Title: Frankie says fun! is taking revenge
Author: Ian Walker
After two megaselling singles, Frankie Goes To Hollywood are high riders on the pop merry go-round. A year ago they were working in manual jobs or unemployed. How are the Liverpool group adapting to their change in fortune? Ian Walker flew with them to Munich to see them getting their own back. Photographs, Homer Sykes.
‘Eight weeks at number one and we still have to travel scum class,’ said Holly Johnson, on the 757 bound for Munich. He was flicking through the script of Willy Russell’s ‘Blood Brothers’, the musical about class set in Liverpool, the home of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, five working-class boys who are luxuriating in the splendour of their newly won mobility. Loud Scouse curses caused some panic and offence, even back here in the smoking section of tourist class, but those same panicked and offended persons will be standing in line at the end of the journey, waiting for an autograph. To be famous is to be perpetually forgiven.
‘I wonder how famous you have to be to get into the VIP lounge?’ mused Holly. ‘We never see anyone famous at airports, Joan Collins or anyone like that. We’ve never seen anyone, have we Mark?’
Mark O’Toole was too preoccupied with take-off to respond. His knuckles showing white, he gripped the seat with huge hands still calloused from his three years as a joiner for Liverpool Corporation. His cousin Brian Nash, in the next seat, used to be an electrician for the corporation. Pedro the drummer (Peter Gill) once worked in a timber yard, but had been unemployed for two months before Frankie Goes To Hollywood made good.
Mark, Nasher and Pedro now share a flat in Maida Vale, London. They call themselves the Lads, as distinct from the band’s two gays, Holly Johnson and Paul Rutherford, who was kicked out of St Helen’s art college because of his former fondness for bondage trousers and leather accessories. In Frankie’s allocation of responsibilities, the Lads compose the music, Holly writes the words, Paul sets the style. This morning he was dressed in a long black linen coat and matching trousers. With his gypsy eyes, oiled black hair and sculptured sideburns he looked like a lion tamer fallen on good times.
Oscar Wilde is one of Paul’s heroes. Living well is the best revenge. And the first revenge is the sweetest, these first tastes of champagne and foreign countries and television shows, the first £300 jackets, the first wrecked hotel rooms and stolen Hilton towels, the first few thousand saucer eyes in airport lounges, all these pearls released by the international success of two pop singles, one about sex, ‘Relax’, and one about war, ‘Two Tribes’. ‘Relax’ was number one in Britain, West Germany, Finland, Greece, Spain, Norway, Austria and Switzerland. It has sold over five million copies worldwide. ‘Two Tribes’, number one in Britain for nine weeks, has sold over four million. Frankie Goes To Hollywood (the name derives from an American magazine headline, about Sinatra’s move from Las Vegas to Los Angeles) are now making an LP for which there are advance sales of over a million. It will be called ‘Welcome to the Pleasure Dome’.
Holly wore a white Raleigh cycling cap, the peak upturned, and a sparkly gold cross on his white jacket. He used to pray every year for a part in the school play. The prayers were usually answered.
‘You must be thrilled to bits,’ I said.
‘Yeah. Deffo,’ he said, not bothering with the usual caveats about the pressures of stardom. He bought his first guitar when he was 13, joined his first band when he was 16, eight years ago. He sang in a group called Big In Japan while he was living in Toxteth. This year he moved south to Kensington. This year his past has become news, his jobs in pizza restaurants and building sites, his spells on the dole trying to be an actor, his education at John Lennon’s old school, Quarry Bank, his penchant for dressing up like Judy Garland when he was a teenager, his poems in the school magazine.
‘One of them caused a scandal because I wrote “bastard”. At least I they didn’t ban it,’ he said, doe-eyed. Yet he knows full well that if the BBC had not decided to stop playing ‘Relax’ (after first allowing the boys to appear on ‘Top of the Pops’ over Christmas), Holly might not even have been flying scum class.
