Forget Me Nots: ABC – How To Be A …Zillionaire!
ABC went through more personnel changes in the early 80s than their new wave counterparts did bottles of hairspray. But the lineup that fronted third album How To Be A …Zillionaire! was undoubtedly the most radical. Out went founding member Stephen Singleton, whose wailing saxophones had been such a vital component of instant classic The Lexicon of Love. And in came Fiona Russell Powell, a journalist for The Face and Leigh Bowery club kid also known as Eden, plus David Yarritu, a diminutive, shaven-headed American with comically large glasses.
Both were chosen for their striking aesthetic appeal rather than their musical prowess, although apparently neither were short of the latter either. In fact, the pair’s studio contributions didn’t extend beyond a few record scratches and spoken word passages. Even the immortal line, “I want you to kiss my snatch”, often credited to Eden, was actually uttered by the group’s frontman Martin Fry in speeded-up mode.
Ever-presents Fry and Mark White no doubt felt the need to mix things up again following the negative response to the Roxy Music-inspired rock of predecessor Beauty Stab – later described by Simon Reynolds as “one of the great career sabotage LPs in pop history.”
Nevertheless, few expected a band renowned for their sense of debonair to adopt such an overtly cartoonish image. The video for lead single (How To Be A) Millionaire even turned Fry and White into animated characters who become increasingly dwarfed by their extravagant purchases.
Fry’s attempt to bridge the gap between Sly And The Family Stone and The Archies didn’t exactly have the desired effect at home. …Zillionaire! peaked at No.28 in the autumn of 1985 and three of its four singles missed the Top 40 altogether. The band’s UK label Phonogram positively detested it, too, as Fry admitted to pop culture podcast Bigmouth in 2016: “We’d turn up at the office and see our posters defaced. We had to point out that it was in our contract that they had to put the thing out.”
Yet across the pond, audiences were far more receptive. Be Near Me, perhaps the closest the album gets to the sublime New Romantic pop of their debut, topped the Billboard Dance Chart and peaked at No.9 on the US Hot 100, while the near-title track that had sunk without trace back in Blighty also graced the Top 20.
The group’s playful MTV-friendly approach was no doubt pivotal to their Stateside success. Alongside their colourful Saturday morning cartoon-esque treatment, Fry and White also had fun messing around with toy instruments in the promo for Be Near Me and pretending to be private detectives in the prime-time soap opera parody Vanity Kills, the latter a US reshoot of a more straightforward performance-based UK video.
The record may well have sold even more had Fry not been forced to cut short all promotional duties after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was still in the midst of his recovery when ABC returned to more traditional territory on 1987’s Alphabet City, by which point the departure of Eden and Yarritu had reduced the ever-changing outfit to a duo.
Fry’s hair metal-style locks, not to mention the garish album cover, may have slightly dated the whole concept on a visual level, yet sonically and lyrically, much of …Zillionaire! now appears ahead of its time.
None more so than on A To Z, which, like 1981 B-side Alphabet Soup, served as a literal introduction to the band (“Howdy, disco citizens, I’m David Yarritu/ I may be tiny, but I’m strong!”). With beats programmed by Keith LeBlanc of pioneering hip-hop outfit Tackhead and an array of rabble-rousing chants, juddering basslines and haunted house synths, it’s an inventive wall of sound that Art Of Noise would be proud of.
Indeed, having previously abandoned the Fairlight CMI, a digital workstation that Kate Bush also utilised on the year’s best LP Hounds Of Love, ABC sure seemed determined to get their money’s worth this time around. There’s a similar ‘throw in everything but the kitchen sink’ feel to So Hip It Hurts, which could easily be adopted as a satire of Instagram culture, and the half-hearted tourist guide of Tower Of London (“Let me take you to Piccadilly/ Guess it leads somewhere”).
Yet …Zillionaire! is no less intriguing when it calms things down. Ocean Blue is a gorgeously dreamy electro ballad whose Pino Palladino-esque fretless bass provides the aural equivalent of a warm bath. The bittersweet pop of Be Near Me and surging synth-funk of Vanity Kills, the latter arguably more scathing than Carly Simon’s ode to narcissism (“So glad I found you glancing in the mirror/ Gazing deeply at love’s patron saint”), remain two of ABC’s finest singles.
The only real misfire is 15 Storey Halo, a bizarre blend of gurgling synths and tinny brass, not to mention Fry’s best Iggy Pop impression, which sounds like Lust For Life mashed up with Miami Sound Machine. And not in a good way. Nevertheless, it still fulfilled the album’s rebellious criteria.
“We hated the pop scene of 1984,” Fry told Record Collector more than three decades later in an interview to promote the long-awaited sequel The Lexicon Of Love II. “…Zillionaire! was about getting as far away as we could from rock and roll. The band were being as inauthentic as possible to find a greater truth.”
From the madcap plastic costumes and outlandish videos to the deliberate fakery of their lineup, ABC certainly committed to their cause. But although you can perhaps understand their record label’s horror at such organised chaos, not to mention its diatribes against commercialism and capitalism, How To Be A …Zillionaire! is one of those quasi-concept albums that doesn’t sink under the weight of its own importance.
It’s a fun listen which 35 years on still has the power to surprise, and furthermore it managed to make its point while still clocking in well under 40 minutes.
On this occasion you have to admit the US record-buying public got it right and the UK’s got it very wrong.