Title: Frankie Goes To Hollywood in the war game
Author: Neil Tennant
Source: Smash Hits
Publish date: April 26 1984
They’ve become the most notorious British group since the Sex Pistols. Now they’re dressing up in army uniforms to promote their new single — “a song about peace”. Neil Tennant presents…
“We’re not trying to create controversy,” sighs William Holly Johnson, singer with the most notorious British group since the Sex Pistols, “although controversy is nice. Life in general is so boring that controversy spices it up.”
I have to admit that meeting Holly and bass guitarist Mark O’Toole of Frankie Goes To Hollywood is almost a disappointment. They’re so nice. Polite, funny, friendly. Not at all the outrageous decadents of popular imagination.
“A lot of the scam that surrounds Frankie has been media-invented because they like it,” explains Holly. But surely it’s been encouraged by your record company (Zang Tuum Tumb)?
“Of course, because they’re a commercial concern and they’ll encourage anything to get publicity. It’s a team, like any record company. It’s just that we’ve got a particularly imaginative team and most companies haven’t.”
The sudden notoriety they acquired when “Relax” was banned by the BBC seems to have taken them by surprise.
Holly: “The song had been around for a long time. It had been played on The Tube, it has been played on the BBC.”
Mark: “We did it for sessions as well.”
Holly: “We didn’t contrive or expect it to be banned.”
What does it mean, anyway, “Relax, don’t do it”? Don’t do what?
Holly: “Don’t relax, of course!”
Holly has always loved dressing up. Like the rest of the group he comes from Liverpool, his family living “just round the corner from Penny Lane”, and his first experience of wearing something a bit different came in church.
“I was a choirboy. But only ‘cause I used to love dressing up. Cassocks. It was fab. I used to go on choir outings and you used to get sixpence a show. You did! It was like being in the theatre.”
Mark: “He used to rob the plate!”
Holly: “No, I never. I never ever robbed the plate. I remember robbing something at Harvest Festival but I never robbed the plate.”
By the age of 13 he had become a fervent Davie Bowie fan with bright red hair.
“Actually, I was more into looking like Angie Bowie (his wife)! The thing was, though, people who were into David Bowie didn’t want to look like him. I just wanted to look individual.”
Which led him into his Judy Garland phase.
“That was fab. A great bit D.A. (hair-do) with a huge peak and I used to wear ‘40s jackets with big shoulders. It didn’t last though; I was only about 14 then. I sued to walk around singing, ‘Rock-a-bye your baby with a Dixie melody.”
Then there was the blond skinhead look.
“For years. Me social security number was written on the side of me head.
“Then I had the mini-mohican. Just a square of blond hair and a beard. That was quite weird.”
Mark cackles at the memory.
“Ugly, wasn’t it!” admits Holly. “The worst was when I shaved me head and used to paint it red and green. You used to get people writing in to the Liverpool Echo saying, ‘Who’s this Martian walking round town?’ I used to get battered. Going out to lunch was like running the gauntlet.”
Mark: “If I’d have seen you, I’d most likely have battered you!”
Mark, Pedro (the drummer) and guitarist Brian “Gnasher” Nash (Mark’s cousing) are four years younger than Holly and Frankie’s other singer, Paul Rutherford. They’re played in a network of bands; Pedro drumming, for instance, in Mark’s brother’s band. While Holly was in his Judy Garland phase, they were still at school, going to Liverpool matches and wearing “scally” clothes: Kickers, Nike and Pod.
On leaving school, they each got jobs: Brian was an electrician; Pedro was a wood machinist until be was made redundant; Mark was a carpenter. In fact Mark was earning more as a carpenter than he does in the group at the moment, though that will soon change. He remarks of Paul and holly: “Those two have only done layabout jobs!” Holly has been a pizza-chef, a labourer and done “a little bit of theatre”. Paul used to work in a gay nightclub in London called Subway. He and holly have been friends for nine years.
