Paul Boddy, freelance producer, musician and writer looks back on ten years of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK.
I had known Chi Ming Lai previously via another now defunct website which I used to contribute a variety of bootleg remixes of THE HUMAN LEAGUE and DEPECHE MODE. Once we were on each other’s radars and had moved on, I was very flattered when Chi asked me to start contributing to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK.
One of the first pieces I did was an interview with ADAMSKI in 2012. Looking back, this was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’d done and completely out of my comfort zone at the time. This was primarily because a) he was a bit of a musical hero of mine as a previous band I was in had covered ‘Killer’ and b) I was faced with the proposition of trying to interview the guy over the phone and then record it using a mobile digital recorder (untried technology for me).
Despite his mobile signal dipping in and out (as he was ambling around London at the time I interviewing him) and the batteries running out on my recorder half-way through, the interview went well and I got a huge sense of achievement once the piece had been transcribed and eventually published.
The main enjoyment I get from occasionally contributing to the site is the ability to interview bands and people within the scene, Chi has kindly put some interviews my way including WANG CHUNG, SHRIEKBACK, KOSHEEN, CHICANE, WRANGLER and CREEP SHOW as well as two of my own personal favourites John Foxx and Ulrich Schnauss. Having the platform to interact with these kind of artists is mind-blowing for me, especially the ones who I have admired and in some places influenced my own musical development. My other approach and contribution to the site is tracking down (some may call this stalking!) artists via social media and approaching them with a view to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK featuring them in its ‘Missing in Action’ series.
Although a bit hit and miss as some artists don’t always respond when messaged, it has borne fruit with many artists accepting and using the opportunity to reflect and look back on their tenure in the music industry.
In terms of the people I’m most proud of ‘snagging’ in this manner are Scott Simon (OUR DAUGHTER’S WEDDING), Dave ‘Dee’ Harris (FASHIØN), Jerome Froese (TANGERINE DREAM) and Rob Dean (JAPAN). Because of the big interviews already done on the site by Chi, I find that this gives a lot of traction when cold approaching these kind of artists.
However, the icing on the cake was when Chi and myself spent a glorious few hours in a Liverpool Street pub with Stephen Singleton and Mark White from ABC and VICE VERSA. Getting this interview was a long process which started when Stephen contacted me in 2015 with regards to reviewing the VICE VERSA box set; this led to linking up with Mark and after a long period of negotiation and Facebook messenger chats, a face to face interview in 2019 with lots of laughter.
For me this has definitely been my highlight of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and although the transcribing of the interview was one of the longest processes I’ve done (the guys LOVED to chat!), the sense of achievement upon completion was huge.
Moving away from the artists themselves and onto electronic synth music itself, Chi and myself have quite differing tastes in music, but with enough crossover that we can still happily work together. The material I favour tends to be male-fronted, often dance-inflected and also with elements of guitars thrown into the mix (see BATTLE TAPES, MAPS, MAN WITHOUT COUNTRY and SPLEEN UNITED).
If you are a reader of the site, you won’t be surprised to hear that along with the other ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK contributors, I continue to be disappointed with the lack of decent UK based synth acts and the exposure that so many second-rate bands continue to get. For a country that has such an amazing heritage of electronic music (like DEPECHE MODE, YAZOO, THE HUMAN LEAGUE, EURYTHMICS, OMD… I can go on), why is it that there are so few acts of quality which are continuing the tradition of these incredible acts?
What grinds my gears the most is the complete lack of emphasis on quality vocals that some UK synth bands have; for many it appears that once a synth backing track has been made, the process of adding vocals is treated as an afterthought. Very little attention is paid to crucial things like tuning / character / lyrics, all traits which have made vocalists such as Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox titans in their field. Whether this will improve and we will get another CHVRCHES or MIRRORS is doubtful, but I live in hope!
Although the original music that I write and produce (J-Pop / K-Pop) isn’t the kind of thing that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK would champion, it still features a lot of electronics and I have been fortunate to have had success with some major Japanese artists including ARASHI and E-GIRLS (who covered YMO’s ‘Rydeen’).
I continue to write and produce for this market which is great fun. I continue to enjoy performing live as well in various cover bands.
Signing off, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has been a wonderful platform for me and has enabled me to interact with many of my musical heroes and also review some of their work too, long may it continue…
Over the last 10 years, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has been a voice for the discerning enthusiast of electronic pop.
With a balancing act of featuring the classic pioneers of the past alongside the emergent new talent for the future, the site has become well known for its interviews and reviews.
It asks the questions people have always wanted to ask while celebrating the continuing development of the synthesizer in popular music.
All this while holding to account those who deliver below expectations, assuring the listener that if they are perhaps not hearing the genius that some devoted fans are declaring, then ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is there to assist in affirming or denying that assessment.
But when artists do deliver, they tend to build a strong relationship with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. So with the site celebrating its first 10 years, presented here are greetings and messages from some people who you might know…
Rusty Egan, VISAGE
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is 10 years old with the synth knowledge of a 50 year old. If I can’t remember something electronic I don’t Google, I visit ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK!
Glenn Gregory, HEAVEN 17
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and its wonderful leader Chi is like the League Of Super Heroes for Electronic Music. Our future is safe in his hands.
I have been involved in electronic music making for 40 years, yet one half hour conversation with Chi makes me realise how little I know. From then to now, he’s knows!
Neil Arthur, BLANCMANGE
Chi has been brilliantly supportive of BLANCMANGE, for which I am very grateful. We’ve always managed to have a good laugh during our interviews, as he would ask me about the darkness and gloom lying within a given BLANCMANGE song! I look forward to our next chat.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has a very important place and a role to play, in spreading the news of electronic music, new and old, far and wide. Here’s to the next ten years. Well done and good luck.
Gary Daly, CHINA CRISIS
Thanks for all your wonderful support Chi, so glad someone has taken the time to ask some great questions…
Sarah Blackwood, DUBSTAR
I love the website. It’s a treasure trove of informative articles, both a very readable historical archive and a forward looking platform for encouraging new talent. In what can be traditionally and lazily categorised as a very male dominated scene, Chi encourages great music regardless of gender and I enjoy the updated Spotify playlist if I’m ever stuck for what to listen to whilst running.
As regards interviews, it’s always enjoyable – Chi is a bit too easy to talk to and his passion for music and synth geekery shines through – heaven forbid you try sneaking a (cleared) sample past him, he will spot it!
Is it 10 years already? Happy birthday ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK!
Chris Payne, DRAMATIS
With 18,000 likes and 12,000 Facebook followers; ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK under the guidance of its purveyor Chi Ming Lai, has become the leading place for the Electronic Music fan. Intelligent, well written and well researched journalism with a great team of writers presenting an array of brilliant fascinating new acts (and some older ones as well!), hopefully it will continue for at least another 10 years.
Tracy Howe, RATIONAL YOUTH
Congratulations to ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK on ten years of brilliant reporting of, and support to, the electronic pop scene. ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is the authoritative publication “of record” for fans and makers of synthpop alike and is the international rallying point and HQ for our music. We look forward to many more years of in-depth interviews and probing articles, all in the beautifully written style. Happy birthday ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK!
Mark White, ABC + VICE VERSA
Chi Ming Lai and Paul Boddy are two of the most learned, nay, erudite music journalists I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, a rare experience indeed to be quizzed by a pair who know their onions. And unusual integrity. Chi promised me if we asked, he would turn off the tape recorder and it would never appear in print. And has been true to his word. This has literally never happened in my career. Also these two chaps are bloody good fun. I laughed til I cried. Go see the movie!
Rob Dean, JAPAN
10 years of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK? Only one for me (yes, I know…), but it’s heartening to know that Chi and the crew have created a site so cutting edge for us die-hard fans of electronica. Having read the highly entertaining VICE VERSA chaps interview, I was delighted to be asked to do my own, confident that the questions would be thoughtful and intelligent and yes, a little bit probing too. Here’s to the next 10 and thank you!
Richard Silverthorn, MESH
On several occasions I have done interviews for ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. Every time I felt like they actually cared about the music and scene and put some educated thought into the questions. It’s good to feel that enthusiasm.
Tom Shear, ASSEMBLAGE 23
Congratulations on 10 years of covering and supporting the scene! Here’s to another 10 and beyond…
Sophie Sarigiannidou, MARSHEAUX
I first met Chi at Sparrowhawk Hotel, Burnley in November 2000 for an OMD convention. It took me 13 hours to reach by train to Burnley from London due to bad weather. I saw him playing live (!!!!) with his covers band THE MESSERSCHMITT TWINS, they were having their time of their life, dancing and singing, so so happy! Us too of course!! From that moment on we became friends. Then he supported our band MARSHEAUX from the very early beginning and I thank him a lot for that!
It’s always great having Chi asking questions for interviews. We as a band had our best interviews with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK! We spent a lot of hours talking about the history of electronic music and the future of synthpop. My favourite articles are the “Beginners Guide To…” series, you have a lot to learn from these pages!!! Happy Anniversary Chi, we’ve indeed had 10 amazing years with ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. I hope and wish the next 10 to be even better.
Erik Stein, CULT WITH NO NAME
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK elected not to review earlier CWNN albums, so we just had to keep making better and better records until they would finally relent. They finally gave in from album number 7 onwards, and it was well worth the wait. The writing was spot on and not a single DEPECHE MODE reference in sight.
Mark Reeder, MFS BERLIN
Congratulations and a very Happy 10th Birthday! Over the past 10 years, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK has developed into becoming the leading website for all kinds of electronic synthpop music. It has become a familiar friend, because it is something I can personally identify with, as it is maintained by fans, for fans.
However, it is not only commendable, but can also be quite critical too, and that is a rare balancing act in the contemporary media world.
It has been a great source of regular electronic music information. I have discovered and re-discovered many wonderful electronic artists, and regularly devour the in-depth interviews and features.
Through ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, I have been introduced to and worked with some of the wonderful artists presented on your pages, such as QUEEN OF HEARTS or MARSHEAUX and in return, it has supported my work, my label and my artists too, and I thank them for that! We can all celebrate ten years of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and together, look forward to the next 10 years of inspiring electronic music.
Per Aksel Lundgreen, SUB CULTURE RECORDS
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK is a highly knowledgeable and very passionate site! They are digging out rarities from the past as well as exploring and discovering new acts, giving them attention and writing about them often before anybody else around have even heard of them.
This makes ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK a very interesting page to follow, as their in-depth stories about older bands “missing in action” as well as the latest stuff “in the scene” gets perfectly mixed together, giving you all you want basically in a one-stop-site for everything electronic. I also love the way they give attention to unsigned / self-released bands and small indie-labels, giving everybody a fair chance as long as the music is good enough. Congrats on the 10th Anniversary, well deserved!
Jane Caley aka Anais Neon, VILE ELECTRODES
When VILE ELECTRODES were just starting out, we heard through the Facebook grapevine about a new electronic music blog called ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. We had a London gig coming up, and had recently made a promo video for our song ‘Deep Red’, so we dropped them an email about both, not expecting to hear back, since we were virtually unknown.
However it transpired they really liked our sound, likening us to “Client B born and raised in the Home Counties fronting Dindisc-era ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK”.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK subsequently gave this very description to Andy McCluskey, which piqued his interest such that he checked out our music. We were invited to tour Germany with OMD as a direct result!
George Geranios, UNDO RECORDS
Chi is a really rare quality of a man. He is passionate about music which is so obvious of course while reading ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. Through our mutual love for OMD, we discovered that we have the same musical taste. ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK helped us promote all of Undo Records projects and finally we ended collaborating and releasing this brilliant double CD compilation! Chi, I wish you health and to continue writing the best music texts in the industry!!
Adam Cresswell, HAPPY ROBOTS RECORDS
Some people say ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK doesn’t support the scene but I’ve not found that to be the case; having been a part of two gigs and the recent CD, I know how much blood, sweat and tears they put into what they do. ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK might get a few people’s back-up, but they know their stuff when it comes to synth-driven music and I’m massively grateful that they have supported so many Happy Robots artists since 2010.
Stuart McLaren, OUTLAND
It’s no secret that the burgeoning new synthwave genre shares a common history with the great synthesizer acts and pioneers of the 80s, like Dolby, Jones, Luscombe, Wilder, Daly et al who created new soundscapes with what we now define as vintage synths.
