There’s a painting called Col Tempo (with time) by Giorgione of an old woman. It is possible to imagine when you look at this picture that the old toothless crone with wispy hair that he has painted was once a beautiful young girl. Kenneth Clark calls it one of the “first masterpieces of the new pessimism”. Other masterpieces of the new pessimism would include Hamlet of the “man impresses me not, nor woman neither” school of upbeat, self help guides.
For some reason this picture always stays with me when I listen to The Lexicon of Love (1982) by ABC. The 80s were not a time of great pop albums. There were a lot of good singles, but not a lot of good pop albums. I am talking about pop albums not albums in general. The Lexicon of Love belongs to a small group of exceptions – albums that had all the slick, synthesized bop of the 80s but are still worth listening to.
ABC’s debut album is a great piece of white plastic funk. Although Martin Fry is really the only member of the “band” ABC, you have to suspect that the producer Trevor Horn was the real creative force behind this album. What really stands out on this album are all the ideas, all the thumb thumping bass, and the slightly upset angry voice of Martin Fry. He was upset because he had been dumped. Trevor Horn thought it would be cool to get the woman who dumped him to say “goodbye” on the single The Look of Love. It is cool, but it must also have been annoying for Fry. Mind you, the whole album proves that most good pop music is about falling in or out of love.
The picture above shows what it looked like to be Martin Fry in 1982. It looked pretty cool. Mr. Fry had quite a few neat turns of phrase on this album: “With your heart on parade and your heart on parole / I hope you find a sucker to buy that mink stole”. It ain’t Shakespeare but it’s better than “Oops, I did it again.” The whole album seems effortless and complicated. It seems to have a sense of sprezzatura; another term out of the Renaissance that seems to fit with the 1980s. Sprezzatura is that “easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them”. I imagine that Martin Fry and Trevor Horn spent hundreds of hours putting this album together so that it would sound effortless and clever. They did a good job.
It was probably wonderful to be Martin Fry in 1982; to be the latest bright shiney thing. After the 1982 debut things went downhill for ABC. Martin Fry and ABC are still touring, but when you look at his current photo on his official website you can’t help but think of the poignancy of col tempo.
In some fields time will always catch up with you. You will step into the ring one too many times. What once was beautiful and done with a seeming effortlessness will be done again with the appearance of strain. Still, it is hard not to run out on the field again when the thrill of it was so great, and the acclaim seems so recent.
I started in a proper band in 1991, and started dreaming about it in 1989. Twenty years ago. Last week the bass player in my band accidentally forwarded me a chain of emails in which he and the drummer were talking about auditioning singers behind my back. Until last week I played the guitar and sang in my band. The emails were quite a betrayal of trust and friendship and I quit the band. Without going into all the parts of this bitter ending, quitting the band has made me feel about ten years older and quite empty.
Most of our older selves seem built on the silly dreams of our youth. If I were Martin Fry I too would still be on the road, playing my songs and reliving the eternal moment of 1982. Col Tempo. “Wisdom” and bitterness.
Col tempo. I’m not quite the boy I was in 1989. Things shift and change, and I don’t just mean your waistline. It was once easy to find the energy to put in the work needed to make a band happen, but I think the strain is beginning to show.