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Biting The Hand: ABC's Beauty Stab 40 Years On
Matthew Lindsay , November 14th, 2023 09:11

ABC's follow up to the incredibly successful Lexicon Of Love, was seen as costly misstep by most at the time, but why then, asks Matthew Lindsay, does it feel more resonant than ever?

"If you’re out of work you’ll never enjoy the bright lights of Las Vegas. Membership to Club Tropicana is all very well. But it’s just a dream."
Martin Fry in No1, December 1983

"The glossy package of the pop world and the hard realities beneath, conflict."
Neale Pharaoh, Just Me And Nobody Else, March 1966

ABC’s 1982 was woven from the stuff new pop dreams were made of. There’d been three top ten hits, 'Poison Arrow', 'The Look Of Love' and 'All Of My Heart'. The Lexicon Of Love had sat atop the album charts for four weeks during summer, dislodging Avalon by heroes Roxy Music, outselling Rio. That year only Streisand, the Kids From Fame and Madness sold more albums. By ABC’s second Smash Hits cover in 1982, they were in full pomp, dressed as a dapper tuxedoed string section, impossibly elegant, instantly imperial. Inside the magazine Martin Fry made his future ambitions clear: world domination by 1983.

The Lexicon Of Love had been a neat trick, sumptuously synthesizing pop culture into one perfect post-modern package. A whole compendium was in there, from Frank Sinatra to John Barry, Tamla Motown to high glam, post punk to cutting edge US disco, all tied together by Trevor Horn’s hi-tech ‘superhuman’ production. Name-checking Fred Astaire, ABC had revived a lost world of showbiz glamour and class; Vegas-style gold lamé, sleevenotes, album adverts with letters by Fry promising "a collection of songs for any season". But The Lexicon Of Love’s sleeve, part magical MGM transformation, part Brechtian deconstruction, revealed the worm in the bud of Fry’s perfect escapist pop dream, the old world swoon colliding with a post punk scepticism. A similar tension ran through ABC’s music, made to "make people feel good again, refreshed. Give them self-respect." but with real, twisted heartbreak festering under the polished drama.

Effortlessly suave, studiously referential, ironic and passionately heartfelt, ABC’s contradictions had placed them far above the pop pack. It was a high wire act, a finely threaded feat that was destined to unravel.

1982 had come with it s own peculiar tensions. It was a landmark year for visionary pop spinning at 33 rpm; Sulk, Avalon, Pornography, New Gold Dream, Upstairs at Eric’s, The Dreaming, A Kiss In The Dreamhouse and Peter Gabriel’s Security. But while doors opened, others closed. Soft Cell’s edgy sequence of top 5 smashes came to an end, Alan Rankine quit Associates in October, The Dreaming left Kate Bush nervously exhausted, temporarily alienated from the singles charts. Many great groups either split or went on extended hiatus: The Jam, Blondie, Roxy, Abba, Japan. That year’s Dollar, whose 45s had led ABC to Horn, were the spectacularly naff Tight Fit. By the year’s end Duran Duran swept the Smash Hits polls and Culture Club were coming up fast, both top-shelf acts that nevertheless signalled a shift from ‘boutique’ to ‘superstore’ pop. 1981’s festive chart-topper, ‘Don’t You Want Me?’, ceremoniously ended a year when New Pop had stormed the citadel. The following year's yuletide no.1, Renée and Renato’s 'Save Your Love' suggested possibilities weren’t quite so endless.

As the giddy carousel of pop spun, ABC’s outlook shifted dramatically. They’d toured the world, as a 16-piece band and returned home exhausted. "It drove each of us singularly mad", guitarist Mark White told Martyn Ware. Sheffield was also a sharp dose of hard reality after international life in 5 star hotels. "It looked like it had been decimated", said Fry years later, of a city ravaged by unemployment and drug addiction. Pop had been an escape route from Sheffield but coming back conquering heroes awakened them to problems wider than their own ambitions. This fed into what White calls the "impossible" task of following up The Lexicon Of Love. The perfect pop album’s widescreen Technicolour sheen was out, so was gold lamé. Fry’s ever-dwindling collection of shiny suits, one stolen in Coventry, another, the singer joked to No.1, he’d tried to flush down a Tokyo hotel toilet, was a sign a change was afoot. Beauty Stab, Fry said, would be "back to Sheffield, back to black and white documentary style."

