Title: Relax – it’s only a rock group
Author: Max Bell
Source: The Times
Publish date: Thursday February 14, 1985
Relax – it’s only a rock group
The Times Profile: Frankie Goes To Hollywood
Carl Gustav Jung, in one of his lighter moments, once wrote: “Liverpool is the pool of life”. A year after Jung’s death his words were given an unexpected resonance when The Beatles exploded into the public consciousness.
Nowadays you do not have to be an expert in Jungian word association to qualify that statement. Those suffering from Liverpool’s decline find it more like a cesspool. The docklands and famous overhead railway are hushed, old landmarks like the Liver and India buildings a mocking reminder of a magnificent past.
Once a great city of the Empire, it is decayed and vandalized; disaffected youth, town planners and councils accomplished what the Luftwaffe could not. An air of oppressive violence hangs over it. Even the modern city centre is shutting up shop and department stores like Binns and Woolworths are closing, because of the lack of customers and theft; it is rumoured that John Lewis will follow suit. Liverpool is probably the only major city in England without a McDonald’s franchise.
Outlying conurbations are far worse; the housing estates of Huyton, Aintree or Cantrell Farm, with their harsh lights and chilling winds off the Irish sea resemble nightmarish prison camps rather than the decennt communities they were designed to be.
With unemployment figures of nearly 30 per cent on Merseyside, chances to escape the dole are few. Football and pop music have provided Liverpool with its heroic characters, ambassadors and wits in the past. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, now the most talked about pop group in Europe are Liverpudlians, through and through; or, to use the contemporary argot, they are “scallies”, five working class lads who have made it very big indeed.
Rock facts and figures seldom make interesting reading but Frankie’s paper credentials are impressive. In a business where talk of phenomena is cheap, they are the genuine article. Their first three singles all reached number one (a feat which has only been achieved once before by Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963); they also made pop history adding a top album Welcome To The Pleasuredome to this.
“Relax”, their infamous debut which was banned by the BBC is the fifth biggest selling single of all time (outstripping every Beatles release) and was this week voted the best British single of 1984; their second record, “Two Tribes”, spent an unprecedented nine weeks at number one.
The success is not insular. Those records took their message that we were “living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods” to Germany, the largest record buying market in Europe, France, Israel, Thailand, New Zealand, South Africa and even Iceland. If the Queen’s Award for Industry were granted to pop groups Frankie would qualify on several counts.
Their double album, Pleasuredome, had more than one million advance orders, elevating Frankie to a superleague formerly reserved for Abba and Pink Floyd. This success has not gone unnoticed at home. The band’s three shows at Liverpool’s Royal Court last December were acclaimed by the Liverpool Echo who honoured them with a gushing eight-page pull out souvenir. The city buzzed with Frankie talk. As one regular in the Beehive pub commented: “Liverpool hasn’t been like this since Lennon was shot. People are excited, even young people who probably cringe at the Beatles comparisons. There’s something about the attention and the clippings which gives you an idea of what it was like in the Sixties. Better, they haven’t become cosy media stars like Boy George.”
Frankie were praying for a break long before the “Frankie Says” campaign gathered momentum; but the cynics still claim that it was disc jockey Mike Read’s refusal to play “Relax” on Radio One which launched them, even though the single was already sixth in the charts and the BBC had already played “Relax” at least 70 times without a complaint.
After Read decided it was “overtly obscene” (which did not deter him from doing a voice-over on a later record), Station Controller Derek Chinnery issued a vague statement to the effect that “the BBC believes the lyrics are not suitable for a show with a family audience”. A few weeks later BBC2’s Newsnight, presumably not a programme with a family audience, ran a feature on the band, using clips from the single and its controversial video.
There was more egg on the Corporation’s face when they agreed to play “Relax” on the Christmas edition Top Of The Pops, proving that the message was bigger than the medium. On the Newsnight show, Frankie’s producer Trevor Horn defined the band’s appeal: “They (Frankie) are about sex, reproduction and making it. All the things that excite teenagers. They look as if they’re enjoying themselves, whereas someone like Rod Stewart is so out of date he seems like a dirty old uncle”.
