Rock GPA: ABC [part 1]

I remember vividly when I first heard ABC. Again, I was listening to WPRK-FM a lot back in the summer of ’82. They were moving from the West Coast Hardcore trend of late ’81 to the UK funk trend of the same period; about 6 months behind the UK of course! Given the choice, I’d much prefer funk to hardcore. No contest. Anyway, WPRK started playing an import single of “Poison Arrow” as if it were a top ten song. It wasn’t quite that facile. If you can remember the first time you contemporaneously heard “Poison Arrow” you’ll probably agree that it didn’t just sound like top ten material. It seemed cosmically impossible that this was merely a record and not a thunderbolt issued from atop Mount Olympus by Zeus himself! Surely, it would conquer the number one position in every country of its issue?

This was the zenith of New Pop, that Post-Punk period identified early on by Paul Morley as having the smarts of Post-Punk wedded with an eagerness to use the system from within to achieve pop bliss without regrets. Singer Martin Fry had corralled up the promising Sheffield synthesizer band Vice Versa while interviewing them for his fanzine, Modern Drugs. Fry convinced them that his songs coupled with a change of direction could be just the ticket. By 1981, Funk was becoming the trend-du-jour of British pop cognoscenti and synthpop would no longer be the cutting edge. The band cut a debut single as produced by Steve Brown [the Elton John producer, not the member of Tuxedomoon] that cracked the UK top twenty. But Fry was driven in his perfection. The brash funk number had an innate power that suggested more than it delivered. He needed a master’s hand to guide them.

Then he had heard and liked the trio of singles that Trevor Horn, known then primarily as one half of The Buggles, had produced for the prefab duo Dollar. These creamy studio confections sounded like a million dollars. Pop heads were swooning in spite of the basic indigestibility of the group. Horn for his part recognized talent and offered Fry a Faustian bargain; he would produce the band but it had to be done his way. Fry acquiesced and the band retreated to Horn’s studio for the painstaking process of taking Fry’s not insubstantial portfolio of songs and crafting mountains out of them. The resulting album made ABC worldwide stars and livened up the charts all over the world for at least 18 months.

ABC then continued quixotically on a varied path that would see them confound their many fans expecting more of the same at various times in their long, and storied career. Band members would be shed at an alarming rate; leaving Fry with a single consistent sideman in Mark White, with whom he would record six of the eight ABC studio albums. At one point, after Fry and White called it a day, it seemed that ABC had been put out to pasture, but Fry emerged in 1997 with a new album, co-written with the members of the Sheffield band Honeyroot [Keith Lowndes and Heaven 17’s Glenn Gregory] that showed that there was still plenty of power under the newly retooled ABC hood. Let’s take a look at the macro level view of ABC’s Rock GPA®:

After tabulation, ABC’s final ROCK GPA® is: 2.944, a solid B average.

NextWe examine the albums beginning with that first one…

[note: GPA re-calculated to take account of 2000’s “The Lexicon Of Live” live album on Aug. 17, 2011]

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | media design • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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27 Responses to Rock GPA: ABC [part 1]

  1. Taffy says:

    I am *really* excited to read this series of blog entries! Gold lame suits, post-punk glamour, sparkling tunes…ABC were a huge fave of mine from first listen. Bring on the albums!

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Taffy – If anyone wasn’t a huge fan of ABC from first listen – off to the stockade I say! Drop down and gimme 50, maggot! Of course with ABC one must take the rough with the smooth as my graph shows.

      Like

  2. Dianne Davis says:

    So glad you gave Skyscraping a high score. I LOVE that cd. I mean, Martin Fry AND Glenn Gregory? Magic….

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Dianne Davis – Welcome to PPM! “Skyscraping” is absolutely my favorite ABC album, easily! I finally found a copy in 1999 after looking for a couple of years and I was blown away with the quality of everything about it! It couldn’t have been cheap to jet to Brasilia for the photo shoot either! All of the Sheffield acts I love did some incredible work around this time. Heaven 17’s “Bigger Than America” is just as good an album [that’s saying a lot] and the Human League had recently done “Octopus,” which was easily their best since “Dare.” Martin has enduring talent. His vocals on Sonic Hub’s “New Man” are just incredible. So full bodied and powerful and simply a joy to hear.

