Title: A hard reign
Author: Mr Spencer
Publish date: November 1, 1986
With ‘Liverpool’ - the LP - getting a universal critical panning, FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD are clearly no longer this week’s most lickable flavour. MR SPENCER joined them on a trip to Europe to go “Wooo!”, ride in flash cars and ask about the power of their pop in 1986. Photos by RUSSELL YOUNG
A MARMITE sandwich flies through the air, whistling over the top of a brightly painted backdrop. It plummets earthwards just inches behind a French TV presenter’s head, hitting the stage with a stodgy thump live on air in front of an estimated 70 million viewers.
Holly giggles and scurries over to the backstage monitor, where we’ve all been observing - with barely concealed amusement - the madcap results of this saucy singer’s nutty escapade.
Basically, we’re all terribly bored. And any entertainment, however juvenile, comes as a welcome respite from all this waiting. We’re hanging around (now without even a savoury snack to ease the tedium) for Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s brief appearance on a dreadful Channel One pop extravaganza by and for the French but, for practical reasons, going out from a large barn in Brussels.
You have to laugh. Frankie do. Like, for instance, when earlier today our fleet of chauffeur-driven cars pulled up at the barn for rehearsals, and to our dismay we found that the vehicles would on no account be allowed through the gates. This meant the band would be forced to walk some 20 yards to reach their destination.
Naturally enough, there was much uproar as the group’s tour manager leapt out and battled with bewildered Belgian security guards, themselves unable to put a foot right having been victims of incompetent organisation from the word ‘go’.
All they could do was apologise, but it wasn’t good enough.
Frankie sat tight - Holly, Paul Rutherford and the lads doubled-up with mirth at the chaos they were causing, tears dribbling down their cheeks as they watched their spokesman go in for the kill.
Then after five minutes of absolute bedlam, the band simply got out and made the journey by foot, grinning from head to toe, leaving their tour manager fuming.
It’s like an episode of Jim’ll Fix It. Almost like Frankie wrote in asking to be pop stars for a day, got what they wanted and then vanished with the goodies. They’ve been pop stars now for over two years, although some might say Savile’s in hot pursuit and gaining on them fast.
Well, maybe he is, maybe he isn’t.
In a flash car now, bombing through the city, making a point of offending the locals. The lads - Mark O’Toole, Gnasher and Ped - are fooling around with tampons and the girl driver’s cackling like she doesn’t really mean it. It’s like, Tee hee hee, you have to laugh or else you’ll get flung out at 70mph which wouldn’t be altogether nice.
Check the rear-view mirror. No sign of Savile as yet, but then he’ll never get his limo back in one piece anyway, not after these nutcases have finished with it. Oh no, they’ll not be giving up their bumper haul without a fight.
DATELINE: AUTUMN 1986. Regress a couple of years and Frankie Goes To Hollywood are busy being the greatest rock thing since the revelations of Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ and, before that, the wicked smile on Johnny Rotten’s face during his sublime Bill Grundy interview in December ‘76.
I’d clean forgotten how splendid Frankie had once been. But now, that summer - the summer when ‘Two Tribes’ came at you constantly but never grew tiresome, where the band appeared on Top Of The Pops and actually dirtied it, briefly, with their seedy splash of leather and flesh and Liverpudlian hardnut arrogance - it all comes flooding back to me.
They’d been subersive, crafty, amusing. They’d stormed the world with their gayboy guerrilla tactics and there seemed to be no stopping them. Frankie spelt Excitement. They were the word on everybody’s lips, the rascals. Then there arrived a pretty Christmas release and the top-selling double-album, then the edited down ‘Welcome To The Pleasure Dome’ single, followed by the debut tour and then silence.
And a year after it all went quiet there was ‘Rage Hard’, a blistering Top Five single, and now there’s ‘Liverpool’ - an exotic new LP which finds Frankie suddenly emerging out of nowhere with a more restrained outlook - still dynamic and captivating, but no longer a shock to the senses. Unfortunately, it has received widespread critical condemnation.
Today we have to accept them for what they are, and one thing they are not is Bigger Than Jesus - unlike, for instance, Dirty Den, who is. Frankie Goes To Hollywood: five hooligans from Liverpool; three lovable rogues and two super-snazzy mischief-makers.
