THE A.B.C. OF
An interview with the
Moderne Funk-Vision group ABC
THIS IS WHAT’S HAPPENING.
The film goes blurred in horizontal bands of grey. Sat on a tubular steel chair watching jerky out of focus home movies I see the visual drift go further. Outside the ‘Illusions’ studio there is heat-drenched Sheffield lost in dreams of steel and heavy industry. Here, on this video, legends – or rather impressions of the London club ‘Legends’, are condensing. The eye of the camera swoops in through light-bursts of hellish ochre onto Mark White, dark flattop crop hair, intense concentration. His guitar is strafed by an itchy plectrum wreaking vengeance on air, erupting jangling clusters of chords. His fingers are tarantulas spasming up and down the fret.
Red light goes on, washing over burnished sax, Stephen Singleton, white-flesh cheeks inflated to precarious aural limits, exhales a solo as jaggedy and spacey as smoke crawling across a motorway interchange. Then he’s bouncing and weaving around the stage grinning at crooked angles. Behind him the backdrop is fractured mirrors so that Mark Lickley’s churning pulsing bass and David Robinson’s precision-sharp drumming are cloned into an infinity-orchestra down halls of repetitive reflections, each chorus-line image moving in exact choreography. And an audience who, ten seconds previous were majoring in apathy, are now on their feet and dancing. This music would make cripples dance.
Stage-front is fenced in, the band are caged heat bleeding sweat. Martin Fry in ‘Maverick’ string-tie – ‘if you can’t stand the heat, stay outta the kitchen,’ now laying slabs of vocal lines over the swamp operation rhythms, the muscular and tentacular dancebeats. The lyrics come fast, ‘standing by the Xerox machine, I wanna duplicate some money, build a fortune in black and white, but I need a master copy.’ The song is “Payback”, three minutes of the most concentrated danceable energy in recent Rock ‘n’ Roll memory. The film wows and drizzles, pupils of eyes blanking back into uniform white, igniting, gleaming paranormally. It goes on – ‘plan the perfect double-murder, maybe win the pools. When I get some money, Honey, I’ll be knee-high in consumer durables.’
The audience is largely music biz, Phonogram who have ABC under contract, Peter Powell from Radio One-One-Wonderful who’s been mouthing off praises of this ‘radical dance faction’ ever since, and has pressured them into studio sessions for his programme. I could be mistaken but somewhere I swear I also see the spectre of Jimmy James & the Vagabonds smiling (but that story comes later).
Screen ripples. Goes grey in storming monochrome hail.
In levels of heat eight out of ten doctors would not recommend Stephen Singleton paces the bare concrete floor of the design studio cramped with posters, artwork, Xeroxed £20 notes and snaking wires. He pulses the video to death. Turns to me. ‘What do you think?’
In my head I’m constructing lists of responses. To me ABC is the band most likely to. The democratic dancebeat that hits your feet via the brain, backbone, and all points between – or vice versa (but that’s another legend!). ABC, to me is the total contagious intensity unleashed at the Leeds ‘Warehouse’ club, or the London ‘Moonlight’, or bases closer to home in Sheffield. A commitment to ENERGY that fizzes and bursts in incandescent clusters round your neural network. Visually they are five sharp mix ‘n’ match 1980’s, elusive reference points, but calculatedly clear of categories. Category is stasis.
Mark White, frontline guitar, early twenties, aggressively energetic, contends ‘you win the war by ignoring everything else out of existence.’ He’s right. You think Funk’s been going downhill since Otis Redding took that long last ride, since Sly’s ‘Family Affair’ took the dive? And don’t feed me revivalists like Q-Tips or Dexys, or Jazz-Funk or Punk-Funk. ABC ‘evolved as corporate isolationists,’ no copyists, no revivalists, they. ABC take it back to basics, then rebuild it different. To them ‘Disco is an excellent vehicle. We are utilising a sort of Funk vision. Conceptual beats-per-minute. While you Dance yourself Dizzy we will exploit your subconscious.’ The real Soul rebellion that involves tactical infiltration. ‘There’s a Disco in every town, humming hymns to consumerism and stylism.’