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  3. Hello from Atlanta. I’ve known Martin personally for over ten years now and he’s quite simply the best of all pop gents in the business. He’s recently signed a new deal with EMI-Music and is writing new material again. ABC recently played in Las Vegas and brought down Fremont St with 30 years of new wave pop like a jukebox of ’80s bliss. Great overview of each ABC, though I am a big fan of Abracadabra, I agree with most of your ratings. Glad to see that ABC are still upheld as the gem of new romanticism in the Reagan / Thatcher era of pop.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Jeremy Kennedy – Thanks for dropping in. I see from your CV you make 99X your home. If you were at Masquerade’s Old Wave Nights, then we were at the same place during my frequent trips to ATL in the 90s. I always made that scene if I was there. Yeah, ABC lost me in their house music phase. House was not my favorite time for club music, it’s true. Martin’s albums post-Mark White are amazing though. You’ll get elaboration in detail as the post continues. I’ll always want to hear what he’s doing and eagerly look forward to the next ABC album now that you’ve indicated that it will probably happen. The eleven year gulf between “Skyscraping” and “Traffic” was too long and you can never anticipate that an act will successfully be able to make that next album.

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      • Echorich says:

        Yes Martin did sign that fateful contract with the devil(s) (Morely is probably MORE devilish), but his Faustian apprenticeship has been rewarding fans now for 30 years.
        Lexicon, Millionaire, Alphabet City and Skyscraping are pinnacles of pop. Classics in the good sense of the word.
        But I will gladly shout from any mountain, or skyscraper for that matter, my huge love for Beauty Stab, Up and Abracadabra.
        I agree with the assessment of Skyscraping as well! Fry and Gregory…magic. There is that punk aesthetic on Skyscraping that showed itself in the “fuck off Trevor” attitude of Beauty Stab.
        When I attempt a playlist of ABC favorites it ends up being 60 or so songs long.
        Bring on the albums Monk…I love getting lost on an ocean of ABC!!!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Echorich – Martin Fry only got a Faustian deal in that Lexicon set the bar impossibly high and therefore assured a future that would commercially failed to scale similar heights. The album itself was an amazing effort. The band are to be commended for giving Horn the reins and he for riding it hard and achieving so much. It’s just a bit sad that efforts that were the artistic equal or better of that album never captured the same magic in the public’s mind.

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      • Thank you kindly for your warm reply of alphabetical praises. You’re very perceptive indeed. I write for 99x in my own Retro Beach column as well as for Atlanta’s Examiner – all things related to classic alternative. I also contract public relations projects in and out of the arts industry and have worked with some iconic artist over the years including Recoil (Alan Wilder formerly of Depeche Mode), Kajagoogoo, and last week Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet – see http://www.pmassistant.net . You have a great piece here and I commend you for your commitment and time. I know the Masquerade all too well as it’s been a part of my life since the late ’80s. I’ve seen dozens of shows there over the years – from Bow Wow Wow to Xymox and have danced thousands of hours in ‘Hell’ at Old Wave Thursday nights. My good friend DJ Caz10 (Eric Carsten) spun the best retro mixes for years at the Masq until 2007. My wife and I miss his mash-ups immensely! Currently, there is another deejay at the turntables, but he is not a child of the ’80s. He spins the obvious, but don’t request the obscure because he has no knowledge of what you’re asking for. Figures on a Beach, Redbox, The Bollock Brothers, Fiction Factory, Strange Advance ? Not a chance.
        I owe it to Dianne Davis for bringing me here. This feed will be an awesome resource to my catalog of knowledge. I agree with you about house music. “Up” is my least favorite ABC piece, but “Abracadabra” is so engaging and lush, I can’t discount it, in spite of the unnecessary Blackbox remix of “Say it”. Ironically, “Love Conquers All” has been included in a Blank & Jones release and I’ve heard that the track has become an underground club hit in parts of the Europe, including the Netherlands. Keep up the good work my friend!