These sounds are brought back to life by pioneers in their own right like FM ATTACK, GUNSHIP, ESPEN KRAFT and BETAMAXX to name a few.
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK and Chi Ming Lai have always been at the forefront of championing, interviewing and reviewing the luminaries of this great instrument past to present, and are likely to remain the de facto voice of the synth scene well into the future… we agree on one thing and that is FM-84’s singer Ollie Wride is deffo one to watch as a star for the future!
Paula Gilmer, TINY MAGNETIC PETS
Happy Birthday ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK. thank you for your support. You never fail to impress with your encyclopedic knowledge of synthpop. Here’s looking forward to 10 more!
Mr Normall, NUNTIUS
I’ve been following most of my favourite artists since they were brand new and often this means it’s a period of 30+ years, yet when reading articles and interviews by ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK, I have learned every time something new about of my favourites.
Following ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK have made me pay attention to several new acts that I would likely know nothing about if they hadn’t appeared on the page.
Catrine Christensen, SOFTWAVE
An outstanding magazine supporting new and upcoming artists whom they choose carefully as they have great taste of music regarding to their huge knowledge within the synthpop genre, when it comes to their writing and promotion – there’s no one like them. Happy birthday 😘
Elena Charbila, KID MOXIE
Happy 10th birthday ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK! Your love and commitment to the synth community is unparalleled and your support has meant a lot to me on a professional but also on a personal level. Here’s to the next 10 years! 😘
Alexander Hofman aka Android, S.P.O.C.K
I’m a fan of ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK for several reasons. You showed up when I perceived the majority of the electronic scene had turned more and more harsh; as much as I can appreciate an occasional emotional outburst, I’m a happy guy and thus I’m into pop – ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK showed, and still shows me that there’s still electronic pop music being made. Good electronic pop! Which makes me glad, as I find the greater part of the generally popular darker scene to be of lower musical quality.
Moreover, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK writes in an amazingly happy tone – remember, I’m a happy guy, so it’s right up my alley. Add the fact that ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK regularly publishes interesting articles, using intelligent and varied vocabulary, shows enormous knowledge and interest of the theme, the style, the scene – and I’m hooked. Thanks for being around – keep up the good work, it’s much needed! And congratulations – let’s grab a beer again! 🍻
While ABC continues today as a live entity under the captaincy of Martin Fry, that longevity might not have been possible without the band’s co-founders Mark White and Stephen Singleton.
White and Singleton had been members of the Sheffield experimental electronic act VICE VERSA who Fry joined after interviewing them for his fanzine ‘Modern Drugs’.
As they absorbed wider influences, especially ones centred around the dancefloor, they morphed into ABC, eventually releasing ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ in Summer 1982 to great critical acclaim and commercial success.
Mark White and Stephen Singleton agreed to chat about their ABC days to give another perspective to the story…
VICE VERSA were a very manifesto driven band, were ABC the same?
Mark: It wasn’t manifesto-ish, but we did have a kind of plot. We wanted to have a really strong central character who was just ‘Mr. Heartache’ so that was the kind of plot.
So was that why Martin was on the sleeves and artwork, just him in a David Sylvian in JAPAN type of way?
Stephen: We felt it was really important to have a focal point like the way that Bryan Ferry was the focal point of ROXY MUSIC. That’s the way we went with the sleeves of ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ and ‘Poison Arrow’. In the same way that on ‘The Lexicon Of Love’, there’s Martin, the girl and the gun on the stage and then the reverse of that is the engine room of that with Mark with the flowers, with me sat there like the director and David Palmer like a caretaker.
Mark: We always had a strong sense of wanting it be filmic and even with the music, we just loved John Barry’s scores for Bond and we wanted the album to have that kind of scale.
Can you tell us about the role of Anne Dudley on ‘The Lexicon of Love’?
Mark: Anne was brought in as a session keyboard player, I think she did all of Trevor’s work with THE BUGGLES.
Stephen: Yes, she came in to do some keyboards on ‘Poison Arrow’ which was the first thing that we recorded with Trevor Horn. The next one we started to record was ‘The Look of Love’ and we liked that John Barry sound and the kind of pizzicato strings on Adam Faith. We wanted to use real strings but at first, Trevor was like “oh no, string players are a nightmare” and “I don’t want to do that, we can use a string machine”. So I took down an Adam Faith album and I said it’s never going to sound like this. So he said “ok, we’ll do it” and fortunately ‘Poison Arrow’ was a big hit, so the record company said “OK, you can do strings on ‘The Look of Love’.”
Mark: That’s a fantastic experience just being in the room when an orchestra is playing your song, it’s really moving, I genuinely felt moved to tears. It was “oh my God!”
Stephen: Anne did the string arrangements for that and we were totally blown away by it. Then it was “can we put strings on this one? Can we put strings on that one?”
Mark: Well to my shame, when we’d recorded ‘All of My Heart’ and it had all been done, I was like “yeah, that sounds great!”. But Trevor said “no, Mark, strings, strings on that one”. He literally said “it’ll be a Top 10”. I was dubious and wanted it in writing so I said “OK Trevor will you sign this then?” and he said “absolutely!” and he was right!
Going from ‘Poison Arrow’ to ‘The Look of Love’, there was definitely a move towards classic pop. Of course when you started ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ probably got lumped in with that New Funk thing that was going on. There was SPANDAU BALLET with ‘Chant No.1’, HAIRCUT 100 to a lesser extent with ‘Favourite Shirts’ and the more art funk stuff like 23 SKIDOO, A CERTAIN RATIO, that kind of thing.
Mark: I call it White Scratch Funk.
However with yourselves, SPANDAU BALLET and HAIRCUT 100, it was only one-off singles. It was a sound you didn’t really touch again?
Mark: You’re right, we didn’t take that any further. We wanted to be a lot more epic and on a much greater scale, you know this filmic idea.
I mean Trevor couldn’t understand why we’d approached him at all. He was like “but you’ve got this white funk record already in the charts, what am I going to do?”; so we played him a few things and he was like “oh, I can do that”.
Stephen: We’d got into this idea that we wanted to do this kind of James Brown thing and took the inspiration from that and that was the kind of first incarnation of ABC. It was that scratchy guitar and the brass and everything and we were playing gigs round London doing that style. And then people like HAIRCUT 100 came down to see us play our early gigs and then ran away and did the same thing!
It became a bit of movement and Spandau wanted to go in that direction as well. The first Spandau thing was more synth based with Gary Kemp on synth. I think everybody then was like “oh my God, we need to get on this particular sound”. We then wanted to move away from that… we met Trevor and he was like “why do you need me to produce you?”. We said that we wanted it to sound slick, we wanted it to sound amazing. We’d moved away from that funky, simple style…
Mark: We thought we sounded like CHIC and we so didn’t!
That comes later in 1987 doesn’t it when you work with Bernard Edwards on ‘The Night You Murdered Love’? ?
Stephen: CHIC were a big influence, me and Mark went to see CHIC play at the Sheffield City Hall and at the time were doing VICE VERSA. We saw them and it was like “oh my God, that is so amazing!” We went to the gig and everybody is sat down watching. Me and Mark had bought these tickets which were at the edge of the stage but restricted view, cheapy things and we were there and we’d watched about two or three songs and we were like “oh f*** this, we’ve got to f***ing dance! We can’t sit down!” And so we got up and we were like at the front of the City Hall and people were like “Sit down! Sit down!”.
Nile Rogers came to the edge of the stage and shook our hands and said “these guys know what CHIC is all about” and let everybody get up and dance. We were there and it was like (*int Northern accent*) “Move out of way! We’re trying to watch band!”
Mark: The concert was so good, they did two shows that evening….
Stephen: We went back to see the second show as well.
Mark: We came out of it, bought a ticket at the box office and watched it all again, it was that good!
Stephen: There was another thing, there was an ULTRAVOX gig like that in Sheffield, it was on the 21st of September 1978.
Mark: At The Limit….
Stephen: I know that because there’s this guy who is an ULTRAVOX completist and he wanted to know if they had played in Sheffield, so I was thinking “yes they did, they played at The Limit”. So I consulted my diary from 1978…
Mark: That black book, it’s incredible…
Stephen: The entry said “ULTRAVOX, Limit, very good! I may now go to Manchester to see them play”. Looking back on that period, the day before, THE STRANGLERS had played at the Top Rank and THE SKIDS were going to support, but THE SKIDS got on ‘Top of the Pops’ so THE HUMAN LEAGUE stepped up and did that gig. So one night I was seeing THE STRANGLERS and THE HUMAN LEAGUE, you would have been there as well am sure. ULTRAVOX did the two gigs at The Limit because so many people wanted to see them, they were just becoming more noticed…
Stephen: Yeah. So they were scheduled to do one show, there were so many people outside that club that they filled the club, did the show and then said to everybody “you’ve got to go home to let in the second lot of people”.
I hid in the toilet so I that didn’t get thrown out! It was like (*knock, knock*) “Is there anybody in there?” and I’ve got my feet up… I’ve got a mine of information with the diaries of who we went to see. CHIC were a big influence, they said they saw ROXY MUSIC and wanted to be the black ROXY MUSIC and we saw them and wanted to be the white CHIC didn’t we?
Where do you stand on the two different versions of ‘Tears Are Not Enough”? ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK still favours the Steve Brown single version over the album version…..
Mark: I will be honest, I skip that track. It was really hard to make it fit on the album…
Stephen: We were trying to make it fit in on the album. Trevor didn’t want to re-record it, he thought that wasn’t the right thing to do. The best version of it that we did was a version that we re-recorded for ‘Swap Shop’. The weird thing was when we recorded ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ with Steve Brown, it took f***ing ages to do, we’d not been in a big studio before and we wanted it to sound perfect of course. We were in there and we didn’t have the ability to make it really sound like how we wanted it to sound.
Mark: We just wished we’d known about the Linn Drum…..
Stephen: We’d spent so long trying to record it, it took us ages and ages to get all the parts down…
Mark: It was nervous breakdown time wasn’t it?
Stephen: It wasn’t at all enjoyable. Then we got offered the chance to go on ‘Swap Shop’, re-recorded it and it took about half an hour to do and it sounded better than the 7” single version because by that time, we’d got David Palmer in on drums which made a huge difference.
We’d learned more, we’d gone through that process, that baptism of fire of being in a great big recording studio with the microscope over you and we went to RAK Studios and did it in pretty much in one take. And then had the brass players come down and do their bits. It was all done really, really quickly.
But, originally recording ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ was not a lot of fun really for all of us. Apart from Mark, he was like “I’ll do my guitar now… chhk, chhk, chhk”, one take “I’ve finished!” It was a difficult, a learning curve for us. Steve Brown wasn’t really the best producer for us.
Mark: Up to this day, I don’t why we ended up with him. Do you?
Stephen: No, I think it was a recommendation from the record company.
He was known for some of the funk pop stuff, because he ended up doing WHAM!
Stephen: He did WHAM! Because George Michael was a massive ABC fan and wanted to sound like ABC, so then he went with Steve Brown.
Mark: We get a namecheck on a George Michael album don’t we? He was talking about London in that period and he namechecks ABC and maybe THE STYLE COUNCIL or something?
Stephen: THE JAM and that kind of thing… we had a friend called Mark Dean who had actually worked with WHAM! and we were down at Mark Dean’s house in Bushey and we met WHAM! who went to London clubs and they’d seen ABC and they wanted to meet up with us.
Mark Dean said “oh, my mates are going to come over and meet you”. So me and Martin met George and Andrew at Mark Dean’s house where we’d gone down to stay the night. Andrew said “George, play them that song we’ve been working on” and there’s a piano in Mark Dean’s house and George played ‘Careless Whisper’. And I was like “have you written that?” and he said “yeah, yeah” and I was like “are you sure?”*laughs*
I was thinking it was like a COMMODORES track that I’d not heard and he was going “no, no, I’ve written it!” and I was like “is that like one of the best songs I’ve heard or absolutely sh*te?!” I couldn’t really work it out, is he a genius or am I totally wrong on this?