These attempts to protect the minds of the nation’s children have often come a cropper. The BBC acted as unofficial press agents for the Sex Pistols in 1977 when they banned the single ‘God Save the Queen’. The record reached number one in Jubilee week. The man who promoted the Pistols, Malcolm McLaren, is an associate of Trevor Horn, the producer who offered Frankie a recording contract after seeing them perform on Channel4’s ‘The Tube’. Horn founded the record label ZTT (Zang Tuum Tumb, after a work by the Italian futurist poet Marinetti) with the help of former New Musical Express journalist Paul Morley. The point of all this is to advance the conspiracy theory of pop: McLaren played puppeteer to the Pistols; and Horn and Morley exist in the same relation to Frankie.
Holly returned to ‘Blood Brothers’. Willy Russell had asked him to do the narration when the show reopened in London.
It was at this stage of the flight that Mark discovered he had left £377-worth of clothes in a bag at Heathrow. He blamed it all on cousin Nasher. The manager, Tony Pope, tried to cool things down. Unconcerned, Holly was now mugging up on his German. Ionesco, he said, had once copied a page from a phrasebook and used it as dialogue. Holly himself spent a deal of time sifting cultural junk. He picked up the idea for ‘Two Tribes’ from the voice-over at the beginning of the Australian horror film ‘Mad Max 2’: ‘Two great warrior tribes have gone to war…’
This single had slipped to number two in the West German charts. Frankie’s scheduled appearance this afternoon in a Munich TV studio was designed to re-establish its primacy. The plane began its descent. As soon as the cavalcade of taxis had pulled up at the Hilton, the Scousers stormed into the cocktail bar. ‘Rock-and-roll mouthwash,’ Mark demanded of the perplexed young barman, trying hard to please in his black bow-tie and waistcoat. Regine, the PR from Island Records, explained that her charge meant champagne. Paul ordered a Black Russian. I was reminded that ‘Relax’ had been the record of the Free German Youth celebrations in East Berlin this summer.
It was 1.30pm. Messages kept arriving from the lobby that Klaus and Uta, the German PRs with the job of shifting Frankie from A to B and picking up all the tabs along the way, were growing impatient. The group was already one hour behind schedule. The barman’s mouth dropped open as he watched Pedro, Nasher and Mark walk out of the lounge carrying their full glasses of champagne. Driving to the TV studio, Pedro chucked his empty glass out of the taxi window.
In the other taxi Holly was telling his manager that he had only £160 in his account and when could he get some more? ‘Thursday,’ replied Tony Pope. ‘You’ll get a thousand.’ The lead singer nodded. Born in Wavertree, near Penny Lane, he was christened William and nicknamed Holly by a friend as a tribute to Holly Woodlawn, a transvestite member of Andy Warhol’s circle. Warhol is Holly’s hero, or so he would say later that afternoon in a questionnaire given to Frankie by a teenage magazine called Popcorn.
Tony Pope was talking business. They had sold 150,000 of the T-shirts with the black capital messages: FRANKIE SAYS WAR! HIDE YOURSELF, FRANKIE SAYS ARM THE UNEMPLOYED, FRANKIE SAYS RELAX. But another half million bootleg Frankie shirts had been sold and the lawyers were on the case. The thing that really annoyed Pope, though, was that Trevor Horn (already a millionaire, according to Tony) had begun demanding a percentage of the T-shirt profits. He had a piece of everything else going and he still had to get greedy for the clothing spin-offs. Tony Pope sighed. A clutch of autograph hunters had surrounded the taxis in the parking bay outside the studio.
After the first rehearsal of ‘Two Tribes’, the band adjourned to the canteen. Mark, Nasher and Pedro had three hard-boiled eggs each, washed down by bottles of beer labelled Hell Export. Holly and Paul, Frankie’s sophisticates, chose pasta. Everyone sat out in the garden next to the canteen, filling in the Popcorn questionnaire. Which attribute would you most like to possess?
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