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Title: What do pop tycoons do on their tax year off?
Author: Dave Hill
Source: The Face
Publish date: September 1986

By Dave Hill/Photography Robert Erdman

PED GILL HAS BOUGHT a brand new black Ferrari. But that doesn't mean…

“But that doesn’t mean I wanna walk about with fuckin’ gold, fuckin’ great medallions and all that. You know, like, people, when they meet you, they stand back. But we’re not really worth standing back for.”

Stand back. It’s the return of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, older, richer, and definitely wiser, though how much wiser depends on how wise you thought they were in the first place.

There’s Paul Rutherford, laid-back, gregarious as ever, and minus one moustache; There’s Holly Johnson, camped out and moderately cagey somewhere near Parson’s Green; and there’s The Lads: guitarist Brian Nash has just got married at Liverpool’s church of St Gregory to teenage sweetheart Claire, a nurse, while bassman Mark O’Toole became engaged at Christmas to Laura, a model from New York; and then there's Ped.

Ped “hasn’t got a girlfriend at the moment,” but he has got a brand new black Ferrari, and on the way to Shoreditch to have his picture taken, some bloke shouted out “you poser” because of it. Still, bollocks. He might have a flash Italian motor, but Ped’s kept his puds on the pavement. Why all the fuss?

“Yer, well, it did sometimes hurt a bit when people said we was just Trevor’s (Trevor Horn’s) band. I suppose he either thought ‘yeah, these look alright for a good fuckin’ go, a six months fuckin’ blag, cos they’re all fuckin’ knobheads from Liverpool,’ or he thought, ‘yeah, these are good songs’.”

Ped wrinkles his nose and offers an insolent shrug: “He’s never told us. But it worked, didn't it?”

SOME PEOPLE EMPLOYED in the vicinity of Frankie Goes To Hollywood have a habit of describing Ped as “sweet”. It isn’t a practice that should be encouraged. Too often “sweet” is a euphemism for “thick” — and “thick” is often defined by beholders who aren’t exactly Einstein themselves.

After 15 minutes of conversation before a stark make-up mirror and a row of coffee cups, the much-neglected qualities of Ped start to make themselves known. A defensive dismissiveness conceals his self-effacement. Under all that, he's funny. And indiscreet.

“Now, seriously, we don't give a fuck if it’s a machine, or even another fella playing on the record, cos now we know how it all works. But… I dunno… at first you think someone’s taking your job off you, so you’re gonna get booted out, and things like that. But now we’ve got a bit more confidence, so you’re not afraid of saying to the producer ‘I don't like that’… then he’ll say ‘What!’ and you say ‘oh, I didn't mean it!’ But the last time you’d be scared to even say ‘that little lick there’s crap,’ cos they’d all look round, and, well… you’d think, ‘aaahh, I’m risking it here, I could get fucked off,’ cos who were we then? We were no-one.”

But now, even Ped must concede, all that has changed.

For instance: “You can spend a couple of hundred quid in a night, and you’d never be able to do that if you were on the dole!”

But the point about Ped, and about Mark, who chips in with moral support on this score, is that they don’t want to make a big deal.

“A lot of people say we’ve got this big… thing around us,” says Mark: “like this phenomenon. But I don’t think we’ve got anything like that around us at all.” Say the magic word ‘Morley’, meanwhile, and hark at Ped put his foot down. Nought to meltdown in no seconds at all. “Paul Morley… he had some fucking…” Ped shakes his head and searches for the words. “I’m telling you, I don’t think even he knows what he fucking wants. I suppose he’s into the cultier side of it, the dark side of what we sometimes get up to, the messing about and the telling people to fuck off and all the dodgy bits that get in The Sun and all that… The 16-year-old birds all over the place side of it.”

What, like “when you've slashed fifty people, you get a silver Stanley knife”? (B-side of “Relax”).

Groans!

Ped: “I mean, one minute you can hardly get an interview, then you’re getting interviewed by that bastard and he’s from your own record label! You're going ‘hang on a minute’… you’re a 19-year-old lad and all you wanna do is get up and go ‘fuck off!… FUCK OFF!’… and you’re a bit stuck for words, cos… some of the questions he asks you.”

Mark: “Like, ‘Why are you alive?’ And things like that.”

Ped: “But now, I think he knows we would say ‘fuck off’. So we get on a bit better now. We understand each other more.”

WHAT EVERYBODY KNOWS about Frankie is that instant glory put money in his pocket and sent him round the world. But there’s another story too. It’s to do with climbing from the boot of Fame’s Ferrari and wrestling for the wheel… then steering a course, not for Sunset Strip — where, metaphorically, you already live — but for home, bitter-sweet home.

“Yer, the area’s a bit fucked, and, well, it’s like, fucking on its knees, like,” says Ped. “So our album is, a little bit of it is, giving them a bit of backing up, sort of thing, and it’s a bit to say to all those people, all the fuckin’ showbiz fucking ten-million-rings-and-medallion knobheads, to fuck off, cos they all think, ‘yer, they’ve come down here, do coke, dope… cos we’ve got it all.’ Well, they haven't.”

Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s next LP is going to be called “Liverpool.”

“WE'RE VERY EASILY distracted, aren’t we?” admits Paul Rutherford to Brian Nash as the three of us ponder the menu at a Japanese restaurant, just confetti-throwing distance from The Mall; “very easily distracted.”

It was, for this game, a fairly regular scene: ‘ethnic’ trimmings, men in business suits pretending to be friends, homosexual barman, air full of Legionaire's Disease — and someone else picking up the bill. For one moment of exquisite titillation, Paul thought he'd seen Jan Leeming wander in, but, alas, our excitement was misplaced. Only one vital detail disrupted this smooth and pleasant flow of music biz PR. Nash was on antibiotics, having turned himself to crackling during his Seychelles honeymoon — this meant he was laying off the booze.

“Ginger ale, please,” he asked the waiter, as jaws went slack around the globe. Exaggeration? No. As Nash and Paul were happy to reveal, of the numerous ‘distractions’ which work had forced Frankie to reluctantly abandon in the previous twelve months, most have lain adjacent to a bar.

In the beginning, there was Ireland. After completing a tour of some 70 dates, taking in Europe, America, Australia and Japan, the pop sensations of 1984 finally touched down to contemplate their infamy, their imminent fortune — despite the relatively disappointing sales of “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” (around 2½ million worldwide) and where they could possibly go from there. The immediate requirement was songs, and the immediate solution came from manager Tony Pope. Ireland: tax and distraction free.

“‘It’ll be great lads,’ he said,” recounts Nash with a laugh; “‘there’ll be horse riding and everything’”. The five Frankies (plus Holly’s companion Wolfgang — don’t fret, we’ll get back to him) were to be accommodated in a large rural house adjoining a castle near Leinster where, liberated by pastoral seclusion, they could compose the musical components of FGTH Phase II.

Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. “It was a village that had a population of about six hundred people,” enthuses Nash, “and it had five pubs! Their idea of a pub is, like, a bar at the end of the counter in a grocer’s shop, with Guinness, bitter and lager, and that was it! In the corner there was barrels to sit on. It was real culture shock. At half nine in the morning you’d go down to buy a loaf, and have a pint!”

During the day Holly (upstairs with Wolfgang) would work on melodies and tunes, while The Lads did their bit downstairs, and Paul “just did a lot more drinking”. Local kids would swarm in and out to ogle and annoy their celebrity guests, while in the evenings, friendly locals would invite variously wasted Frankies round to their homes for what must have been among the Emerald Isle’s more left field domestic sing-songs of 1985.

The weekends, meanwhile, developed into ritual wassails of steadily increasing intensity. On Thursday nights, Paul and The Lads — these days fondly dubbing themselves ‘The Gents’ — would leave Wolfgang and Holly and head off to Dublin for four nights of torrid fun-seeking which centred around a club called The Pink Elephant and a variety of wine bars which, thanks to Ireland’s liberal licensing laws, were able to oblige the Frankies, plus sundry combinations of tax-exiled Spandau Ballet boys and Def Leppards, until 6.00am. Precise details of these excursions remain obscure. But my suspicion is that this is due more to their participants’ memories being equally fogged than any modesty or embarrassment.

As the end of the six-week County Carlow stint drew near, the strain began to tell: “The last night I set the chimney stack on fire,” recalls Nash, as if discussing a complete stranger, “I threw this wicker basket on the fire — cos, like, you had to chop your own wood — and all the sparks went up the chimney. So we had to get the fire brigade out at one o'clock in the morning… and they were all pissed.”

Nash’s tale unfolds with a terrible predictability. It involves Ped and Nash on the roof wearing firemen’s helmets and clutching a hose; it involves the imbibing of an entire bottle of Jamesons; and it concludes with a selection of part-time Irish firefighters who would not be shown the way to go home. “I’ve sent them all photos, to the fire station,” says Nash with a glow of pleasure that illuminates the room. “Then we went to Ibiza.”

Ibiza brings us up to October '85. The purpose was to visit the Studio Meditteranee and demo the four songs which somehow emerged from Ireland, among them the new single “Rage Hard”. Then everyone took three week’s holiday because, “well, Ireland put years on some of us,” as Holly put it later on; then everyone went to a studio in Bussum, near Amsterdam, to record with “Pleasuredome” engineer Steve Lipson who, beneath the executive control of Horn, is the producer of “Liverpool”; and then everyone ferried back to the Mersey for Christmas, except Paul, who spent it in New York. And that was 1985; except for one thing. “At this point,” Holly would later recall, “ZTT decided that they didn’t like quite a few of the songs that we’d written and said ‘You have to go and write more’.” Another version of this story, from a source close to ZTT, goes that the material was not just rejected, but projected into a convenient wastebin. Whatever, it was time to pack those bags again. “Jersey was great,” reminisces Nash. Jersey? “Yeah. The bar was open all day, ten bob a pint! Yeah… it was alright, Jersey.”

It also yielded four more songs, and, thus armed, the FGTH posse proceeded directly back to Holland to complete the job. They’re all pretty confident. But, “If this album’s shit, I’ll give it three months,” says Nash.