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        • postpunkmonk says:

          Jeremy Kennedy – Interesting. So you and Ms. Davis know each other? We were probably all at the recent OMD show at The Loft! That was pure magic even as it happened in a concrete bunker! Sadly, I missed the Regeneration 09 tour as it hit Hotlanta midweek, which meant untenable travel and lodging expenses that were not in budget. Plus when H17 pulled out that cut a lot of momentum as I had already seen Wang Chung and Berlin live in the 80s. As much as I love ABC, that event turned into too much outlay of time and money for just one band.
          Congrats on making your passion your work. So few people can do that it’s really heartwarming to see it done. I knew I wanted to be a graphic designer from age 12 or so, and apart from 18 months of pain when I moved to Asheville, I’ve never strayed.

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        • PostpunkMonk,
          You’ve sparked a forest fire of conversation with this initial post dissecting the highs & lows of ABC’s studio output. Funny you should mention the Regeneration Tour as I was working for ABC that summer and squeezed in a one-on-one review of ABC’s albums for 99x’s Retro Show. Short n’sweet, here’s what the great Martin Fry thinks of each of his albums. {The original post has been archived, but here’s the Q&A from my file before it went to post.}

          A To Z

          Martin Fry examines the ABC catalog one album at a time:

          Lexicon of Love (1982, Mercury): An orchestrated, polished neurotic affair of hysteria behind a red curtain. It’s the Yin & Yang of ABC.

          Beauty Stab (1983, Mercury): An abrasive protest wrapped in anger and shrilled emotions.

          How to be a Zillionaire! (1985, Mercury): A highly entertaining, irreverent coaster ride into outer space controlled by surreal cartoon characters on a quest to make guerilla pop. We built a machine! (Note: “The record label hated it. When we stopped in to the office to meet with executives, they’d drawn distasteful mustaches on our faces featured on a promo poster hanging in the foyer. Ironically, the Americans embraced it and it was a big seller. Go figure?”)

          Alphabet City (1987, Mercury): It wears the cuff-lengths of our career. It’s quite suave, like a midnight, seductive beam of moonlight.

          Up (1989, Mercury): A weekend party rave to close the ‘80s. This was our swan dance to end the great decade.

          Abracadabra (1991, MCA): A hybrid of different genres, it’s idealistic really. You can hear the civil war internally as our lucrative opportunity to make the album of our career slithered through our hands. We perfected the music and atmosphere that became the record, yet the process was indirectly intense.

          Skyscraping (1997, Blatant, import-only): The jigsaw puzzle that challenged me to re-enter the ring after a long period of absence.

          Traffic (2008, Borough Music): The joints are lubed and the muscles are flexed. There are nostalgic elements of déjà vu all over it, similar to Forrest Gump’s stories from the park bench. It stands firm and proud, despite the odds.

          (Martin Fry, June 2009)

          PostPunkMonk, I was indeed at OMD at the Loft in March of this year. I actually met up with Paul & Andy on their sound-check smoke break on P’tree St, then later after the show. We had a quick chat about their lousy US label (Bright Antenna), the Thompson Twins, and returning later to properly fulfill a US tour from coast to coast. Dianne Davis lives in KC. I’ll see her next month at the Human League show. I love the League, but Men Without Hats are actually driving my anticipation. I caught the Hats in ’88 supporting Icehouse at Center Stage promoting one of my favorite concept albums of the Eighties, Pop Goes the World.

          Like

          • postpunkmonk says:

            Jeremy Kennedy – Ah, “Pop Goes The World,” my favorite MWOH album. Sure the Stiff EP is killer, but if you want an album, this is the one to hear. Great Zeus B. Held production! Great Fry “auto discography!” [Do you remember those from the late great Trouser Press?] Thanks so much for sharing. Busy now. More later!

