The Romantic Angst Behind “Poison Arrow” by ABC

Originating in 1977 in Sheffield, England, as the group Vice Versa, ABC emerged as a burgeoning pop powerhouse three years later with the addition of singer Martin Fry. Their first single “Tears Are Not Enough” became a Top 20 hit in the UK after being remixed by producer Trevor Horn. Released in June 1982, the band’s debut album The Lexicon of Love turned a lot of heads once the zippy second single “Poison Arrow” became a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

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While considered part of the New Romantic movement, ABC has also been called sophisti-pop. Many of their songs are catchy and playful, and they are also well-crafted and very well-played, placing them above many of their competitors. Their blend of funky guitar and keyboard-driven pop, interlaced with saxophone, captures their own special quality.

This review on Sputnik Music aptly sums up ABC’s debut: “This synth-pop, post-disco wonder is like a rainbow to my ears. Basically every song has a strong hook. The songs feel fleshed out, especially enriched with colourful string sections, underlying synth lines and groovy bass lines. Most songs have a beat that makes subtle dance moves come to life in you.”

A Second British Invasion

Thanks in part to the burgeoning MTV network, a second British Invasion came about because so many peer bands to ABC—Dexys Midnight Runners, Tears for Fears, Duran Duran, Kajagoogoo, and dozens of others—emerged with their own style and sound and captured the ears of American audiences. They all benefited from the collective interest.

As singer Martin Fry recalled to Salon in 2022, ABC’s hometown of Sheffield produced “a lot of really experimental bands—bands like Cabaret Voltaire, early Human League. Def Leppard were playing. Very defined, very different bands. And we realized what you’re trying to do is to do something totally original. So we set about writing songs that were very emotional, that were love songs, hate songs—‘Poison Arrow,’ ‘The Look of Love,’ ‘All of My Heart.’ Very different to the style of the predominant style of the bands in Sheffield. It was kind of an act of rebellion. You wanted to rebel.”

The band was going cinematic with their sounds at the time, Fry told Absolute Radio in 2014. Those bursts of synth xylophone in “Poison Arrow” added extra color to the song, while its spoken-word middle section featured this animated exchange between Fry and Karen Clayton: He bemoans, “I thought you loved me, but it seems you don’t care.” She dismissively retorts, “I care enough to know I can never love you.”

“The beautiful thing is everybody’s had a broken heart,” Fry told Absolute Radio. “A lot of people identified with that.”

“Have you found true love yet, Martin?”

That verbal exchange came about, as Fry explained, because the band were against guitar and saxophone solos at the time. They did the same thing with a small break in “The Look of Love” when Fry delivered this short, self-referential monologue:

And all my friends just might ask me
They say, “Martin, maybe one day you’ll find true love”
And I say, maybe there must be a solution to
The one thing, the one thing we can’t find 

That section stuck with many listeners. As Fry told Absolute Radio a decade ago: “In the last 30 years, every time I get in a taxi – ‘Have you found true love yet, Martin?’”

A Colorful, Cheeky Video

The video for “Poison Arrow” was fun because it featured singer Martin Fry in three different guises—an opera patron, a singing telegram man, and a lounge singer—consistently trying and failing to gain the romantic affections of a pouty women played by future reality TV star Lisa Vanderpump. The propulsive song was accompanied by a colorful, cheeky video, and “Poison Arrow” flew to No. 6 in the UK, No. 4 in Australia and No. 25 in America. The regular video play on MTV pushed the song and the band further into the public consciousness.  Their following single “The Look of Love” hit No. 4 in the UK and No. 18 in America, and helped further cement ABC’s reputation.

Here’s another fun tidbit about the “Poison Arrow” video. It was directed by Julien Temple, who then made a 52-minute movie with ABC in 1983 called Mantrap that featured Fry as a singer recruited for a band who had a devious purpose for their recruitment. Vanderpump co-starred in the movie, which reframed the video as a nightmare sequence. Mantrap was an unusual promotional vehicle for the time and preceded Michael Jackson’s now-infamous “Thriller” clip by several months. However, it did not find much of an audience in America.

The Universality of Unrequited Love

Fry told Chicago Concert Reviews in 2022 “Poison Arrow” is “a song about unrequited love, so fortunately for me, there are many people in the world who’ve also shared that same experience. They really have fancied somebody and they didn’t fancy them. That’s served me well in that song. Who broke my heart? You did, you did. Bow to the target, blame Cupid, Cupid. Universal things, I think.”

There’s something to note about his response that reflects how the song has been performed over the last several years. This is the pre-chorus:

Who broke my heart (you did, you did)
Bow to the target (blame Cupid, Cupid)
You think you’re smart (stupid, stupid)

Although his other current bandmates may sing it in concert, Fry rarely ever sings the word “stupid” in the song live anymore. It’s unclear why, but old-school fans may find it throws off the momentum of that section.

While their debut album The Lexicon of Love remains ABC’s commercial high point, they released well-received albums afterward including Beauty Stab, Alphabet City, and the 2016 sequel The Lexicon Of Love II. ABC still hold a special place in many music fans’ hearts. Over the last two years they have done an orchestral tour highlighting songs from their debut album.

“Poison Arrow” remains one of the most infectiously catchy and memorable pop tunes of the early 1980s. And it’s certainly smart, not stupid.

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Photo by David Redfern/Redferns

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