Who needs the moon…when we got the stars!
On 14th October 1985, ABC released their third long-player, How To Be A Zillionaire. It spent the same number of weeks on the UK Top 100 (three), as the number of years the project spanned from first single (November 1984) to last (January 1986). It was a strange old time.
Shunned and misunderstood in Britain, but embraced in America, the Zillionaire…-era ABC were unrecognisable from the band who’d brought some glitzy glamour to the pop world of 1982 via The Lexicon of Love , and then done their best to deconstruct that image with the following year’s Beauty Stab. It was too easy to associate cartoonish characters and technicolour visuals with a lack of depth, and to dismiss the music as lightweight and trashy. Because with ABC, throughout all the image changes and stylistic detours, there’s always the one thing…the one thing…that still holds true. What’s that? The quality of their records.
The fates seemed to conspire against them right from the off, when the How To Be A Millionaire single appeared at the end of 1984, just weeks before Band Aid turned everything upside down. Outlandish animated videos and sharply-observed, clever lyrics about materialism suddenly didn’t play so well when everybody was shambling about in their Sunday Morning casuals over at Sarm West Studios, to help raise funds for the starving Ethiopians.
It was a corking electro number, with shades of Let The Music Play (which possibly explains why it did so well in the US), but How To Be A Millionaire didn’t even make the UK Top 40.
Spring 1985 brought a change in fortune, as Be Near Me made #26 in the UK and went on to reach the Billboard Top 10. A more conventional ABC-type ballad, I found it too musically and lyrically simplistic at the time, representing a backwards step after the vibrant, intoxicating Millionaire. Although I enjoy it far more these days, it’s not even the best ballad on the Zillionaire album in my estimation. Both Between You And Me and the lush Ocean Blue are far superior.
What happened next was puzzling. A high-profile slot on (I think) the Lenny Henry Show on BBC Television, performing 15 Storey Halo, suggested that either (a) the song was to be the next single, or (b) an album was ready for release, to capitalise on Be Near Me’s Top 30 success.
In fact, it was (z) – neither.
Possibly, the serious health issues Martin Fry was beginning to suffer from scuppered whatever plans were afoot to launch the album around that point. But by the time Vanity Kills rolled into town in June 1985, the momentum had been lost.
It didn’t help that Vanity Kills is a terrible record (by ABC’s lofty standards), with the normally loquacious Fry reduced to rhyming “vanity kills” with “it don’t pay bills” while the kitschy sink is thrown at the arrangement, mock explosions and all. Then, just as before with Millionaire, Live Aid came along less than a month later and further demonstrated how out of step ABC had become in the dawning age of the Global Jukebox. The single stiffed at #70.
For whatever reason, four months on from the failure of its third single, How To Be A Zillionaire was released into the wild, on one of the year’s busiest weeks for new albums. The band’s label, Phonogram/Mercury, were still reeling from the humbling debacle of Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Don’t Stand Me Down, and now their other big act from the summer of 1982 were about to fare just as badly. The main difference was, with so many delays and false starts, expectations for (and interest in) the Zillionaire campaign had already been lowered.
Well, imagine my surprise when the album revealed itself to be a bit of a gem. Opener Fear Of The World is top-tier ABC; how this was never given the chance as a single beggars belief. Three of the other tracks on Side One were already familiar, including the other should-have-been-a-single 15 Storey Halo with its stunning coda, which left the gorgeous Ocean Blue as the second big discovery of the album’s first half. Listening to all these tracks, raised the baffling question of just what on earth had the band (and/or label) been thinking of with their promotional strategy up until now?
Side Two kicked off, cheekily, with the brief B-side of How To Be A Millionaire, a playful call to arms called A To Z (“my name is Martin Fry…..F….R….Y…..who needs the moon….when we got the stars?”). We get a remixed …Millionaire, the version that features on endless ABC compilations while the original languishes in obscurity save for an 80’s Various Artists collection released in America. Tower Of London evokes Fear Of The World‘s chiming, shimmering cityscape pop deluxe, replete with classic Fry cheeseball rhymes (“what’s done cannot be undone, not here, not in London”). The abrasive So Hip It Hurts almost becomes a victim to its squawking synth-guitar as it fires off in all directions, but the sharp lyrics and wonderful female backing vocals just about win out in the final reckoning. It’s left to the lovely Between You & Me to show Be Near Me how it should be done, and after less than 39 minutes the whole, brilliant thing is over.
Unless, that is, you owned the cassette or (later on) the CD. As with several albums that year, including Songs From The Big Chair, The Secret Of Association, Here’s To Future Days and Steps In Time, the tape of How To Be A Zillionaire featured several extra mixes. The main album was all on the first side (before CDs were widespread, it was rare – and a treat – to not have to flip over an LP or cassette to hear the second half!), with extended versions of the singles along with an excellent dub mix of Fear Of The World, titled “In Cinemascope”.
The artwork was unique to each format, too, with the original LP sleeve not appearing in CD size until 2005, when the album was remastered and expanded with 8 bonus mixes and a couple of B-sides. In the age of multi-disc sets for even the most overlooked 80s (and sometimes 90s) albums, it’s suprising that more has not been made of Zillionaire‘s wealth of multiple 12″ versions and radical reworkings that appeared on the various singles around the world.
To that end, yours truly embarked on creating a “Super Deluxe Edition” of How To Be A Zillionaire earlier this year. The 7″ of …Millionaire needed to be included, as did the 7″ remix (aka Pacific Mix) of Ocean Blue, the final single belatedly launched in the first weeks of 1986 and a respectable #51 hit in the circumstances.
Two edits of the Munich Disco mix of Be Near Me, two of the Bond Street mix of How To Be A Millionaire. The superb extended mix of Tower Of London, as well as the blissed out beauty of Ocean Blue (Atlantic Mix), which is literally worthy of the Yacht Rock tag.
Stretching all this to 4 discs was perhaps a bit of a liberty (the first two CDs being taken up by 1985 and 2005 masters of the 39-minute album), but the results make for a very enjoyable listen. I would say that, though!
AFDPJ’s Super Deluxe Edition – I’ve seen the future, I can’t afford it…