Tuesday, September 13, 2005

ABC at Canal Room 

New Order, Erasure, and Duran Duran have all played New York City in 2005, and all have gotten rave reviews. I missed each one of those '80s new wave icons, but I more than made up for it by catching a scintillating set Friday night by one of the genre's most notable groups and a personal favorite, ABC. It was their first New York show in more than 10 years.

Formed in Sheffield, England when the '80s were knee-high to a grasshopper, ABC's goal was to fashion transcendent, danceable pop music by melding the ideals of New Romanticism and post-punk with disco and R&B. Singer and lyricist Martin Fry openly embraced gods of punk like The Clash and The Sex Pistols as well as soul standard-bearers Smokey Robinson and Earth, Wind & Fire. It was an uneasy musical alliance that defied easy categorization, and with the racist, homophobic "Disco Sucks" movement still very much alive in 1982, it's a wonder that ABC's debut album The Lexicon Of Love did as well as it did; this is but one testament to its brilliance.

A formidable song cycle of desire and heartbreak worthy of the finest moments of Roxy Music, Lexicon stands tall as one of the most fully realized albums of the first half of the 1980s, if not all pop history. It's also among the very best debut albums in rock history, with perhaps only the first Pretenders album rivaling it for supremacy in that category. Like The Human League's Dare, which came out a matter of months before Lexicon, the album was a sterling example of the pop side of what my good friend Pat Pierson calls "1981 and a half"—that fleeting moment when post-punk and new wave collided and transcended time and space to create some of the best and most exciting music of the rock era, right before the now-clichéd later-'80s trends toward over-production and cheesiness sapped so much out of the musical landscape. Lexicon is its parts, the sum thereof, and a dance floor full of more, more, more.

Alas, an album so iconic is hard to follow up. ABC did make many worthwhile songs as their career progressed, but they never matched the all-encompassing fabulousness of their debut. Their biggest U.S. hit actually came five years later, when the well-intentioned but rather corny soul tribute "When Smokey Sings" went to #5. Members of the original five-piece band left gradually, with guitarist Mark White lasting alongside Fry until the early '90s. Now with original drummer David Palmer back in tow, a nine-city U.S. tour just completed, and the first new album in eight years promised to be on the way, on at least some level ABC is back.

Walking past the venue a half hour before the doors opened, about 25 fans were already lined up outside the velvet rope of Canal Room, a few clearly hoping to land autographs as they clutched their precious vinyl copies of Lexicon and How To Be A Zillionaire. The club is cozy, intimate, and refreshingly devoid of the worst NYC club clichés; given what goes on in so many clubs of this sort in the city, it was downright startling not to get hassled at the door, at the bar, or by the bathroom attendant. This is the sort of place where you hand over a $20 bill for a bottle of Heineken and a glass of domestic merlot and are actually pleasantly surprised when you receive $4 change.

The room was lively and energy ran high just before the band took the stage, but the show wasn't sold out, so it was pretty easy to move to within the first five or six rows of standing-room fans in the general-admission setting. Classic soul and disco set the mood well; Chic's "I Want Your Love," probably one of the ten best disco songs ever and a song that surely influenced ABC, led off a mix that also ran through "Car Wash" and some obligatory Smokey ("Going To A Go-Go"), misstepping only by including the shop-worn "Respect" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)." Lights went down, symphonic music reminiscent of the opening strains of Lexicon filled the room, Palmer and four ringers took the stage, and the debonair Martin Fry made his grand, grinning, elegant entrance.

Fry, looking for all the world like a perfect combination of Bryan Ferry, Simon LeBon, and James Bond, swaggered in his white sport jacket, but not arrogantly. The band—guitar, bass, two synths, drums—were in the pocket, and though standing so close to the stage and a huge speaker made it difficult to pick out individual sonic elements in the mix at times, overall the sound was very crisp, and so was Fry's voice.

The well-paced 75-minute set featured all the hits and key album tracks any fan could reasonably expect to hear. Fry was a gracious host for the evening. When one fan passed him a homemade poster with various photos of him and the band, Martin wistfully said, "That's the story of my life there!" and said he'd be happy to sign it for the fan later; at the end of the show, he did.

He introduced "Poison Arrow," only to have a technical problem with one of the keyboards cause the start of the tune to be delayed by about a minute, somewhat sapping his introduction of its impact; the crowd predictably rallied as soon as the song finally began, indiscriminantly dancing with themselves and each other and providing the evening's first en masse singalong. In the lead-up to the chorus, Fry curiously left out the reply "That's stupid!" which comes after the line "You think you're smart" on the recorded version, and it seemed like a pointed omission. Does he now view that as an unnecessarily nasty line?

Aside from such miniscule vocal tics, nearly every song was arranged faithfully to the original versions, with the notable exception of the band's best post-Lexicon song, 1985's "Be Near Me." An extended but hardly indulgent keyboard intro laid down the song's chords at a subtly but nonetheless significantly slower tempo than the hit version. The originally bouncy pop number was not quite turned into a ballad, but the already unabashed love song became even more poignant with this slight rearrangement.

In all, six of the nine full-length songs from The Lexicon Of Love were performed, with the ballad "All Of My Heart" fitting perfectly as the penultimate song of the set proper. Martin said it was time to go, "But we have to do one more song." Thus began a stirring live rendition of the greatest song in the history of pop music, "The Look Of Love (Part One)." (I realize that both Stevie Wonder's "If You Really Love Me" and The Five Stairsteps' "O-O-H Child" were mentioned as candidates for the honor of "best song ever written" just a couple posts ago—and they still are. But my "greatest song of all time" designation has continuously rotated among a dozen or so songs over the last 10 to 15 years, and this week "The Look Of Love" is the winner. Deal.)

A singular-sounding production with lyrics that straddle the fine line between clever and stupid and a musical-emotional buildup that begins with the song's almost-tentative opening notes and explodes in an urgent, crazy, messy climax three and a half minutes later, simulating a fast and furious orgasm, minus the heavy breathing. That's what "The Look Of Love" is, and that is exactly how it felt when the song was played at this show.

People freaked. I freaked. It was insane. Hearing that song performed live was an experience that in some ways I had been waiting for since I was 10 years old. Oh, I adored most of the English synth-pop MTV played around that time, though I was sadly clueless as to how to find it on the radio; tragically, WLIR eluded me. I got distracted by Huey Lewis before diving into classic rock worship as a full-time high school occupation, and it wasn't until toward the end of college, around '93, that I was able to admit I really liked this music. So it's not as if seeing ABC has been on my to-do list since age 10, but "The Look Of Love" is a song I never stopped loving, and it's immensely gratifying to know its singer and composer can still belt it out.

If I'm not mistaken, both the set and the encore began with new songs, another smart move, and I'll tell you why. Fry introduced most of the songs by name, but opening the sets with these songs that weren't quite familiar yet still sounded very much like ABC avoided the dreaded "This next one is a new song" that often prompts people to head for the bar or the toilets. After opening the encore with a new one, Fry told the audience that he didn't think the performance of "Poison Arrow" was good enough, and the rabid audience ate it up when he cued the band to strike up the song again. A funny, unexpected, bold, and therefore rock & roll moment. Who says disco sucks?

inexact set list:

[new song]
Show Me
Poison Arrow
How To Be A Millionaire
That Was Then But This Is Now
The Night You Murdered Love
Date Stamp
Be Near Me
Tears Are Not Enough
One Better World
Rolling Sevens
When Smokey Sings
All Of My Heart
The Look Of Love (Part One)

[new song]
Poison Arrow (again!)

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