ABC, Unzip (1983)

ABCbeauty-stab

Artist: ABC
Title: Unzip
Description: album track, from Beauty Stab
Label: Mercury
Release date: 1983
First heard: 1984

Know this: The 143 will be catalogued in no particular order. Each is as vital as the other. We begin with ABC because we do. Having trained myself to love only punk and post-punk music in my early-to-mid teens, it took the more electronic/cinematic sweep of what we called New Romantic music to break my self-imposed spell circa 1980-81. Into the strict buzz of punk rock electric guitar I allowed synthetic beats and beeps, and via the “white funk” of bands like Pigbag, A Certain Ratio, and ABC, and Spandau Ballet’s Chant No. 1, bongos, brass and strings.

We all fell hard for The Lexicon Of Love didn’t we, in that summer of Smash Hits, 1982? It felt like it. To say that ABC injected some glamour back into the people’s music was an understatement. It almost felt like contraband in my record collection, which remained mostly dark and dirty with Bauhaus, B-Movie and the Bunnymen still dominant. I don’t know how I missed Beauty Stab, the gleefully arrogant follow-up, in 1983, but I must have, as it only crossed my radar when I arrived at Ralph West Halls of Residence in Battersea, London, in September 1984. My new neighbour, Stephen Clasper from Morpeth, lent me it, and it knocked me sideways.

It was big and bold, and it had guitars. And where Lexicon swooned, Beauty Stab, well, stabbed. It wasn’t as great a leap sideways as it felt – both LPs were overstated and epic – but this one had blood rushing through it. And although I was taken by the singles That Was Then And This Is Now, and the appeasing S.O.S. (neither of which went Top 10: a mark of its chilly reception), it’s this track that got under my skin and has stayed there all these years. To the point where I have chosen it over ABC’s fireside favourites.

Moving from one founder of ZTT, Trevor Horn, to another, Gary Langan, the sound on Beauty Stab is spare and graphic. Unzip opens with a guitar riff that sounds synthesised, even if it isn’t, and the drums sound triggered, even if they aren’t. It may simply be precision playing (Andy Newmark had George Benson, John Lennon and Pink Floyd under his belt), but it raises the tension for what is clearly an ode to sex. When Fry growls, “Love’s just a gimmick, a mime or a mimic,” he seems to be making a bonfire of his own recent pop past. The sax sounds predatory, the bass is around Joe Cocker bassist Alan Spenner’s knees, and the tom toms are tribal. It’s a new lexicon of lust.

Fry’s sap is certainly rising (“Why take pleasure in censorship?”) and when he delivers the killer line in the second verse, “She’s vegetarian except when it comes to sex,” I blush every time.

It’s all over in under three minutes. As well it might be. I am proud in adult life to have played this song on national radio with Martin Fry in attendance. And I remain grateful to Stephen Clasper for the tip-off. We both leapt on the stuttering cartoon-pop third album How To Be A Zillionaire the week it came out in January ’85, which was another leap again.

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8 thoughts on “ABC, Unzip (1983)

  1. It’s a good choice, but I still think that SOS (with, of course, FGTH on backing vocals) is the great lost ABC single.

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  2. Martin fry was always an exceptional songwriter, this album was a surprisingly less commercial follow up to the hugely successful `Lexicon Of Love´.
    ABC were also a departure in taste for me as I was also into post punk bands at time like the Stranglers, XTC, PIL etc. Fry’s songwriting skills led me to other emerging songsmiths at the time such as Roddy Frame and Paddy McAloon who like Fry were also suckers for a great tune. Fry’s influence on subsequent artists should never be underestimated.
    Just as a side point can I recommend the Stranglers 1981 album `The Gospel According To The MeninBlack´ which was a post punk departure for that band who maybe by accident produced the first “techno” album. The beats and synth arrangements are remarkable.
    Great blog by the way.

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  3. Throughout my adult life that lyric from that was then has been etched in my mind ,
    “I mustn’t cry , I musn’t grumble , I just help myself to more rhubarb crumble ” or similar. – sorry haven’t googled to double check the exact words- lifes too short . But many lyrics try to be much more inapproriately serious.

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    • “Can’t complain/Mustn’t grumble/Help yourself to another piece of apple crumble.” (That Was Then But This Is Now)

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  4. A great review, Andrew. As an keen follower of your work I can’t believe it’s taken me until now to discover it. Beauty Stab is my favourite ABC album (it became the soundtrack to my O-level revision) and I think most people with more than a passing interest in Mr Fry’s work would probably agree.

    The stand out track for me is United Kingdom, still resonates 31 years later. “Rusted, busted, upper crusted… No man to be trusted….” Indeed.

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