Rejoice, rejoice, you got no choice when ABC comes at you…
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THIS IS WHAT’S HAPPENING.
Later, Martin and Stephen, two tall blonde men in white sneakers, and me, are sat around a table in a room above a coffee shop. Coffee is duly drunk, cheeseburgers consumed to background sounds of conversation and the hiss of steam.
So why ABC – what’s it mean? A forgotten Jackson Five hit? – ABC, as easy as 1-2-3, Doh-Ray-Me? It carries little emotional charge, few attendant image-associations.
Martin shrugs, exudes candour, suggests the ‘first three letters of the alphabet. You can think alphabetically, place everything logically in a cool calculated fashion. But also it’s got international applications. ABC throughout Europe will always be ABC. It won’t have to be translated into another language.’
Stephen adds ‘we don’t really want a name that links us with any specific Movement.’
‘It’s just something that’s colourless, and we have to colour it in. It means that we have to stamp our character onto the name fairly fast otherwise it will just be faceless. The name ABC is big and simple, and into that we can throw a lot of different ideas.’ Flesh the letters out with the gaudy crayola synthesis of ABC’s component individuals. Laying chameleon nuances onto a pure bedrock of awareness.
So there’s no Jackson Five connection? ‘That’s the first record I ever bought’ teases Stephen through a twisted sideways leer beneath a landslip of hair. ‘Nothing to do with the name of the band though.’
Fry just bops up and down, sings a few choruses of ‘shake it, shake it, Baby oooh-oooh,’ and leaves that open to interpretation.
A dance stance. Sure. But, acting as agent provocateur, or devil’s advocate, I ask what’s the good of promoting a dance philosophy when there’s three-million unemployed. Are ABC advocating a danceable solution to teenage revolution?
‘Revolutions happen as forty-five or thirty-three-and-a-third rpm. You can’t disassociate Discothèques and dancing just because people throw petrol bombs. It’s one and the same, it’s just an energy-explosion. There’s room for the two, for political dissention and good contemporary Disco music. You just take pleasure when you can.’ Martin shifts the line of attack to me. ‘You mean ABC plays while Rome burns?’
You could make out a case for that argument. But cliché is emphatically, if stylishly booted. ‘We are anti docile mannequin’ Mark White pointed out earlier. ‘We want to usurp twee ‘moderne’ mannerisms.’ The Funk mutation might be a new emphasis – but change is the real permanency.
‘The balance is there when the Specials sing “Ghost Town”. They look pretty sharp, but they think pretty sharp too. I can’t believe you’ve only got to be on the barricades. Your time is just as well spent on the dancefloor. We’re more about personal politics than statements.’ Bob Marley – he’s an example of the one-percent of artists who also achieve something real on a level beyond mere entertainment, Fry suggests. But ‘it’s a weak association. It’s like saying why has the Milkman not got a political consciousness, or why has the girl who just brought the cheeseburger not got a political consciousness. The two exist and knock around together.’ He pauses, traces the patterns on the tabletop with his forefinger. Then grins. ‘We have got a political song. It’s called “Hide The Ghetto”.’
Coffee pumps hiss in the background. The title gets scrambled. ‘Hide The Gateaux’? You mean like Marie Antoinette – let them eat cake?
‘“Hide The Gateaux”, let them eat cake! Hey, that works even better.’ Barriers and barricades come down in laughter.
‘Yeah, we’ll use THAT instead next time!’