Duelling impulses drove the overhaul. Fry said they wanted to do "something down to earth, the opposite to how people perceived us." But the chutzpah required to trash a winning formula after a debut, was pure imperial overreach. (Fry said they felt "invincible".) Bowie, unsurprisingly, was a lodestar. (Lodger’s musical chairs had inspired them, in original incarnation Vice Versa, to move Fry from oscillator operator to singer.) Bowie’s shape-shifting disregard for commercial expectations especially on his Eno-assisted albums was one inspiration. Punk was another. In 1976 Fry had seen the Pistols at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall with brother Jamie (he’d also see the Banshees, the Clash and Subway Sect). May 1983’s Smash Hits gave readers a clue to where ABC were heading when Fry selected 'Anarchy In The UK' as his Star Choice: it was "still valid", as durable as "concrete", where other songs were "fibre-glass".

By 1983 ABC had shrunken to a trio, drummer David Palmer departing for Yellow Magic Orchestra. Trevor Horn was scheduled to produce Beauty Stab but commitments with Yes meant they self-produced with Lexicon engineer Gary Langan. Roxy Music’s Flesh And Blood-era rhythm section, bassist Alan Spenner and drummer Andy Newmark were enlisted for the sessions. White's guitar would be central to Beauty Stab, which sporadically snarled with the primal power of hard rock. White told Smash Hits he loved "standing in front of a Marshall amp and cranking it up to 200 Watts... If I like a sound I’ll use it whether it's Whitesnake or Killing Joke". Glam informed his style too, White cited Bolan and Roxy’s Phil Manzanera as his favourite players. Beauty Stab was also rooted in post punk, Fry claiming Beauty Stab was their Gang Of Four album (drummer Hugo Burnham joined ABC for promotional appearances). Amid this radical transformation came more reassuring elements, Stephen Singleton’s sax and occasional strings, from composer David Bedford, who’d previously worked with Kevin Ayers and Mike Oldfield.

As Beauty Stab took shape across various London studios, the Townhouse, Sarm East and West, Abbey Road, 1983 pop style coalesced: Bowie’s 'Let’s Dance', Spandau Ballet’s 'True', Wham!’s 'Club Tropicana'. This was music that seemed doused in cologne, clad in sharp suits, sound-tracking an endless summer in exotic locations. The second British Invasion peaked, with 16 UK acts occupying the US top 40, and then Thatcher was re-elected in a landslide. Fry was keen to distance ABC from the luxury zeitgeist they’d help create, telling Smash Hits: "I can write songs about nightclubs and sunny shores in my sleep", saying he preferred to "reflect what life is really like in ’83." Too classy to name names he denounced the current scene as "lacking finesse, originality, wit and style."

When they re-emerged Fry’s floppy fringe was gone, his hair teased into a vertical electric shock and his suit was chequered, designed by John Moore, from Midnight In Rotherham. White’s clobber was equally no-nonsense: big boots, big shoulder-padded jackets. It was a tougher look for a tougher sound that was unveiled on October’s 'That Was Then But This Is Now'. Intended as a manifesto, "a rallying call against complacency", it also drew a neat line between ABC old and new. Stylish pop smarts remained intact but leaner and meaner, reconfigured into a stadium-bound heroic stampede: sax-heavy chug, shimmering Simple Minds/ Peter Gabriel –style electric piano and a fist-pounding chorus. At 2' 10" mark it revved up a gear with falsetto skating across plectrum-scraping noise and a furious drum ricochet, like a post-punk Roxy. The carnage intensified as it drew to a close, as if the ‘now’ it was hurtling towards was an abyss (an unedited version’s postscript was even more abstract).

