Title: Frankie goes to work
Author: Mike Nicholls
Source: International Musician and Recording World
Publish date: October 1984
FRANKIE GOES TO WORK
We’re living in a land where producers and their Fairlights are the new Gods.
Is this the future of Rock ‘n’ Roll or the epitaph of musicianship?
At last Mike Nicholls prises the true story from the three scallywags comprising the backbone of the big, beautiful band.
THEY MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN around for long but already the brief career of Frankie Goes To Hollywood has been a whirlwind of controversy. A banned single, two banned videos and more positively, their first two releases yielding number one platinum-selling singles.
For a while Two Tribes and Relax occupied the top two positions in the charts — an ideal opportunity for the knockers to move in. True to form Fleet Street, attempted a backlash - one of a technical kind, t’boot.
They both reported that it wasn’t the Frankies who played on Relax, now amongst the Top 10 biggest selling 45s in this country of all time, but Ian Dury’s old backing band, The Blockheads. And that as the group doesn’t have a keyboard player, producer and owner of their record company Trevor Horn had to bring session players in to complete the gaps.
As a result of this story and an interest to hear how the UK’s top group makes their records, I spoke to the three musicians in Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Holly and moustachioed Paul Rutherford might be the two front men but their colleagues are beginning to get an equal amount of publicity and they do write all the music. They call themselves ‘The Lads’ and comprise Mark O’Toole (bass), Peter “Ped” Gill (drums) and Brian “Nasher” Nash (guitar).
All 20 years old (four years younger than the others) they can best be described as typical Scousers, quickwitted, streetwise and with a natural flair for cocky arrogance of the most endearing kind. Each of them played in other groups around Liverpool before the Frankies formed but had known Holly, a prominent character on the Merseyside music scene since his Big In Japan days on the late Seventies.
Mark’s brother, Jed, was the original guitarist “but had to leave, like, ‘cos he got married and a mortgage and all that so it was a bit insecure for him,” says Ped.
Right now he must know exactly how Pete Best, nearly of The Beatles, must have felt. Eventually Jed was replaced with Brian who saw them from the audience at one of their early gigs.
In the same way as The Crucial Three of Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie never actually got round to playing a gig, the Liverpool scene of that period was full of stops and false-starts, combos never coming together, breaking up after two rehearsals and so on. As such none of them can remember the name of this early Mark/Holly/Nasher prototype Frankie, but they can remember their first gigs and getting turned down by lots of record companies.
“We played some in Leeds and Coventry and other weird places but our first was in Liverpool supporting Hambi And The Dance. Then in the Autumn of 1982, which was only a few months later, we appeared on The Tube. That’s where Paul Morley (the writer who works with Horn) spotted us which led to us getting signed to the new label ZTT (Zang Tuum Tumb) being set up,” says Nasher.
“We’d already been round the record companies. Phonogram didn’t want to know and neither did Arista, even after they had paid for us to do demos of Relax and Two Tribes!”
Hooked up to ZTT, the band went into the studios with Trevor Horn in early ‘83. It was at this preliminary stage that the Blockheads entered the picture.
“At first we were like 18 and Trevor thought ‘they mustn’t be able to play very well,’ like, but he hadn’t even heard us,” begins Ped. “It was only natural that a man of his calibre was gonna think like that. He thought that using seasoned musicians like The Blockheads would be the best way of breaking a new band, like.
“Then he realised that they were too good, too slick and he couldn’t use what amounted to their demo. So he used ours instead. When we saw all that in the papers we thought ‘If we find out who’s responsible for that, they’re not gonna live, like.’ The newspaper actually phoned us up first and said, ‘If you don't give us a quote and deny all this, we’re gonna print it anyway.’
“So we let them. We thought ‘they’re going to try and make prats of us anyway ‘cos we’re number one and number two, so let them go ahead’. Then of course there was all that stuff about our instruments not being on the records, just the gadgets. Well a lot of bands use lots of electronic stuff but they won’t admit it. And it’s a stupid attitude ‘cos it’s just dragging music back.”
Much of the material that The Frankies played at their first gigs will appear on the forthcoming album, Welcome To The Pleasuredome. Both Relax and Two Tribes were written a while ago — “in my bedroom”, Mark points out — which should at least put paid to suggestions that The Lads don’t write their songs, either.
Recently they all moved into their own flat in Maida Vale and with the help of a Portastudio were able to start preparing demos for the LP. Mark takes me on a guided tour of the lounge:
“We’ve got a Sequential Circuits Drumtraks, a Sequential Circuits Sixtraks synth, a Teac Portastudio and a set of JBL speakers with a Quad amp to power it all. Then there’s an MXR Omni effects rack, which is just a few effects in one unit, really.
