Rock GPA: ABC [part 6]

ABC – Up | 1989 – 1.5

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…

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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9 Responses to Rock GPA: ABC [part 6]

  1. Tim says:

    Glad to hear the kind-ish words to ”North” IMNSHO one of two good tracks on the album.
    The other standout is ”Paper Thin,” a demo of which appears on the RM of ”Alphabet City” so it is from a pre-UP vintage. I can see why it wasn’t on AC, lyrically it just doesn’t fit. It would have been a fine addition to the more Thatcher-/world- weary parts of HTBaZ.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – Oh I’m more than kind-ish to “North.” I think it’s a fantastic song and among ABC’s best. You really pique my interest in “Paper Thin!” If I ever get the “Alphabet City” RM, I’ll look forward to hearing it. I’d even buy “Up” if I saw it for a dollar in a used bin. Come to think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that CD used.

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  2. Tim says:

    ”Paper Thin” has an anti-war motif with references to people who make bombs and cause and effect. The album was released serendipitously close to the fall of the Berlin Wall, two weeks after it’s US release the wall was destroyed & the Cold War was certainly yesterday’s news for everyone except the NeoCons in the Bush administration who didn’t know how to imagine a world without an enemy (The Pulitzer Prize winning book ”The Dead Hand” offers some great accounts about the end of the Cold War and is very readable).

    The fact that it was penned at the time of AC makes much more sense because Pres. Reagan was still in office spouting the rhetoric that he so liked to. AC is essentially an attempt to be LoL mark II and there are no political songs there. HTBaZ is full of disco-concept songs that meditate on the greed is good days, Had it been penned circa ’84/’85 ”Paper Thin” would have only missed out on that album by being too mellow and absent of the rhythms that populate it; it has the lyrical tone but were if not so electronic could have been appropriate on ”Beauty Stab.”

    BTW, Amazon US has UP used for $.49, you’d pay more in shipping than you would for the disc.

    The best moments of UP and ABRACADABRA would have made a very nice mini-lp that would have left even the casual ABC fan saying, ”why don’t I hear more from these guys?” Especially if the songs had been given the proper production, for me the best ABC moments are when the production & support team is strongest…..Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, Roxy Music, Chic and Heaven 17 alumni.

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – I’m holding out for a RM CD of “Up” so I can hear the ’86 demo of “Paper Thin” included as a bonus track. It’s OOP, rare and costly right now. I’ll bite for a price around $10 or so. It’s about 3×5 times that right now. The “Alphabet City” 2005 RM has an unreleased track I’d like to hear, “24 Carat Plastic.” That sounds like a “Zillionaire” track for sure! I can’t find it anywhere at any price right now. I just bought broke down and bought the RMs of “Beauty Stab” and “Zillionaire” last week and have given them several spins since their arrival this week. The unedited “That Was Then, But This Is Now” was an unmitigated disaster! If the whole album sounded like that, I can understand people hating it. Whoever thought to fade it at the pickscrapes was a genius!

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  3. Echorich says:

    While I agree Up is probably Martin and Mark’s weakest album effort, I can’t be quite as negative toward it as it was the soundtrack to my multiple visits to London at the time. London really was full of this type of sound. House had replace the Stock, Aitken, Waterman sound that dominated the mid decade and I can’t fault it for doing that. Yes British pop was over run by what I consider rudimentary House Music (I am a card carrying disciple of a more Deep, Soulful New York and Chicago House) that stymied the creativity of a number of bands I enjoyed. In 1988 and 1989 the house music that was popular in the UK was kind of one note and it’s influence on pop was equally one note.
    But there are definitely high points on Up. Yes North is classic Martin Fry, telling his story and making his views clear. It’s the kind of song that could be revisited and new verses added to continue the story. Paper Thin is a magical moment in the ABC canon. It builds from an almost sweet gentility into a fervent call to attention and action. You get the feeling Martin never regrets anything he has put to pen. There is also a timeless quality to the pop arrangement. Finally I have to inclue Where Is The Heaven. It’s feels more like a reworked track from Alphabet CIty than the other tracks on Up. The song seems to question the consumerism the Western World had become caught up in, almost a view back at the previous decade.

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  4. Tim says:

    I tend to agree with you on ”Where is the Heaven.” Never thought of it as sounding like a refuge from AC but it could fit in with the likes of ”Bad Blood.”
    I read a review of UP when it came out in Billboard IIRC and the author compared Martin’s vox in this song to a man choking on his dinner.

    Will miss the ABC thread now that PPM is done with it. I suggest his next foray be either

    EBTG
    Dolby
    Swing Out Sister

    Perhaps a poll?

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    • postpunkmonk says:

      Tim – I bailed on EBTG after the third album. No real reason as such since I loved “Baby The Stars Shine Bright.” Thomas Dolby – I never bought “Buick.” Never will. I loved his last one and look forward to his new one, once it comes out. SOS – I need their last two. Pretty consistent high quality on the SOS albums, apart from “Get In Touch With Yourself” and “The Living Return.” I still need “Live” and “Beautiful Mess.” “Somewhere Deep In The Night” was awe inspiring.

      And who says I am done with ABC? I have other threads backed up that need visiting, but I’m giving the readers of this blog a break for a while.

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  5. Echorich says:

    SOS Beautiful Mess is a wonderful return to form in my mind.
    As for EBTG – here you have another band that I have travelled down the musical road with. Even through their L.A. Jazz period on Language of Love and Worldwide. Tracey Thorn’s is a voice which I never tire of. Ben Watt is a masterful musician and has a keen musical ear.
    Oh and Monk, one more cheer to you for re-invigorating my love for ABC…I put every album on my iPhone the other night and have been listening to them in order in the car every day.

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