Title: Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Source: The Sony Tape Rock Review 1984
Outrage has always played a massive and underrated - role in the marketing of rock and roll music. How else could Bill Haley - visually an overweight red neck dressed in a dinner jacket - have shocked a nation with a song that simply suggested dancing the night away.
How else could a bunch of scruffy kids in love with playing Rhythm and Blues, but incapable of writing their own material, have metamorphosed into that mid-sixties nightmare of all respectable parents, the Rolling Stones?
Or what a bout that bunch of yobs whose clothes were all held together by safety pins, who had short spiky hair rather than that trendy long stuff? They went on telly, were being asked perfectly sensible questions by that nice Bill Grundy and they replied using rude four letter words beginning with F. Remember the Sex Pistols?
It happened again in 1984. In January, the perfect month to confirm paranoids that there was still a chance for Orwell to be right after all.
There was this jolly ordinary pop song Relax cruising it’s way up the charts (Actually it was not that ordinary, but more of that later). Then one Wednesday morning Radio One disc jockey Mike Read decreed that the said Relax had absolutely the opposite effect on him, that it was disgusting and all about sex. (Pop music, of course, has never been about sex!)
Decreeing that this filthy record would never be heard again on his radio show, Read hurtled it across the studio, where presumably it shattered into two million pieces. Breakfast in thousands of households was momentarily interrupted before the population got back to ordinary life and went off to work or school.
And that’s where it should all have ended. Read would have been forgiven his tantrum and Frankie Goes To Hollywood might still have gone to Number One. For to give Relax full credit, it is a totally brilliant dance record, coupling a stirring chorus with a rippling rhythm that drags weary feet war whooping across the floor. It is not so much a record about everyday boy-meets-girl, they kiss-and-cuddle-a-bit sex, but about a nuclear session between the sheets. Exhilarating, but exhausting.
The problem was that the two singers admitted that they were homosexuals. They were also signed to a brand new record label owned by their producer Trevor Horn, Zang Tuum Tuub (reputedly that is the sound made when you thump a drum). And ZTT’s marketing was in the hands of the fiendish Paul Morley.
Readers of The New Musical Express know of Morley as a fairly vicious, intense, Mancunian writer, suffering from a love-hate relationship with the music business. Morley had come out of punk and he was determined to recreate, artificially if necessary, the outrage of that era.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood were the perfect vehicle, ready made to clone into OUTRAGE. Relax’s sleeve is deliberately sexually ambiguous. The first 12 inch mix was provocatively called a “Sex Mix”, the sleeve notes threatened and tantalised. But the coup de grace can be found in one corner of the seven inch single sleeve.
Printing lyrics is not an original ploy, but here for children of all ages to see were the immortal lines: “Relax don’t do it when you want to suck it to it, relax don’t do it when you want to come.”
The suggestion of fellatio was too much for the BBC. Most of the bosses went to public school, so to their minds the implication was obvious. The song was all about two men having sex together.
So Read’s ban metamorphosed into a fullscale corporation wipe out. It was slightly embarassing that Radio One had played Relax some 90 times previously and that Frankie had done one Top Of The Pops already. The controversy caused by the ban, fuelled by Fleet Street (which for once did not agree with the Beeb and don its role as moral arbiter of the country), shot the record to the top of the charts.
“The whole Relax thing was ridiculous,” says second singer Paul Rutherford, “I do not condone what Mike Read did censoring it. He does not have the right. Maybe he thinks he does, sitting there with his headphones on.
“We hold no malice towards him. If anything we can thank him for making it a more important record than it was. But I’m not going to.”
It was poetic justice that Read was the DJ with the honour of introducing Frankie on Top Of The Pops the week their second single Two Tribes began its chart career at the very top.
Meanwhile, Relax had started to go up the charts again, attaining a life and behaviour pattern unique even in the rock world.
At the very moment when Frankie Goes To Hollywood should have been heard in every home in the land 12 times a day ad nauseam, there was nothing. Just silence. Everyone wanted to hear Frankie, to see Frankie, to touch Frankie and they were not allowed to. The record buying public is like a child: what it cannot have, it must have.
After releasing just two singles, Frankie Goes To Hollywood have become one of the country’s major rock bands. And still no one knows much about them. Except, perhaps, that they are all from Liverpool and are intent on breaking one of that city’s fabled pop records. Only Gerry and the Pacemakers had Number Ones with all their first three releases.
William “Holly” Johnson was born in 1960 in Wavertree, not far from Penny Lane. (In the early days he used to claim to being born in Khartoum in the Sudan). His father worked first as a seaman, then as an insurance salesman, then as a building worker.
Liverpool has - because of the docks always enjoyed a more carefree night life, been more open to the bizarre and the foreign, but as a teenager young William still managed to shock the neighbourhood.
“I used to shave me head and paint it red and green. People wrote to the Liverpool Echo saying ‘Who’s this Martian walking around town?”
Hanging out in a club for “is-year-old weirdos” he bumped into Paul Rutherford (born 1959 in Liverpool; with a merchant seaman father). They have been friends ever since.
“Decadence was the key word then. We were all into a bisexual scene. The name Holly was given to me by a girl called Yvonne Petrovitch, because of the Andy Warhol connection with the transvestite Holly Woodlawn.”
Holly’s first musical gig was in local outfit Big In Japan, playing guitar behind singer Jayne Casey. At the time Paul Rutherford was sharing a flat with Pete Burns, the singer in Dead Or Alive.
“We started off as local weirdos getting into fights and ended up as landmarks. We used to congregate at Eric’s.”