            Like

  4. Brian Ware says:

    Well, I reckon I ought to check in and express my appreciation of this upcoming series, and a welcome to the new voices adding to our never ending conversation.

    Like

  5. Brian Ware says:

    I do indeed! Nice blog as well – I particularly enjoyed the Wang Chung piece as I’ve had the pleasure of their acquaintance over the years.

    Like

  6. Tim says:

    Absolutely delighted to see the ABC posts start! You’re wayyyyy to kind to ”Zillionaire” though.
    I did some real meatball surgery on that one when I remade and remodeled it in my own special edition. Nice to see that ”Beauty Stab” was treated fairly. I remember despising that because it wasn’t LoL, Part Deux but really what they did was go (to use Roxy Music as a model) from ”Avalon” to ”Flesh and Blood” or ”Manifesto”, not at all the direction that their fan base thought that they would so an otherwise crackin’ good album wasn’t given it’s due.

    BS has aged much better than HTBAZ has, as has you’re lowly rated ”Alphabet City” a fine return to form. I gotta agree with you on the house album, I’ve only ever been partial to ”Paper Thin” on that one. ”Abra..” is really the 90’s equivalent of HTBAZ although I think it has ultimately aged much better, sadly that one was just phoned in and really could have been so much better with the intervention of a better producer and maybe a co-writer on some of the songs.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – But I luff ze “Zillionaire!” “Alphabet City” got dinged for playing it safe after three radically different albums. Other bands of this era also fell prey to this trend. Just look at Spandau Ballet for another example of this. Heck, their second album is three different albums squeezed into one!

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  7. Tim says:

    I can’t fault them for playing it safe with Alphabet City, it falls into the trap of does a band make the same sound album after album after album or do they tweak the formula? Some bands almost have a brand sound (classic example, you only need to hear about 2-3 seconds of a Steely Dan song for your brain to mentally play ”Name That Tune [or ”Band”]”).

    AC didn’t break any new ground but it did provide an fantastic album with almost no clunkers. I never felt shortchanged by that one at all and over the years have revisited it more than a lot of the rest of their catalog.

    HTBAZ, wow, I just don’t know about that one. I really think that they were regrouping and trying to stay on the radar of their fanbase but the plot I think was being scripted while the tapes were rolling. There’s a couple of tracks on that one I just adore but there’s a lot of the album for me that is nearly as disposable as Up. My RM/RM resequenced the tracks to make the first part of the album an indictment of 80’s UK and segueing into the more relationship driven tracks, creating a dichotomy of screw the 80’s ”Greed is good” culture (although Oliver Stone wouldn’t articulate it that way for another couple of years post HTBAZ) and find meaning in your life and relationships with other people. Extended a couple of tracks myself, used one of the DreamTime mixes and ditched the utterly unlistenable ”A to Z” for a much improved album.

    For me, however, when the needle hit the record of AC I knew that ABC was back, they hadn’t lost what made them so good. The return to form was to be short-lived and not revisited until Skyscraping.

    I’ve always wondered why they can make such good albums and then such…….not so good product. The sum of the parts may be greater than the whole, perhaps Martin Fry needs a good internal foil (Fiona (Eden) seemed to have no love lost for him in an interview from the old Face magazine I found online a while back).

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – For me “Alphabet City” is an album with a surfeit of mediocre material that’s not all that memorable. For example, I find it hard to remember the songs since the tempos are all practically the same. It’s an album that suffers from “mid-tempo ballad” syndrome. Only “Ark-Angel” stands out in this program. “Zillionaire” on the other hand, is packed with a variety of material that runs the gamut from dreamy pop to brash, day-glo dancefloor monsters; all of it highly memorable and varied. More later.

