Thirty-five years ago today, ABC released ‘Poison Arrow’, their second single.
I went to Sheffield once. 1982. I met Bobby Knutt in the Frog and Parrot. Sort of. He walked in and there was an immediate chorus of ‘Who the fuck is Bobby Knutt?’. Sheffield scared me.
In those days I wanted to be cool – and hadn’t yet accepted the total transformation in looks, personality and dress sense it would require. Neither had I yet (despite/because of my obvious lack of ability) given up on my hopes of starring in a creative midfield role for Spurs. More than anything, though, in 1982 I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be Kerouac. And I wanted to work for NME. Ideally both.
Yes. I wanted to be Paul Morley. I wanted to be Ian Penman. Without their exquisite, show-offy, passionately-clever literary fireworks, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with language and learning in the same way, wouldn’t have wanted to use words to try to make people feel, to make people think, to make people understand, to – let’s be honest – make people like me. And, at the same time, without their intimidating, self-confident brilliance I might have felt more capable of being a proper writer myself. But I was never going to be as good as them. I love them for that and I hate them a little for that, for feeding my shy, self-denigrating uncertainty.
Which brings us to Nietzsche. I read Nietzsche back then. A lot. And it was all down to ABC. Or, rather, to what I remember as Penman and Morley’s extraordinary capacity to mention him every time they talked about the band. Martin Fry’s suit? Nietzschean. ‘Who broke my heart? You did, you did’? Nietzschean. That bit in The Look Of Love where he goes, ‘They say, “Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”‘? That was clearly influenced by Also Sprach Zarathustra. Sheffield? Beyond good and evil. Man, Superman and Yorkshireman.
What they were really saying, I think (and I may be making all this up) is that these Northern boys – and others like them – with their absurd camp-80s crashing drums and absurd camp-80s white-funk guitars and absurd camp-80s overblown horns and absurd camp-80s lyrics were gloriously, proudly important, gloriously, proudly staring into the abyss as we stared at them miming on Top Of The Pops. They were saying pop music was not only high culture, it transcended it. They were saying we could apply philosophy and art theory and serious critique to the sonic cries of the working-class, the alien, the despised. And they were saying the reviewer was not only as important as the reviewed, they were one and the same.
I just listened to Poison Arrow again, for the fifth time today. It’s stupid, stupid. It’s funny. It’s celebratory. It’s sad. It’s knowing and unapologetic. It’s just a danceable pop song. It’s not just a danceable pop song. It’s shiny Sheffield and grim Hollywood. I still love it. It’s come back into my life and held me and kissed me and gone again.
Ian Penman and I both like Léo Ferré. I know this because I follow him on Twitter. Which is as close to cool as I’ve ever got. And, in the summer, because of him and ABC and the Human League, I’m going to go back to Sheffield. I’m sure it hasn’t changed at all. I’m sure Bobby’s still having a pint in that pub. And I’m sure he’ll remember me.