After revisiting blue-eyed soul on “Alphabet City,” ABC’s next move was their hardly innovative jumping of the house music train that by the end of the decade, was hogging the musical tracks. After the widespread arrival of ecstasy in the UK and the subsequent “second summer of love in 1987,” you couldn’t swing a dead cat without having boring house music shoved down your throat. All of my favorite acts were by then releasing house tracks or having their singes remixed in the omnipresent house style. Four to the floor beats and minimal melody, usually on piano but sometimes on organ, consisting of repetitive phrases that belied the heavily programmed nature of the style. Like disco in the late 70s, it became the omnipresent sound of its time period and if you didn’t like, there’s the door!
I first bought the leadoff single “One Better World” on its release and was dismayed to hear ABC finally succumbing to this trend. Some house music was okay. The Blow Monkeys managed to navigate its waters effectively without running aground. Truth be told, by 1989 I had tired of Pet Shop Boys efforts in this vein. Quite simply, I didn’t like the sound or style in general. There were a few exceptions of course, but one has to remember that all of a sudden, by 1988 all British dance music sounded like this. It was as if all of the variety I had been accustomed to in music since the late 70s had vanished, because…well, it had!
“One Better World” was, unfortunately, not a successful record in this vogue. It began with lots of melismatic soul diva backing vocals; always a bad sign! The rhythm could have been a four bar loop and the primary melody was carried by some excessive faux Hammond organ. That for the life of me, was one of my biggest beefs with house; the very limited latin piano/british organ sound keys rigidly favored. If I wanted to hear noodling on a Hammond [or its simulacrum] I’d still be listening to Keith Emerson records! Having been exposed to four mixes of the same track at various lengths, I opted out of ABCs career at this time.
SHOCKING CONFESSION: I do not own now nor have I ever owned the ABC album “Up!” Quite frankly I was happy to do without it, based on the single I had heard. Fast forward 15 years and I purchased a Dutch ABC compilation called “The Ultimate Collection” in 2004 because it contained three songs that appeared on none of ABC’s straight albums. [“Peace + Tranquility,” “Blame,” “Viva Love”] “Viva Love” only appeared here at that time, so I bit. [It’s subsequently been added to the 2005 RM of “Abracadabra”] The comp has highlights from all of ABC’s albums at the time, so I now own 5/8 of “Up” and from this glimpse, I’m daring to form an opinion on it.
Well, four of the five songs here are typical mediocre house fare. “I’m In Love With You” is standard minimal house with stunningly banal lyrics from the man who once vied with Elvis Costello for lyrical wit and bite. It basically boiled down to “I won’t cheat on you,” so there, I’ve saved you the money. “The Greatest Love Of All” is new age claptrap that’s all well and good provided your stash of E holds up! The other single was “The Real Thing” and it offered nothing I hadn’t heard better before. But there is a single track here that partially redeems this entire exercise, and that is why this album got 1.5 out of 4.
“North” breaks dramatically from the house malaise that infects the rest of the album. Sure, it has house beats but the arrangement of the tune [that is to say, it has an arrangement] is notably vivid and packed with change and progression alien to this style. It manages to pull me in for its near six minute length quite effortlessly, whereas typical house product bores me after a couple of minutes, because frankly, not much is happening and my brain is shutting down when faced with lack of stimulation! Better yet, the lyrics are more than platitude and cliche for once. The song begins as a paean to Fry’s home in Sheffield, in the industrial north of England. It’s a pleasant but heartfelt homage that in the last verse unsheathes the knife as Fry admonishes those who killed his hometown off and let its people and their livelihoods languish as the home of British Steel became the buckle on its rust belt. The track is a tour de force and one of ABC’s best songs ever as it manages to use sleight of hand to pull off a very impressive trick. Too bad ABC hadn’t expended the effort on the other seven songs.
Next: Same as it ever was…