I’m squashed up next to Holly Johnson (truly a crown-prince of mischief-making) in the back of our speeding vehicle, watching riot police seal off large areas of Brussels. Something to do with the whole of Belgian society collapsing, I believe.
(Turning to my neighbour) Don’t you find this whole thing competely absurd?
“Absurd?” Holly is stunned. “Well, it’s no more absurd than there being a Queen or a Margaret Thatcher or you being here talking to me now.”
This is true, after all; we’re in this together. Frankie After The Bang. Meanwhile, in Brussels tonight there’s an unmistakable whiff of anarchy in the air, the kids are taking to the streets and the government’s crumbling.
The Frankie Gang, on the other hand, are content with going “Wooo! Wooo!” as their car whizzes through the capital city’s tunnels.
It’s a lovely sound. It’s like the ‘Pleasure Dome’ cartoons coming to life. What I mean is, this is the world where the big pop stars live, and nobody can touch us, not even that large be-helmeted chap who’s jumping up and down and waving a loaded sub-machine gun above his head… YOINKS!
Back at the barn the TV show’s now well underway. We all point and laugh upon catching sight of top continental pop-metal band, Europe. Nothing else to do, no Marmite sandwiches left, so it’s off to the makeshift dressing-room where Holly almost puts his weight down on a trick chair (its legs have been mangled by some zany prankster!), but fortunately a kindly soul warns him off before any damage is done.
“I’m just having an off day,” the stylish singer explains. “It’s this strange weather making me feel odd, like just before a thunderstorm, you know?”
It is indeed a bleak day in Belgium. Frankie are preparing to go onstage and mime to ‘Rage Hard’, which has recently been toppled from the Number One position in the German charts. The locals have caught a glimpse of the band and the vibe’s now so intense that the kids are considering standing up rather than sitting down.
Naah! Actually it’s like a morgue, and to worsen matters the boys really aren’t in the mood for thrill-a-minute pop action. But then I always think it’s fantastic when artists perform regardless of illness or exhaustion.
I mention this to Holly during an hour-long respite from sticking two fingers up at people and general looning around.
“I mean, at Hammersmith Odeon I had the raving Russian’flu and I was expected to go onstage,” the natty warbler recollects with a wince. “But if I’d turned around and said, Look, I want to cancel the next four dates, there would’ve been murder and outcry. So you tend to just do it, which is of course wrong.”
Do your companions’ barmy antics embarrass you?
“No, I don’t feel any responsibility towards them at all.”
Ped (he’s the big hairy drummer): “Holly f****** starts it most of the time!” (This is correct.) “He doesn’t give a f*** what we do and we don’t give a f*** what he does.”
You don’t feel like a father or a mother figure to the others then, Holly?
“Not at all, that’s their trip.”
Do you often have to smile at their crackpot capers?
“I laugh about it, yeah. I mean, I’ve been there and, what’s more, I fully understand it.”
You see, they’re all in this together. Frankie After The Bang.
THE BIG question: at this point in time, are Frankie Goes To Hollywood an exciting phenomenon? Or is it simply the sound of ‘84 all over again? Or what?
“It is absolutely perfect for that moment,” Holly recalls.
You made 1984 really sparkle!
“Well, you see, this is a different year altogether. I think there’s quite an air of the dismal about 1986 really, it’s been a dreadful summer.”
Is ‘Rage Hard’ another way of saying ‘Live Fast Die Young’?
“No, it’s saying: don’t die quietly, resist the greyness surrounding us at the moment. I do think there is a particular cultural greyness, and this kind of manifests itself in lots of forms, particularly in the way people just wear black these days, as if there’s this huge funeral going on.”
Perhaps there is.
“What a pity.”
Are you optimistic about the future? “Sometimes I am and sometimes I ain’t.”
It strikes me that musically, at least, Frankie are sobering up.
“Well, I mean, I describe the ‘Liverpool’ album as removing the rose-tinted spectacles of ‘Pleasure Dome’. It’s a more mature record and a more serious record, but it’s a case of like it or lump it, you know? I’m not a performing puppet.”
Hmm. Were you indignant at having to leave the car and walk here earlier today?
“No, that didn’t bother me in the slightest. Why? Did you think it would’ve?”
It certainly bothered me.
No, I’m only pulling your leg.
“I don’t think you should take yourself too seriously in that respect - Oh I’m a Star! I can’t walk those few steps - because with that attitude you’ll soon be back on the street. You just get on with the job in hand.”