Stephen concurs, betraying a slur of Sheffield in his accent. ‘And then the band turn around and complain ‘I’ve been manipulated’. It’s not always the case.’ ABC’s answer was to seek a package deal, a leasing arrangement with artistic control riders. They inked to Phonogram for a lucrative advance. You’ve not heard their single “Tears Are Not Enough”. You will. It’s to be the initial vinyl incarnation, a taster for the album already formed in their quintuple heads, unlike any other you’ve heard. The single – backed with “Alphabet Soup”, is already slated, but is going out with their own ‘Neutron’ logo. A contract tied up and now in operation.
‘We thought we’d get a catalogue of songs together, and we’d get a five-year plan, then take it to the record company as a complete package, and then it’s up to them to take it or leave it. Rather than go and say ‘we’re a band, have you got any ideas?’ We know where we are going. And with having our own label within Phonogram if anything goes wrong we can’t turn round and say Phonogram are to blame. We are the people to blame, and that’s the way we want it to be, we want that responsibility…’ Stephen is good on policy.
‘…squarely on our undernourished shoulders.’ Martin is good on epithets.
‘Phonogram can’t force us to write hit singles. It’s up to us. If we want to do it badly enough, then we’ll do it.’ There’s nothing to betray lack of conviction as he adds ‘ – and that’s what we are aiming for!’
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Sometimes, historical minutiae is unavoidable, even when everyone’s bored with Sheffield. There’s the inevitable regurgitation of industrial bleakness and cybermen, an overkill race-memory of soulless technology, all digital-sterile and no gut reactions… right? The mention of names like Clock DVA, Cabaret Voltaire and Human League elicit predictably knowing reactions. It’s no big deal to come from Sheffield thus far through 1981, but although the ABC bio-file necessarily pokes areas already much-poked, the genealogy unearths new trajectories too. David Robinson and Mark Lickley hacked out taproots with Postcode S18 out in Dronfield, a well-established local band for some three years, heavy on complex jazz-infected rhythms.
While in Sheffield proper, Vice Versa existed as the perfect post-modernist trio, but even in early 1979 when I first spoke to them they were mixing regulation influences – Kraftwerk, Malcolm McLaren, Andy Warhol and David Bowie, with Chic and Giorgio Moroder. Mark White boasting of dancing to early Donna Summer while Martin retaliates with tales of gate-crashing Kraftwerk at a London University concert.
But Vice Versa rode the new-austerity line to the extent of kick-starting Neutron Records, responsible for the now much-valued compilation EP ‘1980: The First Fifteen Minutes’ featuring the aforesaid Clock DVA, as well as Stunt Kites, and I’m So Hollow (with production trace-lines to Cabaret Voltaire, and family-tree connections to Human League). As Vice Versa, Singleton, White – and now-reneged David Sydenham, also did the ‘Music 4’ EP which ‘Melody Maker’ reviewer Chris Bohn described as ‘the darker side of Human League’s breezy melodrama.’ Vice Versa themselves offered an alternative explanation, a group Manifesto announcing them as a ‘chainsaw Pop group, more related to Northern Soul than Rock ‘n’ Roll.’
They toured in Europe, played the Leeds Sci-Fi Festival, did a Sheffield ‘City Hall’ date with Clock DVA, and guested on a Cowboys International slog around the UK. I met them as they got back from playing return Rotterdam engagements. Sample dialogue ran to Martin – by then replacing Sydenham, reporting belief in speed, change, dynamism, ENERGY both physical and intellectual.
Subsequently they released ‘Eight Aspects Of April ‘80’ which exceeded even those expectations, a magnificent cassette-edition that held permanent place on my tape-deck clear through to the new year when it was dislodged by the Scunthorpe Dada Psychedelicatessen ‘391’.
Rotterdam’s Backstreet Records sealed off the Vice Versa discography with a much-delayed single coupling “Stilyargi” – a song about Russian Teddy Boys, with “Eyes Of Christ”.
End of phase.