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  8. Tim says:

    Nice to know Martin loves all of his kids equally!
    If I had his ear for a Q&A I’d ask about anything that hasn’t been released, any ideas and avenues unexplored that had been thought of.
    I stated my disappointment with ”Up” above, it came on the heels of their contribution to Arthur Baker’s album ”Merge” (“Mythical Girl”) and I always had hoped to see an Arthur Baker/ABC collaboration go further than one track.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – The “Merge” album was great since not only did I like Arthur Baker’s production, but I’m a big fan of OMD, Etienne Daho and ABC! The one Martin Fry side project that I’ve never been able to get my mitts on was his duet with Najma [who is also in my collection] called “East West” on a Bangladesh Flood Appeal charity album called “Festival Of Lights.” Outside of the old ABC website mentioning this, I’ve not been able to find it anywhere. After a decade of searching, I’d even be up for a download of it [gulp]!

      Like

  9. Tim says:

    100% agreed, the Merge project is an awesome album.
    I didn’t know about the other project. I like a lot the mixes I have that the Brothers in Rhythm have done for various folks and was quite geeked about ”Viva Love” when I heard about it, but after years of looking when I finally found it was rather ”meh” about it. It reminded me of either the Boilerhouse or the Morales Mix of ”Love Conquers All” but not quite as good. The title alone had ‘ABC HIT’ written all over it.

    I neglected to mention before, but something else I would really like to pick Martin’s brain on if I was the interviewer would be the feature-ette ”Mantrap” (which I notice you skipped over in your ABC-ology). It’s one of the only Laser Disks I own that has succumbed to laser rot. Doubt it’ll ever show up on a ”Lexicon of Love” Grand Mal Siezure edition but one could hope. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts on why they did it, the production, etc. Are there any outtakes or is what we saw pretty much all that they did?

    I know you have an aversion to mashups but your commenters may not share that feeling. Apollo Zero has done a quite fine mashup, ABC v. ABC of “Look of Love” vs. HTBAZ. Not hard at all to find on the interwebs, either.

    Like

    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – I also skipped over the fine “Lexicon Of Live” album because… just because. That’s why. Of course I also have LDs of “Absolutely” and “Mantrap.” But they’re not albums, so there’s not mentioned. You’re LUCKY if you only have one disc oxidizing! I have tons of discs exhibiting damage. I’ve not ever watched* my copy of “Mantrap.” Maybe I should give it a spin? I got “Viva Love” on the Dutch 3xCD ABC “Ultimate Collection” since it had three rare cuts [“Viva Love,” “Blame” and “Peace + Tranquility”]. It’s a good thing I waited a long time to get “The Look Of Love The Very Best Of ABC” for the latter two cuts. I would have balked at buying an import 3xCD set just for “Viva Love.”

      * my “delay of pleasure” neurosis in full flower!

      Like

  10. Tim says:

    I converted just about everything to dvd just in case. Don’t know how long one may get a laser disk player fixed. I have about 1/2 dozen laser disks left and have to figure a way to import the signal into my computer so I can master it to WMV/avi/divx whatever. Wish I had held onto that director’s cut of ”Dead Poets Society, I figured that would come out on DVD someday. I did copy all of the music before my dvd recorder died.

    The live cd you mention isn’t half bad. I balked at buying it for some time for the same reason, iirc it was import only at the time I bought it and the cost was keeping me at bay. Same thing has deterred me from going after that Martin Fry/Tony Hadley gig I see from time to time. I’m scared of that but the ABC nutter in me says, ”how bad can it be?”

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – My old LD got fried in an electrical fubar following a hurricane in 2004 whereby the electric company hooked us back to the mains without grounding us. I immediately smelled ozone and panicked. I was the one who found my Powermax surge protector unit melted to slag. The only other casualty was the Pioneer LD. It was subsequently replaced with an industrial kiosk unit manufactured in 1997 at the end of the line for LD units. It had better last long, considering how I rarely watch video of any kind. So far, so good.

      I use this A/D converter for video with excellent results: http://www.grassvalley.com/products/advc55

      It is a fine unit free from synch issues. I bought mine in 2005 when Canopus made it. Grass Valley bought them out, apparently. It’s also great for doing systems transfers on my PAL DVDs. My multi-std TV died in 2003 and I’m still on SD analog since I don’t watch TV; only video. Sure I can play PAL DVDs in my iMac. What fun is that?