Mark: He was famous for working really quickly though George, I worked with a keyboard player that he used, and George would say “just leave me alone, give me an hour” and he would come back and there’s practically a finished hit record there, a phenomenal speed of working…
What about the ABC songwriting process, was there a set method?
Mark: Jamming! Because it was band based then really….
Stephen: We were doing a VICE VERSA tour in Holland as our mate Mike Pickering had moved over to Holland. We stayed at Mike’s house and we met these guys who had a record shop and studio in Rotterdam and they were like “come with us to our studio…”
Mark: This was a key moment, because we’d got some unrecorded VICE VERSA songs that we’d been playing live… it came out as a single on Backstreet with ‘Stilyagi’ backed with ‘Eyes of Christ’.
Stephen: When we first went to the studio they were going “record something!” and we were like, “erm, well we use synthesizers and we can’t really do that”. But Martin was like “oh no, come on let’s make some music”, so I’d picked up a bass guitar and there was a little drum machine there. Mark picked up the guitar and we just started jamming round….
Mark: I remember we’d heard that Bowie had done some of the ‘Lodger’ album by just suggesting that everybody swapped their instruments and we thought ok we’ll do that. So it was like, Martin, why don’t you sing? We hadn’t heard him sing before and I don’t think he even knew he could and we just went “what the hell was that?!”
Stephen: He was just ad libbing things, vocal ideas, we were like, this is fantastic! And that was the kind of inspiration for Mark to step down from doing vocals.
Mark: This has never happened in pop I resigned as the lead singer! I’m still waiting for my OBE, it’s not forthcoming. As far as I know, it’s never happened before in history! *laughs*
Ah, Vince Clarke stepped down as vocalist for Dave Gahan in what became DEPECHE MODE…
Stephen: We’d met Martin who’d come to interview us and we kind of dragged him into being in the band. It was like “don’t worry about anything Martin, you stand at the side, you don’t have to do much. Just hit the keyboard, it’s a synthesizer, we’ll set it to white noise, and you go ‘Tish! Tish!’”.
Mark: He came to interview us for his fanzine ‘Modern Drugs’ but we both just looked at each other and said “we’re doing a gig in Middleborough in ten days time Martin, would you fancy just being in the band?” To which his reply was “but I don’t play an instrument!”*laughs*
Stephen: It doesn’t matter does it?
Mark: Literally, it was the punk age and it didn’t matter. Ok, look we’ve got a little oscillator, we’ll hook it up to a WEM Copicat and just make funny noises and it’ll be great! Am so glad we did that…
Stephen: So we did this tape in Holland and then thought this is really good and interesting, let’s work along that line and we looked for a drummer and bass player. Because we thought that Martin’s voice wouldn’t really suit the synthesized sound, we wanted that more organic sound and there was a house in Sheffield that Martin lived in with a guy called Disco John who was a DJ. The house was practically derelict…
Mark: …it was like a Coronation Street row of terraces…
Stephen: …which were due to be knocked down…
Mark: …in post-Industrial Sheffield, just all falling apart and there were just loads of places to rehearse and I’m sure that’s why so much came out of Sheffield in that period. You could get the most incredible rehearsal room for nothing!
Stephen: Martin lived there with John and in the dining room, there was his sound system and decks and we’d go into the other little room. And the way we started was just by going in there every day and just jamming around on ideas and learning to play whilst John would be practicing his DJ stuff.
Mark: The neighbours must have hated us! And then we’d go and watch THE HUMAN LEAGUE on ‘Top Of The Pops’ doing ‘The Sound Of The Crowd’… and we were like “Ooh! They’ve done alright haven’t they actually…..”
Stephen: That’s how it was. It was that kind of learning curve of playing around with ideas and thinking “this is quite a good idea, this could be a chorus” and then we’d write something else. It was like “hang on, the chorus of this song, this could be a verse” and we’d be like chopping and changing and fusing them together. We’d write lots of different things and go through this process of elimination; it was a learning process…
Mark: Teaching ourselves how to do it….
Stephen: We listened to a lot of Motown, the way they would put things together and Martin was a big fan of Smokey Robinson.
Mark: Around that time, we must have been crazy, we thought we’d be able to do both concepts at the same time; like continue VICE VERSA and the other side project that we’d already started calling ABC.
Stephen: We had different names, the first was RADICAL DANCE FACTION and there actually is a band called that now. I think it’s possible they stole that! Then Martin had this idea of music being a drug: “don’t take drugs, listen to music, don’t drink, don’t smoke, music should be the drug, music is a vitamin”, then we were thinking VITAMIN Z but there’s also a band that came out called VITAMIN Z.
Funnily enough, the singer of VITAMIN Z is now the manager of ARCTIC MONKEYS!
Stephen: We were kind of like selling off these names to different bands so it was “let’s call it VITAMIN ABC”. And I was thinking, “it’s ok but why don’t we just call it ABC?”, then we’re not saying we’re a dance faction or whatever. We’re saying it’s just a name that would fit everything. Then we added the three stars to it, so it’s ABC, it’s got a logo, there’s three little stars, that’s the bands’ name and then it could be all encompassing, that’s how we did it.
The first gig we did was at Psalter Lane Art College, our friends came to see us and we’d been rehearsing the new band so we didn’t know what people would think.
But we knew when we did that first gig that it must be good, because our friends who before when we were VICE VERSA had being going “oh yeah, I like what you do”, were going “f*** me, this is f***ing amazing! It’s f***ing brilliant!”.
There were people screaming at the first gig. People were talking, “oh my God, they’re doing something different now and they’re playing guitars and it’s funky…”
Mark: Then all the record companies were chasing us, which is just the best situation you can have. You get the ridiculous situation of a massive black limo turning up, and it was the boss of CBS and Muff Winwood was there as well…
Stephen: …Dave Betteridge and Muff Winwood…
Mark: …outside this tiny little Coronation Street tumbling down house and this limo strolls up!
Stephen: At that point we’d got absolutely nothing, we were on the dole, no money whatsoever.
Mark: We would pay ourselves in cash, remember those old little brown envelopes? Where you got your wages. What were we on? £35 a week?
Stephen: When we signed the deal, we were like “we’ve got to make the money last…”
Mark: When we were on ‘Top Of The Pops’, we were getting £35 per week. Even when we went on tour after a couple of hits, we couldn’t afford the room service! *laughs*
Stephen: Yeah, we were on £50 a week then…
Mark: We gave ourselves a pay rise up to £50!
Stephen: When Muff Winwood came up to Sheffield and we played him ‘Poison Arrow’, he was saying “that’s a hit, that is, amazing!”, that’s we thought we’re really onto something.
Ok, so you’ve got your songs written for ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and you’re working with Trevor Horn. It was a happier time than working with Steve Brown?
Mark: Oh, absolutely fantastic… well I think Trevor would be the first to say that he needs songs to work with and I think that’s why he took the project on. He could hear things we couldn’t hear. But at that point, he’d not got into the habit of recording the whole thing and scrapping it and starting again. It wasn’t like that was it?
There’s a video of THE BUGGLES performing ‘Lenny’ with ABC as the backing band, how did that come about?
Mark: ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ had already been a hit and we were recording ‘Poison Arrow’ at that time. Trevor said “I’ve got a single out in Holland and they’ve asked me to appear, would you like to be a Buggle for a day?” and we were just up for a laugh. Stephen was doing a brilliant Mick Karn on that, check that out, the Mick Karn moves are all there! *laughs*
Mick Karn was your boy crush wasn’t he Stephen?
Stephen: Yeah, yeah, definitely, one of them! The song was called ‘Lenny’, the reason why it was a hit is because there’s a DJ in Holland called Lenny who made it his theme tune. I think we all wore sunglasses or something; that was a lot of fun. I don’t think the bass was plugged in though and what I was doing would bear any relation to the song! *laughs*
Mark: A short while ago by pure chance I met a girl singer, she said “Mark, we’ve got a connection! I sang on ‘Video Killed The Radio Star’”; I said are you the “woah, woah, woah” girl? She said “no, the other bit” when it all breaks down and she sings “…star, a radio star…”, so we were all sat on a sofa three ex-BUGGLES all in the room at the same time, it’s one for the books!
Trevor Horn is notorious, so how much does it become his album and how much control did you guys have?
Stephen: We’d got a lot of songs which we thought were going to make up the album and Trevor refused to work on them. There were a lot of songs that we’d been playing live and he was like “You know what? This just isn’t good enough”. We were going like “F*** you! What do you mean it’s not good enough?”.
But it inspired us and I remember him saying “You know what you need on this album, you need a ballad”. And we were going “A ballad? What do you think we are? We’re not going to do a ballad”. But we were inspired to go back… we were back in Sheffield for the weekend. We went down to our rehearsal room, then Mark came into the rehearsal room saying “You know he was going on about like he wants to write a ballad for us, well I’ve got this idea…”
Mark: ‘All of My Heart’…
Stephen: It was just the first little bit of ‘All of My Heart’, so we wrote it and went back to Sarm East and said “right, you wanted a ballad, we’ve written one”. There were a lot of things in the studio that were written and created in the studio.
‘Valentine’s Day’ was an entirely different song, it was called ‘Surrender’ and that went through a major overhaul. It was written in the studio and Martin heard the different direction of the way the music was going and wrote a totally different set of lyrics.
So it was very fresh and Trevor’s thing was the quality control on the songs. He pushed us up that notch, but things weren’t done over months, it was quick. Things changed for Trevor later on when he started spending a lot more time doing things.
With us, it was like “we’re going to put the piano on it, it’s done. We’re going to put some percussion on it, it’s done. We’ll do the vocals, they’re done”. It wasn’t a massively laborious process. It couldn’t, be there wasn’t much of a budget and time to do it.
The gestation time for all of this, from ‘Tears Are Not Enough’ to ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ coming out, it’s only about four months, something like that? That’s nothing today!
Stephen: The album was recorded over a period of about three months…
Mark: Mostly at Sarm East……
Stephen: And at that time when we were recording it, we were also promoting ‘Tears Are Not Enough’.
Mark: Everybody we were working with then was on top of their game, the studio team became THE ART OF NOISE; Trevor, Anne, Gary Langan and JJ Jeczalik the Fairlight programmer.
Stephen: The thing that Trevor could do… we’d say to him “we want to sound like something you’d hear in the American charts, like a DARYL HALL & JOHN OATES. We want it to sound incredible, we don’t want it to sound like some indie funk band, we want to take it further”.
Trevor as a producer knew these people who he could draft in. We didn’t know anybody did we? We didn’t know who the best person to play keyboards on it…
Mark: He knew really top quality musicians, he’d go “you want congas? Oh yeah, I know a guy!”
Stephen: In a way. it was a first for all of us because it was the first album apart from ‘Adventures in Modern Recording’ which was his own, he produced that album, that’s where he said how he learned his craft. It was a kind of a Trevor solo album in a way.
Mark: Before us, all he’d done was THE BUGGLES and DOLLAR…..
Stephen: …and he’d done THE JAGS…. ‘Back of My Hand’ was another one that he’d worked on, that he was very proud of. So it was a first for a lot of people and everybody was excited. These things happen where everybody is in the right place at the right time… boom!
Mark: We’d also had a really good A&R man, Chris Briggs, he just got it….
Stephen: Another important person at time was Jill Sinclair, who was Trevor’s wife. She would go in to Phonogram and say “look, you’ve got to do a video for this, this is going to be huge”.
Mark: She could kick butt…
Stephen: She kicked ass on behalf of us and on behalf of Trevor of course. I’d be going in there asking “can we have some badges made?” and they’d be saying “Hmmm, I don’t know, I don’t know if there’s a budget for that…” The problem was we were trying to manage ourselves at that time and we were going into Phonogram, seeing if we could get a budget to get a nice photographer or do a promo tour or whatever. So that was extremely useful.
The band very much embraced the video promo era, for ‘All of My Heart’, the director was more well known for his photography wasn’t he?
Mark: It was a guy called Brian Duffy who took the picture for Bowie’s ‘Aladdin Sane’ cover….
What are your memories of that video, Centre Point is in it a one point?