--- 0 ---
From the ‘Illusions’ studio we cruise Sheffield city-centre hunting a clean parking meter, 391 on the in-car sound-system. As Sly phrased it, different strokes for different folks, and so on and so on…
ABC, a brand new name, a new brand name. A cabinet re-shuffle. A latest millstone to be cast off, cracked, and used to sharpen tools for the phases to come. So far, trial runs for the line-up have been limited, but strategically targeted for maximum effect. The London ‘Moonlight’ Club in mid-May where Stephen unintentionally created undiscovered chords when his sax began destructuring in mid-solo, shedding pads like bronze-flashing lizard scales. And the ‘Legend’, Martin Fry moving vaguely like Richard Jobson used to with the Skids (‘It’s the fringe! I’ve got a new pair of dancing shoes now. I’ve learned a few more steps since that video’).
So why so little live work? ‘We didn’t want to grow up in public’ explains Stephen. ‘Some bands might like to do a hundred gigs. We’d rather do a hundred songs. We prefer to operate that way. We want to bring back the tradition of the songwriter, rather than the groups who get together an image and then songs to follow the image. We’ve got this catalogue together, and when we play live we just do – like eight or nine songs from that roster, to keep it fresh for us.’
Martin offers ‘we’ve written, like, one new song a month.’ He lists titles that have emerged from this period of furious creativity, songs like “Surrender”, “Speak No Evil” and “Boomerang”. Music still being worked out on stage, still in high pressure gestation.
Stephen elaborates their attitude to the process. ‘We do see ourselves as songwriters. We discipline ourselves to work on that craft. Writing is a question of locking ourselves in a room – the five of us, in a factory-style situation. Ninety percent of the things we write get chopped and changed or trashed. We can spend a week working on a song, and in the end drop the thing.’
I suggest that lyrically the new songs they played on the ‘Legend’ video are more direct that the Vice Versa stuff. Less arty. In fact, they are love songs…? ‘Twist in the tail love songs though’ concedes Martin. ‘More direct in that they are easier to comprehend.’
The catalyst bridging the two stylistic lifetimes is “Democratic Dancebeat”, a number from the ‘Eight Aspects Of April ‘80’ cassette (‘Black Echoes… Soul Power... Casino in Wigan… Motor City to the Twisted Wheel…’). ‘ABC grew organically out of Vice Versa. It wasn’t amputation, but evolution. The basic elements are all there in that song. It’s the same sentiments, just expressed in a different way. First of all you need something that grabs your attention, then you can dig deeper into the lyrics.’
‘It’s more interesting to try to touch more areas, to say things to a larger amount of people, rather than walking up a cul-de-sac that might only involve – say, two thousand people, initiates. But the basic statements aren’t radically different. The idea of an international Europe, the idea of date-stamping, changing, those doctrines stand fast. Just that sometimes the focus turns away from Art Movements in the 1920’s , and onto Boy-meets-Girl.’
Supreme twentieth-century designer Raymond Loewy, architect of the Coke bottle, considers style to be a ‘fleeting thing better left to ladies’ hairdressers.’ ABC would probably agree. Sheffield’s no place for dreaming. No place for affectation or posing assumed styles. ABC wear their integrity like all-over suits, they got integrity so bad it hurts. So where do Jimmy James & The Vagabonds – stylish Soul band of venerable antiquity, slot into such a scenario?
|Jimmy James & The Vagabonds|
Furtive glances are exchanged. A ‘shall we construct a mythology’ conspiracy? Stephen opts for straight narrative. ‘When we’ve actually written the songs as a five-piece we don’t see it being a full-stop. When we go in the studios we develop the songs even further, take them to what we think are the logical conclusions.’ The studio becomes a ‘songwriting tool’, allowing scope for dubbing strings or horns on top of the blueprints – to ‘develop the craft of songwriting and production.’ ‘I play sax and Mark (Lickley) plays a trumpet…’
‘…but he’s only got two hands!’
He’s working on that, right? ‘It was either a graft or a transplant.’