FRUIT CAKE, Wolfgang's choice of snack was, in some ways, a tiny bit unfortunate. Then Holly went on to explain that Wolf gang “takes care of my immediate needs,” without giggling. Nervously, I searched his eyes for a smile, but found none. It was a desperate moment.

Apparently, Holly met Wolfgang — or ‘Wolfie’ as he refers to him among friends — 18 months back, working in an Earls Court sandwich bar, a pursuit which Wolfgang preferred to describe as “catering”. Holly has now enobled him a “personal manager”, though he advises me that he also deals in art. Various tasteful works appear on the walls of their prettily-fitted home, just off the New Kings Road.

Wolfgang pours the coffee, passes the plates, and speaks to me only when he’s spoken to. Throughout the interview he remains present, an arrangement which has become regular since the fallout of Holly’s first flush of fame. It has to be said that mention of Wolfgang and Holly in the general vicinity of ZTT causes eyes to be raised towards ceilings.

But enough bitchery. The gutter press is where you go for that sort of thing, as Holly himself well knows:

“At no point did the rest of the band come to me and say, ‘We want to throw you out’,” he insists in response to certain lurid tabloid tales of the recent past. There was, though, he accepts, something of a rift, and this came about because of the scant attendance at recording sessions of ZTT supremo Trevor Horn. “There was a point where I said, ‘well, I’m very pissed off that Trevor Horn isn’t here, and I don’t know if I want to keep on recording this album,’ because at this time I was getting rather depressed by our lack of organisation, and the lack of Trevor’s presence. For some reason everyone overreacted to this statement. And I think that’s where it all stemmed from.”

Throughout, our conversation is accompanied by the genteel clink of cutlery on crockery. Wolfgang refills my cup. Holly plainly but politely informs me that there’s no truth in the tale that he’s bought a chain of fish and chip shops up north, and that he really wouldn’t talk to journalists if he didn’t have to. And I don’t blame him one bit.

Holly’s home has an air of emotional sanctuary befitting the Frankie member who professes himself most damaged by what he calls “the whirlwind” surrounding the group’s extraordinary rise: “I found myself having to deal every day with the business aspects of being in a band. We had no idea what was going on, apart from we were having hit records, and oh-what-fun-this-is. I think some of the things that happened disturbed me more than the others. I think… I don’t know… I think I’m a bit more sensitive.”

Where Paul still goes clubbing every night, Holly prefers the security of home. Where The Lads like to celebrate their sudden material wealth, Holly emphasises that he has a 100% mortgage: “I still feel that it could all be pulled from underneath me at any time.”

Also, he explains, he had other ideas for the LP. “I wasn’t that interested in making a commercial album this time. I just had this idea about it being sort of dark… having a social comment, but also certain verbal and aesthetic images as well.”

The title “Liverpool” was Paul Morley’s idea. Rutherford and The Lads went for it straight off. Holly, while thinking it’s “an OK title”, had a first choice of his own: “I felt it should be called ‘From The Diamond Mine To The Factory’ because I thought that described well the transformation from being in Liverpool and being creative, and then becoming absorbed into the mainstream of commercial activity. But no-one else is really that intent about things,” he laughs, lightly. “That’s just me.”

THERE IS A THEORY that it’s a vital part of Scouse civic solidarity to be scrapping among yourselves. It’s an idea that sits comfortably with the city’s political bloodbath, the Merseyside cup final’s warmth (yes, I got a ticket), an idea that underpins also the pointless religious rivalries poignantly explored in Alan Bleasdale’s No Surrender. And maybe we can divine it at work in FGTH too.

Even as they seek out properties in the capital and squabble among themselves, they respond to the call of Home. Rutherford has bought a flat close by Fortress Wapping, yet he still curses Mrs T. with a proper Northern spite. Nash, like half the rest of the UK pop biz, lives in Maida Vale. But Claire, I learn, applies a brisk downhome discipline to keep her hubbie in line. As in: “Put that cigarette out, Brian!”

Mark, meanwhile, has as yet no bricks and mortar of his own. He spent Christmas at his mother’s along with his four brothers and two sisters (Catholics? Correct!) most of whom still live there. The festive season chez O’Toole will, it’s said, be remembered for the impossibility of extracting the Successful Son and his intended from the bathroom. Mark says he’d just as soon have written the songs in Liverpool, but adds, sadly, that, for his dole queue generation, the joy of economic power is that it makes it easy to get out.

Ped agrees, and indulges in a moment of dolour. “When you go out up there, everybody says, ‘Oh look, there’s that fella that used to be in Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Yer, we’ve had all that. I don't think anybody gives a fuck about you,” he snorts.

FRANKIE WENT TO HOLLYWOOD, and there can be no escape. But their new single is as imaginatively stylised a rock item as you could wish for, with its impressive sense of drama, and Holly’s outstanding vocal performance. Frankie may be about to return with a resonance few of us thought possible. “There are things about being brought up in a Liverpool environment that are uneraseable,” says Holly; “and that’s OK with me.” So, go on, get with it, you scally wags. Rage Hard!