The ban did Frankie no harm. Previously their capacity for outrage was limited to the fact the singer Holly Johnson and his dancing partner Paul Rutherford was unashamedly homosexual, while Mark O’Toole, Brian Nash and Peter Gill were robustly and raucously heterosexual.
An interview they gave to Penthouse at the time confirmed the predilections of each Frankie in graphic detail. But Frankie’s original live antics in 1982 were far more outrageous than the sleek, accomplished metal discos sound with which Horn varnished the records.
Detractors claimed that without Horn and the media manipulations of Paul Morley, Frankie’s marketing man at ZTT records, the band would have remained anonymous. Horn, the producer most in demand at the moment, disagrees: “It’s my job to enhance their ideas. No-one complained when George Martin did that to the Beatles, adding a cello or harpsichord. Technology is there to be used.
“People said I was a studio dictator; that’s rubbish. I felt like playing the Press the Frankie demos so they could see how wrong they were.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Frankie did tone down, their early dates were a veritable homoerotic orgy, complete with whips, chains and the dancing female Leatherpets. What worked in saucy little clubs like Liverpool’s Warehouse, or London’s gay haunt Cha Cha’s, wasn’t likely to delight prime time TV directors, let alone an audience in Hicksville, USA. The Beatles well documented obscene banter in the days of the Hamburg Star Club was noticeably absent at the London Palladium or on Thank Your Lucky Stars.
The British pop TV show The Tube takes much credit for Frankie’s initial rise. Producer Malcolm Gerrie recalls Horn phoning him the day after they appeared early in 1983 requesting a video; a week later they were the first signing to ZTT, a label affiliated to Island Records.
Horn had to persuade Chris Blackwell, Island’s owner, that Frankie were what he needed; Blackwell had already rejected a demo on the grounds that “they don’t have the right image for my company.” Arista and Phonogram Records had also rejected them after parting with small advances.
Gerrie remembers them as “a lot of fun, but very rough and raw. They spent most of 1983 practising. When they topped the bill on The Tube’s recent Euro-satellite link-up they were magnificent”.
Now that Frankie are a household name, they are fully aware that 1984’s phenomenon could be 1985’s big yawn. The Frankie marketing campaign was a howling success but last year’s T-shirt is this year’s museum piece.
Holly Johnson, lead vocalist and lyricist, admits the real hard work is ahead of them. “We burst into the arena as upstarts, escalating so quickly that we became an over-success. Personally I’m terrified of failure and I know the public only have a palate for so much. I’d hate us to be like the Gremlins, funny at first and then grotesque. Our plan is to remain mischievous and be attractive.”
He isn’t deterred by the mumbled accusations of hype and overkill: “It was good fun. I’d go further and create a whole set of products. Frankie stockings or Frankie wallpaper. I remember being ill in bed as a child; I was promoted to my sister’s bedroom and she had Beatles wallpaper all over. It drove me mad but she loved it.”
Johnson is remembered in Liverpool as the kid from Wavertree, near Penny Lane, who walked round town with his dole number dyed in his hair; he dressed in an eccentric combination of tartan and leather. Today the Frankies possess the trappings of relative wealth, sporting the latest designers like Yamamoto, Matsuda, Linnard and Hamnett. Johnson and Paul Rutherford think nothing of splashing $800 on a Japanese robe from Barney’s in New York.
The other three, Nash, Gill and O’Toole, commonly known as “the lads”, combine casual roots with designer flair, mixing Nike with Milan, the King’s Road and Tokyo. The band carry it off well and rarely seem to be guilty of the worst excesses of the nouveaux riches exemplified by Duran Duran.
Still, they all live in London now, and at the very smartest addresses – Knightsbridge, Little Venice and Chelsea. Are they aiming to join pop’s establishment? Johnson isn’t sure: “It depends on your perspective, I was more selfish as a teenager on the dole and then we’ve worked damn hard.
“I left the Liverpool Collegiate with no qualifications and the intention of becoming a musician, which I have. Why should I scrimp? The DHSS wanted me to attend a rehabilitation centre in Birmingham making cuddly toys or gardening. I was asked to leave school, and now they’re dredging up old photos of me to use as a good example! They hated me: I was the worst possible student.”