“For the guitar Nasher’s got an Arion Hot Watt which is like a mini-amplifier with headphones, but you can DI it through and use it as an effects rack. Like it’s got sustain, distortion, echo and chorus on it which is like really useful for my Fender Precision bass and Nasher’s Strat. Then we might borrow stuff off the studio like a 12-string or a Linn which Ped knows how to programme.
“It’s all dead simple, you know. People must think we got into a big studio and are lost but it’s just a case of us writing the music and then giving it to Holly to get inspired to write a lyric. As for Paul (Rutherford) he doesn’t really write though he is an important member of the band visually, dancin’ around and giving it loads while Holly is singing, taking some of the pressure off him.”
“Without anyone member of the band, it wouldn’t work,” Mark assures me.
Having demoed the backing tracks at home — prior to acquiring the flat they used Nomis rehearsal studios but found neighbouring wine lodges too much of a distraction — they take them over to Horn’s Sarm West studio where they are prepared for Fairlight computer and keyboards. This is where the boffins move in, though at this stage Trevor Horn himself remains relatively uninvolved.
“We’ve got an established team of ourselves, Trevor’s engineer John (JJ) Jeczalik and a session keyboard player. At the moment we’re using Don Snow who used to play for The Strawbs,” laughs Ped. “Actually Trevor met him when he was working with Foreigner although more recently he’s been with Nik Kershaw. Someone called Andy Richards played on Relax but when we play live we want to get our own keyboard lad. Someone off the streets, just like us.
“Although the group prepare the samples for the Fairlight themselves, they admit that it is JJ who programmes it, being as he is specifically Horn’s Fairlight engineer. But do they know how one works?
“That’s not our job, really,” replies Ped. “If you see someone like Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, he’s got a Fairlight but when it comes to playing gigs you ask him if he knows how to work one and he’d say ‘no’. Same with us. But we sample the notes into it, although by the time they come out they’re so distorted that it wouldn’t really matter,” he continues with the utmost honesty.
“That’s the whole idea of the Fairlight — to distort sound. If you wanted a more realistic sound you’d use a Synclavier because that’s what they’re there for, but we haven’t used one of them much. The Fairlight does something to the sound but still makes it sound good. It’s just the same as when you give your tapes to a producer and they come out sounding different after he’s mixed them or whatever. It’s still the same song even if it does come out sounding different.
So why use one in the first place?
“Because it gets us to number one,” explodes Nasher. “It makes us rich and famous. No, seriously, the sounds are better. We want to make the best records in the world and the only way to do it is through technology, y’know.”
“Nobody goes into a studio now and says ‘Let’s spend three weeks setting up a drum track and if we can’t get the right sound we’ll settle for second best’,” adds Ped. “So rather than trying to use 18 different kits in three different studios, it’s best to use modern tools like the Fairlight. Some people think they’re putting musicians out of business but they’re really just another instrument. Others are just being really petty, especially older musicians with the attitude, ‘we’re musos and we’re going through the old routine.’ But I mean, does it really matter if a drum sound or a bass sound comes from a fuckin’ machine? Like we’re playing them in the first place and they end up sounding the same only perfect, exactly how we want them.
“The best drummer in the world can’t play exact spot-on 4/4 time arid anyone who claims they can is a liar,” he concludes.
Once the cuts have almost been completed with the engineer, Mr Horn makes his grand entrance to have the final say.
“He’ll come in every now and then and say, ‘I don’t like this, I like this’ or ‘why don’t you change this?’ He directs us, basically, like a film director,” explains Mark. “Then he’ll go back into his office (ZTT and Horn’s Sarm West studios are housed in the same building) where he might be dreaming up a masterplan for the album or something. He’s a great thinker and a great one for asking everybody else what they think.
“He might go into another studio and get an opinion there. Or play us a mix and watch the reaction on our faces regardless of what we actually say later. We can wind him up and tell him something is really shit but he’ll have sussed what we really think.
“He’s set all the standards, basically, so he can do what he wants. He doesn’t have to listen to Steve Lillywhite or any other producer to see what they’re doing to try to copy their style because he sets the pace. He picks information off people no matter how stupid they are. He’ll listen to the cook who’s just as likely to come up with the right opinion as a top producer since he’s a member of the public who buys the record.
