Listen to this track by Sheffieldian dance-pop purveyors ABC. It’s “Poison Arrow” their international 1982 hit from their smash debut The Lexicon of Love, a pop concept album about losing, and pining for lost love. That sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? Yet you’d be hard-pressed to find a record that sounds as buoyant, and as musically effervescent as this one. This song was one of a number of hit singles from this era-defining record; “The Look of Love”, “All of My Heart” were two others, with “Tears Are Not Enough.” being a hit in the UK.
This is an ambitious tune, as was the making of the album in an era when pop smarts and a touch of indulgence without crossing the line where production sheen was concerned was a hard balance to strike. Yet, ABC were able to do so with seeming ease, particularly with this song where (extremely) funky bass, drum machines, synths, and sparkling horns meet with singer and lyricist Martin Fry’s appealingly dramatic vocals.
Despite being an embodiment of a sort of post-disco New Romantic outfit very much of its time in many ways, ABC managed to create a sound that distinguished them well beyond their initial foray into the pop charts of the early ’80s, and continues to do so even now.
But, where does this sound actually come from?
The album represents an amalgam of talents, with Martin Fry’s voice being at the forefront, supported by producer Trevor Horn, and with orchestral arrangements by Anne Dudley, who is better known as the force behind The Art of Noise. The sound is derived from the band’s main influences, those being Young Americans-era David Bowie and Roxy Music, along with notes of Northern Soul and Motown. The latter influences would come out even more so on later releases.
On this song, being struck by a poison arrow would never sound so funky, with a Bernard Edwards-like bassline that remains to be the highlight of the song for me. But, their main achievement here is the creation of an exceedingly danceable track featuring a lyrical core that coats a bitter pill with sugar.
This dynamic would colour the whole record, with several songs dealing with rejection and with the thought that love is too far out of reach to be any good for anyone. Yet, there is still romanticism at the heart of it all, even if “Poison Arrow” is concerned mostly about being wounded. This isn’t a song by a hardened cynic who’s down on love and connection. It’s the anthem of a hopeless romantic, not so much condemning the idea of love as much as he is expressing his unfulfilled desire for it, despite its often cruel nature.
What could be more meaningful to an audience, some of which knew what this song was saying in a personal way, or were just finding out for the first time? It’s no wonder this debut record, and the singles off of it like “Poison Arrow” had impact on both sides of the Atlantic.
The band would continue to put out records during the ’80s, with solid pop singles including “That Was Then But This Is Now”, “Be Near Me”, and “When Smokey Sings”, all full of effervescent and unabashed pop sweetness, managed by solid songwriting and arrangements. But, the flame of their commercial success would diminish, along with members bailing out as the decade rolled forward into the ’90s.
These days, Martin Fry is ABC, supplementing the line-up by working with top flight players in live settings all over the world. In 2009, this included the London Symphony Orchestra who helped him deliver a live, orchestral performance of The Lexicon of Love in its entirety at the Royal Albert Hall, including arrangements and keyboards by Anne Dudley yet again, some 27 years after she’d provided the same contribution to the original album.
To find out more about ABC, check out the Martin Fry ABC official website.