Eric’s, built on the site where the Cavern Club had once housed lunchtime gigs from the Beatles, was the seminal Liverpool club. It was there that Echo and the Bunnymen, Julian Cope (Teardrop Explodes), Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark, Wah and other bands with silly names and interesting ideas, congregated and began to expand.
They will probably try to deny it, but the three musicians in Frankie were too young to really become part of the Eric’s scene. They were still at school - or not, as the case may be.
Peter Gill - better known as Ped - was born in 1964, near the Aintree racecourse. He was given a drum kit for his 16th birthday, eight months later he formed Dancing Girl with guitarist Brian ‘Nasher’ Nash (born in May 1963) and bass man Mark O’Toole (born January ‘64), Nasher’s cousin.
By their own admission it was not an earth shattering outfit. Ped left and picked up with Holly in Sons Of Egypt. Searching for a guitarist, they were joined by Mark’s brother Jed - who later quit because he had a wife, a kid, a job and a house. It became Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Holly pinched the name from a poster he once saw advertising a Frank Sinatra tour. From the outset the intention was to be different.
“I had just seen Annabella Lwin from Bow Wow Wow,” says Holly, “It was pure sex on legs. I thought we might be able to cause some similar reaction. Our idea was to seduce everyone into a life of pure pleasure.”
Even without the added Morley touch, the early Frankie shows were outrageous. Originally they had a girl singer and a couple of Leather Pettes clad in black and chained to pillars. Paul - back from a sojourn in London - saw a gig one night. It excited him so much he leapt up on the stage and has stayed there ever since.
Early videos of the band have Paul wearing a pair of backless leather chaps, and a black leather peaked cap. It was aggressively macho and obviously gay. Even then Frankie had the aura of the Sex Pistols. They were dangerous.
It was Channel Four’s Newcastle based rock show that provided the next piece of the jigsaw. Unsigned, with record companies sniffing around them, but basically incapable of marketing the heavy sexual image, Frankie wowed the TV audience on The Tube. They also impressed Paul Morley. He convinced Trevor Horn, who had simultaneously heard a Frankie demo on Richard Skinner’s Radio One show.
Trevor Horn is a shy bespectacled chap, who is now regarded as the most exhilarating record producer in the known universe. Beginning his career as singer in Buggles - remember the insidious, Video Killed The Radio Star? - he graduated into an incarnation of the ponderous seventies supergroup Yes, before finding his real niche behind the control board. Productions for ABC (Lexicon Of Love), Dollar, Yes (he even gave them a US Number One with Owner Of A Lonely Heart) and Malcolm McLaren’s series of ethnic musical guerilla raids (Duck Rock), have resulted in a full cheque book, critical acclaim and Frankie Goes To Hollywood.
Speculation about whether Frankie can survive without Trevor’s over the top, Armageddon approach to production or Morley’s blatant media manipulation are currently irrelevant. Two Tribes is not as great a song as Relax, but the finished product is far more powerful.
It may be noised about as the “first genuine protest song of the eighties” - a totally ridiculous assumption - but it is a straightforward indictment of superpower politics. Holly did write it during the Falklands War and the accompanying video is quite simply chilling.
The sight of Reagan and Chernenko gouging, pummeling, kneeing each other in the groin and biting each other’s ear is very brutal, but it is not mindless. The globe exploding at the end is a cliché, but it works. It might even be considered educational.
The real test for Frankie Goes To Hollywood will come in 1985. There is a limit to the amount of hype even Paul Morley can inflict on a gullible public. Two Tribes took three months to make and their debut album has to come out this autumn.
Welcome To The Pleasure Dome - its title tantalisingly gay, but actually lifted from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s opium inspired epic poem - will prove whether all Frankie’s songs (lyrics by Holly, music by Mark and Ped) can live to their early promise. Then will come the second test, the concert stage.
Live Frankie are fundamentally a guitar, bass and drums trio. They will have to stand alone, without the Trevor Horn mega-mix, without the videos. But they are not worried unduly.
“We want to create an aura of controversy,” says Mark O’Toole, “Because we set out to do something different.
“We are at the top and we aim to stay there. Just look at that poof in a dress and make up, Boy George; he’s dying now. Spandau Ballet have been doing the same thing for the last three years, soppy ballads.
“Duran Duran might survive on being musicians, but not because they’re pretty faces. And don’t mention Wham! in the same breath as us.”
Dismissing the opposition with words is easy enough. But the five Frankies have surrounded themselves with that liverpudlian scally (slang for scalliwag) arrogance that once characterised the Fab Four. They have coupled that with the breath of scandal that catapaulted the Stones into prominence.
Back in the sixties no one wanted their daughter to marry a Stone. In the’ eighties they probably wouldn’t mind their daughter sleeping with a Frankie. But as for their son…
“Lock up your sons and daughters. Frankie is coming to town,” Holly used to say in his early interviews, unaware of the fascination the heterosexual has for the homosexual lifestyle. “You should see some of the pictures we’ve had taken. We’re going to have to buy back all the negatives.”
Holly and Paul have learnt their lesson now.
“At the beginning Holly and I were very honest and totally naïve,” admits Paul. “I’m glad I’m gay, I’m glad I came clean about it, but we’re not waving any banners. Frankie only waves the banner of having fun.
“With Relax we showed how obssessed and prejudiced people are about sex. Anyone accusing us of perpetrating the gay stereotype is talking through their arse.
“I’m bored with it. There are a million and one faggots you can interview about being gay.
“We are entertainers. For want of a better word.”
Holly has one: “My favourite thing is singing. Singing is better than sex.”
Likewise, if Frankie does actually get to Hollywood, likes it and stays there, Holly Johnson might be the superstar for the 21st century. Thereby proving the old adage that nothing succeeds like excess.