Mark: That’s the star of the show really! *laughs*
Stephen: I think that video was pants, crap! *laughs*
The idea that we had was that we would perform the song on a revolving stage and that would be it. Duffy wanted to use it as a showreel for getting into commercials, so there’s a plug being pulled out of the wall and blood coming down and a rose…
Mark: The trouble is, it’s so bloody expensive to make film and we never had the budgets really.
Stephen: Duffy was a great person, a great personality, really interesting but I just thought it wasn’t very good…
Mark: The difference between video and film is with video, when you record it, if you don’t like it, you go “oh, wrong idea, let’s try again”. With film, you’re committed to it and often they’re coming up with these incredible treatments and oh boy, can they sell them! They make it sound like it’s going to be ‘Gone With The Wind’ and it never is! *laughs*
‘The Look of Love’ video is awful! What are your thoughts on that?
Mark: I think that caused Trevor to nearly have a nervous breakdown. In fact he’s on record as saying “oh, f***ing hell, I’m going to have to start my own record company!”.
Stephen: I thought ‘Poison Arrow’ was great…
Mark: Julian Temple did that one…
Stephen: That fitted in with the whole concept of the band, had a story to it and was executed correctly, the kind of Technicolor aspect to it, the whole style. It had some humour in it. With ‘The Look of Love’ it was like everybody was taking us really seriously, let’s do something that’s a bit fun and it turned out like an outtake from a Benny Hill show, and as Mark said, you’re committed, you do this stuff and then you see it and you think… oh, ok!
Mark: The way the treatment was presented to us, it made it sound like it was going to be like ‘An American In Paris’, that’s how it was sold to us.
Stephen: Martin loved ‘An American In Paris’ and he was going, “that will be great!” and it ended up being a joke…
Mark: It’s deeply upsetting and you can’t do anything about it, because it’s done and already cost you a fortune.
Stephen: The Brian Duffy one ‘All of my Heart’, I thought was going to be a little bit like THE POLICE one where they had all the candles and everything…
‘Wrapped Around Your Finger’?
Stephen: Yeah, the revolving dias, with us there, Mark playing piano and I think I was going to be playing tubular bells. That’s in there for like a millisecond and then it’s back to Martin walking under the bridge, and then some girl there holding a box of chocolates. It’s like “What the f***! What the f*** is this?”*laughs*
But that’s what happened. I think that what we did when we appeared on television programs for ‘The Look of Love’, we did the dance routine, we said “let’s do this, let’s give it THE FOUR TOPS treatment”, we loved all that stuff. That was more in keeping with what we were about and it probably worked better as a video. At the time, the costs of those videos, was like “I can buy a semi-detached house for that”.
OK, let’s talk about ‘Mantrap’? We’ll get our coats? *laughs*
Mark: Ok, turn the tape off! Can you shut them up? *laughs*
Was the link into ‘Mantrap’ as a result of Julien Temple working on ‘Poison Arrow’?
Mark: ‘Mantrap’ should have been left as a live video, simple, just film the concert… no, everybody’s got these, want to be a movie director ambitions. It’s my personal project, I’m trying to buy up all the copies!
Unfortunately it’s on YouTube in six parts…
Mark: The acting in that is so wooden, it should have a fire warning on it! It’s terrible! *laughs*
Stephen: We got a budget to film a concert at Hammersmith Odeon and then somebody had this idea, “I know let’s do a little story to go with it…”
Mark: You guys like Bond, let’s come up with some sort of absurd spy theme… it looks like I spend the entire concert tuning my guitar. It was an oscilloscope back in the day, that’s what they looked like.
Stephen: I don’t know how long it takes to write a film script normally, but the script for ‘Mantrap’ was written after a concert we did in Oxford, in a pub in half an hour. “We’ve cracked it now, I’ll get somebody to work out all the dialogue”. I still get people coming up to me and reciting my lines from the film, they come up and go “Oh Stephen, why don’t we try those string players? Oh yes, I’m sorry about that Tony, come on, get on the stage! Martin, it’s the first song, ‘Show Me’”. *laughs*
Mark: Oh dear, some things can’t be undone… sadly!
Stephen: Mark doesn’t like it, I like it…
Mark: You don’t!
Stephen: I like sh*t like that I really do. I watch Talking Pictures Television and there are loads and loads of films that are like that! *laughs*
Mark: It’s YouTube! I don’t get that…
Stephen: You’re going to have to complain and get it taken down Mark…
What do you think the enduring appeal of ‘The Lexicon of Love’ is after 37 odd years?
Mark: Well, all the songs are quality and it was groundbreaking production at the time. And there’s just something about that era, it struck a chord. That whole period now is a golden one isn’t it? It seems bizarre, it seemed to capture a spirit at that time, I think that’s why. We weren’t they only ones, a lot of other people did it.
Better than ‘Dare? ?
Phil Oakey thinks ‘Dare’ is the best album of the 80s, he’s so wrong! Jonathan Ross puts him straight on that when he was on his show, did you see that? Phil says “well, we did make the best album of the 80s” and Ross says “not even Phil, you know it was ‘The Lexicon of Love’”. That must have stung! *laughs*
John Taylor of DURAN DURAN was absolutely petrified of ABC and thinking “what are they going to come up with next?” There was this story about him buying ‘The Lexicon of Love’, taking it home…..
Mark: Doing voodoo on it! *laughs*
He literally saw you as a bigger threat than SPANDAU BALLET…
Stephen: I think that at the time, we were ambitious and there was a lot of competition out there and the idea was that we wanted to be the best, that was it. We wanted to make the best album, we wanted to be the best band, we wanted to write the best songs. We knew people, we knew SPANDAU BALLET, because there was that whole scene going on…
In Sheffield there were clubs. In London there was the club scene, we’d met up with Spandau and Steve Dagger. We’d been to play the Rum Runner, we’d met DURAN DURAN. We were all around the same age and influenced by the same people, you know Bowie, Bolan, Roxy. We were the next generation, we were inspired to form bands and it was very competitive…
Mark: Have you heard the Bowie and ABC story? Ok, well, we were recording ‘The Look of Love’ in Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio. We were down in the basement recording and the phone rings “oh, hello, would you mind if David sits in on the session?” And we were like, “David who?” And it was Bowie! *laughs*
Stephen: He kind of blessed the whole thing…
Mark: He made a suggestion for the middle of the record, because at that point, there was just a big hole, nothing going on and he said “oh, how about having someone dialling an answerphone, you could have that in the middle”. But we couldn’t really tell him that we’d already done something very similar in the middle of ‘Poison Arrow’…
Stephen: We don’t like your idea! *laughs*
Mark: This is how utterly stoked I was. We bumped into him again coming in and out of the studio and apparently I had a very erudite conversation with Bowie about Bertolt Brecht.
He’d just put out the ‘Baal’ EP and I said, “oh, I studied Bertolt Brecht for A-Level German” and we apparently had this amazing conversation, but the trouble is I can’t remember anything about it! I was so nervous and I still don’t know whether Steve’s made the whole thing up!
Stephen: I was sat there nodding my head and thinking “what are you talking about? Bertolt who?”; Bowie was going “…that was his first play” and Mark was like “ha, ha, ha, yes, you can tell, ha, ha, ha!” and they were having these in-jokes about Brecht and Weill…
Mark: I probably did say that, but I have absolutely no memory of it! He was there at the door, I was talking to him, but I blanked out for like half an hour… no memory at all, tragic, that’s fandom! *laughs*
Stephen: Another funny thing about meeting David Bowie was that he did a great Sheffield accent. I remember him hearing me speak in my Sheffield accent and he said “Ohhh or, reight thas from Sheffield are tha?”
Mark: Didn’t Bowie reply “Me fatha wo from Donneh?”
Stephen: Yes ! Hahaha…
Mark: To translate. that means “my father was from Doncaster!” …anyway, he then came to see us at Hammersmith Odeon, thank God the roadies didn’t tell us until after. Bowie came and asked to sit with the sound engineer, imagine? I would have wet myself!
Stephen: My brother and sister had to the Hammersmith Odeon show and I’d arranged to get them tickets. We were just about to go on the stage and somebody came backstage and said “somebody claiming to be your brother has been trying to get into the venue and he’s not got a ticket”. And I was like, “was he with a little girl?” thinking “f***, that’s my brother and sister, they should have had tickets” and he said “they’re outside”.
So five minutes before I’m meant to go onstage, I’m running round the streets of Hammersmith in a glittery suit looking for my brother and sister! Then I find them and I’m like “where are the tickets?” and they go “we never got given them”, so I got them in and they stood at the side of the stage. I remember playing and then looking across and Bowie was watching the gig with my brother and sister. I was still so p***ed off that my brother and sister didn’t get their tickets for the concert.
Years later my brother was up in Sheffield and we were talking about ticket scalpers and he said “yeah, I remember when you played Hammersmith Odeon and you got us tickets and I sold them for so much money”. And I was like “What? You sold the tickets? Where’s the f***ing money then!”. So he’d sold the tickets and then tried to blag his way into the concert! *laughs*
Mark: Brothers eh? F*** ‘em! You know who else was at that gig? Debbie Harry! And she came to the afterparty. My brother was trying to chat up Debbie Harry, I was very proud of him! *laughs*
Moving onto the follow-up album ‘Beauty Stab’, it’s now rather unfortunately put into the category of career suicide and self-sabotage along with works such as FLEETWOOD MAC’s ‘Tusk’, OMD’s ‘Dazzle Ships’ and THE CLASH’s ‘Sandinista’….
Mark: Rock ‘n’ roll suicide…
If you could turn back the clock, and make a different follow-up, would you? You turned into SAXON didn’t you? *laughs*
Mark: I can’t remember why, but it just seemed the most natural thing on earth at the time. Trevor was down to produce it, but had already started work with YES and then moved onto working with FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. He had already started and scrapped about four different versions of ‘Relax’ and after about a year, we just went “look, we can’t wait”.
Gary Langan produced it, so it was still in the family?
Mark: I know, but Trevor is a different kettle of fish. Gary was a brilliant sound engineer and mix engineer.
But I honestly don’t know the answer to that, I don’t think we had a choice, that’s how it turned out.
I mean, you’re a guitarist, it’s quite natural for you. But for a saxophonist going rock is not so easy?
Mark: Well, ROXY MUSIC had a sax…..
Bowie too… I think of that as a kind of ‘art’ thing… you had the ROXY MUSIC rhythm section of Alan Spenner and Andy Newmark involved on ‘Beauty Stab’, but it didn’t quite have that kind of sound…
Mark: I’ve never been good at formulas, I can’t do them. God knows why, it might have been the influence of being on tour and playing live, possibly….
Did Martin want to rock out?
Was America a factor, because Billy Idol had become popular. That was always Rusty Egan’s excuse as to why VISAGE went rock as they were listening to too much Billy Idol!
Mark: I mean, Rusty Egan has done a lot of rock, hasn’t he? He was in the flippin’ SKIDS… yeah, it’s a strange period…
Were there other distractions?
Money or drugs or things like that?
Mark: No, never… we were all really clean living boys…
Despite all this, ‘S.O.S.’ is an absolutely sensational song. Can you remember the genesis of that because it does stand out like a sore thumb on the album?
Mark: Well I think the roots of that are very much in ‘Sexual Healing’. I mean it’s got an 808 drum machine pattern all through it and I just came up with some chords and it came out.
Stephen: The thing was, when we first started out as VICE VERSA, we were an electronic band. We then mutated into ABC.
Mark: Out and out pop…
Stephen: Yeah, before that there was the scratchy funky ABC. Then there was the sophisticated polished pop of ‘The Lexicon of Love’ and being kind of followers of the David Bowie school of philosophy which would go from one thing to another. We’d toured the world playing the tracks from ‘The Lexicon of Love’ over and over again and we reconvened to start on new songs and I think that we were then caught up in the music industry.
The first set of songs you write in your own little space, there’s no pressure. You do that, you get better at writing songs, so ‘The Lexicon of Love’ is distilled from lots of different songs and then you’re in a situation where you’ve had a No1 album, you’ve been on the tour, the record company are saying “we need the new album”.
Mark: It’s kind of second album syndrome, you put twenty four years into your first album and then you have six months to write the next one.
It’s a huge amount of pressure….