‘Anyway, we put adverts in the papers to try to get some brass players, and these guys that worked with Jimmy James came up. They live in the area – Kim Wear (trumpet) and Andy Gray (trombone). Jimmy himself lives in Retford now.’
So it was random in a sense. No scope for a New Funk Rebels searching for the Old Funk Rebels scam? A Rico for the Specials? A ‘Geno’ for the Dexys? ‘We didn’t actually audition them’ offers Stephen. ‘We just said ‘we’ll have you’, and stopped looking, because we knew the records and we knew they’d be exactly what we wanted.’
They’re just for recording work? ‘No, live as well. We remain a five-piece band, but with additional musicians. We needed to play gigs as a five-piece. But now we’re in a position where we can hold back, and put together a better show. We got the finances to do that. We don’t play live very often, but when we do, we want to make it an event. A show rather than just another appearance. When we play live we want to get everything we can across.’
We digress. Jimmy James’ Vagabonds went through a number of line-up changes through the ephemeral lushness of sixties Mod cultdom, into the splendid isolation of the years that followed. They ran neck and neck with Geno Washington’s Ram-Jam Band in in-sect appeal. Geno marginally more popular maybe, but the Vagabonds cultivating a mythos of aesthetic purity, a cell of fervid Gospel-tainted authenticity that gave the music greater credibility with the perceptive.
‘Sure, but Jimmy James found his mass audience in the end’ Martin adds, nudging in the brief liaison with writer-producer Biddu that gave the Soul giant his deserved hits “I’ll Go Where Your Music Takes Me” (no.23, in April 1976), and “Now Is The Time” (no.5, in July 1976).
Historical rumours time! ‘What happened is, he (Jimmy James) came over from Jamaica to work the band with another guy. Like, it wasn’t Jimmy James who was the original frontman, but the other guy became part of the clubland mafia, and Jimmy had to take over. They said ‘Oh, you can sing now’, and he was really very nervous…’
‘…according to legend.’
‘And he’d sing with his back to the audience. He’d stand near the drummer, you know, until he gradually blossomed. Apparently, when he plays live now he still turns his back to the audience.’
As far as sixties Soul bands are concerned, I confess a personal preference for Zoot Money. ‘You got his phone number?’ flashes Martin Fry…
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THIS IS WHAT IS HAPPENING NOW – ABC IS HAPPENING!!!
Mark White offers further minutes from the Board Meetings of the Corporate Isolationists. ‘Tell them they have no option, we’re the Radical Dance Faction, the world’s first swaying mass elite. Radio interference to Radio One.’ This style of smart-sloganeering with its positive-charge arrogance is subverted by deliberate conceptual absurdism, an integral humour. The self-righteous detractors of the Neutron Manifesto miss out on this whole point, which is GAME PLAYING. A game as intense as life. A game as serious as breathing, as serious as creating.
Contradiction? That’s no contradiction. All contradictions, all arguments, all resistance dissolves in the aural wash of the most compulsively euphoric sounds you’re likely to hear this side of the year 2000. Ephemeral? Ephemeral as the girls you see in the TV hairspray ads. As ephemeral as the sound evaporating into the cloud of shimmering heat vibrating above the dance-floor.
ABC means to me, initially, a Dance therapy. A tribal re-education in Dayglo living, easy as Doh-Ray-Me, as easy as 1-2-3. That’s how easy it will be…
‘TEARS ARE MORE THAN ENOUGH…’
Twelve-inch “Tears Are Not Enough” (7:55) c/w “Alphabet Soup” (8:02) Neutron-Phonogram NTX101 Produced by Steve Brown. Both tracks are later re-recorded for the album ‘Lexicon Of Love’ It enters the UK chart 31 October 1981, and reaches no.19 (‘Record Retailer’) and no.18 (5 December, ‘New Musical Express’), the same week that “Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie is no.1
‘HOT PRESS’ (Eire)