The last time I saw ABC was at a 1980s-themed festival near Henley-on-Thames where a field of people in fancy dress merrily jigged about in Phil Collins jackets, Flashdance leggings, Adam Ant pirate-wear etc. Martin Fry left his famous gold lamé suit in the wardrobe for his short set of hits but was in fine voice.
Five years later the setting had more heft. Fry, 58, bounded on to the Royal Festival Hall stage in a three-piece grey suit and tie, matched with a black-and-gold pair of Jimmy Choo co-respondent shoes, a stylish abbreviation of his old gold lamé look. Joining him were the 10-piece band and two backing singers that make up the current incarnation of ABC, of which Fry is the only founding member. There was also a sizeable contingent of the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Anne Dudley. The occasion was the live rendition of the first ABC album in eight years, a sequel to their lauded 1982 debut The Lexicon of Love.
The decision to follow up an album from 34 years ago that ranks among the best from a classic period of British pop carries obvious risks. Dudley, a composer and member of 1980s band Art of Noise, has reprised her role as orchestral arranger and co-writer, the only one of the original personnel to return other than Fry. He wielded his debonair baritone with assurance, the sound of New Romantic dandyism at its most charismatic.
A succession of songs from The Lexicon of Love II rang out, designed from the same orchestral pop, soul and disco template as the first album but surmounting pastiche. “There’s a certain spring in your stride,” Fry sang in “Viva Love”, a vision of renewal. But the atmosphere was flat. The audience remaining seated, politely applauding at the end of each song. A few older numbers failed to rouse them, even a strutting rendition of “The Night You Murdered Love”, its title a hostage to fortune.
The second half of the show was devoted to The Lexicon of Love. A switch was flicked, with people leaping to their feet and clapping along. “Tears Are Not Enough” was vibrant disco-funk, ageless despite the female backing singers doing the falsetto that Fry in his younger days used to reach. “The Look of Love” was an irresistibly frisky 1980s warhorse, wheeled out for a second time in the encore. “Things get better second time around,” Fry had sung earlier in “Many Happy Returns”. The smattering of boos that rang out when he announced that “It can never be 1982 again” suggested otherwise.