Lyrically, Fry was firing on all cylinders, bemoaning nostalgia ("Why make the past your sacred cow?") in a world full of decay, fakery & class control, the threat of cold war looming. "Can’t complain, musn’t grumble, help yourself to another piece of apple crumble" was singled out for ridicule by Roddy Frame and others. Clunky perhaps wrenched from context but inside the apocalyptic maelstrom it summed up the stoic, cold comfort complacency of English life perfectly. ABC had come back fighting, clad in utilitarian gear for the video, a helicopter hovering ominously above them, eventually exploding, a far cry from the Benny Hill meets Mary Poppins frolics of The Look Of Love’s clip.

It flummoxed reviewers. ‘A strong, moving song,’ said No.1, though they felt Horn’s Midas touch was sorely missed. "One of the most exciting things they’ve done", gushed Smash Hits, though they felt their single of the fortnight had a ‘lousy chorus.’ The 12-inch sleeve came with punk-style perversity, warning potential purchasers that it was identical to the 7-inch. It stalled at 18.

When Beauty Stab itself appeared on 14 November, the reaction was similarly mixed. This time No.1 were ecstatic ("this is raunchy, babe!") claiming it was the "first interesting to happen all year", with "kick-ass Def Leppard guitars centre-stage". Smash Hits’ Dave Rimmer was less impressed, calling it "an awkward-sounding and not entirely pleasant experience. I’m confused." Years later Simon Reynolds echoed this in Rip It Up And Start Again, believing Beauty Stab’s bull and matador cover "gave the impression of a band that didn’t really know what it was doing".

But the oil painting captured Beauty Stab’s mood and themes poetically. The perilous duel of matador and bull seemed symbolically charged with multiple meanings; it could symbolise battling lovers, could be a bitter class conflict, that red flag being the deadly lure of desire and advertising’s false promises. Partly kitsch, evoking that two-week getaway from life’s working grind, partly faded romantic grandeur, partly post punk agitprop, ABC knew exactly what they were doing.

Beauty Stab was a confounding beast, a "protest album" according to Fry, the political discontent entwined with barbed love songs. The Lexicon Of Love’s pristine, sweeping structures replaced by a thrilling, mercurial instability. At times "raw and unfinished" it was, Fry told Smash Hits, "full of fury, abrasive and live", as if bursting into life as you heard it. Much of this crackling immediacy came from White’s playing, growling through 'Love Is A Dangerous Language', unleashing power chords on 'The Power Of Persuasion', his savage, speaker-splitting riffage sealing Beauty Stab’s status as ABC’s rock album, duelling with Singleton’s sax on the instrumental title track.

But it is more varied than that, full of compositional nuance, constantly shifting gears. 'Love Is A Dangerous Language' wedded storm-tossed romantic melodrama to rock swagger, then unexpectedly slipped into a jazzy waltz; 'Hey Citizen’s Cult-like muscularity came with a jaunty Kinks-like middle eighth. 'King Money' mutated wildly, started as poignant and posed soul-reggae with White’s guitar channelling Compass Point, ended in Bo Diddley frenzy. Most jarring of all 'Bite The Hand' pitted 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone'-style strings against a roaring Pistols-style sonic assault. Throughout White responded to the twists and turns with nimble fretwork, those raunchy ‘licks’ joined by wiry post-punk, even Fripp-like jags, a versatility that remains underrated because, 1987’s album track 'Ark-Angel' aside, he rarely played like this again.