(To Ped) Don’t you think it’s potty, a bunch of geezers like yourselves being treated like royalty?
“Oh yeah, it’s a good laff, and you take all the advantages out of it that you can.”
Do you enjoy being able to do things you wouldn’t normally get away with?
“We’d mostly be doing the same things anyway, only no one’d be there to look at us doin’ them.”
I suppose so, yeah.
Holly: “Actually, sometimes it is unreal, but you see I lead a pretty ordinary life when I’m not working. Nobody bothers me round where I live really, except just the once when ‘Rage Hard’ came out. I’d lived there for six months and no one’d said boo to me, then suddenly it was incredible, the difference in attitude that the people in the corner shop had.”
What did they say?
“Oooooh, c’mon! Give us your autograph - all that kind of bullshit.”
And you just wanted to buy a can of beans!
But not a jar of Marmite?
“Definitely not Marmite, bluuhh!” (Dishy Frankie Frontman Holly Doesn’t Like Marmite Shocker!) “Pineapple jam is more my scene.”
Pineapple jam! Why I only bought myself a new jar last week!
“It’s good, isn’t it? But don’t bother with peach, they simply can’t recreate the peach taste.”
They certainly can’t.
SO HERE we are, utter bedlam, a dump of a dressing-room to start with and now it’s even worse, bottles all over the place and the Frankie Gang threatening to drown out the music of their fellow artistes with their own loutish conversation and raucous laughter…
Crash!!! Glass breaking. Crunch!!! Table collapsing. Splosh!!! Crappy wine going all over the floor. Gaffaw!!! Someone makes a rude wisecrack about Boomtown Rats keyboard-wizard Johnny Fingers. (It’s his name, it’s his name, geddit???)
Ped pauses to dip a tampon in a puddle of rosé.
“The jokes we like are absolutely so stupid that everyone just hates them,” he grins. “In fact, anything everyone else hates we all enjoy, but we’re not so much into jokes as doing stupid things, like kicking people out of cars and all that.”
So who’s your favourite comedian?
“Someone like Tommy Cooper, because he was so ridiculous it was funny, like.”
Ever get reflective, serious, poignant?
“Only when we absolutely have to be.”
Does it make you uncomfortable, being serious?
“Oh no, it’s not so much feeling uncomfortable about being serious, it’s more all the little clichés in the pop world, we like taking the piss out of them.”
You don’t ever rush up to record company folk and kiss them on the cheek, squealing, Daahling!???
“Oh God, that’s a really bad one, when they say, Oh how are you? Dying to meet you, haven’t seen you in ages, and no one really gives a f***. It’s just bullshit, all this, We’ll have to get together sometime, and they know quite well you won’t, like.”
Brilliant stuff, love it…
“Anyone who ever does that out of this band, especially us three, they just get a good fist in the kidneys.”
Thonk!!! This man’s a hero!
And off they go, striding through a crowd of admirers up their stairs to a smallish stage in the middle of the Wembley Arena-sized auditorium.
Suddenly the group are alive with enthusiasm: Holly goes amongst the fans and Paul boogies numbly while the others mime their respective instrument parts, with gusto.
Upon finishing, the lads are surrounded by autograph-hunters. After the band have shaken as many hands as possible, we all leap into a waiting car and head for the gates.
They’re my new mates, The Frankie Gang, I know it’s true ‘cos I’m allowed inside their limo. (Ped: “Nobody gets into the lads’ limo.”)
Holly Johnson, a question: at this point in 1986 do Frankie Goes To Hollywood deserve to be on the cover of a top-selling national pop paper?
“Well, I think the more relevant question is does a top-selling national pop paper deserve to be on the back of Frankie Goes To Hollywood, to tell you the truth.”
A FLASH car accelerates towards the horizon with The Frankie Gang forming a human pyramid on the roof. It soon vanishes in a cloud of dust. All is tranquil. Nothing to be heard, just the distant hum of Brussels by night.
Scarcely audible at first, a mysterious huffa-puffa sound breaks the silence. It grows louder and louder, building to a crescendo. And then he appears.
An elderly white-haired gentleman with running shorts and a cigar emerges over the crest of the hill. Barely pausing for breath, he winks in our direction and jogs off into the sunset, in hot pursuit of the Frankies.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.