Stephen: Probably even less than six months… it was the next set of songs which were written. We weren’t David Bowie, people expected more of the same, but different… that’s what we did, we went in, we did those songs. We were in there with a brilliant engineer, we weren’t in there with a producer who would say “hey, let’s put the reins on this, let’s rein it back into some other place”. But I think when we were doing it, we believed in it.
Stephen: We did it and we liked those songs and that’s what we were feeling like what we wanted to do at that time…
Mark: I do sometimes think about the multiverse thing, somewhere out there, there was a version of ABC that did a ‘The Lexicon of Love’ follow-up….
Stephen: Called ‘More Of The Same’…
Mark: …and we ended up being like DURAN DURAN and playing stadiums *laughs*
There’s often the question of how band dynamics get altered if just one person leaves. So did David Palmer leaving affect things?
Mark: Absolutely. He was a songwriter as well and always really into the next big thing and embracing technology as well.
Stephen: David is an incredible musician, that’s what he’s interested in, he’s interested in playing the drums. That was him and yeah, the dynamic does change if there’s four people, it’s different to there being three people.
Were you over-compensating in terms of you’re missing someone so much, you’re pushing boundaries, because you feel, “oh right, we almost need to prove ourselves more”?.
Stephen: When we were writing those songs and demoing them in Sheffield, David played on the demos and nobody was saying “oh, I don’t like what we’re doing now”. We wrote lots of different songs, we wrote songs in a country and western style, you know, songs which were more extreme pop songs…
Mark: When that album came out, we got a letter from Bono, a personal handwritten one and the gist of it was “you’re going to get ripped to shreds, but I think it’s really good and a really brave move”, which I thought was really nice at the time…..
When ‘That Was Then This is Now’ came out, there was a more expensive 12” single with a sticker which said “This record is exactly the same as the 7”. The choice is yours.” Who’s idea was that?
Mark: I think that would be our idea….
Stephen: The song didn’t really lend itself to be extended, it was as it was, that was the thing. It was like “buy whichever one you wanted”. We liked to play around with things like that, we were artists, a lot of what we did was artistic and the idea was “change is stability, change is strength, try different things”. That’s what we were about.
Mark: It doesn’t necessarily do your bank account any favours though! But I comfort myself with the multiverse idea, that in some other universe there’s an ABC that went on… *laughs*
Like a really good ‘Black Mirror’ episode where you have different pathways….
Stephen: Yeah, I’d be living in John Taylor’s house in Malibu or in Wiltshire, he’s got a very nice house I’m rather jealous of! *laughs*
Mark: What were you saying about Roger Taylor earlier?
Stephen: QUEEN’s Roger Taylor listened to THE HUMAN LEAGUE album and then wrote ‘Radio GaGa’….
Mark: How do you know this?
Stephen: Somebody told me! But I can’t really name names, it’s not fair on that person. It was a personal friend of Roger Taylor, but that’s what happened! *laughs*
Mark: I can see the connection…
Stephen: I thought Martyn Ware would know that? I thought everybody knew it, but obviously they didn’t!
Mark: I nearly dropped me phone when I heard about that…
Stephen: I left the band after ‘Beauty Stab’ and then Mark and Martin went off in a different direction with ‘Zillionaire’. In fact they didn’t go “hey, you know ‘Beauty Stab’ hasn’t really sold as many as the first album, let’s go back and do ‘Lexicon of Love Part Two’. Let’s do something different”.
Mark: You have to do something that means something to you as an artist…
Stephen: That’s how we were as people….
Mark: You may as well be working in a fish finger factory…..
So Stephen what were you reasons for leaving?
Stephen: I preferred the other universe… slightly. I went off and lived in that and the fell back to it a few years later, there’s lots of reasons… *laughs*
And Mark, how did you feel about it when he went?
Mark: It was a very stressful time. I really blame the tour, because I think we all individually went mad in our own ways. It’s what a friend of mine refers to as ‘altitude sickness’, you think you really want to be there, but when you are, it’s a different matter to deal with it. It’s tough!
Stephen: Why I left is, it wasn’t as much fun anymore. David Palmer had gone and to me it didn’t really feel like a band anymore, it felt like three individuals that through no fault of anybody’s, we’d been through so much.
You know, one minute we were rehearsing in a little room in Sheffield, working in one particular way and then we’d become famous and then we started earning some money. It changes things, fame changes people, money changes people, it can’t be helped. David had gone, the dynamic of the whole thing had changed…
Mark: In retrospect, I wished we’d all taken a year off, because we were f***ing knackered primarily and just to recharge, think about getting excited about influences and music again.
But then you got into doing ‘How To Be A Zillionaire’ quite quickly, comparatively after ‘Beauty Stab’?
Mark: I don’t know, chronology is all very blurred in my mind… I did take a bit of time off and I was going to America on holiday. I was very influenced by what I was hearing on the radio then and that’s how it percolated through. I remember hearing ‘Blue Monday’ and it was life-changing to me, I was in Austin Texas, I can remember it clearly…
You got immersed into your Arthur Baker and Shannon which comes out in ‘How To Be A Millionaire’…
Mark: Absolutely, the beginnings of freestyle…
How did you first come across that style of music then?
Mark: Because we’d always, all separately been interested in dance music from Motown through to CHIC, it just evolved into that. I remember when we played New York, putting the radio on WBLS, a really crucial dance music station back then. They were playing ‘Planet Rock’ by AFRIKA BAMBAATAA and ‘Scorpio’ by GRANDMASTER FLASH and then they played ‘The Look of Love’ remix, and I was like “oh my God, they’re actually playing it!”. I didn’t think that would really happen. Out of all that music, ‘Planet Rock’ was just so good.
Stephen: ‘Planet Rock’ was out when we were touring ‘The Lexicon of Love’, after gigs we would go to clubs in different places and that track was just starting to happen and it was so f***ing good, then GRANDMASTER FLASH with ‘The Message’ and ‘White Lines’ came out. I think we’d been in America promoting ‘Beauty Stab’, we were in New York watching the kids breakdancing on the streets and thinking this was so happening;
Mark: We saw it happening in Times Square, there were B-Boys doing that whole thing to KRAFTWERK which was just amazing.
Stephen: We went to The Paradise Garage with AFRIKA BAMBAATAA DJing and all those other heavyweight characters. That’s why I think ABC (although I wasn’t in it anymore) moved on and went in that direction; get the drum machines out, get the synthesizers out and get the samplers going.
Mark: Also, we’d worked with the Fairlight on the first album and it was obviously the future. Mind you, the minute the Emulator II came out, we bought one. No need to pay a Fairlight programmer £750 a day!
Stephen: We had the Emulator on tour along with its own roadie to repair it at every gig *laughs*
Mark: Five inch floppy disks…
Stephen: There was a lot of Emulator on the demos for ‘Beauty Stab’, Mark had played the guitar and putting it through the sampler, making the sounds up. It was primitive… did we have a Linndrum?
Mark: No. We had an 808, we also had the 303s. We bought three 303s…
Did they all get nicked? *laughs*
Mark: I repatriated them, I sold one to a German teenager for £500 or something, which looking back now is insane…
You mention NEW ORDER, there is a connection between you both. The opening track on ‘Zillionaire’ is ‘Fear of the World’, how did you do the rhythmical passage on it?
Mark: That was Fairlight…
Did you know ELECTRONIC sampled that for a B-side called ‘Lean To The Inside’?
Mark: No! David Palmer was in ELECTRONIC…
‘Get The Message’ sounds very much like ‘All Of My Heart’ if you compare the two verse parts…
Mark: I’ve heard through our Manchester connections but we’ve not been told directly that Gillian from NEW ORDER was a bit of an ABC fan.
Stephen: We were all roughly around the same age and had the same influences and stuff…
Mark: Stephen, you used to go over to Manchester a lot….
Stephen: I used to go to the original Factory club in Hulme. One night I was out in Sheffield and there used to be a band called MANICURED NOISE. I’d been to see them play in Manchester and then I was on this street in Sheffield, there was these lads there and then this girl from MANICURED NOISE and I was like “oh hang on, I saw you play in Manchester, last week, you’re in that band MANICURED NOISE!” And the other lads were laughing going “ooh, she’s got recognised but we’ve not!”.
And I went, “well, who are you?” and they were like “we’re in a band, we’re playing Sheffield tonight, we’re called JOY DIVISION, we’re playing at The Limit Club…” , so I went down to see JOY DIVISION play there with about twelve other people, although since there’s been about twelve thousand that said they were there!
Mark: Like the infamous SEX PISTOLS at the Manchester Free Trade Hall. Everybody was at that…
Stephen: Martin Fry was at that and Mike Pickering. There was people in that era, all going to the same kind of clubs. I used to go across to Manchester to Pips and The Ranch. There was a great scene in Sheffield and this was like when I originally met up with Mark, we used to go to a club called The Crazy Daisy and The Top Rank Suite. It would be us, THE HUMAN LEAGUE and HEAVEN 17, a very small number of people… all the people that then formed bands. The same thing happened in Manchester with JOY DIVISION, THE SMITHS, MAGAZINE and BUZZCOCKS.
Mark: I was too young to be going over to Manchester then, he’s a bit older than me!
Stephen: I’m slightly older than Mark and I was a completely bad influence on him when we actually met. I steered him down another path of life really….
Mark: When you’re that age, just a few years can seem an immense difference…
Stephen: THE HUMAN LEAGUE were older than us and I remember when we first met them, Phil Oakey was married and I was a f***ing virgin! It was like totally different…Martyn Ware had a beard! *laughs*
Mark: More importantly, they had jobs, could afford to buy very expensive Roland synths…
Stephen: We had Korg MS20, a Micropreset and a Minipops drum machine and we were influenced by the same things. But we were younger and poorer and they had jobs and wives and girlfriends and things! *laughs*
Mark: I was still school!
Stephen: He was still at school with his copy of ‘Warm Leatherette’ and Thomas Leer’s ‘Private Plane’…
Mark: There was a book that came out ‘Beats Working For a Living’ by Martin Lilleker and he interviews Jarvis Cocker in it, well he went to the same school as me.
There’s a bit where Jarvis says:“I remember going past the sixth form block and the strangest electronic noises coming out, I later discovered it was Mark White playing ‘United’ by THROBBING GRISTLE”*laughs*
Stephen: Jarvis was from the next generation and a little bit younger than us.
Mark: PULP were playing gigs when VICE VERSA were playing gigs….
Stephen: They started when they were really young!
Are we on ‘Alphabet City’ now? At this point there seems to be a conscious decision to do an ABC pop album again…how calculated was it?
Mark: The lead song on it was ‘When Smokey Sings’, we enjoyed writing that and even just from the demos people were going “that is a hit”, so we did more like that….
So Stephen, were you missing it when the guys started having hits again? Did you ever feel like “I wish I was part of this again”? What was your feeling?
Stephen: What kind of happens is you leave a band, but you’re not going to NOT listen to what they’re doing, you can’t avoid that. I thought ‘When Smokey Sings’ was great, I really liked the ‘Zillionaire’ album as well. I’m a music fan, I am not going to go “Oh, I don’t like that” because I was once in it and now I’m not. I didn’t think “Oh my God, I want to rejoin ABC!” or whatever because I was just doing my stuff at that time.
I didn’t really think about it that much. I was happy to be working in studios and doing things, productions, writing and stuff. Doing my thing as it were.
Mark: Mr Singleton, I wish to inform you that your interview to work in the diplomatic service has been successful! *laughs*
Stephen: Put it this way, I don’t think Mark and Martin would have been going “Oh my God, what’s Stephen up to?”.
Mark: I mean you wouldn’t if had been like all Top 10 records all the way, I’m sure I’d have a thing to say about it as well!
Stephen:“Oh hi Mark, how you doing? I’ve just done a song for MADONNA”. That’s the way it was, I was doing a different job, you know, you change your job or whatever, your vocation.
You don’t then go “I wish I was I back at this place doing that job”, you’re in a new job, you’re living in that particular moment.
Mark: But, factually with ‘How To Be A Zillionaire’, it totally bombed in England, but was quite successful in America. ‘How To Be a Millionaire’ was a Top 40 hit, ‘Be Near Me’ is still the biggest ABC hit in America we ever had. So that took away the pain of that a little bit, I couldn’t believe it.
