Shot! ABC live at the Brighton Dome

Things get better second time around. Those lyrics come from Many Happy Returns, a track from ABC’s seminal debut album released in 1987. That was then, but this is now and 32 years later, 2019 sees the band (well actually just lead singer, Martin Fry) touring and playing that record in its entirety.

Two and a half years ago, Fry did the same thing, performing with a live orchestra — the Southbank Sinfonia — conducted by Anne Dudley, the very same Anne Dudley who scored the strings on The Lexicon of Love.

That tour was in support of The Lexicon of Love II. This time there’s no new material to promote. So it was going to be interesting to see if it would be more of the same or something different.

These days, ABC actually comes in two add and subtract forms: band only and band with orchestra. The band only version tend to gravitate to the booming nostalgia market, choosing to tour as part of a line-up of 80s or 90s acts. Indeed, their last gig in Sussex was in Bognor five months earlier when they appeared at Butlin’s— hardly the most prestigious of venues!

That said, it was the bells and whistles version who were making a return to the Dome. Second time around, the question was, what if anything had changed?

In truth, not much was really that different. The same issues I had last time were repeated. There was no real production and the stage was chock full of musicians — a 33-piece orchestra takes up a lot of space.

The following night ABC played London’s Royal Albert Hall and — having seen photos from that show — the extra stage space made it much more visually pleasing.

Looks wise, the biggest difference was Martin Fry’s attire. Out went the grey three-piece suit that made him appear more accountant than rockstar, to be replaced by a shiny floral tux. He did, however, retain the shoes with the metallic silver straps. Now 61, it must be said, he looked younger than he did two and a half years ago.

He was also in better voice, singing with a lot more power and conviction. Props also to him for allowing backing singer Jackie Graham her time in the spotlight. She sung superbly all night.

Once again though the rest of the band were pretty anonymous. Rarely did they come close to recreating the gloss and power that Trevor Horn’s masterful production imbued on the songs.

Getting the mix right between the orchestra and the band was as hit and miss as it was last time. When the strings and horns were in full force, they certainly added something special, but all too often if you closed your eyes you’d be hard pressed to hear they were there. While the sonics were lacking effervescence, the sound levels from the stage were also far too quiet for my ears.

But once again my biggest issue was with the setlist, specifically the order in which the songs were played. Although still best loved for a set of songs recorded nearly four decades earlier, it still seems puzzling to play your debut album in full, after a first half of songs recorded subsequently, few of which come close.

I don’t know the answer to that question, but I don’t think it’s the best idea.

Half of the first half’s ten songs were the same as last time, with When Smokey Sings being the highlight, but for this tour five were replaced with different tracks. One of those — Ocean Blue — was introduced by Fry as a sea shanty that they only play when they’re close to the ocean. As a matter of fact, a quick check reveals it has been played on every date of the tour, including landlocked locations like Sheffield!

After the interval it was time for The Lexicon Of Love performed in the order it appeared on record. Fry missed a big opportunity in not giving the second half a different look, he didn’t even change jackets. Visually, it may have been as you were, but right away things ramped up as the big hits came thick and fast and the crowd got to their feet.

The next 50 or so minutes proved what a stunning album Lexicon was, packed with so many classic songs — songs that still sound great today. Years later, there’s one thing that still holds true: ABC were responsible for some of the most perfectly crafted pop songs from the 80s and penned some of the most memorable lyrics from that era. All the more reason to be baffled as to why, bar a couple of songs, they never even came close to repeating their early success.

Running through that debut album in order does of course mean playing most of the big hitters early on, going against the adage of leaving the best to last. In the end, they ran out of songs and had to finish with a second, even more spirited rendition of The Look Of Love.

I’ve no doubt Fry will be back with the orchestra for another tour. When he does, I hope and I pray he gives a little more thought to the production and the running order and comes up with the right combination.

Setlist: Overture | When Smokey Sings | Viva Love | The Flame Of Desire | How To Be A Millionaire | The Love Inside The Love | Be Near Me | Ten Below Zero | One Better World | Ocean Blue | The Night You Murdered 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

“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 shots were taken with the Olympus OM-D E-M1 and the 75mm 1.8 lens using the camera’s built-in digital zoom. Being a seated audience there was no photo pit. I was able to shoot the first three songs but only from the sides or back of the venue. It was a challenging shoot for two reasons: first, Martin Fry always had two follow spots on him which blew out his face and second, with such a packed stage, it was difficult to get a shot of him without Anne Dudley’s back being in the frame. Despite the challenges, I’m really pleased with the portraits I got of Martin – they’re so much better than the ones I took when I last photographed ABC.

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Gary Marlowe

Gary Marlowe

Creator of images that are out of the ordinary, reviewer of live music and live events and interviewer of interesting people