Happy 35th Anniversary to ABC’s second studio album Beauty Stab, originally released November 14, 1983.
Even now The Lexicon of Love (1982) remains the stuff of British popular music legend. Produced by Trevor Horn and executed by ABC—the Sheffield originating band comprised of Martin Fry (vocals), Mark White (guitars, keyboards), Stephen Singleton (saxophonist), and David Palmer (drums, percussion, programming)—the conceptually charged collection won critical affection and secured commercial capital. But, what truly made The Lexicon of Love such an incredible long player in that oft-revered New Romantic era it was born from was that it (and ABC themselves) could exist separately from that epoch.
Operating in a space between the panache of American disco and biting English post-punk irony, ABC had a knack for satirical visual flair, but were possessed of an irrepressibly soulful sound. So, unlike many of their solely synth-driven colleagues within the New Romantic oeuvre, ABC were singular. Awareness of this difference, among other notable catalysts, all served to set up the group’s state of mind when they hunkered down to construct their follow-up (Beauty Stab) in 1983 as The Lexicon of Love began cooling.
Initially, Trevor Horn was game to return to produce ABC’s sophomore set, but other commitments kept him from joining the gentlemen as writing and recording got underway. In his stead, Gary Langan eagerly stepped in. Prior to this, Langan had been the acting engineer on The Lexicon of Love. Later in 1983, he would become one-fifth of the avant-garde outfit the Art of Noise next to Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, Paul Morley and J.J. Jeczalik
In addition to the “changing of the guard” as it related to producers, ABC themselves were undergoing changes. First, David Palmer departed to take up an opportunity extended to him from the Yellow Magic Orchestra; this left Fry, White and Singleton down to a trio. Far from out, they enlisted an entirely new rhythm section—restricted to session player status—that counted Andy Newmark (drums), Alan Spenner (bass guitar) and Luís Jardim (percussion) among its roster.
Staffing issues aside, ABC had to deal with being almost smothered by the success of The Lexicon of Love. A “repeat performance” was anticipated. Further, whereas that LP was an insular, escapist affair, Fry, White and Singleton found their writing for the new album influenced by their acknowledgement (and fear) of the roiling tide of conservatism overtaking the United Kingdom at the time. So, pitched between the cynicism that ABC felt in response to their newfound popularity and skepticism for what the future held in a “real world” context, these thoughts and emotions became the creative compass for the music and lyrics of Beauty Stab.
For this new batch of tracks, ABC gave no quarter as a band; Beauty Stab emphasized the trio’s abilities as “rock ready.” Exchanging the silken post-disco pop-funk of their initiating LP, ABC instead lay out an intelligent and masculine AOR sound that makes use of linear rhythm as heard on the record’s prophetic first breath “That Was Then, But This Is Now” and on its other titanic sides (“The Power of Persuasion,” “Unzip”). These heavier sonics pair well with the gravitas of the song scripts which bear a noticeable (social and romantic) political air.
Surprisingly, among these tracks that nakedly seek to deconstruct the chic ideology of The Lexicon of Love, ABC forges ahead on several other numbers that strike a compromise between the pop intricacy of their first outing and their newfound art-rock flair as heard on “By Default By Design” and “Bite the Hand.” Both cuts make use of sweeping string arrangements and an assortment of melodic, instrumental tricks that contrast gorgeously against the raw, muscular band based playing courtesy of the hired session hands alongside White and Singleton’s own skillful work. And, of course, as producers, ABC and Langan keep everything in tandem with a precise eye for detail.
However, it is Martin Fry’s singing that gives Beauty Stab its dually seductive and stinging sensations. As a singer, Fry is a consummate professional managing to straddle showmanship and conviction on the fussy, electric guitar-pop vibe of the title track, the rock and reggae convergence of “King Money” and digital rhythm and blues resonance of “S.O.S”
As an aside relating to the respective sonic surfaces of “S.O.S” and the album’s concluding instrumental number “Vertigo,” the electro-R&B textures of these pieces explicitly hint at yet another dramatic aural sea change to take place in just two years’ time with ABC’s third LP, How to Be a… Zillionaire (1985).
When Beauty Stab was released in November 1983 on the Neutron and Mercury labels respectively, its reviews were decidedly mixed to negative; among fans, a similar stance was taken up, though there was the thrilled minority cheering ABC on for bravely pushing their music forward. But, the overall indifference (and disappointment) in ABC’s shift away from the lushness of The Lexicon of Love impacted the commercial bottom line of Beauty Stab. The eventual gold-selling song cycle would only birth two singles in “That Was Then, But This Is Now” and “S.O.S.”
ABC’s journey in the ensuing decades post-Beauty Stab has continued to excite listeners since Fry—the sole remaining original member steering the band brand—actively resists any sort of expectation. Now, while this has led to occasional chart hits and misses, it has also resulted in the ABC canon never getting stale. It all comes back to Beauty Stab, an album underappreciated by the public initially, which has since gone on to garner rightful veneration for its fealty to the artistic vision of a group unwilling to repeat themselves just because they could.