Music Features

The Lexicon of Love at 40

“Anyone who thinks pop music’s easy should try to make a pop single and find out that it isn’t” - Robert Wyatt, 1996

Great. Pop. Music. Say those three words out loud and I guarantee your mind will be brimming with infectious melodies and vintage chorus lines. I don’t care if you’re an ardent noise fanatic or an image conscious hipster sneakily consuming ‘guilty pleasures’ – you, my friend, love pop music. And The Lexicon of Love is up there with the very best of the art form.

Let's set the controls for my adopted home town of Sheffield in the heart of 1982. The city's synth-pop scene had already spawned two classic albums in 1981, The Human League's Dare and Heaven 17's Penthouse and Pavement. Dare was a commercial smash; its defining single Don't You Want Me went on to sell millions worldwide and was actually #1 in the UK singles chart at the time of my birth (yes, I'm also 40). Penthouse was a relatively minor hit in comparison, although in subsequent years it would justifiably come to be considered a cult classic. But if 1981 belonged to Phil Oakey and his old charges, 1982 was the year of ABC and The Lexicon of Love.

I first heard the music of ABC on an 80s compilation in my mid-teens. I'm pretty sure it was the 1987 single When Smokey Sings, which is a decent enough song but very much of its time. I had no idea the group had produced a masterpiece of British pop just six years earlier, and would most likely have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested this was the case. It wasn't until I made the conscious decision to give The Lexicon of Love a proper listen 12 months ago that my opinion changed. Reading about Lexicon in Simon Reynolds' excellent Rip It Up and Start Again book had ignited my curiosity and helped to place the record in context for me. I picked up a second hand copy of the LP and immersed myself in its riches.

ABC emerged from the ashes of synth-pop act Vice Versa. Martin Fry had been recruited as the band's synth player after interviewing them for his Modern Drugs fanzine; as Vice Versa inevitably fizzled out, the flamboyant Fry moved over to lead vocals and ABC was born.

The 1981 debut single Tears Are Not Enough highlighted a remarkable evolution, cracking the UK Top 20 with its shuffling white funk sound, but it wasn't until the arrival of 80s super-producer legend Trevor Horn and his future Art of Noise co-conspirators Anne Dudley, J.J. Jeczalik, and Gary Langan that things truly clicked into place for ABC. The Lexicon of Love captured this wonderful meeting of minds, as an ambitious young band with a clutch of great songs and a clear sense of concept received a zeitgeist-shaping production job. Horn would later apply the same treatment to lesser artists – the gimmicky Frankie Goes To Hollywood being his most famous example – and the overblown, dated results highlight the importance of the raw materials that ABC brought to the sessions. The Lexicon of Love is a wonderfully produced record and Dudley and Jeczalik's performances are integral, but to suggest it is a Trevor Horn/Art Of Noise record in all but name would be way off base.

So let's talk a little more about the songs and the all-important concept that unites them: love. Not the love of Hollywood, romantic fiction and teen-pop, but the miserable and unrequited love of recession hit South Yorkshire in the early 80s. Lexicon occupies a cynical world in which a sadistic Cupid fires off poisoned arrows and the battle-weary narrator Fry is doomed to repeat the love-heartbreak-regret cycle ad nauseam. It's like a twisted version of Groundhog Day, without the happy ending. Talking to The Observer in 2004, Fry reflected on the album's cohesiveness: “When I listen to it now, it does have a consistency because it's all about the same thing: me ranting on about lost love.” I couldn't have put it better myself, Martin.

The Lexicon of Love yielded four Top 20 UK singles, two of which – The Look of Love (Part One) and Poison Arrow – broke into the US top thirty. The other hits were edgy debut Tears Are Not Enough and polished ballad All Of My Heart. For me, the album's crowning glory – lyrically, conceptually and musically – is the disco-inspired Poison Arrow. Its power as a pop single has been diminished by overexposure and an unfortunate association with a million dreadful 80s compilations, yet in the context of the album – following on from the sublime Show Me rather than an awful Swing Out Sister track (shame on you, '80s Dance Gold) – it remains as potent as ever. The synthetic funk bassline and the biting sarcasm of the chorus hook (“Who broke my heart / You did, you did”) are pure pop gold.

There's plenty to enjoy beyond the chosen singles, too, as four or five of Lexicon's album tracks could have probably been top ten hits given the chance. Perhaps the most ambitious of these is 4 Ever 2 Gether. Co-written by Anne Dudley, this is a moody dance-pop number, with orchestral flourishes and menacing stabs of synthesised noise. It’s at the artier end of the pop spectrum, but the killer chorus helps to tie the whole thing together. Another personal favourite is Show Me, the album’s stunning opener, which acts as both a signal of intent and a summary of Lexicon’s charms. It begins boldly with a string overture, before a bright, rubbery bassline raises the tempo. Washes of synthesiser, sparkling guitar tones and a taut rhythm track offer a generous backdrop for Fry to demonstrate his vocal range, as he veers from smooth croon to eerie falsetto to the more theatrical yelps of the chorus.

If Show Me sees Fry announcing his arrival as a new, intelligent brand of pop star, The Lexicon of Love goes some way to supporting his bold claims. It’s a wonderful album of lovingly crafted pop music, the like of which we’ll probably never see again in this manufactured age of TV talent shows and Internet buzz. ABC were hard-working musicians with a depth of musical knowledge and a clear vision of what they wanted to achieve. Yes, they grew up with Bowie, Roxy Music and punk, but unlike the leading lights of the post-punk scene they had the courage to also embrace less fashionable styles such as disco and funk. The Lexicon of Love was the result of a unique fusion of influences in a specific city at a specific time. It's very much a one-off record and despite the efforts of countless imitators - and ABC themselves - no British pop act came close to even matching The Lexicon of Love in the 1980s.

The original version of the article was published as part of our Perfect Pop Series in 2011.