“Trevor’s going to do the opening speech at this year’s music biz seminar in New York. When everybody asks him how he makes his records he’s going to give ‘em a load of rubbish and send ‘em off on the wrong track. I mean, why should he give any secrets away?” the drummer goes on with a smirk.
Requesting opinions aside, Horn remains a perfectionist and ends up only following to the letter that which he himself thinks — or feels.
“That’s why the records take such a long time to make” says Nasher. “And that’s the difference between ZTT and other record companies. Anywhere else something has to be out by a certain date but with us nothing goes out until we’re completely satisfied with it. Two Tribes was out way after it was scheduled and we still haven’t got the perfect mix! The basic 7” (that topped the charts for more than two months and has followed Relax into the biggest — selling single record books) wasn’t very good. We don’t like it.”
Once the LP is out, the band intend to turn their attention to touring. Having plucked their aforementioned keyboard player “from the streets, and maybe a percussion player as well because there’s a lot of percussion and we don’t want to use tapes and stuff,” for stage purposes the Frankies intend to dispense with machines altogether; computers or otherwise.
“Whenever you see bands that use tapes, you always walk away thinking you’ve been cheated,” complains Mark. “I’d rather see live musicians no matter how shitty they sound. On Midsummer Night’s Tube everybody was playing live. The other musicians were the studio players (including Trevor Horn on bongos) who played on the record so it was only right to let them on telly.
“We wanted to show that we’re not just the puppets of Trevor and his machines. If that were the case he’d do it himself and take all the money.”
So once they take to the road it’ll be a case of sticking to traditional instruments as much as possible. In addition to his Fender Stratocaster, Nasher has recently acquired a Yamaha SG3000, confessing “I wanna be a really obnoxious bastard and own loads of guitars!” As for the possibility of using a guitar synthesizer, well, perish the thought:
“Guitar synths?” he snorts, “When you get down to it it’s a guitar you’re playing and if you wanna synth, get someone to play one, like a keyboard man. Forget the SynthAxe. If you’re gonna spend three hours mucking about with it before you can get a sound, you might as well have an extra synth player.
“I mean, Christ, that Roland Guitar Synth G707 with the sustain arm. What up-and-coming band could afford one and what an ugly bugger to have to play. It might be all right if you’re at home making four-track demos but… if you want to get a brassy sound from a guitar and say ‘its polyphonic!’, get a Jupiter 8 and plug it in. Get a bigger brass sound altogether!
“When you think about it, you can only go so far with guitar synths and at the end of the day they break(!) Great if you’re like Andy Summers and you haven’t got three session keyboards behind you and need that extra boost, but basically, get another musician. At least, we’re gonna!
“So you see, we’re not really into guitar synths,” murmurs Mark dryly. Meanwhile what does the handsome bassist go for?
“In addition to my Fender Precision bass I've used a Wal and this thing that Trevor’s got — a Music Man Cutlass. He got it in America as a present off Foreigner. It has a graphite neck and is a brilliant bass.”
As for Ped, in the best Liverpudlian tradition (say, Ringo Starr) he’s the proud owner of two Ludwig kits with 13”, 14”, 16” and 24” shells, and a small Sonor kit for the studio. “I’ll be looking forward to hitting the bigger kits,” he says, “but first we’ve a few things to tidy up at Sarm.”
Have you been working almost office hours on the album? I remember Martin Fry once saying that Trevor’s basically a nine to five man, arriving fresh each day in a clean shirt.
“It’s the only way to do it,” agrees Ped. “In any case, evenings and weekends we need at home — that’s when we write. I was talking to Steve Levine (producer of Culture Club amongst others) and he said ‘Once it gets past daylight you don’t really wanna know about it. You’ve got too much on your mind.’
“Then Steve Lipson, who’s engineered for the Stones was telling us how ridiculous it was working with them. Apparently it would be arranged that everyone would be in the studio by 10 o'clock and by two in the morning the Stones would roll in. This went on for a couple of months.”
“Now you can understand why Keith Richards looks the way he does,” Mark points out, “but it’s not so clever. We’d rather treat it all like the business that it is.”
Maybe it is this above all which explains the escalating success of Frankie Goes to Hollywood. They may be following in the footsteps of the early Stones as far as controversy is concerned and their rhythms might be just as hard. But their attitude is quite the opposite of how one would expect from a band whose records and videos have been banned.
There’s a rich irony in a band like Yes seemingly enlisting the services of Trevor Horn. It shows Rock’n’Roll’s wheel of fortune not only turning full circle but also reversing back the opposite way. But there are even greater riches ahead for Hollywood’s adopted sons. Providing they don’t relax. Too much.