Amid the high-voltage ‘live’ sound, a swirl of textures seeped in. Icy synths wafted through 'If I Ever Thought You’d Be Lonely', harking back to Flesh And Blood-era Roxy, Eno-era Bowie, even Vice Versa, though it was thawed with a classic, plaintive ABC chorus. Bedford’s strings were magisterial, starkly centre-stage on darkly dramatic highlight 'By Default By Design' (ABC rom-noir at its finest), eerily predictive of 90’s orchestrations for The Verve and Massive Attack. Similarly, the stripped down intimacies of the gorgeous 'SOS' foreshadow those on Pet Shop Boys' 'Behaviour', its 808 ripples, indebted to Marvin Gaye’s 'Sexual Healing'. With its electro-folk refrain 'SOS' swelled into a rousing sing-along (featuring ZTT newbies Frankie). Beauty Stab’s second single, released January 1984, deserving better than its 39 peak. The rock evaporated from Beauty Stab in these final stages, 'Unzip' was propelled by funky clavinet, 'United Kingdom' was ABC at their most naked, just Fry and a piano.

Fry was the glue that held the highly strung music together with swoonsome melodies and performances of real gusto, flitting between the blue-eyed soul boy and dramatic crooner of 1982 and new 1983 styles, full of rock vim and protest-punk vigour. Only on 'If I Ever Thought You’d Be Lonely’s verses does it come off like role-playing, akin to Bryan ferry impersonating Phillip Marlowe.

Lyrically, star-crossed lovers rubbed shoulders with broadsides against Thatcher’s Britain. 'The Power Of Persuasion' took aim at media manipulation, its Orwellian ability to convince you "monochrome is daylgo" politically heightened in an age where Saatchi and Saatchi had helped put Thatcher in No.10, while Murdoch’s press kept her there. The latter reappear on 'Bite The Hand', visionary uprising reminiscent of Fry student favourite William Blake, stymied by the "foolish who believes all he reads". 'King Money' exposed the spiritual rot in a neo-liberal economy, taking swipes at a status-driven, money-minded Britain valuing "not what you are but what you’ve earned". It brought the capitalist cruelty nestled in 'Date Stamp’s wordplay (hapless lover as useless commodity) closer to the surface.

Fry called 'United Kingdom' a "lament for the sad state it’s in". Austerity and jingoistic pride ran through the state of the nation address surveying a land full of thwarted ambitions and dashed hopes, flickering with violence At its heart was an overeducated, former schoolboy athlete adrift in a cut-throat adult world, a sobering contrast to the Olympian self assurance of Spandau’s Gold.

With this backdrop of impoverished souls manipulated by hucksters "slumming their way out of the jacuzzi" ('Hey Citizen'), even Beauty Stab’s love-songs had sceptical bite. 'Love Is A Dangerous Language' was Fry’s 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' (Joy Division’s "revolutionary Sinatra song", as he called it), a destructive distraction that deflects away from deeper problems, already gone from his lover’s eyes by the song’s end. 'Unzip' came with a line "she’s vegetarian except when it comes to sex" that seemingly sprang from hard rock’s horny ID but the cold-eye clarity came straight from post-punk rigour (Gang of Four’s 'Damaged Goods', X-Ray Spex’s 'Identity'). The anti/romantic tension was at its highest on 'By Default By Design', Romeo and Juliet selling their love for cigarettes in a transactional world, Fry wistfully recalling the weather when first encountering a lover.

Many seemed to dismiss Beauty Stab for what it wasn’t, rather than embrace it for what it was. It peaked at 12 in the UK, slouched in at 89 in the US. Fry was "shocked by the reaction and not in a good way", later calling it a "disaster". White agreed, referring to it as a "rock n’ roll suicide". "We thought we could take our audience with us", Fry later said. For him, Beauty Stab had been fuelled by a mix of rebellion, arrogance and stupidity; the maverick audacity of "an adventurous spirit". Famous fans came from outside pop. Bono sent them a letter applauding their bravery, years later the Manic’s James Dean Bradfield praised the melding of styles; open-eared rock in the face of narrow-minded pop, a warning that ‘poptimism’ could be as limiting as ‘rockism.’