You know this thing that people say “Ooh, you’ve got to slog around America playing live”, you don’t! We just got a phone call, “guys you’ve got to come to L.A. They’re playing your record on the radio, it’s a top 10 radio hit”. I had no idea and that was good. There was a bit more continuity to it for me, it was really nice that the Americans liked ‘When Smokey Sings’ as well.
So you’re high on all of this and of course there’s a game changer in the world, which is House Music and effectively you dump your guitar for this new form….
Mark: I loved all the really seminal early stuff, it was so minimal…
What were your views on things like Acid House?
Mark: It was just Year Dot, it was Year Zero and it came along. The North was playing this stuff a lot before the South and there were great clubs in Nottingham, The Haçienda in Manchester and Jive Turkey in Sheffield. They were playing all this stuff in ‘85/’86 and it was quietly bubbling away.
It was actually David Palmer who said there’s this great club called ‘Shoom’, “You’ve got to go! It’s in a fitness centre in Southwark”. So I was into that in the beginning, it was incredible scene, the energy in it was fantastic. It changed everything for me and it’s really when I stopped listening to pop music completely.
But the 90s rather passed me by, I call it my musical coma period. I didn’t get Britpop at all, was never into any of it and the Indie sort of stuff.
Did you like the House thing Stephen?
Stephen: I’m into dance, going out dancing and clubbing. I think that scene though is like you had to be there, that’s what it was about. I think if you were listening to it on the radio, it doesn’t quite work quite the same. You had to be in those clubs and taking those drugs, whatever, to appreciate it and feel it. It was a movement…
Mark: I think it was the last movement really. We’ve gone into complete stasis and stagnation, I don’t really understand…
What is your opinion on the music industry now, positive and negative?
Mark: It’s over, the big mistake is very little new talent is getting signed and developed.
Worse than that, it’s actually now messages from accountants and focus groups in the head offices of wherever to the A&R department saying “create that for us, we want something that sounds a bit like Taylor Swift or whatever, who’s this age and is going to appeal to that”. It’s literally the accountants have taken over.
Pop music by algorithm or design committee…
Mark: It is, when we were signed it was because somebody got to hear about you. “There was a hot new band in Manchester, there’s a lot happening in Sheffield at the moment” and the word would get out and it was real and people found out about it. I don’t think that’s happening…..
Stephen: Well the world’s changed beyond recognition….
Mark: It’s the internet isn’t it?
Stephen: When we were making music, we did that because there was nothing else to do. There was like three television channels, television would go off air, like goodnight, here’s the national anthem. On Sunday, shops in the cities were closed. It was a totally different thing, and that’s what we did, we created our own world and that world was between us.
We were like a little gang and other people in bands were like that too. ECHO & THE BUNNYMEN, ASSOCIATES, all little gangs making their own peculiar version of what they saw as being pop music, the image… we were the people that came up with the ideas, it wasn’t the record company saying “hey now guys I think you should etc…”
When we first were doing ABC, we were into cycling gear and sportswear. PET SHOP BOYS came to see us at The Embassy, their idea was to wear cycling gear and they came to see us and then just went “we’ll have to forget that idea!”*laughs*
We then dropped the cycling gear and went for the showbiz look with the gold lame suits and all that, these were ideas that didn’t come from the stylist or the record company. When Martin first had the gold lame suit made by Colin Wild just off Carnaby Street, the record company Phonogram were kind of like horrified… “you’re not going to wear that on Top of the Pops! What the f***?!”
They didn’t understand it, but they did understand it the next day when everybody was phoning up to do an interview with the guy who wore the gold lame suit. We were the people that came up with those ideas and concepts and sleeve designs.
Mark: I don’t think that’s happening now.
Stephen: We don’t know do we?
The creativity is spread thin, you made music to be your escape to create. The idea of creation for kids now is for them to have an Instagram account and do selfies…
Stephen: I also think in a record company nowadays that if they’ve got an act and they delivered a big hit album, they’re not going to let that act then go off in a completely different direction and say “we’ve done this now and the sleeve is going to look like that”. They wouldn’t allow it! It would be like, “no you’re not, you’re going to work with these people”.
When record companies were making enough money through the new acts that would emerge, they’d go “hey, you know what? Let them do what they want, they’re the artists”. And sometimes those off the wall projects would hit big. The world just isn’t like that anymore.
Mark: Also, the money’s gone out of it. Because everybody thought, “oh right, it’s all going to be about streaming”. Now, the amount of money I see from streaming… a friend of ours told me that ‘The Look of Love’ got five million plays one year on Spotify. So I got in touch with the accountant and said “what are the Spotify royalties?” and he said “Mark, we’ll look into it for you but it won’t be as much as we’d have to charge you for investigating it”.
In other words, Taylor Swift put it perfectly when she said that her Spotify royalties wouldn’t pay for a Sushi dinner once a month and she’s one of the most played artists out there. So, it’s not sustainable that, is it? We’re being ripped off!
Kids these days are expecting music for free and that’s quite sad….
Mark: My nephew who likes music, I was shocked to find that he’s never bought a record in his life. I said “what do you do then?” and he said “oh, I just make a YouTube playlist and stream it”.
Stephen: It’s the same with my boy, he doesn’t buy records, some of his friends do.
They’re buying vinyl like kids would build a kind of train set or whatever. It’s like a little hobby, it’s not the way when people do it and interact with music and artists anymore. It’s changed beyond all recognition.
Mark: It really has, I’m really worried about it. It’s not sustainable anymore as a career, so people will not be going into it, they’ll be choosing something else. You know, we were at least getting regular money weren’t we? It was a job…
Stephen: Yeah, that’s the way it worked and now it’s a different thing. Now a record company isn’t going to take a chance on a new act, they’re going to say “let’s do a fortieth anniversary edition of this and we’ll plonk it out on blue vinyl and we know how many fans this band has got. So we will press up a thousand and we know we’ll sell that, that’s it”. It’s nothing, it becomes something totally different to what it was. We’re dinosaurs, it’s sad to say…
On a more cheerful note, are you two into creating any music now that you’re sort of back in each other’s life again.
Mark: Absolutely! We’ve re-booted VICE VERSA and we’ve been writing. We do it because we love it.
What ultimately would you like to do with it to get it out to the public?
Mark: That is the problem, I don’t even know what constitutes a hit record these days? What do you look at? Which is the chart? It’s not clear anymore….
So you’re recording stuff and it may see the light of day at some point?
Stephen: We work just like we worked when we first met and we’re excited about making music. We’re the same people aren’t we?
Mark: The same funny old buggers as we were! I met Steve when I was sixteen, it’s incredible! *laughs*
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its sincerest thanks to Mark White and Stephen Singleton
As the Yule Tide season gets into full swing, ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK presents a collection of modern seasonal tunes with a more artful slant…
With a song to play on each of The Twelve Days of Christmas, some are covers with a modern approach while others gather their thoughts and emotions into original compositions. But each has their own take on the holiday period, whether happy or sad or both.
Synths at Christmas are not entirely new; ‘Last Christmas’ by WHAM! was primarily made with a Roland Juno 60 while BAND AID’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas? was dominated by PPG Wave 2.2 with a percussive sample taken from ‘Memories Fade’ by TEARS FOR FEARS also being key to the intro.
However the traditional nature of Christmas often dictates traditional instrumentation in its songs, which means that Christmas synth songs are comparitively uncommon and a more recent phenomemon. Whatever your plans whether with the family or in the studio, please remember, a synth is for life and not just for Christmas… may it bring you lots of cheer 🎹🎄😉
CHEW LIPS When You Wake Up (2010)
CHEW LIPS may be on hiatus but in 2010, on the back of their only album ‘Unicorn’ and its subsequent tour, they were on a productive high. ‘When You Wake Up’ was a bonus tune recorded and given away as a Christmas gift to fans at the end of that very successful year. Delivered with lead singer Tigs’ usual feisty panache, listening back only highlights how much CHEW LIPS are missed.
Andy Bell and Vince Clarke’s version of this traditional Ecclesiastical Latin carol continued an ERASURE tradition that had begun in 1988 with ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ for the CD edition of the ‘Crackers International’ EP in 1988. With a precise electronic backbeat, ‘Gaudete’ was taken from its 16th Century origins and thrown into the new millennium whilst still retaining its original essence with a cheeky ‘Ice Machine’ reference for good measure.
HURTS All I Want For Christmas Is New Year’s Day (2010)
With their TAKE THAT dressed as ULTRAVOX template having achieved great success in Europe, courtesy of their debut album ‘Happiness’, Theo Hutchcraft and Adam Anderson parradoxically turned their attentions to memories of “the worst Christmas of our lives”. In true Bros Go To Bavaria style, despite the mournful start, ‘All I Want For Christmas Is New Year’s Day’ steadily transformed itself into a hopeful anthem with a big chorus and lashings of tubular bells.
Whether it was a Casio, Yamaha or Roland, everyone wanted ‘A Synthesizer For Christmas’. Texan couple HYPERBUBBLE took that enduring memory and turned it into a delightful synthpop ditty that could resonate with electronic geeks from eight to eighty the world over. Short but sweet, it was another joyous “cartoon automaton symphony” from Jess and Jeff.
LOLA DUTRONIC Another Christmas Without Snow (2010)
In the UK, a wet Christmas is always more likely, but LOLA DUTRONIC’s ‘Another Christmas Without Snow’ resonated with its melancholic yet pretty demeanour. The project of Canadian producer Richard Citroen and using a flexible roster of wispy female vocalists, the tones of Lola Dee came over all dreamy like SAINT ETIENNE and conveyed the season’s mixed emotions.
MARSHEAUX We Met Bernard Sumner At A Christmas Party Last Night (2015)
‘We Met Bernard Sumner At A Christmas Party Last Night’ is a wonderfully whispery synthpop number that is classic MARSHEAUX. The lyrics are constructed from the song and album titles of NEW ORDER to provide an imaginary narrative on Marianthi Melitsi and Sophie Sarigiannidou surreally bumping into the Manchester combo’s lead singer at a Yule Tide function.
‘Find Peace’ is a Christmas song longing for the cold but merry winters of yesteryear under the modern day spectre of global warming, armed conflict and political tension. It is certainly a suitably poignant message for the festive season. With hints of GAZELLE TWIN, the off-kilter analogue buzzing and almost random sequences make for a striking listen as a frantic percussive death rattle and an emotive synth drone take hold to provide an appropriate backdrop for HANNAH PEEL’s eerie but beautiful voice.
Available on the download and 7 inch single ‘Find Peace’ via Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club
PET SHOP BOYS It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas (2009)
Originally recorded in 1997 for an exclusive fan club single but remixed in 2009 for an official release, ‘It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas’ was a suitably camp offering that couldn’t have been anyone else. Famous for keeping THE POGUES ‘Farytale Of New York’ off the 1987 UK Christmas No1 spot with their cover of ‘Always On My Mind’, while this didn’t hit those commercial heights, it provided a very PET SHOP BOYS take on the madness of the festive season.
A cover of Finnish metal glamsters HANOI ROCKS, this take on ‘Dead By X-Mas’ from the nocturnal synth duo SIN COS TAN aka Juho Paalosmaa and Jori Hulkkonen came over a bit like BILLY IDOL gone electro, but with an elegiac twist. Bizarrely in 2006, the former William Broad issued his own collection of seasonal themed tunes entitled ‘Happy Holidays’ … it’s a nice day for a ‘White Christmas!
Back in 1974 for their ‘Kimono My House’ album, the Mael brothers recorded a song called ‘Thank God It’s Not Christmas’, a typically perverse SPARKS romp that had nothing to do as such with the holiday season. Currently enjoying their highest profile since their pop heyday, thanks to their FFS collaboration with FRANZ FERDINAND, Russell and Ron ended the year with ‘Christmas Without A Prayer’, a fitting offering which also amusingly outlined that albums by WINGS were actually unwanted gifts.
