Title: Frankie say
Author: John Gill
The brief, bright meteor that shook the charts
In the early eighties, when for a number of years the idea of ‘style at the expense of content’ flourished, Frankie Goes To Hollywood caught the spirit of the times with uncanny precision. Possibly the ultimate pop style package, they left no detail to chance. The sound, image and word were carefully crafted, and their marketing and press coverage were immaculately arranged. The musical result was at times dazzling, inspired and outrageous, but time may prove them to have been the victims of the ‘style’ wave they so successfully rode.
Fronted by two outspoken homosexuals, dressed — in their early days — in sadomasochistic leathers and bondage wear, and armed with a debut single full of sexual innuendo, they caused an immediate controversy in the national press. Signed to the Island Records subsidiary Zang Tuum Tumb (ZTT), their lavish debut was packaged by former rock journalist Paul Morley and producer Trevor Horn, the former Buggle who put his stamp on 1980s production with ABC’s Lexicon of Love. The three (heterosexual) band musicians, Brian Nash, Mark O’Toole and Peter Gill, insisted that they really did write and perform the music, but most credit was accorded to Horn, and during their first British tour estimates of how much music was on pre-recorded tape ranged from 50 to 90 per cent.
Frankie go to ZTT
Formed in their home town of Liverpool, Frankie made their first appearances supporting fellow Liverpudlians Hambi & The Dance at a series of local performances in 1982. Singer Holly (né Billy) Johnson had previously worked with cult new wave band Big In Japan. Fellow frontman Paul Rutherford had yet to join the group; the earliest line-ups were augmented by two female dancers/singers, The Leatherettes. In 1983 the group were asked to appear on the television rock show ‘The Tube’. Trevor Horn caught the show, rang the group and offered them a deal with his new label, ZTT.
In October 1983 ZTT released their first single, ‘Relax’. In the following weeks, it moved in fits and starts up into the Top Fifty. Radio airplay was considerable (thanks, no doubt, to high-powered radio and television promotion man Gary Farrow, an integral part of the operation), and by the second week of January 1984 the single was at Number 6. On 11 January Radio One disc jockey Mike Read, after studying the lyrics — notably, the couplet ‘Relax, don’t do it when you want to suck it, Relax, don’t do it, when you want to come’ — took the record off the air before it finished. Two days later, ‘Relax’ was banned from all Radio One shows.
Within two weeks, ‘Relax’ was at Number 1. In the manner of the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’ before it, ‘Relax’ was banned from ‘Top of the Pops’. It stayed at Number 1 for five weeks. The ban and the ensuing controversy made Frankie Goes To Hollywood into media stars. The outspoken homosexuality of Johnson and Rutherford, the lyrics and the outrageous public statements thrilled the national media. Morley, Fleet Street and the BBC had catapulted Frankie to the top.
‘Relax’ essayed a musical style that Frankie were to repeat on the subsequent singles ‘Two Tribes’ and ‘Power Of Love’. At the time it was the most elegant, sophisticated pop most people had ever heard. In hindsight, while no less sophisticated, its devices become all too obvious: a mix of heavy funk beat and European electronic experimentation, wrapped together by Horn’s undeniable ability to use the studio as a musical instrument. Yet the style took those singles to Number 1, and even managed to win respectable sales for the various re-release ‘mixes’ of the singles.
In October 1984 ZTT released Welcome to the Pleasure Dome. Somewhat longer than a normal single album, it was stretched out on to four sides, and came in a gatefold sleeve. The inner sleeves were covered with quotes from the band and from literature. In one typically mischievous piece of spin-off marketing, there was also a press-out order form for, among other Frankie ephemera, Jean Genet boxer shorts, the Kurt Weill sweatshirt, the Andre Gide socks and the Edith Sitwell shoulder bag.
The album took the listener on a guided tour of Horn’s studio. As well as ‘Relax’ and ‘War’, it featured covers of ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ and Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, all wrapped in long, exotic intros and segues featuring jungle noises, opera singers, you name it. It went straight to Number 1 in the UK album charts.
This was for many the snapping point. It was a brilliant piece of packaging, but the content was decidedly thin — a few powerful tunes padded out with what increasingly sounded like art-rock sound effects. In November ZTT released ‘The Power Of Love’, their most downbeat, traditional pop song, which also reached Number 1. On the band’s first British tour, an 18-day round Britain trip, they played lengthy sets to rapturous audiences, and even had the doubters crediting Horn’s ‘puppets’ with live abilities.
The power of marketing
At the end of 1985, rumours were flying around that, having staged the most outlandish smash-and-grab raid on pop in history, ZTT were moving on to concentrate on a newer signing, the German electropop group Propaganda. Frankie have been suspiciously quiet for some time, but were known to have been writing new material, due for release in 1986.
It is unlikely that Frankie could repeat that initial, delirious burst of success and stardom, and indeed it could be said that the idea of a ‘comeback’ is contrary to the very notion of Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Armed with lessons learnt from an earlier put-on artist, Malcolm McLaren, Frankie, Morley and Horn took on the music industry from the inside. Even they were surprised by their success. Where McLaren had charged the doors of the music industry with a battering ram, Frankie were already inside with their feet up before even their first single reached the shops. And despite all the controversy and shock tactics, this was in fact little more than the classic factors of pure, disposable pop dressed up for a stylish cocktail party. It had that essential beat, it was about dressing up, and rebellion, and even if ‘Relax’ verged on the risque, in ‘The Power Of Love’ they had a pining love song worthy, indeed reminiscent, of the Sixties boom.
What was different, however, was that they were doing it in the early Eighties, when many artists had responded to the warning of punk by ignoring it and adopting a pose of cynicism and decadence. Morley had adopted a term, ‘post-modernism’, from architecture theory, which holds that you can mix and match any manner of styles, the more outrageous the better, and Frankie were its most flamboyant exponents. It is still amazing just how far people were prepared to follow them; even the talk of homosexuality and sadomasochistic sex was revealed, in the end, to be nothing more than a naughty-but-nice act, something perhaps encountered at the end of a pier. And even if we were taken for a ride, it was fast, exciting, and worthwhile.