ABC found themselves spinning in a lonely orbit during 1983, the year the 80’s exploded; it was when the previous year's 'Thriller' video truly arrived, a blockbuster spectacle, blurring boundaries racially and stylistically, designed to dazzle and entertain. Beauty Stab was out of sync with other late 1983 releases: Colour By Numbers, Touch, Seven And The Ragged Tiger, music that revelled in seductive surfaces and streamlined pop visions. Duran Duran’s album arrived just a week after Beauty Stab, recorded in exotic Monserrat, the Cote D’Azur and Sydney its title casting the five-piece as swashbuckling heroes in a globetrotting epic.

This was the prevailing mood Beauty Stab was up against. ‘Entertainment’ was paramount, whether it be from Wham! or Bowie, who told Rolling Stone that April he was done with experimenting. Pop’s fun factor was spreading everywhere, from goth hitting the top ten (The Cure, the Banshees) to high-gloss hard rock (ZZ Top’s Eliminator, Def Leppard’s US mega-seller Pyromania). Even Paul Weller, the flame-keeper of punk’s superego and idealistic moral fury, could be found in 11983 basking in the sensuous, electronic 'Long Hot Summer', stripped to the waist in the sun-streaked video. In this hyper-competitive feel good year, visionary newcomers underperformed; The The’s Soul Mining barely scraped the top 30, its singles languished far from the top 40. Rock did remain an ever-growing threat to pop’s supremacy (U2, Big Country, The Alarm) but when Simple Minds toughened their sound for 'Waterfront', it was straightforwardly robust, whereas ABC, in Fry’s words, had "zig-zagged into the wind".

Beauty Stab wasn’t entirely alone in testing the limits of new pop, reacting against its "overground brightness", Soft Cell’s The Art Of Falling Apart and OMD’s Dazzle Ships challenged audiences too, both were seen as acts of pop star self-sabotage. Similarly, Heaven 17 may have hit big with 'Temptation', but pro-worker dance number 'Crushed By The Wheels Of Industry' only enjoyed modest success. Depeche Mode’s 'Everything Counts' was a rare example of politics and hits mixing in 1983, others kept aspiration’s sad side neatly contained in catwalk struts that made it easy to ignore (Eurythmics’ 'Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)'). Elsewhere reality seemed relegated to indie, the 'alternative' 80s tucked away on a B-side by newcomers The Smiths ('Accept Yourself').

After Beauty Stab, Singleton exited. Inspired by 1983 dance innovations, New Order’s 'Blue Monday' and Shannon’s pulverising 'Let The Music Play', ABC underwent another radical reinvention, taking on the 'greed is good'-era again, this time as an Archies-style cartoon act. 1985’s How To Be A Zillionaire, was another overlooked masterpiece, largely electronic, one step ahead of the soon-to-be huge PSB. Spawning bigger hits stateside, bizarrely, one had to ask, in the year King exploded, had the UK ‘s record buyers lost their pop minds?

The popular narrative around Beauty Stab is that its legacy is a cautionary tale, how not to follow up a hit debut. But Fry’s mix of national pride – "everything you could ask for is in the UK. It can be a glamorous place" – and shame recurred in the more thoughtful corners of Britpop (Suede circa 93-4). While Beauty Stab echoed 'Scary Monsters’ declamatory squall, it also seems eerily predictive of Bowie's fiery 2013 comeback, The Next Day. For a record so focused on the ‘now’ an odd nostalgia blows through Beauty Stab, those utopian disco strings, that icy synth, those nods back to punk/post punk, as if the past held a better vision of the future than the current climate.

Beauty Stab’s confusion makes sense as a response to its era. Woven into the heart of Thatcherism was a dire paradox, a belief that you could restore Britain back to a mythical ‘lost’ 50s and let a rampaging free market loose across its green and pleasant land. It was a world conjured poignantly on Beauty Stab, specifically 'United Kingdom'. Sadly in post-Brexit Britain we’re still there, living on false promises, dashed hopes and austerity, "making ends meet". And ABC’s supposed wrong turn sounds more resonant than ever.