“A twisted cover of a cover of a cover”, this synth laden reinterpretation of the tune (based on a traditional Czech carol) made famous by a bizarre but highly enjoyable version by David Bowie and Bing Crosby, saw former ABC stalwarts Mark White and Stephen Singleton reconvene as VICE VERSA to wax lyrical about 303s, 808s, 909s and a “shiny new Roland toy”. It was a fabulous combination of sleigh bells, squelching arpeggios and of course, drum machines…
If ‘Twin Peaks’ met ‘Leader Of The Pack’ under the mistletoe, it would sound like this. Possibly the best Christmas tune of the last five or ten years, Anais Neon’s harrowing tale of a departed loved one is strangely enticing, with the beautifully haunting echoes of JULEE CRUISE’s ‘The Nightingale’ lingering over the frozen lake.
For many, ABC arrived fully formed out of the middle of nowhere in 1981 with the breakthrough Top 20 track ‘Tears Are Not Enough’.
Subsequent singles ‘Poison Arrow’, ‘The Look of Love’, ‘All of My Heart’ and the Trevor Horn produced album ‘The Lexicon Of Love’ followed. The band went on to experience a significant amount of commercial chart success before the follow-up and change in musical direction of ‘Beauty Stab’ set them on a self-destructive course of mainly diminishing chart returns.
It eventually resulted in all of the original band members leaving, with the exception of lead singer Martin Fry who still keeps ABC going today. But it was with the release of Eve Wood’s excellent ‘Made In Sheffield’ DVD in 2001 which gave context to a scene, which as well as producing high profile acts THE HUMAN LEAGUE, CABARET VOLTAIRE, PULP and poodle-permed hair metallers DEF LEPPARD, also gave birth to the less successful, but still innovative ARTERY, CLOCK DVA and I’M SO HOLLOW.
Most intriguing out of all the lesser-known bands featured were VICE VERSA, an act who, unless you were an avid reader of the NME or a John Peel listener, would have provoked a reaction somewhere along the lines of “… bloody hell, it’s three of the guys from ABC… but they’re in a synth band!”.
By forming VICE VERSA, Stephen Singleton, Mark White and David Sydenham utilised the DIY aesthetic of punk, which gave bands the impetus to form, book gigs and release records, often without too much thought as to what was really necessary to make the act a success.
Using relatively primitive electronic equipment, the band managed to secure several high profile support slots with WIRE, SIMPLE MINDS, THE THE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE.
Martin Fry latterly replaced Sydenham and the act released several records on their own label Neutron Records which helped bring the act to the attention of John Peel and the independent music press.
Musically, the band pursued a similar path to that of the early HUMAN LEAGUE, but often with a more experimental, almost THROBBING GRISTLE approach to their sound, although still retaining enough musical hooks in their work. Songs like ‘Riot Squad’, ‘New Girls / Neutrons’ and ‘Stilyagi’ were cerebral (and some would argue pretentious) sounding slices of lo-fi electronica which helped generate the band a following during their relatively short lifespan between 1978-1980.
At the backend of last year, Stephen Singleton and Mark White put together the VICE VERSA ‘Electrogenesis 1978-80’ vinyl boxset which neatly tied together all of the band’s recorded output.
It also included a live album, 7” single, booklet and in the spirit of some of the early DIY releases, a rather wonderful ‘build your own’ cardboard synth and pin badge.
Both Stephen and Mark kindly spoke in-depth about their time in VICE VERSA and the rarely documented metamorphosis into ABC.
How did VICE VERSA come about?
Stephen: Mark White and I became friends in 1977; we loved to talk about music and pop culture. He was a Punk and a fan of the same bands as me. Mark wanted to form a band, so we met up and messed around, making noise along with my school friend David Sydenham. We acquired old reel-to-reel tape machines, a WEM Copicat effects unit and a Korg Minipops drum machine, which we bought off a club musician who was retiring from the working men’s club circuit. We were serious, but we retained a sense of fun. We enjoyed the creative process, we loved working in music… it was our passion… it still is. I am committed to the work we did and the work we carry on doing.
VICE VERSA seemed to be a very manifesto driven band, what were your ideologies at the time?
Mark: Yes, we were totally driven to write manifestos! I had read things like the Dada and Surrealist manifestos and loved them; they had such a clear idea of where they were going! I thought we could do the same. FORWARD!!! Actually, this is a thing I miss now about music in the present age; we were very interested in bringing avant-garde ideas into the mainstream and seeing how far you could go with that. It seems to have totally vanished and it’s not a ‘thing’ now is it?
Stephen: We wanted to be more than just a band, we were interested in anything and everything that was to do with the creative processes involved with being in a band.
We designed our own posters and created artwork in as many formats as possible and released product in different formats – record, cassette, photocopied artworks, badges, even video. My old school friend John Davies studied at the Psalter Lane Art School and we got involved in his video coursework and the new cutting edge technology of the video recording and edit suite. Everything we did gave us the chance to be creative and experimental. It was the birth of the independent record labels and we embraced those ideas.
Which artists were most influential on you and what made you start the outfit?
Mark: My music heritage is this…..Glam rock (the holy trinity of Bolan / Bowie / Roxy), then US dance music (in particular CHIC, JAMES BROWN and Salsoul Records) and post-punk influences like THROBBING GRISTLE, THE NORMAL and THOMAS LEER, it was a very rich time to be around.
Stephen: It may seem a little odd to say this, but my parents couldn’t afford a television so the only source of entertainment in my house was a radio. I listened to a lot of music. I loved songs and stories within songs, things like ‘Distant Drums’ by Jim Reeves, ‘The Green Green Grass Of Home’ by Tom Jones and ‘Strangers In The Night’ by Frank Sinatra.
I also loved classical music and instrumental music. For instance, I heard ‘Stranger On The Shore’ the other day and it took me back to that time in the early 1960s when I would sit listening to the radio. Instrumental music to me was evocative and thought provoking. Another instrumental track that I loved was the theme music to ‘The Good, The Bad & The Ugly’.
I loved songs and music and their sounds, stuff like Adam Faith’s ‘What Do You Want?’, with the plucked strings and the way Adam phrased his words in such an odd way. I always listened out for Adam Faith records and I loved songs like ‘Baby Take A Bow’, ‘Easy Going Me’ and ‘The Time Has Come’. I used these John Barry produced records years later as reference points to give to Trevor Horn as an indication of how I imagined string arrangements could work on our ‘Lexicon Of Love’ recordings.
There were so many great songs and artists that I would listen out for. My grandparents had a television and I remember seeing Elvis Presley for the first time acting and singing in ‘Love Me Tender’. Elvis blew me away completely. He had such a presence and charisma. Eventually my parents got a television and the first time I heard electronic music was the ‘Dr Who’ theme music. I just thought “Oh my God what’s that?” it was mysterious and scary.
Watching the television series ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and hearing the soundtrack was another great musician discovery for me. I also heard ‘Sparky’s Magic Piano’; the electronic vocal treatments were amazing. I got more and more interested in music when people like THE WHO, THE ROLLING STONES, THE BEATLES and Motown emerged in the early 1960s.
Why do you think the Glam rock artists were an influence on yourselves and THE HUMAN LEAGUE?
Mark: I think if one listens, the Glam rock influence is very clear. And now I think the new VICE VERSA output reconnects with that – we are rediscovering our Glam roots. In particular the beats / production and the wacky song structures, so fresh… THE SCISSOR SISTERS had a crack at this, but I think VICE VERSA do it better, ‘cause we were THERE!
Stephen: The first artist that I became totally obsessed with was Marc Bolan. I heard ‘Ride A White Swan’ at an under 12s disco at the Top Rank Suite in Sheffield, and once I saw T-REX performing on ‘Top Of The Pops’ that was it! I wanted to know everything about the band. I read everything I could about them, bought the records and played them over and over again.
Then when DAVID BOWIE performed ‘Starman’ on ‘Top Of The Pops’, I had another artist to become obsessed by. There was so much incredible music around during the early 70s, such as ROXY MUSIC, COCKNEY REBEL and SPARKS. Not only did these bands make great music but they also looked fabulous.
It was a golden age for creativity in music. I had pretty much decided that I wanted to be involved in music in some way from about 12 years old, but I had no idea how this would be possible. Listening to music and reading about these artists opened up a whole new world for me. Whatever people like Bowie and Bolan talked about and mentioned as influences, I wanted to know about too.
So I would be down at the Sheffield City Library looking for books by George Orwell, HE Bates, William S Burroughs, Woody Guthrie and Andy Warhol. Books about art movements, graphics and photography and borrowing all manner of weird and wonderful recordings that had been mentioned in interviews I’d read in the NME from the record library, like the Blues artists that had influenced Marc Bolan and experimental music makers from John Cage and Erik Satie. I’d also hang out in a book and record shop called ‘Rare and Racy’, listening to the crazy music favoured by the owners.
Why in your opinion did Sheffield, alongside Manchester and Liverpool, become one of the main musical hubs for electronic music in the UK?
Mark: Sheffield was a very fertile place to make music for two main reasons:
1. It was as boring as hell and so you HAD to make your own entertainment.
2. The process of deindustrialisation meant there were TONS of places to rent very cheaply where bands could rehearse and MAKE A LOT of noise… so we did!
Stephen: In the 70s, there was little to do in Sheffield. I remember the whole city plunged into darkness due to frequent power cuts, the 70s lived by the light of a candle that reflected the dark ages, the beating of the heart of the steel industry was bleak, a whole city in darkness as if we were in an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’.
I worked in a jewellers shop after leaving school, which I hated and the Punk rock revolution was a huge inspiration, the idea of actually being in a band was fantasy stuff until 1976 when THE SEX PISTOLS and THE CLASH exploded onto the music scene and made anything seem possible.
Although Sheffield didn’t have a bunch of Punk bands in the city, I would say that all of the movers and shakers that would emerge in the late 70s from the city were influenced by the Punk explosion. The ethos that you could go out and do something, form a band, write a fanzine, say something, be creative, and be heard.
Although for the Sheffield bands that didn’t mean being a Xerox copy of what had gone before, they took the energy and spark of Punk, but made it into something different, which I think was the core idea. We didn’t need 1001 versions of THE SEX PISTOLS and THE CLASH…
Was there any rivalry between yourselves and the other Sheffield experimental scene bands?
Mark: There was a great rivalry between us, but I think to the benefit of the music. We all wanted to be the first to break through to the mainstream, and of course we all had similar influences but manifested them in slightly different ways. THE HUMAN LEAGUE cracked it first but as ABC we really nailed it too…
Stephen: The music scene in Sheffield during Punk and Post-Punk was incredible. In a short period of time, there was a vast amount of music being made and performed by THE HUMAN LEAGUE, CLOCK DVA, CABARET VOLTAIRE, I’M SO HOLLOW and ourselves. Everyone was working within an experimental primitive framework. CABARET VOLTAIRE and THE HUMAN LEAGUE were a few years older than VICE VERSA and the age difference felt massive at the time. We operated in our own world and didn’t really have any social connection with them.
I had seen the Cabs play in Sheffield, they were making strange experimental music incorporating drum machines and effects units. I thought they were brilliant. I had not heard of THE HUMAN LEAGUE until we were offered a support slot at Sheffield University where they were performing their second concert. So the first time I heard them was during their soundcheck, they sounded brilliant too, but in a different way to the Cabs; more song-based, closer to KRAFTWERK’s sense of melody, plus they had the whole visual thing going on with the slide projectors. Martyn Ware wrote about VICE VERSA in an article about the Sheffield scene in ‘Smash Hits’ magazine and said positive things about us.
What was your connection with Adi Newton of THE FUTURE and CLOCK DVA?
Stephen: I first met Adi in the Crazy Daisy nightclub Sheffield in late 1976, the Daisy was the only place that played the early American Punk recordings. Things like ‘Raw Power’ by THE STOOGES and THE RAMONES debut album, along with stuff like JAMES BROWN, ROXY MUSIC, DAVID BOWIE and DR FEELGOOD.
The original Punk scene in Sheffield was made up of a minority, a few people… the majority were what I would call townies – narrow minded f***ing idiots who didn’t have a f***ing clue. It was difficult to be an individual and go against the masses, against the norm. There were times when I took a beating because of the way I looked. I was down in the Daisy with David Sydenham and we spotted Adi, the DJ put on a STOOGES track which cleared the dancefloor, Adi then took to the floor dancing on his own, that’s when we first spoke.
