The Lexicon of Love was a classic pop album, crossing all the usual musical snobbery boundaries, appealing to music lovers from NME readers to Smash Hits readers and thirty-forty something couples.

The Lexicon of Love
was a most British romantic album, an album of love, longing and relationships. Lyrics of the postman not calling on Valentines Day were typical of the northern charm of Martin Fry and the songs of this nature appealed to the masses in a way in which they had previously been unable to relate. Produced by Trevor Horn, his still developing reputation (pre-Frankie) for the lush, slick sound had everything with the most beautiful string arrangements put to the most perfect pop songs.

By the end of 1982, after a forth hit from the album and the release of a concept film to accompany the album, Mantrap, ABC were nearing the end of an exhausting world tour before returning back to their native Sheffield to rest before deciding about where to take their sound next. Drummer, Dave Palmer was lost to the Yellow Magic Orchestra, leaving the core trio of Fry, Stephen Singleton (Saxophone) and Mark White (guitars, keyboards) to use session musicians as and when needed. Horn announced he was too busy to work with them on their second record, leaving Gary Langan a protégé who had also worked on Lexicon at the helm.

When starting to write again, after the whirlwind success of the previous year, Fry knew Lexicon 2 was not an option and returning to Sheffield in the midst of Thatcher's Britain, he began to write from a more political and harsher standpoint. Though he came back a wealthier individual it was not hard to see the changes going on in his home city with rising unemployment and spreading disillusionment. Guitars were brought further to the front with a tougher, metallic production. Though the melodies, pop nuance and strings were still evident, the resulting album was a complete departure for the band and it was clear from the off that the album would be met with a certain sense of disappointment from the more casual listeners and buyers expecting to hear more of the same. The band returned in November, 1983 with a clear statement of intent with the single ´That was then but this is now'. From the first line, ´Why make the past your sacred cow' sang Fry, announcing that the band had moved on. A howling screech of feedback accompanied the coda of the single, but the song still had the melodic potency to reach a credible but disappointing number 18. The album, Beauty Stab followed 3 weeks later and was met by critical apathy and disappointment with arguments that the melodicism and romanticism had apparently evaporated in the success of the previous year. How wrong the critics and public were, sending the album to a disappointing number 12. This was an album of huge depth and variety, an album which demanded and rewarded repeated listening. ´Love's a dangerous language' appeared to be dismissing the head in the clouds feelings of Lexicon to a more streetwise and realistic vision of relationships. ´Survey the damage, see what love's done' sang Fry over a backdrop of squalling feedback of guitars. ´By default by design' concerned the same agenda, ´breaking hearts your speciality? Why did you ever have to come so close to me' over an orchestral arrangement and choir backing at least the equal in dramatic effect of anything on Lexicon. Again, the disillusionment evident in Fry, not helped by the sudden fame he had encountered so early in his career, appeared in 'Unzip', ´love's just the gimmick, a mime or a mimic'.

´The power of persuasion' opened with a stadium pleasing riff whilst lyrically knocking the powers of press and media and the white funk of ´King Money' attacked capitalist greed which had become so omnipresent in Conservative Britain.

In a last ditch attempt to recover the album to the public's attention, the record company released 'SOS' in January, 1984. A beautiful pop song, one which most closely mirrored the sounds and feelings of the pop symphonies of Lexicon. From the lazily seductive saxophone solo to the ´ba-ba-bada-ba-ba' crescendo, this would have been easily top 5 at the peak of Lexicon mania, but by now the world had turned and on the back of little radio and media exposure the single struggled to a disappointing 39.

The album closed with the stunning ´United Kingdom' with Fry accompanied only by piano. The most politically open song on the album, it provided a snapshot of Britain from Fry's eyes in 1983. The song still had a timeless feel with lyrics that can easily be applied to Tony Blair's Britain once this government's feel-good propaganda sheen is removed. ´After all of these o-levels is this my reward?...... this busted, rusted, upper-crusted, bankrupted done and dusted, no man to be trusted United Kingdom'. This song was resigned to the b-side of 'SOS', possibly due to the band's previous chart friendly reputation and major record companies wariness of issuing such politically thought provoking songs to a wider audience at the time.

Beauty Stab deserved more attention at the time and it deserves more attention now. Despite its relatively healthy chart positions, the album was deemed a failure and has largely been forgotten about. Continually ignored in favour of the still lavish praise heaped on the admittedly great and era-defining Lexicon of Love. An album of such depth and bravery to be produced today would be impossible, with the huge costs involved and the play it safe attitude of the industry arguing that more of the same is always the better option, giving the public essentially what they already have albeit in a different sleeve. From here on Martin Fry, Mark White and their ever changing line up continued in their chameleon like incarnations through New York disco, How to be a zillionaire and arriving at commercial if not critical success akin to Lexicon with the plastic soul of 1987's Alphabet City. The fact remains though that Beauty Stab is deserved of a re-appraisal and should be lauded as one of THE great lost pop albums of the last 30 years.

© 2003 Mark Davies


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