“Heart Light City”: ABC’s “Be Near Me” highlights this collection of soft rock & adult contempo mid 80s music videos

By on November 21, 2016

This 1985 episode of “Night Flight”‘s “Heart Light City” music video show featured promotional videos by popular 80s artists like Billy Joel, the Motels, Air Supply, the Eagles, Kool & the Gang and others, but we thought we’d draw your attention to ABC’s “Be Near Me,” which was one of the first examples in the 1980s of a technique called “video scratching.”

Watch the episode — which originally aired on November 15, 1985 — now on Night Flight Plus.

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“Heart Light City” — which usually featured “soft rock” AOR and Adult Contemporary music videos — was one of the programs associated with “Night Flight” (“Radio 1990″ was another) created by producer Jeff Franklin.

For those who don’t know, AOR is a radio format that stands for Album-Oriented Rock and Adult Contemporary (or “AC”) is yet another format, which typically ranges from 1960s vocal and 1970s soft rock music to predominantly ballad-heavy music, all the way up to the present day, with varying degrees of easy listening, pop, soul, rhythm and blues, quiet storm, and rock influence.

Although many of these bands and artists featured on this episode could be slotted in other formats, the collective sound here overall represents a popular type of easy rock that was popular in the 80s right alongside other 80s formats and genres, like new wave, punk, etc.

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Jeff Shade, the New York-based voice-over announcer on the show, in his introduction to “Be Near Me” — which is a track from ABC’s 1985 album How To Be A Zillionaire — tells us that “The group ABC were one of the first to merge fashion with video music.”

ABC’s lead singer, Martin Frye, talked to Night Flight about the making of the video:

“When we came to make ‘Be Near Me,’ we decided that we didn’t want to have a girl do that… This time I didn’t want to wear the trenchcoat and the hat and walk across the backdrop — I’m talking about video clichés — and we wanted to strip down what was involved in it, what would be in a video, rather than tell the greatest story ever told and try and be Steven Spielberg on a shoestring budget in twenty-four hours… we would make a video that was pure and simple ABC, and it’s the four members of the group in our finest clothes, performing against a white backdrop… the inside of ping-pong ball is how I’d describe it… but we wanted to make something that was pure and simple.”

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Martin David Fry was born in Stretford, England, in 1958, and came through the punk movement of the 1970s wanting to be a writer, not a pop singer. In interviews he often talked about his love of the work of William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Herman Hesse, J.G. Ballard and others.

While living in Sheffield, Fry channeled his interest in both music and writing by starting up a fanzine, called Modern Drugs, which focused on bands like Pere Ubu, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd. and Cabaret Voltaire, and after interviewing a local Sheffield electro-synth punk band called Vice Versa, they asked him to join them onstage that very night, plinking along on a synthesizer.

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Fry eventually found himself joining the band permanently, and he soon began writing songs for them. At the time, their lineup featured drummer David Robinson, saxophonist Stephen Singleton and guitarist Mark White, and they would eventually release an EP on their own label, Neutron Records.

By 1980, as they began to move away from harsh electronic-based songs towards funk, soul and James Brown-style R&B, they also changed their name to ABC. The move also coincided with a new British sub-genre which was just then beginning to take shape, called New Romantic, and Fry — by now their lead singer — helped to direct the band’s fashionable sense by getting them to dress appropriately, wearing opera capes and black ties, a nice fit along with Fry’s cocktail croon and the band’s pseudo-cabaret styled synth pop.

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ABC scored their first hit with “Tears Are Not Enough,” which landed in the UK Top 20 in 1981. Soon after, drummer David Palmer replaced David Robinson in the first of what would be many lineup changes for the band over the years.

The band’s debut album, Lexicon of Love — produced by Trevor Horn — would meanwhile reach #1 on the UK album chart. Released in June 1982, the album’s success — and its huge hits “The Look of Love” and “Poison Arrow” — propelled the band to the top quickly.

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Horn would also bring in his partner Anne Dudley, a session keyboard player who had appeared on many of the recordings Horn produced. The album would feature many of her contributions, including the descending piano riff that powers “Poison Arrow,” which, along with “The Look of Love,” was another hit for the band.

ABC would embark on a world tour wearing gold lamé suits they’d bought on Carnaby Street from Pan’s People’s old choreographer, creating a memorable onstage presence for themselves in the process.

The band also made a hysterically funny feature film, the little-seen Julien Temple-directed Mantrap.

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Fry became an unlikely role model in addition to being their frontman, a kind of aspirational figure of financial success/excess, a new wave Sinatra for 80s kids living on the dole (or Bryan Ferry wannabe, if you like), and Lexicon remains one of the catchiest, funniest, smartest albums from the 80s-era British haircut-pop brigade.