Shortly after that meeting, I got to know him better. He was part of a Sheffield fanzine called ‘Gun Rubber’ and was in the process of forming CLOCK DVA with his friend Stephen Turner. I went along to see the first concerts by DVA, I loved them. They were shambolic, dark, intense, confrontational and dangerous. I would go round to Adi’s flat in Sheffield city centre and listen to the stuff he was creating on his suitcase Synthi AKS; after the success of the first VICE VERSA EP, CLOCK DVA contributed a track to the 1980 ‘First 15 Minutes’ EP and played shows with VICE VERSA.
Your first demo was recorded in Ken Patten’s Studio Electronique, how did that come about and what sort of equipment did you utilise in this and future recordings?
Mark: Ken’s studio was Sheffield’s Abbey Road and we all worked there. He was happy to let us produce the session and concentrated on getting crystal clear sounds from very basic equipment. These days you could do it on an iPad, but it was 19-f***ing-79!!! We now call our London studio ‘Studio Electrophonique South’ in honour of the great man, now sadly passed away.
Stephen: We gave Ken a call and he told us he had recorded synth bands before, he was a great bloke who got great results from his set up which was in the back room of his house in Sheffield. He was an expert in bouncing tracks from one two track machine to another and helped us get some fantastic sounds with his various homemade effects units.
We used our Korg Mini Pops drum machine, a heavily treated bass guitar, Korg Micro-Preset synthesiser, WEM Copicat, a homemade keyboard that David Sydenham had built, and pre-recorded cassette tapes to come up with the soundscape for the ‘Music 4’ EP.
GARY NUMAN asked us how we got the handclap sound on ‘New Girls Neutrons’, we told him we stood around a microphone and clapped our hands, which was true, though we weren’t sure if he believed us or not! By the time we started working on our ‘8 Aspects’ cassette album, we had acquired a Korg MS20 and a Wasp synthesizer.
The MS20 was a fantastic synth, it sounded huge and was so much fun to work with. That was the main synth we used for recording our drum tracks, everything was played manually. Mark had pretty impeccable timing, he needed it to bang out a bass drum pattern onto tape and then overdub a snare all in real time.
Martin Fry wasn’t an original member, how did he join the band?
Mark: Sheffield is a fairly small place and after a while, you start seeing the same faces around. And when one of them is about 6′ 2″ wearing a mahoosive full length leather jacket, it sticks in your head. We got to talking and got on instantly – Martin was writing a fanzine and asked to interview me and Stephen for it.
We enjoyed the interview so much, we asked him to join the band on the spot! Yes, it sounds crazy, but one of the best things we ever did.
At first, he kinda didn’t do much except electronic bleeps in the background on his Wasp synth, but after a recording session in Rotterdam, we discovered he could actually sing. So we promoted him to being lead singer. I am still awaiting my OBE for this magnanimous gesture, so far not forthcoming!
‘Democratic Dancebeat’ sounds like a HEAVEN 17 track waiting to happen, did you ever feel that Martyn Ware and Ian Craig Marsh were in any way influenced by what VICE VERSA were doing?
Mark: ‘Democratic Dancebeat’ is a VICE VERSA hit waiting to happen and we still love it. I honestly don’t think they were really aware of what we were doing, most early protagonists of the Sheffield scene rarely interacted… we were all too busy cooking up something HOT!
Tracks like ‘Riot Squad’ pre-date JOHN FOXX’s ‘Metamatic’, was Foxx-era ULTRAVOX an influence on you?
Mark: Yes, early VICE VERSA loved Foxx-era ULTRAVOX. I remember seeing them at the local Top Rank Suite playing live in about 77-78, they were different and stood out in the Post-Punk scene and seemed very futuristic at the time. JOHN FOXX is a VICE VERSA icon!
Did you feel that your live performances were different to many of your peers?
Stephen: The lack of any sequencing equipment meant we used pre-recorded backing tapes for our live performances over which we played synth parts and saxophone lines. It gave us the freedom to be able to move onstage. We loved the way THE CLASH performed onstage, plus dancing in clubs was a big part of what we enjoyed about clubbing and we loved to move around onstage, which I suppose set us apart from some of the other synth bands of the time.
THE HUMAN LEAGUE had a notoriously hard time preaching electronic music live to the unconverted, how was it for you?
Stephen: Having an unconventional set-up sometimes meant that audiences did not react favourably to us. We were heckled and booed, you can hear some of the crowd reaction to us on a couple of the live tracks that appear on the ‘Electrogenesis’ set, not that we really minded, we wanted to create a reaction, plus we had lived through the Punk rock wars. As William S Burroughs once said “F*** ’em all, squares on both sides!”
How important was artwork and packaging to you in the VICE VERSA releases?
Mark: As pop fan, we loved the sleeves these things came in, it was half the story and informed us about the world the band were coming from. We wanted to carry on in that tradition – music in those days was a much more tactile experience and today it seems to be more about a semi-ghostly presence on the internet…
How did VICE VERSA eventually morph into ABC and why the huge change in direction? In the pre-internet era where information on less mainstream bands was difficult to come by, did many assume that ABC arrived fully formed out of nowhere?
Stephen: After recording the ‘8 Aspects’ tape in April 1980, we did a mini-tour of The Netherlands organised by Martin’s friend Mike Pickering. On a day off, Mike took us to a record shop in Rotterdam called ‘Back Street’, the guy from the shop invited us down to his friend’s recording studio. Just for fun we decided that we would jam using the instruments laying around in the studio, a synthesizer which we programmed simple grooves into, a bass guitar which I played and a guitar which Mark played… we came up with a funky groove with a scratchy guitar sound.
Martin was a huge fan of the writings of Samuel Beckett and Truman Capote so he started rapping and singing about these guys, making us laugh with his ideas “funky Beckett, he was dancing in the library”… we did another tune called ‘Rotterdam’… “Rotterdam, Rotterdam, pots of jam, leg of lamb”. Me and Mark were in hysterics – Martin was ad-libbing and howling and yelping a la JAMES BROWN. This gave birth to the idea of doing something in this vein. VICE VERSA had always been experimental and fun.
We felt our roles could be interchangeable and after recording our ‘8 Aspects’ tape, we wanted to do something different. Martin’s newly discovered vocal talents led Mark to effectively sack himself and concentrate on his guitar style.
One of the very first songs we wrote after the Rotterdam sessions was ‘Tears Are Not Enough’, which was something Martin had said to me in a conversation at one time, I suggested that it was a great line for a pop song.
We loved the funky chukka guitar sound of JAMES BROWN and CHIC. Once we got a groove going, the whole thing fell into place. We had talked about writing boy meets girl love songs and incorporated the line, “a blueprint that says that the boy meets the girl” etc… Very cool!
Mark: We know the change from VICE VERSA to ABC seems baffling to many, but to us it was simply an extension of the VICE VERSA ideas… nothing more. Also me and Stephen had been to see CHIC at Sheffield City Hall and it really opened our eyes to dance music and what could be achieved there.
So we gradually morphed into a period I call ‘VICE ABC’, then eventually became ABC. It was very natural for us and no stress or U-turns. Martin did NOT come along and change everything as I think he would be the first to say, it was a process of metamorphosis already in progression.
Stephen: It never seemed like a massive shift for us to go from VICE VERSA to ABC; VICE VERSA wanted to make electronic dance beat music, we wanted to write good songs. I think if VICE VERSA had the resources to record the songs in a 24 track studio with a great engineer and we had had the chance to promote the songs with a decent budget, then we would have had a hot record doing the VICE VERSA material, but Neutron was run on a shoestring budget.
ABC was a different name, but contained the same members, the difference was we could record and promote our music with the backing of a major company and record in a proper recording studio, rather than on an old reel-to-reel recorder. It appeared as if we came out of nowhere, but we had been working since 1977, writing songs, playing live, releasing a record, getting played on John Peel’s show.
How did it feel when you finally tasted significant mainstream success, when many of your Sheffield contemporaries like ARTERY, I’M SO HOLLOW and CLOCK DVA remained underground with their music?
Stephen: By the time we formed ABC in 1980, we were high on ambition and felt we were writing some great songs. Before we signed a record deal, we had written such songs as ‘Poison Arrow’ and ‘Tears Are Not Enough’.
We knew we were doing something great. So actually ‘making it’ was not really that surprising to us. When we started getting great reviews and record company interest… it wasn’t so much arrogance as a huge amount of self-belief and determination to succeed.
Being in a successful band is a surreal experience, one minute we were on the dole and the next we were riding high in the charts around the world and we would be visiting places that we never imagined visiting and being treated to first class air travel and Five Star hotels. We went from reading about our favourite bands in the New Musical Express to being pictured on its cover. I remember being sat in my bedroom one day playing DAVID BOWIE’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ album, and the next day we were hanging out in the recording studio with him, chatting about the album!
At this point, were you celebrated or accused by your peers of “selling out”?
Mark: Yeah it’s funny, when you are Number 1 in the album charts, you kinda don’t give a s*** about what anyone else says, it speaks for itself. I agree most people were only aware of our work as ABC and that’s fine. It’s a body of work I’m very proud of, but not everyone has to be pop professors…
Looking at the success that THE HUMAN LEAGUE (Mk 2) eventually went on to achieve, was there any regrets in changing sound and did any part of you wish you’d stayed truer to your original ethos?
Mark: Personally I don’t regret anything about the VICE VERSA / ABC transformation, but yes, sometimes I do muse on what would have happened if we had continued our VICE VERSA path. I think we were carving out an interesting niche. In fact as part of the ‘Electrogenesis’ project, we have unearthed some incomplete VICE VERSA songs which we have reactivated! Still good in 2015! Amazing!!
How important was the historical exposure and recognition that the ‘Made In Sheffield’ DVD finally gave to you?
Mark: The ‘Made In Sheffield’ DVD is ace, it is a true artefact of the time and is very accurate. How many people have a documentary of their teenage years? I treasure the document…
Stephen: I loved having the chance to tell my story in Eve Wood’s documentary and through the film, I hooked up with Mark again.
The VICE VERSA box set is lovingly packaged, what did you set out to achieve with its release?
Mark: The ‘Electrogenesis’ project took YEARS to hatch… when the time came, it turned out that I had been the sound archivist of the band and dug out a sealed plastic box of cassette tapes.
Stephen had tons of artwork, flyers and photos. so with the inimitable help of Steve Levers on artwork plus Robin Downe and Mark Davies in the studio, we set about assembling it.
It was a total labour of love, but OMG, soooo worth it! The reaction has been very positive, people really seem to get the point in a way that is unique for me as an artist… very satisfying!
Stephen: VICE VERSA called the Post-Punk era the ‘Electro Genesis’ and would describe the music we made as ‘Electro Primitivo’. It was a fantastically productive time for us. We spent a long time tracking down our original recordings, many of which were on scores of cassettes we owned. I checked each cassette to find the best versions of our work, and often the only recorded version of a particular song.
I am happy to say that we finally got there with the project. Some brilliant artists and musicians assisted us on this project, and the final result is better than I could have imagined when I started. The great people who contributed in the making of this artefact always gave their best and put forward creative ideas for me to consider and work with. How f***ing fab is that?
It was such a brilliant creative time back in 1977 Post-Punk, and now to be able to document all of this work in a tasteful and cool manner is amazing and shows off some of the real talent I have had the pleasure to work with. Back then with my original electronic soul brothers David Sydenham, Mark White, Martin Fry and other people who got involved, working to tell the story of VICE VERSA in such a cool way makes me very happy. People will get to hear every significant recording we made during 1978-1980. The story of VICE VERSA in music, the ‘Electrogenesis’.
What about new VICE VERSA material?
Stephen: My favourite new track at the moment is the song we are working on at the moment, a VICE VERSA Christmas song called ‘Little Drum Machine Boy’.
Mark: My favourite is ‘Electro Boogie Baby’. It encapsulates all our influences to date, for me it is like us rediscovering our Glam roots. It feels very natural, it’s what we grew up with, but of course it’s filtered through all our electro sensibilities and very danceable… natch!
Right now we are metamorphosing back into VICE VERSA, a process of ‘Eternal Revolution’ as Mao put it!
ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its grateful thanks to Stephen Singleton and Mark White
The ‘Electrogenesis 1978-80’ box set is released by Vinyl On Demand