Johnson describes Frankie as “young upwardly mobile types. We still aren’t star characters in the way Duran and Wham! Are and we need that to survive. I loved the Sixties teen fan gloss, the stories that told you Sandie Shaw wore Mary Quant boots and lived in a Chelsea mews house but that’s hard to recreate. That was the zeitgeist then and that innocence IS gone”,
Frankie’s gradual absorption into the mainstream, has yet to rival the real big boys. While Duran Duran have written the theme tune for the new James Bond movie. A View To A Kill, Frankie’s soundtrack experience is limited to a cameo appearance performing “Relax” in Brian DePalma’s Body Double, which was not a resounding box office success.
“I haven’t seen it”, claims Johnson. “Pornography doesn’t excite me and I don’t believe we’re all that outrageous, I’m a bit of a prude actually. I certainly wouldn’t wear leather knickers on stage again, I’d be far too self conscious.”
Johnson gives the impression of being a businesslike workaholic. His wild days in failed pop groups such as Big In Japan and Dancing Girls are behind him but not forgotten. He is concerned now with television, “our best, most controllable medium”, finishing a fourth single and starting a new album, provisionally called Warriors of the Wasteland. “The reference is more T. S. Eliot than heavy metal.”
On a broader scale, he agrees that: “It would be nice to restore some Liverpool pride. The city is depressed but it throws out pellets like us, like Willie Russell and Alan Bleasdale. Russell makes social comment within a West End and I think we’re comparable. The theatre establishment found it hard to cope with Bloodbrothers even third time round and after the awards. It wasn’t On Your Toes.
“The city will never die but it needs all the cultural input it can get. I saw a play at the Everyman, the theatre of the street, called You’ll Never Walk Alone. A character in that says that the garden festival was ‘the wreath on Liverpool’s coffin’ - not an uplifting line, true, but a good example of black humour that sums Liverpool up and gives a kick.”
After ‘Frankie’s triumphant hometown dates, band, friends and family were carousing in the local Holiday Inn. Mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles could remember years of relative prosperity on Merseyside, and a sense of hope exemplified by The Beatles, a band which had gone from parochial celebrity to worldwide status as Frankie hope they will.
Two of the fathers reminiscing about an early date in Sefton Park: “They were all wearing leather jockstraps and people said they were weird. I said. “yeah and those weirdoes are gonna be big.” The other father thought for a moment before downing his pint: “And they’ve earned every penny. They’re better than The Beatles.” he smiled. “Well almost. Had more hits quicker anyway.”
Pausing again, he mused on the perfect analogy, the final word, to describe watching his son on stage. “It was like seeing Liverpool win the FA Cup. That’s what it was like.”
Football, music, Frankie and Joe Fagen. The ‘pool will have its heroes still.
1981 Frankie Goes To Hollywood are named, according to drummer Peter Gill, “after a poster announcing a Frank Sinatra concert”.
1982 April: Frankie, comprising Holly Johnson, Paul Rutherford, Peter Gill, Mark O’Toole and Gerard O’Toole, play their first concert at Pickwicks, a Liverpool pub.
Summer: Frankie Close Sefton Park’s Larks In The Park Festival and are loudly derided.
October: Arista Records risk £1,500 enabling Frankie to make demo tapes of “Relax” and “Two Tribes”.
December: First London date with current line-up, Brian Nash replaces Gerard O’Toole.
1983 January: Appear on The Tube and sign to ZTT for £5,000 the next week.
October: ZTT release “Relax”.
1984 January: Despite a BBC ban Frankie go to No 1 and stay there for five weeks, going platinum (over a million sales) in March.
June: “Two Tribes” goes straight to No 1. “Relax” joins it at No 2, a feat only equalled before by Elvis Presley. The Beatles and John Lennon.
August: “Two Tribes”, also platinum, begins nine weeks at No 1 and “Relax” becomes Britain’s longest running hit with 50 consecutive weeks in the charts.
October: “Welcome To The Pleasuredome” LP is released, going straight to No 1.
December: Frankie finally Go To Hollywood, playing three nights at the Palace Theatre. Third single “The Power of Love” is No 1 in Britain while their album only reaches 33 in America.