When he resurrected the ABC brand following the cracking “Skyscraping” album, Martin Fry took to the stage in a more major way than he had during ABC’s commercial heyday. Though the band was not completely aloof from live performance, it was not a point of emphasis. The elaborate orchestral tour for “Lexicon” surely lost money as it was no doubt costly to mount. Albums like “Zillionaire” didn’t even lend themselves to touring at all. At nearly 50, Fry found himself with a [fantastic] album that didn’t even get a worldwide release, and certainly didn’t trouble the charts, which at that time were besotted with the likes of Britpop and manufactured groups. What other path than the one that led to the stage?
Fry hit the road with a band since there was a lot of undoubtedly pent-up demand to see him on stage in a gold lame suit again, probably for the first time in most ticketholder’s cases. If the album was an achievement to be proud of, then that made the notion of touring all the more practical, since it wasn’t exactly storming the charts. Keith Lowndes, who practically was his studio band and co-writer of his “Skyscraping” album, reprised his role on the tour, taking the guitarist’s seat. The rest of the not insubstantial band comprised of seven other members in addition to Fry and Lowndes. Special mention must be made of the twin keyboardists, Mark Walker, and Ian Thompson [who also doubled on sax]. The two of them split lead and textural keys. Whoever was playing lead was a very capable and ornate stylist, comparable to Steve Nieve of The Attractions/Imposters. Consequently, melody flows through this program unabated and the spirited playing invests each song with further frissons of pleasure.
The selection is a zesty blend of material favoring “Lexicon” with five tracks and “Skyscraping,” with four. That’s as it should be since had I the chance to see ABC live during this period, I would have been most interested in the current album material by far. The arrangements are lively and punchy; in some cases completely transforming the vibe of tracks like “How To Be A Millionaire” from synthetic disco to something near rock. Half of these songs you have probably never even heard with live drums. The interplay between Fry and the trio of backing vocalists is also engaging as they trade off vocal lines throughout the show. These are but a few of the pleasures this album affords.
“Be Near Me” gains a more relaxed vibe that loses some of the frantic quality of the original. “Show Me” is one of only two tracks on the disc that was not a single. A real highlight here is the single “Rolling Sevens” from “Skyscraping.” It has an even tougher sound live that the group really bite into with gusto. It more than makes up for the lack of any material from “Beauty Stab” as it manages to eclipse the material on that fine album with ease.
One awkward segue must be mentioned as it doesn’t sound like editing but the transition between “One Better World” and “Tears Are Not Enough” is the one aspect of this album that is considerably less than adroit. Whenever I hear it, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m listening to some really clumsy post-production, but careful listening reveals that it’s how the songs were transitioned live. The only thing close to a clinker here is “One Better World,” but even it gains from a living, breathing presentation that gives it a lift the d.o.a. programmed studio house track sorely lacked. Ultimately, this is a better than average live album, that allows the ABC fan to hear the changes wrought by the demands of live performance from a group’s material that had never previously concerned itself with reproduction in the live arena.
The one sad factor of this concert tour was that it probably awakened Fry to the economic realities of being ABC nearly twenty years after debuting to an initial flurry of success followed by years of waning interest. Namely, there was much more economic reward in grinding out the hits for the fans, who in his case, never really had the chance to see him perform live. Certainly, the cost and effort of making a new album, however magnificent, did not justify the expense alone. By the time that this album was released, the established 80s nostalgia circuit had matured [and soon after, calcified] leaving Fry as a willing accomplice in their endless pantomime treadmill of former hitmakers earning a living the easiest way that they know how. And like a spider’s web, it proved to be exceedingly difficult for Fry to extricate himself from its demands enough to hit the studio for another crack at greatness. Sadly, it would take Fry over a decade following “Skyscraping” to follow that opus up with another studio album; leaving this live disc as the only stopgap.
Next: ABC make another album…finally