As the music biz cliché goes, you have your whole life to come up with your first album but only six months to make the followup. ABC could hardly have got it more right with their 1982 debut Lexicon Of Love, a ravishing collection of string-drenched, post-disco torch songs, but they came seriously unstuck with Beauty Stab a year later.
Seen as ‘ABC go heavy metal’ by much of the music press at the time of release, these days Beauty Stab just sounds like a pretty tuneless but beautifully-produced rock/pop album with the odd ‘political’ lyric and barmy moment thrown in (the jazz-waltz interludes in ‘Love’s A Dangerous Language’, cacophonous finale to ‘That Was Then’, atonal strings that kidnap ‘Bite The Hand’, Martin Fry’s rhyming couplets throughout…).
Though not exactly heavy metal, the guitar playing is pretty unreconstructed throughout and seems to be searching in vain for some Fripp-style insanity. And the album is thankfully graced with Roxy/Lennon/Sly drummer Andy Newmark, whose playing is lovely, especially on the very Avalonesque ‘If I Ever Thought You’d Be Lonely’. Co-producer and future Art Of Noise member Gary Langan does a great job too, in the main eschewing ‘80s production values in favour of a dry, ballsy mix and some strikingly original touches.
The problem is, for all its undoubted craftsmanship, amusing lyrics and faux grittiness, the album is short on memorable choruses. ‘Hey Citizen’, ‘King Money’ and ‘Power Of Persuasion’ have classic ABC hooks but fail to deliver catchy B-sections.
A quick survey of the track titles and it’s almost impossible to remember a chorus, save the opening ‘That Was Then…’, and that spells trouble. Unsurprisingly the album works best when the guitars simmer down a bit and Fry’s vocals take centre stage, as on ‘By Default By Design’ and fine state-of-the-nation closer ‘United Kingdom’.
Commercially, Beauty Stab was not an outright disaster, reaching #12 in the UK album chart and selling over 100,000 copies, but it was a big disappointment after such a successful debut. Acclaimed music writer Simon Reynolds even went as far as to call it ‘one of the great career-sabotage LPs in pop history’.
In late-1983, Britain was turning its back on back on guitars and kitchen-sink lyrics; glamour and fun were back in, typified by Wham!, Howard Jones, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, even Bowie – all of whom cashed in on the vibe and musical exuberance of Lexicon Of Love. At the end of the year, Fry famously burnt his gold suit in protest.