ABC’s sophomore album, Beauty Stab — released in November 1983 — didn’t do as well as their debut, with its first single, “That Was Then But This Is Now” barely appearing in the UK Top Twenty (#18). The album peaked at #12; the record was also a commercial disappointment in the U.S.

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One of the reasons for the drop in popularity was that the band had decided to introduce heavy rock guitars to their sound, which at the time was not a popular thing to do.

Another reason was the fact that band decided to get serious, this at a time when seriousness — like loud heavy rock guitars — was decidedly out of vogue, particularly if you weren’t expecting them from a new wave-ish synth pop outfit like ABC or a cosmopolitan cad like Martin Fry.

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Since Horn was busy at the time — producing the band Yes, Malcolm McLaren’s Duck Rock album, and a new band he’d signed to his new ZTT label, called Frankie Goes to Hollywood — ABC had turned to a new producer, Gary Langan.

Within the next year or two, the band would undergo a number of significant personnel changes, which Singleton retiring from the band in 1984 (since his mother had been their manager and his cousin had been their accountant, they left the band too), and David Palmer also left, to join Yellow Magic Orchestra.

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Fry and White were soon joined by two non-performing band members, Eden (born Fiona Russell-Powell) and American fashion designer David Yarritu, who was also a musician and photographer.

In addition to appearing in ABC’s videos while he was in the group (in this vid, the bald guitarist is wielding some kind of sun-shaped guitar), Yarritu also provided spoken passages on some tracks, but that was about the extent of his musicianship.

Eden was a rock journalist, and an old acquaintance of Fry’s and White’s from Sheffield, and she added a decidely sexy new look to ABC wearing outfits that bordered on the fringes of S&M and bondage (wearing a belt made of dildos when ABC appeared on C4’s The Tube).

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By this point, Mark White was becoming fully immersed in the world of clubbing, and he wanted to introduce electro beats back into the ABC mix for their next album, 1985’s How To Be A Zillionaire. Keith LeBlanc from Tackhead programmed much of the beatbox work for the album.

Since the band were now very animated and somewhat cartoonish, they had themselves animated for the cover art, resembling a group that might have sprung from the fertile minds of Hanna-Barbera.

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The fabulously poignant How To Be A Zillionaire album was a kind of acid-pop freakout, and “Be Near Me” — released on April Fool’s Day in 1985 — would give the band their first Top Ten hit in the U.S. , charting at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 on the U.S. Hot Dance Club Play chart in September of that year, remaining on top for two weeks.

It charted at #26 in the UK.

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The video for the track — which featured a camera boom mounted to body rig worn by Fry, as well as affixed to some kind of centrifuge set-up that hovers over the band on a rotating gimbal (it reminds us of the Discovery set in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey) — was also one of the very first to use a process in the editing called “video scratching,” a variation on an audio editing technique called scratching which required manipulating video footage, by looping and reversing scenes, usually to achieve an effect or follow the percussive beat of a music track.

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At the time, clubs were mixing in music videos and other bits of filmic ephemera and showing them up on big screens while dancers flooded the dancefloor, and the band wanted to capture the same vibe in a video, so they began splicing their videos with stuff they found on TV shows.

Video scratching was sometimes done at live shows using multiple video decks and mixing gear portable enough to bring to shows.

Video scratching may have been pioneered by Nam June Paik, who created pieces like 1964’s TV Cello which used both live performance and videotaped elements.

Paik would return to this them again many times over the years, including for the piece titled “Good Morning Mr. Orwell,” an edited version of Paik’s first international satellite “installation,” held on New Year’s Day 1984, which we previously told you about here.

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In 1983, Godley and Creme’s video for Herbie Hancock’s seminal and propulsive “Rockit” featured robots moving back and forth in tandem with the scratching in the song’s beat in one of the best uses we can recall for video scratching.

Editor Roo Aiken and the video itself would go on to garner seven MTV Video Music Awards, winning VMA’s for Best Concept, Best Special Effects, Best Art Direction, Best Editing and Most Experimental.

A live performance of “Rockit” at the Grammy Awards, and a performance of the track on TV’s “Saturday Night Live” would additionally influence an entire generation of scratching deejays and turntablists who watched both shows with their mouths agape.

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There have been many other examples, of course, some of which we’ve posted about before here on the blog, including: Art of Noise‘s “Close (To The Edit),” directed by Polish avant-garde filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczynski; Paul Hardcastle‘s use of Vietnam War footage in the track “19” (featuring cut-up footage of bombs, recruits with shaved heads being indoctrinated into the Army, and more); the 1985 video by Steinski called “The Motorcade Sped On.”

Watch ABC’s “Be Near Me” — featured here along with music videos by Billy Joel, Eurythmics, the Motels, Frankie Valli, a-ha, Amy Grant, Kool & The Gang, Bobby Womack, the Eagles, Air Supply and Stevie Wonder — on this heavily AOR/Adult Contempo-filled episode of “Heart Light City,” which you can see exclusively 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.