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  11. Tim says:

    Thanks for the tip. I kick around converting the last LD to digital format and having less than 10 disks left is my biggest inhibition to spending money on any gizmos. I understand your comment about what fun is it to watch dvd’s on your computer. I converted the bulk of mine to high quality computer files and we have a pc plugged into our tv and watch them that way – the wife and I don’t watch much commercial tv, either.

    Still, hanging out in the basement is some stuff that still is not out on DVD and I doubt ever will be, Criterion ”Damage” with commentary track, a widescreen copy of Peter Weir’s ”Fearless” and a Criterion ”Fisher King” all spring to mind. I’d really like to rip that ”Fearless” and do a fanedit with the plane crash presented as one long scene at the movie’s end, I think that Weir didn’t start with Gorecki’s Third until long enough into it that I could get away with it.

    Back to ABC (sorry fellow posters for the thread derailment), I think it is testimony to the longevity of the band that you are receiving so many posts so quickly. Surely if tracked by comments per day this has to be one of your threads that has received the most attention. A lot of folks are posting very kind comments concerning a lot of the catalog while their popular image in a lot of America is an early 80’s one hit wonder. You just need Mr. Fry to drop by to say hi….or Mr. Singleton, he has an interesting review of Deluxicon over on Amazon.UK that certainly deserves a director’s cut……

    5 stars ,,, but it could have been so much better, 9 Jun 2005
    By S. B. Singleton (sheffield) – See all my reviews
    (REAL NAME)
    This review is from: The Lexicon Of Love (Audio CD)
    one of the greatest albums ever made .. and i should know . i helped make it .. the guy who compiled this deluxe edition of lexicon contacted me and asked for my help , which i offered .(being a founder member of the band ). i heard nothing until the version you see here became available .the live tracks , rare mixes ,out takes and photographs /memorabilia i have in my collection are far superior to what ended up on this “deluxe” vesion . so unfortunately you won’t get to hear the working demos .or the original demos that we recorded before signing our recording deal with phonogram . “do as i say ” “boomerang ” “surrender ” or my rough mixes that are ten times more enlightening then the awful phonogram demos of “tears” , “show me” and “surrender” .mixes such as the original mix of “poison arrow” . “all of my heart” pre strings . “4ever – 2gether” pre voice .. the oddity “into the valley of the heathen go” is fun i played it once and had a laugh . we often recorded songs made up on the spot . martin was brilliant when it came to add libbing and finding the words as if from air .. we would record country and western tunes , “dependent on the mule” , “hard drivin man” being a couple that spring to mind . and 1960’s take offs such as “man i go wig ! (when i see those girls )” we recorded a concert in boston usa in a small club in december 1982 .. and the band were on fire that night, definately the best live recording we did . . i find the hammersmith reditions rather tame .i felt the band and martin were much better in a smaller more intimate surrounding . plus the hammersmith show was being filmed for the movie mantrap so we were limited in just what we could do that night … it would have been nice to include the look of love parts 2 and 3 , found on the 12″maxi single . and the look of love part 5 a remix especially for clubs . one of the first remixes to use sampling as a basis for a remix .. and don’t you think ? it would have been really nice if i’d been sent a copy of the album by phonogram , i did ask on release , but so far it’s not arrived … that’s show biz..
    finally vh1 made a programme bands reunited with 1/2 of the original lexicon line up . i wasn’t there . i hate to be lumped in with band such as the thompson twins . flock of seagulls kagagoogoo . i mean …

    i recommend the documentary made by sheffield film maker eve wood “made in sheffield ” for a true picture of the way it was back then …

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Brilliant commentary from Mr. Singleton. Thanks for sharing that! As far as the Thompson Twins, I understand, even though I certainly hold a torch for their Hansa period. Rather high, in fact.

      Like

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