Shot! ABC at the Brighton Dome

Second time around, it’s not quite the happiest of returns for the 80s legends

ABC’s The Lexicon of Love was a truly seminal album and one of the biggest selling albums in the UK in the 80s. With its glossy orchestrations and its ground-breaking Trevor Horn production, it still sounds as good today as it did 34 years ago. Since its release however, ABC have never been in danger of repeating its success. Indeed following a debut jam-packed with classic songs, they struggled to match it either commercially or artistically, proving it wasn’t quite as easy as the Jackson 5 claimed it was.

Like many of his contemporaries who also lost their way, Martin Fry resurfaced in recent years at numerous 80’s revival shows, dusting off his hits (and gold lamé suit) alongside other artists of the time. However in 2016, sparked by the reboot Lexicon of Love 2, ABC has once again found itself an audience, albeit most likely the very same one it had back in the day.

Nostalgia may not be what it used to be, but right now it’s what a lot people want to see. Indeed, I recently wrote about the proliferation of nostalgia acts playing in Brighton, where for a time every venue seemed to be hosting a blast from the past.

In the last month I’ve seen two of them. I saw Jean-Michel Jarre celebrate the 40th anniversary of Oxygene and, in complete contrast, The Tubes touring for their 41st year. Throughout their long careers, both acts developed a reputation for putting on a show.

ABC’s history doesn’t stretch back quite that far, but even though they were a band I used to really love, for one reason or another, I never got to see them live. So when they announced a gig at the Dome, it was one I had to see.

Playing the album the day before the show, whetted my appetite even more. Few records can beat it in terms of sonic quality. The fact they were performing it in full with an orchestra conducted by Anne Dudley, the very person who had arranged the strings on the original album, promised something special.

A sold out crowd had paid handsomely for the privilege, with even the cheap seats going for £35 and some paying over three times that for the VIP package. Judging by the packed bar, this was an audience the Dome’s management must love. And judging by their age, most looked as if they had been around when Lexicon of Love first came out.

In front of red drapes, a nod to that album’s cover art, the stage was chockablock with chairs, with gear and with a drum kit inside a perspex enclosure. The Southbank Sinfonia, all dressed in black numbers for the occasion, took their seats before the rather less sartorially elegant band members joined them. We then had a brief glimpse of Anne Dudley’s face before she turned her back on us and started up the orchestra who got the evening underway with the instrumental Overture, which provided a preview of the album’s musical themes before Martin Fry made his entrance to a huge cheer.

Now 58 and, it has to be said, looking somewhat older than his years, Fry was dressed in a grey three-piece suit with white shirt and tie. He looked less like a pop star and more like an accountant. What gave away his actual profession took a little spotting: his red pocket handkerchief featured the ABC logo and his black patent Jimmy Choo’s sported an extravagant metallic gold strap.

With the first part of the show underway, the audience remained firmly sat in the seats for all of it. In fact this was a tale of tw0 halves. The first being strangely flat, only rising above languid for a couple of songs, one being When Smokey Sings. The second half, by contrast was completely different.

But let’s not jump the gun and consider what happened in that first section. Unfair as it may be, having been wowed by Jean-Michel Jarre a few weeks earlier with some of the best lighting and sound I’ve ever seen or heard, I’m finding it hard to be impressed by the production standards of any subsequent gig I’ve been to.

At the Dome, ABC’s ‘production’ was confined to a projected logo on the drapes and some distinctly uninspired lighting. It was bright — way too bright on Martin Fry who was whited out much of the time — and it didn’t change much throughout the evening. I can only assume this was to do with the orchestra needing to read their sheet music.

Yet, as mediocre as the lighting was, the biggest let down was the sound. Now the acoustics at the Dome are far and away the best of any venue in Brighton and usually the sound quality is top notch. This wasn’t, which considering ABC are renowned for the quality of their recorded production, was a massive surprise and disappointment. Not only was it just not loud enough, neither was it dynamic enough.

With a stage full of musicians, you’d expect a big, rich sound, but that’s not what we got, especially in the first half. Jean-Michel Jarre and his two accompanying musicians at the Brighton Centre made a far bigger, far richer sound than all those on the Dome’s stage managed. The strings, such a distinctive element of the ABC sound, were especially weak.

Whilst there were times when we did get some of those signature dramatic stirring strings, all too often you really wouldn’t have known they were there. Indeed, one of their most memorable moments came when they all finger-clicked together on Kiss Me Goodbye.

The band too never came close to matching the urgency or the dynamic production quality of the original recording. Instead of the huge drums we had the tamest of percussion and that sinuous thumping bass was nowhere to be heard. The tinkling piano was also lost in the mix.

In fact the only performers that shone were the sax player who only had a couple of solos and the two backing singers, who were superb throughout adding an almost Steely Dan feel to many of the songs. They needed to be good, because Martin Fry doesn’t have quite the pipes he once had or the falsetto he used to reach in his younger days.

The Lexicon of Love was a very dramatic sounding album, but 38 years later, even with the efforts of a huge cast, ABC simply couldn’t come close to recreating its sound. Fortunately, most of its songs still stand up and when the second half got underway, most of the audience did the same. And as the energy in the room rose, so did that onstage and the show dramatically improved.

Despite the amelioration, I don’t think any of the musicians or the sound engineer did the songs justice. Now I’m no musician, but I do go to a lot of gigs and all I’m saying is the songs would probably have sounded a lot bigger and better without the orchestra.

But there’s one thing that still holds true, a great song will always be a great song and with the likes of Poison Arrow, Tears Are Not Enough, All Of My Heart and The Look of Love, ABC have made some of the best. It was no surprise they were the best received of the evening. However, to appreciate just how good they are, it’s better to listen to the original recordings than it is to see them played live.

That said, we go to live gigs to witness more than simply listening to an album. It’s about seeing musicians perform live, it’s about the shared experience with others whether we know them or not and increasingly it’s about more than just the music.

“Things get better second time around” sang Martin in Many Happy Returns. With so many bands — ABC among them — now enjoying a new lease of life, it has proved to be an especially prophetic lyric. However, as much as I enjoyed hearing the hits and taking a step back in time, based on this performance, it could have been so much better.

Setlist: Overture | When Smokey Sings | Viva Love| The Flames of Desire | Brighter Than the Sun | The Love Inside the Love| Singer Not the Song | Confessions of a Fool | Kiss Me Goodbye | The Night You Murdered Love | The Lexicon of Love || Show Me | Poison Arrow | Many Happy Returns | Tears Are Not Enough | Valentine’s Day | The Look of Love | Date Stamp | 4 Ever 2 Gether | All of My Heart | The Look of Love pt 4 | The Look of Love

Follow ABC at @ABCFRY

“To me, shooting live music is all about capturing the personality of the performer and the emotion of their performance. And then creating an iconic image.”

Behind the image: All these images were shot with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and either the 12–40 2.8 Pro or the 75 1.8 lens using available light only, and the camera’s built-in digital zoom. This was such a difficult show to shoot as there was no pit due to it being a seated audience. Whilst I was able to crouch at the front for the support act, for ABC I only had the first three songs and could only shoot from either side of the venue. Apart from being further away than I like to be, it was hard to get shots of Martin Fry as with so many people onstage, there was always someone blocking my view of him. Most of the time he was picked out by an extremely bright white light which blighted many of my shots. So not my normal close-ups and a lot of work needed to enhance the images. But whoever said shooting live gigs was easy! Shot in Brighton on 26 October 2016.

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