In 1978 Holly joined his first group, Big In Japan, who were very famous in Liverpool and released one EP and one single. I ask Holy how they fitted into the Liverpool music scene of the late ‘70s which produced The Teardrop Explodes, Echo & The Bunnymen, Wah! etc.
“Well,” he says proudly, “we were always hipper than them because we were in Big In Japan. There were the plebs who used to come and watch Big In Japan gigs and it really gave then the impetus to form bands ‘cause it used to get on their nerves that we were the elitist crew. Then they had loads of success — much to everyone’s surprise, bitch, bitch.” He laughs wickedly. “I’m not bitching! I’m just saying the way it was! I think Echo & The Bunnymen are brilliant. They deserve all their success.”
After Big In Japan broke up, Holly released a couple of solo singles, “Yankee Rose” (“cowboy sleaze!”) and “Hobo Joe”. Paul, meanwhile, sang with a group called The Spitfire Boys, who released a single in 1977. “He sounded like Johnny Rotten,” remembers Holly.
One day Holly was introduced to Mark, Pedro and Brian in Virgin Records when Mark was trying to “cop off with this girl in this clothes shop round the corner.” A couple of years later, after “loads of different permutations”, they formed Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Coming from the Liverpool club scene which had, in Holly’s words, “No restrictions”, means that there has never been any tension arising from the fact that Paul and Holly are gay and the others aren’t.
“You can go to any Liverpool pub and there’s always one, if you know what I mean,” explains Holly. “Liverpool people are quite cool to all that.” Mark nods in agreement. And all the group objected when “Relax” was at first promoted with sexy pictures of Holly and Paul.
Holly: “It looked like and outrageous Wham! And it wasn’t our doing.”
From the beginning they were determined to be successful. They wrote a bunch of songs and rehearsed a live act with two dancers, The Leatherpets, and later a drag queen called Mark Time. After an appearance on The Tube last year and a session on David Jensen’s show, producer Trevor Horn (“a little fellow with glasses”, as Mark describes him) phoned them up and asked if they’d like to be on his new label, Zang Tuum Tumb. They agreed, “Relax” was recorded and the rest, they say, is history.
How have your lives changed since getting to Number One?
“Well I’ve moved from Toxteth (Liverpool) to Knightsbridge (London),” says Holly. “I like the contrast.”
Mark still lives at home in Liverpool. “There’s a girls’ school in our road and they’re always looking up to my bedroom to see if I’m in there.”
I wonder if their families were at all embarrassed by the “Relax” banning? I’m assured vehemently that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“They were all going to gang up and get Mike Read when he banned it,” says Mark. “Me Dad got all this friends in the local pub and loads of friends and that to sign a petition and sent it to Mike Read. It was dead good. They got about 2000 signatures on it.”
Now they’re discovering what hard work means.
Holly: “This is harder work than any other job I’ve every witnessed. It changes totally when you get to Number One — that’s when the work begins. You start to promote in other countries. And you have to get used to people treating you in a different way: you don’t change but people’s attitude to you do.”
“Relax” has now been a hit all over Europe — in Germany it was Number One for six weeks — and it’s climbing up the American charts. Meanwhile in Britain a new single, “Two Tribes”, is about to be released and Frankie seemed to be promoting it with pictures of themselves in military uniforms. More controversy?
“It just looks good, doesn’t it?” says Mark of the uniform.
“‘Two Tribes’ is just about peace, peace,” says Holly. “‘When two tribes go to war…’ There’s two elements in the music — an American funk line and a Russian line. It’s the most obvious demonstration of two tribes that we have today.”
Hence they’re wearing Russian uniforms against an American city background in the photograph right.
They don’t expect the BBC to ban “Two Tribes”. Mark reckons that they’ll “play it to death.”
“Our music is really good,” Holly insists. “Controversy is something extra but our records will always stand up on their own.”