Can’t complain, mustn’t grumble: ABC’s lyrically inane “That Was Then but This Is Now” video

By on July 18, 2019

We thought we’d take another look at Night Flight’s 1984 salute to “Politics in Music Videos,” which is where we found Sheffield, England’s soul-enhanced sophisti-pop band ABC’s “That Was Then But This is Now” video.

Watch the entire episode now on Night Flight Plus.

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The video for “That Was Then but This Is Now” — directed by Duncan Gibbins — shows the members of ABC performing on stage before a giant Risk gameboard while singing something lyrically inane about English-American imperialism (we think).

There are additionally scenes of the band accompanied by various flags — which is something that lead singer Martin Fry was fairly obsessed with at the time — interspersed with blue-tinted shots of a helicopter taking off and then exploding.

“Flags really fascinate me,” Fry said in one interview at the time. “I like the way all the different colours and emblems gell together. They’re very powerful symbols. Of course my favourite is the Union Jack.”

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By the time ABC were recording tracks for their sophomore studio album, Beauty Stab — which they began working on after touring the world for eight straight months — Fry had already told the UK’s Smash Hits music magazine that the new songs they’d been recording were going to reflect the sound future generations would associate with the 1980s, which, to him, essentially meant “loud guitars.”

In essence, Fry was telling the world to expect a huge departure from the glossy sophisticated glam-pop found on their debut album, their beloved Lexicon of Love, which had been produced by the legendary producer Trevor Horn.

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Their first album had shot to #1 in the UK at the end of 1982, where it stayed atop the charts for four weeks straight, quickly going platinum (ultimately selling more than two million copies).

It had provided ABC with a couple of successful Top Forty US hits, namely “The Look of Love” (#18 U.S./#4 UK) and “Poison Arrow” (#25 U.S./#6 UK).

The album had been a critical success too, with David Fricke of Rolling Stone praising Fry’s songwriting for its “smug sexual wordplay” and for the “wicked verbal jousting that characterize the lyrics.”

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In one of the band’s press kit bios (which we found online and thanks to you, Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia, for making those available), Beauty Stab is described by the band’s press team as containing “abrasive guitars and a harder realism.”

Fry is even quoted as saying that “if Lexicon of Love was glossy and technicolor like a Spielberg movie, then Beauty Stab was strictly Scorsese… much, much darker.”

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Beauty Stab‘s first single, “That Was Then but This Is Now,” is probably the perfect example of what Fry was trying to describe, sound-wise, with its grand effects-pedal psychedelic flourishes.

Clearly, from the song title alone, the self-explanatory manifesto was a sign that they were already trying to escape their past.

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The song’s lyrics, however, were lampooned endlessly, and we have no doubt that many of their devoted fans dismissed it entirely.

The best example of Fry’s wonky wordsmithery is found in the song’s second verse:

“More sacrifices than an Aztec priest,
Standing here straining at that leash, all fall down
Can’t complain, musn’t grumble,
Help yourself to another peace of apple crumble,
And consequently, hearts of oak are charged and blistered,
Russians should be baby-sitted, Americans enlisted”

Here’s ABC performing the song on the UK’s “Top of the Pops” on November 3, 1983:

Read more about ABC’s “That Was Then but This Is Now” below.

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Boy oh boy did music critics have a field day writing about “That Was Then but This Is Now.”

So did Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, who pronounced it as “the worst lyric” he’d ever heard, “embodying all that was bad in modern pop.”

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In 2007, when Guardian scribe Alex Needham asked, “What’s the worst song lyric ever?,” the answer was that aforementioned awful second verse of “That Was Then but This Is Now” we quoted above.

The British radio station BBC6 Music have also named it as the worst lyric ever penned in a pop song.

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The savagery aimed at Fry’s lyrics must have really stung Fry, who’d actually started out as a fanzine writer, publishing his own zine Modern Drugs (when he interviewed the band Vice Versa, the group’s membership were so impressed that they asked him to join their pop trio).

We’re maybe going out on a limb here but we think that Fry’s previous experience as a music critic likely meant he’d probably panned other band’s pop lyrics prior to taking up the songwriter’s quill himself. It wasn’t as easy as it looked, was it, Martin?

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“That Was Then but This Is Now” — released in October of 1983 — failed to connect with ABC’s fans the way their earlier hits had, charting at just #89 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 chart.

After the album’s release, sax player Steve Singleton departed from the band, leaving just Fry and guitarist/keyboardist Mark White to soldier on as a duo for awhile.

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ABC eventually returned to glossy synth pop again for their next album, 1985’s How to Be a Zillionaire!, and their poignant hit “Be Near Me” was a true return to form.

By then, the band’s lineup had expanded again, with Fry and White adding photographer/musician David Yarritu (“Disco”) and “Eden” (journalist Fiona Russell Powell, a writer for the British fashion mag, The Face).

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(h/t Lansure’s Music Paraphernalia)

Night Flight’s 1984 “Politics in Music Videos” — which also features videos by John Lennon, Nena, U2 and Men at Work, among others — is now streaming on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.